Time to get tough on support for the environment, Royal Botanic Gardens experts say

The Melbourne Gardens are of two gardens that the Royal Botanical Gardens tend to. Photo: Royal Botanical Gardens website.
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Strong measures are needed to persuade Victorians to support our environment, the State Government's inquiry into the decline of our ecosystems was told today. Environment editor Angus Delaney reports.

Senior staff from the Royal Botanic Gardens today called on the state government to engage and encourage Victorians to care more about their ecosystems.

They asked for the Victorian Government to invest in campaigns to modify the behaviour of Victorians, at a public hearing for the government’s inquiry into ecosystems decline.  

Professor David Cantrill, chief botanist and director of science at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, said the Victorian government should consider programs similar to the anti-smoking campaigns.

“Those social engineering campaigns have been very successful, but it isn’t something we do for the environment,” Prof Cantrill said.

Our community is increasingly urbanised and increasingly disconnected form the natural world.

“if you can get Victorians to value nature, they will act and fund nature.” This idea was reflected in the Victorians Value Nature Survey, funded by the state Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

The inquiry into ecosystem decline in Victoria has received more than 900 submissions from organisations, environmentalists, lawyers, academics and ecologists, all expressing concern over Victoria’s unsustainable environmental systems and legislation.

The Royal Botanic Gardens’ chief director, Prof Tim Entwisle, said in his submission that Victoria’s ecosystem “continues to decline at an unprecedented rate”.

“Over the last 200 years, Australian ecosystems have been dramatically altered through land clearing—Victoria is Australia’s most-cleared state,” he said.

“Urbanisation, farming and the spread of pest animals and non-indigenous plant species … have all impacted upon the state’s biodiversity.”

Time to get tough on support for the environment, Royal Botanic Gardens experts say
The Royal Botanic Gardens are home to more than 2500 plant species. Photo: Royal Botanic Gardens website.

Three important actions to halt ecosystem decline

Prof Cantrill told the hearing they recommended three ways to reduce the decline in ecosystems.

Action One: Reverse the loss of vegetation through clearing, with reconnection of patches of vegetation across the landscape.

Action Two: Control and reduce weed load and pest/feral animals across the landscape.

Action Three: Invest in behavioural change models and social marketing campaigns to modify behaviours and attitudes so that Victorians value and act for their fragile and unique ecosystems.

Prof Cantrill said people needed to act with care and flexibility. “We need to be nimble with these things,” he said.

As the climate warms, things will want to change their distribution, so having a connected landscape will help them.

Prof Cantrill said restoring and connecting ecosystems isn’t an easy feat. “High conservation plants are hard to get back.”

He said his orchid restoration work was an example of the complexities involved. “Orchids rely on a fungus in the soil to germinate … they also require specialised pollinators, so to reintroduce these things … we need a deep understanding of them.”

These high conservation Australian plants struggle to grow back because they’re competing with foreign and invasive plants. This links to the Royal Botanical Garden’s second action, to control and reduce weed load, pests and feral animals across the landscape.

Prof Cantrill said the success of invasive species in Australia was influenced by government. “In terms of invasive species, it comes down to how we value things,” he said.

Because we are so focused on the economics, the environment gets left behind.

This means foreign crops that are cheap and fast-growing are currently allowed by the government because they increase profits for farming. However, these crops are so fast-growing that they take over nearby flora, destroying natural ecosystems.

Time to get tough on support for the environment, Royal Botanic Gardens experts say
Worth preserving: The Melbourne Gardens has a rare and threatened species collection.

The Royal Botanic Gardens’ third action was all about engaging Victorian citizens and encouraging them to care more about the state’s ecosystems.

Prof Entwisle acknowledged in his submission that these campaigns can be costly.

“Simple initiatives such as this require a reasonable level of investment, but nothing compared to the impact of a complete loss of our state’s greatest, most treasured assets: our flora, fauna and landscapes,” he said.

The reporting date for the Inquiry into Ecosystem Decline in Victoria is September 30, 2021.