UNSW Sydney’s Fowlers Gap enters new era of conservation

After more than 150 years of agricultural land use, UNSW Sydney will restore the Fowlers Gap Arid Zone Research Station in the far west outback of NSW into a dedicated site for conservation and restoration.

The 39,000-hectare property located 1250km from Sydney – deep in NSW’s arid zone – has operated as a sheep station and research hub for half a century. UNSW holds a perpetual lease to the station and has hosted many researchers, students and artists looking to study one of Australia’s most iconic ecosystems – the arid zone. Only about a third of the planet is covered by arid climate, which is characterised by its harsh, hot and dry conditions.

“As rich and diverse as the knowledge this station has sprung in its 50 years as part farming property, we are looking forward to restoring this site’s biodiversity and ecosystems,” UNSW Sydney Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Attila Brungs, said during a visit to the site on Friday.

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“Our aim is to make this area a beacon for arid ecology research. We have started by removing sheep and we are now restoring the ecosystem.”

Over 70 per cent of Australia falls within the semi-arid and arid zone, an area where relatively few people live and which is remote from many of our research institutions. Research opportunities at Fowlers Gap include restoration of arid zone ecosystems, geology, hydrology, and how these systems have been changed by pastoralism and its future environmental trajectories under the effects of climate change. The research will provide important outcomes for neighbours, visiting communities and other organisations around Australia and the world.

“Research has always been a primary focus of UNSW’s endeavours at Fowlers Gap,” Prof. Brungs said.

“We aim to strengthen this by diversifying what we do here and involving researchers and organisations from a range of different disciplines and areas, from the sciences, engineering to the arts.”

Richard Kingsford, Attila Brungs and and Hedley Grantham at Fowlers Gap

Professor Richard Kingsford, Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Attila Brungs and Director of the UNSW Arid Zone Research Station at Fowlers Gap, Associate Professor Hedley Grantham visited the site on Friday. Photo: Doug Gimesy

Director of the UNSW Arid Zone Research Station at Fowlers Gap, Associate Professor Hedley Grantham said the restoration will serve as a template for similar restoration projects around Australia.

“Fowlers Gap’s rich ecological research history and capacity will also serve as rock-solid context for new findings,” he said. “We hope to drive creativity and innovation through our partnerships in training, outreach, and research into the restoration and lived experience of dynamic ecosystems,” he said.

A/Prof. Grantham is also Chief Scientist of Bush Heritage Australia in a joint partnership between UNSW and Bush Heritage Australia.

The outgoing director of the UNSW research station, Dr Keith Leggett, underlined the strength of investment in Fowlers Gap.

“We have had an incredible research effort over more than 60 years, providing essential baselines for understanding much of the area’s ecology and the pressures,” he said. “Not only has it been relevant for Fowlers Gap but also more broadly across arid Australia and other similar regions of the world.”

The shrubland at Fowlers Gap forms habitat to an assemblage of mammal, reptile, bird, and invertebrate communities – with over 100 bird species. Of these, 12 bird, one reptile and four rodent species are currently classified as Vulnerable or Endangered in NSW, including a recent sighting in April of breeding in the endangered plains wanderer, a taxonomically unique bird species under serious threat.

A plains wanderer bird at Fowlers Gap

The endangered plains wanderer is a taxonomically unique bird species under serious threat, and was recently sighted at the UNSW Arid Zone Research Station at Fowlers Gap. Photo: UNSW

Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW said there are great opportunities to understand the functions of arid ecosystems.

“Fowlers Gap has a wonderful diversity of habitats for large-scale experiments that will improve our fundamental understanding of these arid systems,” he said.

Fowlers Gap has fostered hundreds of research papers, books and theses on everything from cooperative breeding in apostlebirds and thrips, to the drought-coping strategies of babblers and zebra finches and rediscovery of ‘extinct’ native mice. At least 800 UNSW students – science, art and more – have also journeyed there in the last 10 years.

“With the station shifting to become a dedicated site of conservation and restoration, we envisage many new projects to come,” A/Prof. Grantham said. “We have a long record in providing courses in arid zone ecology and art at Fowlers Gap and these will also continue.”

A/Prof. Grantham said UNSW is also looking to engage with local First Nations communities regarding the site, as well as neighbouring communities.

“UNSW is committed to assisting with world class research, while also encouraging opportunities for celebrating the cultural heritage and advancing the rights and progress of Australia’s First Peoples,” he said.

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