A Protective Circle: Why Safeguarding Wetland Health Begins With Ensuring A Healthy Buffer Zone

A wetland landscape in black & white with only the fringin vegetation coloured in it's original green.

Located only a hop, skip and jump away from our very doorsteps, wetlands are closer and more accessible than ever before! We are fortunate to have them in our direct vicinity like this. But for the wetlands themselves, that are often surrounded by busy roads, cycle tracks and pedestrian pathways, disturbed by invasive activities of humans and domestic/feral animals alike and degraded by pollution, nutrient explosion and urban runoff, this proximity can prove costly!

A healthy buffer zone can help in these situations, as a simple yet effective solution. A buffer zone with ample vegetation and thick foliage distributed around the wetland periphery acts like a protective circle safeguarding our delicate wetlands. Wetland buffers can significantly reduce exposure, bolster wetland function and minimize damage and degradation. So much so that their establishment has been encouraged and enforced by wetland management authorities around the world.

In this article, we take a closer look at some key questions: What does a healthy buffer zone look like? What does it mean for our wetland health? And, how can we help our landcarers establish and maintain adequate buffer zones around the wetlands?

 

What is a buffer zone?

The wetland buffer zone is an area of fringing vegetation, which usually begins from the periphery of the wetlands and extends outwards. Pretty much like a border around the wetland.

The buffer zone can vary in size and nature – it can be several meters wide or narrow, and it can contain a variety of wetland plants, shrubs and bushes. Its nature may also vary depending on recommendations for a particular wetland:

  • The noise and visual screening requirements – a thicker and more effective screening may facilitate the nesting and breeding of certain wetland species,
  • The conservation significance of the wetlands – more significant wetlands may require a thicker belt for the buffer,
  • And, the safe-distancing from the nuisance of insects – For example, mosquito producing wetlands are required to be at least 2km away from residential areas depending on the severity of the nuisance.

 

Why are buffers important?

Buffers are important, not just for the preservation of our environmental assets, our wetlands, but also for protecting the plant and animal wildlife that inhabit them. They aid in wetland function, ensuring wetland ecosystems thrive and flourish.

Here are a few more reasons why wetland buffers are essential:

  1. They absorb surplus water from surface runoffs, floods and storm drains.
  2. They reduce the nutrient, pollutant and sediment loads in runoffs.
  3. They help maintain the water quality in the wetland catchments by filtering out pollutants and sediments to a considerable extent.
  4. They provide habitat, shelter, and feeding/breeding/nesting grounds for wetland wildlife.
  5. They reduce disturbance to native flora and fauna from surrounds, creating safe corridors for wildlife.
  6. They reduce the invasion of weed species by keeping the vegetation dense and impenetrable.
  7. They provide for areas of recreation and engagement within the wetlands – trails for bushwalking, wildlife photography or amateur birdwatching.

 

What does a healthy buffer look like?

A buffer may differ considerably from wetland to wetland, depending on the features and requirements. However, there are a few common features that are shared by all healthy buffer zones. For example, a buffer should be at least 50 metres wide. They can be wider, not narrower. The buffer should be effective in keeping invasive species such as weeds and feral animals out. And, you can often tell of its effectiveness by its density, biodiversity and the health of the vegetation in the buffer. Similarly, a healthy buffer will keep its wildlife well protected and nurtured within its confines, with little need for them to venture out!

 

What can we do to help?

Our constant activities with little regard to our fragile wetlands, as well as the more permanent changes in the environment, have drastically impacted our wetlands. Our wetlands are threatened and need our help! The wetland buffers are perhaps the best way to begin.

Here are a few ways we can help our wetlands:

  1. Think of ways to minimize disturbance to the wetlands. Be sensitive to the movements of wetland creatures. Beware of plants that are growing or sprouting.
  2. When walking/cycling stick to the pathways. The pathways, trails and tracks are designed to lead away from environmentally sensitive areas within wetlands.
  3. Do not discard your garden waste – cuttings and prunings, or waste from aquariums or terrariums directly into the wetlands.
  4. Do not let your pet animals – cats, dogs and/or rabbits, stray in wetland areas. Animals are known to prey upon the vulnerable wetland wildlife. Collect and discard your pet’s faeces appropriately and do not discard in the wetlands. Pet faeces are a detriment known to contribute nutrients and, in some cases, carry weeds.
  5. If the buffer zone around your wetlands is at risk due to human activity, building, construction or development work, or being along roadside, highways or curbs with heavy traffic, a light fence can be erected in order to shield it.
  6. If the fringing vegetation and buffer around your wetlands appear to be disturbed or degraded, contact your local landcarers or wetlands facility. Note: Only specific native vegetation may be grown as buffer vegetation. Do not plant without advice!
  7. Participate in community planting, weeding and landcare events. Take an active interest in the health of your wetlands.

Why not get involved with us?

At ‘The Wetlands Centre Cockburn’, here in the heart of the breathtaking Beeliar Regional Park, we are working towards building healthier wetlands for everyone.

