Nel Byatt is an impressive female employee at Rio Tinto. She works as a principal advisor for Rio Tinto. She has a fascinating role and explains how research is helping the team to restore this unique Australian landscape. You can research jobs like Nel's and many more with Rio Tinto.
Hear Nel, manager Land Offsets in Rio Tinto’s coal business, discuss the work her team is doing to give the endangered regent honeyeater a chance of a strong future.
Rio Tinto is restoring unique woodlands upon ancient sand dunes
In New South Wales' Hunter Valley which is about 100 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean, inland sand dunes bring a distinctly coastal feel to an otherwise rural landscape. Formed around 15,000 to 18,000 years ago, these sand dunes are home to a unique ecological community known as the Warkworth Sands Woodlands. In the 200 years since European settlement the Woodlands have been cleared for agricultural uses, leaving grasslands that need regeneration. Rio Tinto’s Mount Thorley Warkworth coal mine is located nearby. To offset impacts of mining on the Woodlands, the mine’s team of bush regeneration experts has embarked on steps to regenerate more than 200 hectares of neighbouring Woodlands to its former glory. The team has finished planting 8,000 seedlings as part of its programme.
What makes the Warkworth Sands Woodlands special?
It’s quite unique because the location of these sand dunes means you’ll find plants that normally grow along the coast growing 100 kilometres from the sea. It’s an endangered ecological community and a home to many native plants and animals – so the restoration work is something we take very seriously as a company. It’s a big responsibility, and also one of the highlights of my 20-year career in environmental restoration.
How is Rio Tinto involved?
The area we’re currently restoring is not mined land – it’s an area we’ve committed to restoring to compensate for any impacts our operations may have on the Woodlands. We call this an “offset” in the mining industry. We’ve committed to regenerating 235 hectares of grasslands to Woodlands, as well as protecting 157 hectares of existing Warkworth Sands Woodlands. This will increase the area of Warkworth Sands Woodlands that exists, which will be an excellent conservation outcome.
How do you go about restoring such a unique ecosystem?
Before we started the restoration programme, we commissioned the University of New England (UNE) to research the best ways to restore the Woodlands. UNE conducted propagation and planting trials, and also observed the existing Woodlands and cleared grassland areas to better understand how the Woodlands naturally regenerate. We learned from this that the Woodlands can actually regenerate itself if we help to control impacts such as grazing, feral animals and weeds. So this is the approach we’re taking in the parts that are less degraded. We also learned that the sand dunes that have been cleared or severely degraded need a helping hand – and in these areas we’re planting species native to Warkworth Sands Woodlands.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Like any planting programme, the weather is an important factor in the success of our regeneration programme work – particularly as we’ve had some unseasonably dry years. But early results are good and research is helping us on this front. One of the ways research can help us improve long-term success is by selecting seed from regions that have a similar climate to the Hunter Valley – but based on future climate change predictions. So the seedlings planted are more likely to survive in the face of a changing climate.
What progress has been made so far?
It’s very early stages but we’re confident our 2014 planting achieved a 70 per cent average survival rate. This is a good result considering the extreme temperatures and prolonged dry weather we’ve experienced. We’ll continue to monitor these plants closely to make sure they survive and continue to grow. Regenerating woodlands is a long-term process though, and it’s one we’re committed to working on into the future. Over the coming years we’ll continue with large-scale dense plantings of canopy plants. These plants create shelter and we’ll then start to see natural weed control, and natural regeneration of Woodland plants.
How will you judge if the project is successful?
We’ve hired a qualified ecologist to conduct monitoring every two years to measure the growth and diversity of vegetation. They’re also studying how birds are using the Woodlands. The ecologist will compare the areas we’re regenerating against “reference sites” in existing Woodlands. We’ll continue to collect data again - and this process will continue until 2030.
Find out more