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Article << Previous     |     Next >>   Contents Vol 33(2)

Drivers of change in the Social-Ecological Systems of the Gwydir Wetlands and Macquarie Marshes in northern New South Wales, Australia

R. D. B. Whalley A E , J. N. Price B , M. J. Macdonald C D and P. J. Berney C

A Botany, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia.
B Institute of Ecology and Earth Sciences, University of Tartu, 51005, Estonia.
C Ecosystem Management, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia.
D Present address: Ecologia Environment, 1025 Wellington Street, West Perth, WA 6005, Australia.
E Corresponding author. Email: rwhalley@une.edu.au

The Rangeland Journal 33(2) 109-119 http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/RJ11002
Submitted: 18 January 2011  Accepted: 8 May 2011   Published: 22 June 2011

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The Murray–Darling Basin is a Social-Ecological System (SES) of major importance to Australia and includes extensive wetland areas in the north-western parts of New South Wales. The Gwydir Wetlands and the Macquarie Marshes are the particular focus of this paper. These two wetland SES have undergone five successive adaptive cycles (phases) since they were first visited by Europeans in the early 19th century and the ecological, economic and social drivers initiating each transformation to a new cycle are described and analysed.

The arrival of the European settlers with their domestic livestock rapidly displaced the Indigenous SES and the wetlands were extensively grazed; during wet periods the livestock were moved out of the wetlands and moved back in as the water receded. More recent land-use changes resulted from the building of major dams to enable storage of water for use in irrigated agriculture. A consequence of dam construction and water use has been a reduction in the frequency and extent of flooding, which has allowed many parts of the wetlands to be continually grazed. Furthermore, as machinery capable of cultivating the very heavy textured soils became available, dryland cropping became a major enterprise in areas of the floodplain where the likelihood of flooding was reduced. With the reduction in flooding, these wetland sites have been seriously degraded. The final phase has seen the invasion by an exotic weed, lippia [Phyla canescens (Kunth) Greene], which is a perennial that grows mat-like between other species of plants and spreads to produce a virtually mono-specific stand. The domestic livestock carrying capacity of the land becomes more or less zero and the conservation value of the wetlands is also dramatically decreased. Therefore, we suggest that lippia should be classed as an ecosystem engineer that has caused the latest transformation of these wetland SES and suggest research directions to investigate how they can be managed to revert to a state in which lippia is no longer dominant.

Additional keywords: ecosystem engineer, grazing management, lippia, Phyla canescens, resilience, weed invasion.


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