Macedon Ranges Shire Council Draft Roadside Conservation Management Plan has missed environmental health opportunities

By Patrick Francis

The draft Roadside Conservation Management Plan 2021 misses some opportunities to achieve its objectives as described in Table 5.

Before making suggestions to help achieve these objectives it should be noted that the draft plan seems to have a narrow focus and fails to understand the landscape scale of conservation, fire risk, drainage and road maintenance and recreation. It treats roadsides as a disconnected entity in the shire rather than part of landscape wide ecosystems.  It’s as if fauna and flora on roadside verges are separate to fauna and flora on adjacent farms. Similarly roadside water runoff management is disconnected to on-farm runoff water conservation in creeks and dams.

There is a miss-apprehension around the significant changes on road use for recreation as a result of increased populations in shire towns particularly by people living in new estates adjacent to service roads into farming zones.

There is no mention of any action to achieve appropriate vehicle speed on minor rural roads which are used by wildlife for foraging and to access conservation corridors on private land and biolinks. This is despite vehicle speed being the number one cause of wildlife deaths and injuries and VicRoads “Traffic Engineering Manual Volume 3 – Additional Network Standards & Guidelines Speed Zoning Guidelines Edition 1, June 2017” sets the default maximum speed on minor rural roads with any designated conservation value at 100km/hr.

There is no mention of the Council’s recent declaration of a “Climate Emergency” and actions across its different management areas needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Road maintenance and roadside slashing on council managed roads would make a significant contribution to annual greenhouse gas emissions. There is no data provided on annual slashing vehicle diesel consumption and its subsequent annual greenhouse gas emissions and how these activities could be curtailed to reduce emissions while achieving demonstrable safety outcomes.

The council can do these calculations as it recently demonstrated that by joining the Victorian Energy Collaboration emissions from council’s electricity consumption will decrease by 3385 tonnes CO2e per year.

Chocolate and bulbine lilies amongst native grasses in an undisturbed section of the Moffats lane verge where slashing is prevented by surrounding native trees and shrubs. Photo: Patrick Francis.

Roadside Conservation Management Plan – what’s missing?

1: Conservation

The plan gives little recognition of the impact of wildlife and vegetation conservation on private land adjacent to roadsides. Since landcare and other conservation initiatives such as Land for Wildlife started in 1990, many roadsides have become part of a much bigger picture of landscape conservation. The objectives for conservation need to embrace the bigger picture and embrace what’s happening on adjacent private land.

Figure 1A is an example of how roadsides have changed little over the last 30 years but adjacent land has changed significantly. Figure 1B is a close up of the change on one section of Moffats lane west of Romsey.

Figure 1A: Over the last 30 years there has been significant change to the whole landscape with conservation corridors on private land connecting with roadside vegetation. The improved verge/private land conservation value is often unrecognised. Photos: Google Earth.

Figure 1B: Moffats lane roadside verge and adjacent farm land biodiversity change between 1989 and 2021. The photo is taken at the same point overlooking Sandy creek bridge looking north.  Photos: Patrick Francis.

This has implications for roadside conservation value by encouraging regeneration and increased wildlife presence, figure 2. Given the Roadside Management Plan has an objective of preserving wildlife then it needs to address the speed vehicles are travelling on minor rural roads where flora and fauna biodiversity has been significantly improved due to land owner participation in landcare programs.

Figure 2A: Many of the roadside conservation value ratings fail to relate to conservation programs adopted by farmers across their properties.

Another conservation issue not addressed in the Plan is educating landowners about managing native flora on roadsides adjacent to their properties. Many natural stands of important native grasses and forbes are being decimated by constant slashing with the objective of maintaining neat & tidy verges (neat & tidy syndrome) as well as to lower fire risk. In places this action has led to the gradual elimination of trees and shrubs as they never have the chance to regenerate from seed and they die out due to age or disease.

This neat & tidy slashing syndrome is facilitated by the council’s fire slashing program on minor roads with unrecognised high grassland flora conservation value. Which form of slashing comes first is difficult to know but when combined the impact is disastrous. Native grass verges are easily slashed. When council contractors slash these they cover the full width of their machines as there are no shrubs or trees to avoid. The landowner often increases the width of the fire slash as he or she has no encumbrances to avoid, figure 2B.

