Scientific research in the Australian Alps has a long and rich tradition. In 1945, Maisie Carr (nee Fawcett) and Professor John Turner (from the University of Melbourne) established the first long-term monitoring plots in the Victoria Alps at Rocky Valley and Pretty Valley on the Bogong High Plains.
‘Rocky Valley’ is a 5-ha exclosure that was the first permanent plot to be established by Maisie. In January 1945, she selected a large area (a small catchment) on the upper slopes of Rocky Valley that contained a range of vegetation types—mossbed, snowgrass grassland, open heath, closed heath and a Carex-dominated late lying snowbank. A fence was erected to exclude cattle, and a range of permanent plots established to monitor vegetation recovery inside the fence.
‘Pretty Valley’ is a 0.4-ha exclosure (and adjoining control on the edge of the Pretty Valley catchment) that examined the impacts of cattle grazing on range condition in Poa-dominated grasslands. The State Electricity Commission of Victoria erected the fence in 1946 (using the local snow gums for fenceposts) and permanent transects were established. Point quadrats used to assess changes in vegetation composition, ground cover condition, and bare ground.
Both plots have been maintained to the present day and are now an integral component of the La Trobe University led Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology’s long-term plot monitoring network. Building on Carr and Turner’s work, RCAAE alpine ecologists have expanded the number of sites over the decades to include the wider Victorian Alps. An ongoing surveillance regime examines the impacts of bushfire, introduced ungulates such as sambar deer, exotic plant invasions and climate change on rare species persistence, plant community dynamics, and landscape function. With a succession of alpine scientists working on an expanding network of permanent plots (today there are more than 50), the value of the RCAAE Plot Network for documenting environmental change is inestimable.
To curate the long-term data, a purpose-designed database was commissioned. With the assistance of La Trobe University’s Department of Computer Science and (partly) funded by the Terrestrial Ecosystems Research Network (TERN; 2012-2017), the database has become the premier repository for long-term scientific data from the Victorian Alps. Over 70 yrs of monitoring at Maisie’s Plots have been captured in the database, providing a record of the sites’ vegetation change, represented by an exceptionally diverse set of population-related observations totalling over 200,000 records. More than 35 yrs of (near) annual population monitoring of the threatened Mountain Pygmy Possum has been entered into the database, along with data on roadside weed invasions, shrub dynamics in open heathlands spanning multiple decades, snowpatch vegetation change since 1992, and microclimate records (including soil and air temperature) since 2003.
These exceptional data provide an invaluable source of information. “The RCAAE database allows scientists to answer questions about long-term alpine ecosystem dynamics and their vulnerability to changing patterns of climate, fire and land-use pressure,” says Dr John Morgan, member of La Trobe University’s Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology. “Getting data into a database is a fantastic achievement, and one that needs ongoing support.”
Long-term research also needs to be supported to provide an evidence base for management decisions. The type of detailed monitoring undertaken in the Victorian Alps allows the RCAAE to anticipate environmental change and to inform how best to manage the land for sustainable use. According to Dr Dick Williams of Charles Darwin University, and an inaugural RCAAE member, the understanding gained from this research has also highlighted its current limitations. “70 years is a short time in the Alps, and there are still many things we don’t understand. Long-term monitoring will always be vital for increasing our understanding, anticipating change and managing the alpine environment for sustainability.”
The value of long-term research is often under-recognised. But sometimes being present in a landscape and taking repeat measures through time is the most innovative and important thing one can do to understand that landscape, how it is changing, and how it is likely to change in the future. The Australian Alps – small and vulnerable as they are to climate change and exotic invasions – are among Australia’s best monitored ecosystems, and it is from this evidence that trends, trajectories and change can be placed into context. Maisie Carr and John Turner could never have imagined such an enduring outcome of their work when the first fence-post was sunk at Rocky Valley in 1945.
For more information on the Victorian Long-term Alpine Plots, please contact Dr John Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org