We are involved in landcare, conservation and rehabilitation work. We run some exciting educational programs. We are community driven, we have a fantastic community outreach. And, we are pioneers in wetland management.

With a dedicated team of volunteers and staff and our love for wetlands, we are doing just what it takes. Come join the team and get involved with us today. Together we can make a difference!

7 Things You Should Know About Our Wetlands

A beautiful scene of wetlands at sunset

Our stunning wetlands are a remarkable feature of the Australian landscape. From rivers that crisscross our cities and drain into surrounding seas, to the vast floodplains of central Australia that only see water every few years, these breathtaking natural and artificial wetlands capture our imagination.

The amazing diversity of lakes, mudflats and billabongs, marshes, swamps and fens and coral reefs, mangroves and peatlands – our wetlands come in all shapes and sizes. Even amidst our urban sprawl, we have manmade lakes, ponds and canals, together with some serene natural wetlands that serve as centres of recreation for us and refuge for our wildlife.

We often pass by them wondering at their natural beauty and abundance. The diverse wildlife and plant-life they support. Their scenic beauty. The interlinkages and connections. And the cycles and seasons that bring out their unique character. Yet their many other (important) functions go largely unnoticed by us.

It is hard to imagine Australia without its beautiful wetlands. They are special places serving as storehouses of life-giving water. And, they play a key role beyond sustenance, water conservation and climate control.

 

1. Wetlands are “Nature’s Kidneys”

Wetlands have been likened to nature’s kidneys owing to their deep cleansing effect on our waterways. They are essential for sustaining healthy waterways on which communities throughout Australia depend.

Much like the kidneys that filter and extract waste and balance the hormones in the human body, the wetlands trap and filter the nutrients, sediments and pollutants, cleaning the water and recharging the underground aquifers. By absorbing pollutants, wetlands improve the quality of water and the surrounding bushland.

 

2. Wetlands and the Impact on Climate Change

Wetlands have the unique ability to capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, thus slowing the impacts of climate change. Coastal wetlands are known to store large quantities of ‘blue carbon’ (the carbon in coastal ecosystems is known as blue carbon).

The flourishing vegetation is responsible for consuming carbon dioxide. Some of the used-up carbon dioxide is released back into the atmosphere, but most of it remains trapped around the roots, sediments and in the marshy ground.

Statistics show us that although the wetlands cover only 5 – 8% of the Earth’s land surface, they hold anywhere up to 30% of the total store of carbon on the planet.

 

3. Wetlands Act as Storm Buffers

Wetlands perform a crucial function as storm buffers – including inland flood control and coastal storm buffers. The thriving foliage – seagrasses, reefs, rushes, reeds, bushes and more – all protect against the destructive action of flood-water and dampen their impact.

Wetlands protect coastal communities from extreme events, such as typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes. They protect our shores from corrosive wave action.

 

4. Wetlands Serve as Habitats for Biodiversity

Wetlands are vital habitats for native species such as the oblong turtles and black swans, as well as a horde of international migratory birds such as greenshanks, red-necked stints and sharp-tailed sandpipers. They provide much-needed refuge for a number of migratory shorebird and seabird species, serving as important feeding and resting habitats during spring and summer months. Some endangered species such as Carnaby’s cockatoo and the peregrine falcon rely on the wetlands for their food and water.

Wetlands support a unique ecosystem. And some of the plant and animal varieties are curiously distinct, having evolved specifically to survive the changing water and salinity conditions.

 

5. Artificial Wetlands and Recreation

Constructed wetlands or manmade wetlands, that are designed to mimic our natural wetlands are often found in urban areas. They can serve the same function as our natural wetlands – of supporting wildlife and creating booming ecosystems and habitats, although they often lack the amazing biodiversity of natural wetlands.

Artificial wetlands are popular destinations for recreation and ecotourism, they also provide us with an opportunity of ‘experiencing nature’ right in the heart of our own cities and suburbs.

 

6. Water Conservation and Sustenance

The wetlands ecosystem teaches us a great deal about water and water conservation. The underground aquifers, which are vast, natural, water-storage reservoirs in the wetlands ecosystem, help replenish the groundwater. While the wetlands themselves act as filters, cleaning and restoring our waterways. The wetlands are often the surface expressions of these aquifers.

All Australians rely on water to sustain life. And water plays a large part in our lives. Whether it’s water for our households, schools, industries or communities, wetlands play an indispensable role and their conservation should be a top priority.

 

7. Wetlands Need Our Support

Threats to wetlands continue as many of them are being filled, drained and replaced with agricultural fields, roadways and urban developments. Rural and urban encroachment is perhaps the biggest threat. Leaving our animal and bird populations homeless, our waterways exposed and compromised, and our environment permanently degraded.

The wetlands need our support today. From generating public awareness to community involvement in their protection and rehabilitation.

We encourage you to visit us – The Wetlands Centre at Bibra Lake – or your nearest wetlands, to learn about our community outreach and how local communities can participate in and benefit from the wetlands.