The conservation categories decision process in the draft plan seems inadequate on some roadside verges. The verge at the northern end of Moffats lane Romsey is a classic example. It contains threatened native grasses which are continually being slashed for neat & tidy as well as fire. Any native trees that have died or dying have no chance of revegetation as seedlings are slashed. Habitat provided by fallen tree branches and trunks are quickly removed, figure 3A. It is likely that the low conservation rating for this verge is influenced by the adjacent farm owner’s plantations of Cyprus trees. These trees should not take away from the threat to the native grasses, forbes and remnant trees, figure 3B. The draft plan even states on page 24 “All of these components play an important role through the provision of food and shelter for native animals, birds and insects. A roadside with only one of these strata is still vital from a conservation perspective.”

Figure 2B. The native grasses in the verges on the northern end of Moffats lane are unrecognised in terms of conservation value yet contain threatened species. The species are being pushed into extinction by regular slashing edging as close as possible to the boundary fence. The only reason some plants can flower is because the tractor and slasher cannot run under the overhanging tree line. Lack of recognition for conservation value on verges like this section of lane with native grasses most likely stems from adjacent landowners planting Cyprus species adjacent to the verge. This should not diminish the verge’s conservation value given the high percentage of native grasses present. Photo: Patrick Francis May 2021.

If a remnant tree or bush is present but dies it is quickly cleaned up and any trace removed. The outcome is regularly slashing of native grasses and forbes across virtually the entire verge from the road to the boundary fence, figure 3A.

Figure 3A: Fire control slashing and the neat & tidy verge syndrome on Moffats lane’s north end. The combined impact is a native grass and forb verge being managed as if a residential street verge with the native species like kangaroo and wallaby grasses gradually dying out due to slashing preventing re-seeding. The irony of this management practice is that as native grasses die out they are often replaced with weeds such as gorse, blackberry, Chilean needle grass, and serrated tussock and prolific introduced species such as bent grass, phalaris and cocksfoot. Photo: Patrick Francis May 2021.

What is happening on some minor rural roads verges with this neat & tidy syndrome coupled with fire slashing is that any chance of remnant trees or shrubs regeneration is snubbed out every year with constant slashing for fire and neatness, figure 3B.

Figure 3B. The northern end of Moffats lane has one remnant eucalypt remaining on the verge, but fire slashing plus  land owner neat & tidy syndrome are preventing revegetation of this particular species as seedlings are cut each year. Photo: Patrick Francis May 2021.

The management plan should provide landowners with roadside frontage in the farming zone and rural living zone with advice about managing native vegetation so it can be preserved. “Lawn mowing” roadsides with native vegetation should be prohibited except around gate ways and seasonal intervention with high slashing at an appropriate time allowed providing seedling trees and shrubs are not affected.

The appropriate time for high slashing native grasses and forbes in this district is post New Year’s day. All native species will have flowered and set seed by then with kangaroo grass being the last to do so. Its seed matures in the head on approximately Christmas day.

Slashing for fire and neat & tidy post 1 January means that the slash contains viable seed for the plants to revegetate. As well as many of our native grasses are summer active species,  the slashed crowns will produce tillers with green leaves which are less likely to burn. Slashing in November to early December not only prevents or inhibits flowering but also encourages summer active species tillering. The implications of this can actually make the plants more vulnerable to fire because they will set seed again and if a dry summer happens will senesce into a verge of dry grass. In other words one slash post new year’s day will reduce fire risk on verges where it is considered necessary and allow native grass and forbes to revegetate via seed. Fire slashing too early in spring encourages introduced grasses and native grasses regrowth and defeats the purpose of reducing fuel load.

2: Speed limits on minor roads to protect native wildlife from death and injury

A significant omission from the draft plan is any consideration for reducing wildlife deaths and injuries due to vehicle speed on minor roads and connecting roads throughout the shire. The plan recognises that verge flora whatever the complexity “…play an important role through the provision of food and shelter for native animals, birds and insects.” With landcare projects over the last 30 years encouraging land owners to plant conservation corridors and biolinks across farms and along riparian zones connecting to roadside verges, the numbers of native animals has significantly increased on and around roads, figure 2A. The draft plan recognises increased wildlife on roads as verge conservation increase. On page 23 it notes: “Many stretches of roadside vegetation in the Shire are noted for their significant plant and animal species.”

