Taking to the skies on a chilly June morning, ACF Investigator Kim Garratt and Nature and Business Campaigner Nat Pelle could not believe their eyes, as they gazed upon vast open paddocks which recently housed about 250 hectares of critical woodland habitat.
The pair travelled via helicopter to a property located about 40 kilometres west of Armidale, NSW, to investigate potential land clearing taking place on land owned by a prominent beef producer.
“I grew up in Armidale so I’ve got great memories of the place, from catching tadpoles in the creeks to herding sheep on motorbikes. So to be honest, half of me was just really happy to be seeing it again. But I also know how absolutely hammered by wood cutters and bulldozers that landscape has been for more than 200 years,” said Nat.
The land clearing was first exposed by ACF Investigates: Habitat Destruction, our pilot crowdsourced investigation project which identified land clearing through changes in satellite data.
Once the data was examined and the damage confirmed, ACF’s Investigations unit discovered the land in question is right in the heart of a key breeding area for the Regent honeyeater, a critically endangered bird endemic to southeastern Australia.
An estimated 90% of the Regent honeyeater’s woodland habitat has already been destroyed and there are as few as 250 of the birds left in the wild, with it believed the species could be extinct in 20 years.
Both Kim and Nat were surprised by the little natural habitat left in this part of the world and the impact of the machinery working right before their eyes.
“I was surprised to see how many old trees on the flight out to the site have died from drought - probably around 5-10 years ago. It goes to show that for animals like the Regent honeyeater who are hanging on by a thread, they’re being threatened by this pincer effect of worse droughts because of climate change, and then deliberate habitat destruction at the same time,” said Kim.
“The trees we saw being pulled out while we were circling over the site may have been killed in that drought too, but they were big old stags which are likely to have hollows so it was shocking to be circling right above a big machine literally snapping these massive trees like they were twigs.
“The other thing we noticed was that lots of the trees they’d already ripped out had been pushed into the gullies —which is a really bad erosion risk for the farmland.
“When we saw they had carved up a new slope ready to clear it, I knew that there was a very real risk to the remaining habitat if we didn’t intervene.”
“As the helicopter flew over, you could see kangaroos and wallabies bounding through the thick grass and scrub between the stands of White Box Eucalypts and flocks of cockatoo scattering and fleeing into open paddocks. It was a stark reminder of how little habitat there is left for them, and how unnatural and unsuitable expansive pastures and cropland are for our endangered wildlife to live in,” Nat added.
“There’s very little of that part of NSW that still looks like it did before Europeans invaded, and I just thought, given how much damn open space there already is, how greedy is it that someone would knock down hundreds of hectares of that last remaining forest to fit a few more cows on.”
Flying across the land for about an hour and half, both described the experience from the helicopter as incredible.
“I was in the front and the field of vision was way better than I expected!” Said Kim.
“We were mostly flying about 150 metres off the ground and I could see about 180 degrees out front and even underneath the helicopter because it had a clear shell just in front of the footwell.
“The ride was a little choppy at times because it was windy and we were circling over quite a steep area, but it was smoother than I thought it might be, and the camera rig was really well set up with a gimbal so we could get smooth footage even when the chopper ride was…well, choppy.”
“It was freezing,” added Nat.
“To get the best shots you have to fly with the doors off so by the time we got back I was definitely shivering —the camo had it worse than me though!”
“Flying over heavily cleared farmland with crops or dotted with little white sheep, into a national park with thick bushland and absolutely stunning rivers —you can really only get that perspective from the sky.
“It’s exciting being in the chopper, of course. But it was pretty devastating seeing the stark contrast between the never-cleared, or remnant, forest and the heavily scarred land, criss-crossed with fresh bulldozer tracks.”
As coordinator of the ACF Investigates: Habitat Destruction project, the trip allowed Kim to gather further evidence to support satellite imagery data and assess the condition of the habitat the farmers were preparing to remove.
“From satellite imagery alone, you can see a canopy go from intact to vanished, but it’s not a good enough tool to understand the quality of the undergrowth, the ground cover, and mid-height vegetation. Nothing beats getting out into the field to confirm what’s actually there on the ground. That was key to understanding how intact this ecosystem is, which helps us learn more about how vital it is to the Regent honeyeater,” said Kim.
“What I saw suggested that most of the vegetation that the farmer cleared in the last two years was actually in quite good shape - lots of variety of species, age, and height. Up at this altitude, the elevation, wind and steepness of some of these slopes seem to keep heights relatively low, but there was enough variety to show that the habitat was mature and biodiverse. I could tell this because the only pockets left uncleared were the ones that the farmer’s machinery couldn’t reach because of the topography.
“This suggests that the farmer didn’t choose to leave this section intact because it was in better condition than the rest, but rather because he couldn’t get to it, and therefore probably lots of the surrounding vegetation used to look like this too.
“This is also what the vegetation next up on the chopping block looked like - except there were wide roads cut through it to make way for the bulldozers.”
For Nat and Kim, the experience further highlighted why the work they undertake everyday at ACF is critical.
“It doesn’t get much more core to our work than putting a stop to businesses doing stupid stuff like knocking down the last remaining pockets of threatened species habitat - especially when it’s home to animals as rare and endangered as the Regent honeyeater.
“I talk to businesses daily about setting targets and policies to reduce their impact on nature and transform their businesses into models that help rather than harm biodiversity but those conversations are often abstract and bogged down in complex science-based targets and definitions. What we witnessed near Armidale makes it really simple and tangible—this is the really stupid stuff we should just stop doing. Now I can take the experience and the evidence we gathered into my next meeting with a bank or supermarket and show them what they have the power to stop.”
“It was absolutely incredible to know that I was up there looking down at trees being torn down in real time thanks to the work of the volunteer investigators from ACF Investigates,” Kim added.
“Being able to find habitat destruction we otherwise would have missed and stop it in its tracks was the dream when we first set out to create the project. Now it’s the reality.”
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