Western NSW – arid and semi-arid mysteries

Samantha Newton, Executive committee member, National Parks Association of NSW

The beauty of NSW is not all in the coasts and ranges. There is rare and magic scenery and life in the arid and semi-arid areas of NSW.

NPA has a long history of campaigning for representative protection of the western woodlands and plains of NSW. The 1992 report Nature Conservation in Western NSW, by Gethin Morgan and Jenney Terrey, was a comprehensive documentation of the diversity of landscapes and ecosystems of the west.

Since that time other documents have been prepared, such as Approaching the Millennium: New Visions for Protected Areas in NSW(NPA, 1998) and Priority conservation areas: a definition for the real world applied to western NSW (Pressey and Taffs, 2000). NPA is currently working on a proposal for 50 new parks for NSW, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of NPWS.

Current reserves

There are several reserves in western NSW, which are habitat to over 130 threatened species and communities. Iconic National Parks (NP) in western NSW include Mungo, Sturt, Mutawinji, Kinchega, Gundabooka, Mallee Cliffs, Willandra, Paroo-Darling, Toorale, Murray Valley, Murrumbidgee Valley, Weddin Mountains, Pilliga and Timmallallie. Additionally there are numerous, but often small, Nature Reserves (NR), that do not have visitor facilities but do protect precious natural systems. NPA member, David Noble, visited Mungo NP in August last year. Visit his blog to read more about this fascinating National Park and to view the spectacular images.

Plant and animal adaptations

Arid and semi-arid environments are very harsh, with low rainfall that occurs sporadically. Plants have evolved to cope with these conditions in a variety of ways. These can include smaller, hard leaves that reduce water loss; blue-grey or grey-green leaves that absorb less heat; seasonal leaf loss and reliance on thick tap roots and lignotubers; speedy reproductive cycles that can take advantage of sporadic rain events; and different metabolic pathways that allow photosynthesis to proceed without risking detrimental water loss.

Many animals cope by adopting a more nocturnal lifestyle, particularly during the summer months; some build burrows underground where the temperature can much cooler than on the surface; other animals sucg as kangaroos can control their reproductive cycles – increasing or decreasing the number and frequency of offspring.

Night time and just after seasonal rain are the best times to view the flora and fauna of the desert.

Threats to the ecology

There are a number of land management issues in arid and semi-arid lands. Grazing by sheep and cattle, and high populations of feral species such as rabbits, horses, camels and especially goats, have a heavy impact on the landscape. While there is some economic benefit, they devastate the landscape by over-grazing native plants, compacting the soil and causing erosion, and outcompeting native animals for food and shelter.

Weeds and non-native pasture plants outcompete native grasses and alter the vegetation systems.

Barriers to conservation            

The key to viable protected areas is sufficient size, large area to edge ratio, and connectivity with other large protected areas. Much of the natural landscape of western NSW is fragmented by agricultural development. Much of the native vegetation is in private ownership, and there are few corridors between large areas. In the central west there are still large areas of Crown Land and State Forest, but in the Western Division, the land is mostly leasehold.

Travelling Stock Reserves

Travelling Stock Reserves (TSRs) represent one of the prime opportunities for conservation of native habitats. In western NSW TSRs intersect or abut a number of existing protected areas, including, Sturt NP, Mungo NP, Nocholeche NR, Yathong NR and Cocoparra NP and NR. Corridors such as TSRs are the best opportunity for connectivity between protected areas, enabling species movement and migration along continuous habitat areas.


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