Fancy creating a “lizard lounge” for your development site, maybe with some pieces of terracotta pot or old terracotta pipe? Lizards love terracotta. Or maybe you prefer a butterfly birthplace. Just leave a patch of native grasses unmown. These are just some of the ideas that Ecological Consultants Australia provides to developers such as Lend Lease, NRMA and local councils, ideas they say are in growing demand.
A new company providing environmental consultancy services for companies such as Lend Lease and Australian Tourist Park Management, landscape architects McGregor Coxall and bodies including Canterbury Council is not only helping to create niches for species but also niches for fellow experts in flora, fauna, environmental assessment and ecological restoration.
Ecological Consultants Australia, recently founded by Mia Dalby-Ball, an ecologist with 20 years of experience in the field, has set out to provide a range of environmental services in a collaborative model that enables independent practitioners from around Australia to contribute their expertise.
ECA, said Ms Dalby-Ball, provides both a point of entry for new graduates to build a professional track record through working on projects, and also a means for ecologists with quite specific areas of expertise to leverage work on projects.
“We are able to offer a point of commercial engagement for people who leave university with degrees in specialist aspects of ecology, flora and fauna,” Ms Dalby-Ball said.
The firm also assists ecologists who have tremendous scientific skills, but no affinity for the business side of invoicing and tendering.
“The company sets up the structure, so experts can quote on things together,” she said.
ECA also brings together the knowledge of these independent practitioners in educational workshops, which can be provided on a pro bono basis, funded by the proceeds of the commercial projects.
An important aspect is providing a point of engagement for experts whose work often involves protracted periods of working alone.
In addition, the company provides internships for those studying in fields like environmental engineering, where practical on-ground experience is a core requirement for course completion.
The company often works collaboration with Ms Dalby-Ball’s previous company, the long established Dragonfly Environmental, which has worked on major projects such as the Penrhyn Estuary for the Port Botany Expansion and salt marsh monitoring and rectification for the Victorian Desalination Plant.
It is also doing increasing amounts of work for large landscape architecture firms. With McGregor Coxall the company is working on large landscape projects in Sydney.
Ms Dalby-Ball said that with rectification of pockets of the original ecology in landscape projects, “little glimpses” are created of what the area was like before European colonisation. These include restored sand dunes, banksia scrub and wetlands, that in combination give the development more of a feeling of being connected with nature.
The firm is also just completing the biodiversity strategy for Canterbury Council, which includes a number of “bringing back” projects focused on key species including the blue wren, blue tongue lizards, bandicoots and native butterflies.
At NRMA’s Ocean Beach Holiday park at Umina on the NSW south coast, which is managed by the insurer’s Australian Tourist Park Management entity, ECA worked with Arbor Safe in an assessment of all the existing trees on the site and a plan for replacing those that pose a risk to guests due to losing limbs in addition to designing enhancements to species habitat. ECA then implemented the plan, supplying trees and understorey plants and 39 nesting boxes for fauna including forest owls, galahs and microbats.
“In holiday park projects the key thing is working closely with arborists to determine how the hollows can be kept, what needs to be moved, and when it is possible to remove most of a tree and still retain the totem of the tree,” Ms Dalby-Ball said.
“The park’s long term vision is to include the trees and the nesting sites as part of holiday programs.”
The company also develops and delivers specialist training programs. One was recently undertaken for grounds staff at the University of Wollongong on how to retain and recreate habitat areas, bring the blue wren back to the campus and improve skills in tree management.
Restoring the waterway for Lend Lease at Rouse Hill
Ms Dalby-Ball said the firm is also working with a number of developers, particularly in Western Sydney, assisting them to identify and plan around areas of endangered ecological communities.
“They know it makes the development approval process quicker if they work around them,” she said.
At Lend Lease’s New Rouse Hill project, work was undertaken to restore the riparian area around Caddies Creek, extending it from 10 metres wide to 20 metres wide, and replanting the appropriate mix of vegetation. This part of the development will be transferred to Sydney Water’s ownership on completion.
“Developers can be clever about the jigsaw puzzle and fit in what they need. Sometimes they can go to council and gain an increase in density or height in exchange for leaving open space,” Ms Dalby-Ball said.
“Developers used to fence off the creekline and not look at it, as creeklines were seen as having lower value. It is essentially part of a private block which exists in the public space. However, we can be the mediator and facilitator of a cultural change around that.
“For developers it can be a win-win, especially if they get us in early in the planning process. It gives them a good reputation, so it functions as more than just a marketing edge with one particular project.
“There is a social capital that goes with not just being seen to be good but actually doing good.”
She said that playgrounds are among the public amenities that can be placed around retained and restored ecological areas, and this relates to also to the company’s passion for “getting people out in nature together”.
There can also be benefits in restoring the riparian ecology for urban stormwater management, with the standard concrete channel replaced by a more natural creek form with wider battens and strategic use of rocks and logs to slow flow and create habitat. This can be done at a cost comparable to the standard concrete solution, but when integrated with a reed ecosystem can also improve storm water quality by filtering out particulates and managing acid sulphate run off.
In areas where stormwater channels are in the inter-tidal zone, the use of salt marsh ecosystems has proven successful in managing sediments, reducing the need for regular digging out of sediment from channels.
“An important aspect of ECA’s approach to projects is the idea of adding ecological value. For example, if a project is going to plant 46 plants in six inch pots, ECA can advise on how to add augmented urban habitat without increasing the cost.”
How to add habitat value to the urban environment
It is possible for anyone to cultivate what Ms Dalby-Ball describes as the “urban riches of micro-habitat”.
On the edge of a building, adding an extra rock or two will create homes for wall skinks and leaf tail geckos – both of which quite handily eat insects.
A “Lizard Lounge” can be made with pieces of terracotta pot or old terracotta pipe, as “lizards love terracotta”.
In just a five-metre by five-metre area, a “butterfly birthplace” can be created by leaving a patch of native grasses unmown. Unlike cabbage moths and other species gardeners are not so fond of, the native butterflies lay their eggs on grasses, and the larvae do not eat European vegetables.
“It is about not having landscaped areas be too plastic and tidy, allowing fallen logs, allowing leaf litter and allowing nature to do what it does so you can have those moments of experience with it,” Ms Dalby-Ball says.
“If we get small lizards and our native butterflies, then we are changing the concept of messiness to one of, ‘Oh wow, you’ve got butterflies,’ and letting people remember what it was like for them as a child.
“We are on the verge of a cultural shift [towards nature] – it will become trendy.”