Despite the council and VicRoads erecting signs alerting drivers to wildlife on roads the deaths and injuries continue to increase in line with the Shire’s towns populations and requirement to drive for work and recreation. As well, the Shire’s proximity to Melbourne and its local attractions mean there are more tourists and day trippers using its roads.

Extensive wildlife road kill research in Australian and overseas highlights the only effective way to reduce deaths and injuries as well as protect drivers and passengers from direct collision with large wildlife species and collision avoidance accident injuries, is to reduce legal maximum speed limits. The VicRoads default maximum speed limit for minor rural roads in the Shire is 100km per hour. This speed is determined by VicRoads “Traffic Engineering Manual Volume 3 – Additional Network Standards & Guidelines Speed Zoning Guidelines Edition 1, June 2017” and is the same maximum speed vehicles can travel at on major highways such as the Romsey Melbourne road with all its built-in safety hardware, figure 4.

Figure 4A: Minor rural roads in the shire share the same maximum 100km per hour speed limit as major highways in the state despite being closely surrounded by native vegetation on the verge and in adjacent farmland  with both inhabited by native fauna. Photos: Patrick Francis May 2021.

The issue of safety is not solely about wildlife but also about human safety. The increasing population in the shire due to development of new housing estates in most towns means more residents are using local minor roads for recreation and as a means of connecting with nature, viewing the flora and fauna on roadsides. In the farming zones and rural living zones adjacent to new housing developments more people are walking, cycling, jogging and horse riding on roads where the default maximum speed limit is 100km per hour, figure 4B.

Figure 4B: Minor rural roads close to new housing estates are attracting an increasing number of pedestrians, bike and horse riders and joggers as people appreciate the natural environment provided in the verges and adjacent farm land. The default maximum speed limit on these roads is 100km per hour. Photos: Patrick Francis.

As well, local drivers who understand the need for slow speeds, around 40km per hour to avoid killing or crushing wildlife are at risk from collisions with vehicles travelling at up to 100km per hour. What is not often recognised is that many small native animals are being killed daily and these deaths compound another wildlife threat, foxes who scavenge on the roadkill, figure 4C.

Figure 4C: Deaths and injuries to large and small native animals can be avoided by traveling at less than 50km per hour on minor rural roads. Slashing for fire control for so called better visibility makes no difference to animal safety on these narrow roads when vehicles are travelling at up to 100km per hour. Photos: Patrick Francis

This plan needs to investigate approaches to the Department of Transport and VicRoads to explore ways of reducing the default maximum speed limit on specific minor rural roads in the shire where wildlife deaths and injuries are common as well as on roads where pedestrians are increasing. This investigation should be included in the Plan’s themes and objectives under the Conservation theme.

In the plan’s proposed Conservation theme objectives improving “the conditions of native vegetation on roadsides” is somewhat irresponsible if it doesn’t change conditions to protect the native animals which inhabit such native vegetation from vehicles travelling at speed where collisions cannot be avoided.

The reference to Conservation Opportunities – wildlife crossing (page 29) “…to explore innovative approached to wildlife signage…” has been confirmed by road kill research as ineffective unless lower legal speed limits such as 40 – 50km per hour are introduced for minor rural roads. The plethora of wildlife advisory signs on roads throughout the shire have been demonstrated to have no impact on drivers speed, so collisions and run-overs continue unabated. One of the major issues with these advisory signs is that they don’t even suggest a speed limit that is safe for wildlife and vehicle occupants. It is little wonder that drivers take no notice, figure 5A.

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Figure 5A: Wildlife warning signs are ineffective in preventing road kills and injuries. They have no accompanying legal maximum speed limit which can be enforced by police. Photo: Patrick Francis.

In 2018 the Macedon Ranges Council erected Wildlife Crossing signs on Moffats lane in response to requests for something to be done about reducing vehicle speed which has a default maximum of 100km per hour. Large and small wildlife continue to be killed since the signs have been erected, figure 5B.

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Figure 5B. Despite three “Wildlife Crossing” signs (one in the background) being erected along Moffats lane plus “Land for Wildlife” membership signs on farmers gates, wildlife continue to be killed and injured by vehicles travelling at up to 100km per hour. Photo: Patrick Francis.

