clearing mulgaSmall patches of native vegetation are critically important to biodiversity conservation and need greater protection from clearing according to new CEED research. Just because a patch of native vegetation might be small, doesn’t mean we can afford to lose it.

The researchers examined historical and current patch-size distributions to evaluate how important small patches are to different ecosystems. Using data on vegetation clearing in Australian, they calculated the historical change in the contribution of small patches to overall extent.

“We found that many vegetation communities in Australia now occur disproportionately in small patches,” says Dr Ayesha Tulloch, the lead researcher of the investigation. “At least 22% of major vegetation communities have over half of their remaining extent in patches smaller than 1,000 hectares. For some communities the loss of patches as small as 1 hectare would be catastrophic – for others it would make very little difference to persistence at all.”

The researchers point out that many vegetation communities are exposed to the double jeopardy of high loss and high fragmentation, such as Brigalow and Mulga in Queensland. These communities are currently undergoing increased clearing as a result of changes to clearing laws that allow high agricultural value land to be cleared.

“The long-term consequence of not accounting for the role of all vegetation patches is the continuous erosion of small patches in highly fragmented vegetation communities and the slow, inevitable decline of vegetation communities and the species dependent on them for their persistence,” says Tulloch. “It’s the grim process of a death by a thousand cuts.”

The simple multi-pronged metric used by the researchers for assessing ecosystem vulnerability can potentially improve current methods of ecosystem assessment by considering the size and configuration of remaining patches as well as overall loss.

“Our approach is the first to explore the consequences of small-scale vegetation clearing due to the failure of current policies to protect vegetation patches smaller than a given threshold,” observes Tulloch.

More than 80% of native vegetation has been lost worldwide. In Australia, clearing of remnant vegetation nearly doubled between 2012 and 2014. Conservation activities in heavily cleared landscapes focus on keeping the remaining large patches intact, often disregarding the increasingly important role of smaller patches in conserving biodiversity. It’s hoped these research findings will encourage policy makers to revisit clearing regulations.

More info: Ayesha Tulloch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Reference: Tulloch AIT, MD Barnes, J Ringma, RA Fuller & JEM Watson (2015). Understanding the importance of small patches of habitat for conservation. Journal of Applied Ecology. doi: 10.1111/1365-2664.12547 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1365-2664.12547/abstract)

Image: Clearing of mulga in central Australia. (Photo by Michelle Venter)