3: Road widening and reconstruction

There is a tendency for road maintenance to slowly widen minor gravel roads by grading roadside drains further and further into the verge. A good example is Moffats lane and Black Range road near Romsey. This is particularly the case where the verge has been “cleared” of native vegetation through council fire slashing and neat & tidy landowner slashing. The verges are becoming smaller and the roads wider, figure 5B.

4: Drainage works and drain maintenance

With rainfall declining over autumn and winter in southern Victoria by around 20% since 2000 due to climate change more consideration should be given in the plan to positioning mitre drains so runoff water from roads can be captured on private land in pastures, dams and off creek wetlands. Some mitre drains have no drainage into pastures, conservation zones or dams on private land. They lead only into the verge  with water pooling in them and when full it runs back into the roadside drain. Other mitre and roadside drains take run-off water direct into creeks adding colloid, degrading water quality and threatening creek biodiversity, figures 6A and 6B.

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Figure 6A: Regular gravel road grading is responsible for increased colloid content in storm water entering creeks from inappropriate placed mitre drains. The colloid situation is made worse by the default maximum speed on gravel roads causing the surface gravel to constantly break up and erode in wet conditions. Photo: Patrick Francis

Figure 6B: Storm water runoff from Moffats lane carries an enormous load of colloid into Sandy creek. In comparison runoff from pasture paddocks (foreground) is clear but is soon contaminated by the colloid. Much of this colloid eventually enters Port Phillip Bay. Photo: Patrick Francis.

If road runoff is directed via appropriately placed mitre drains onto pasture or into dams, the colloid is of little consequence. It won’t degrade the pasture and in a dam it will eventually settle out, figure 6C. At least the landowner gets some advantage of water for livestock and biodiversity in and around the water body.

Figure 6C: Storm water off gravel roads usually contains considerable colloid which if captured in dams presents few environmental problems. In contrast if it enters creeks from multiple gravel roads the colloid load ends up causing environmental issues in Port Phillip Bay. Photos: Patrick Francis.

The plan should include an opportunity for landholders to engage with the council’s road maintenance team over positioning of tile drains so storm water can be beneficial for farm pastures, water supplies and prevent creek pollution with heavy colloid burdens, figure 6D.

Council’s regular maintenance of gravel roads by grading and resurfacing with new gravel perpetuates the storm water colloid pollution of creeks fed from mitre drains. Reduced maximum speed limits on minor rural roads would help maintain the integrity of the gravel surface and require less council road maintenance and subsequently reduced colloid pollution from runoff into creeks. There are also fewer greenhouse gas emissions from the council’s road maintenance vehicles and vehicles which travel at slower speeds along these roads.

Figure 6C.This Sandy creek photo point on Moffitts Farm demonstrates the impact storm water runoff from Moffats lane has on water quality. Photos: Patrick Francis.

Fire risk management

The plan accepts that all roads currently slashed for fire risk management are non-negotiable. There is no data provided around fire incidents over the last 10 years which provide evidence that all the roads involved are essential for fire risk management.

As well, there is no data provided on greenhouse gas emissions associated with vehicles undertaking slashing over recent years. It means  there is an assumption that slashing as carried out as per the draft plan is essential to reduce risk and the greenhouse gas emissions in doing so are warranted despite the fact that greenhouses gas contribute to the fire risk by increasing atmospheric CO2 levels and subsequently climate change.

On page 34 the plan recognise that the fire risk slashing program is an issue for environmental health of verges. But in it’s opportunities to improve the situation does not offer a review of all the roads currently slashed to determine if some of these roads could be removed from the program. There is an opportunity to remove some roads from the annual maintenance program where the verge vegetation is sufficiently spread that the slashing is ineffective as a technique for reducing fire risk, figure 7.

Figure 7: On some minor rural roads, currently in the fire slashing maintenance program (for example Moffats lane, Black Range road west of Moffats lane and Kerrie road) the width of the slash is curtailed by existing native vegetation, overhanging vegetation from adjacent farms, and roadside hardware. In these situations the slashing program is unnecessary. Photo: Patrick Francis.

There is a suggestion that on some verges with “significant ground flora, opportunity exists to mark or fence off areas that contain the best values…” Such a suggestion is unlikely to work due to practicalities of keeping fences and markers in place over years.

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