Wolf (spiders) among sheep

The La Trobe Future Landscapes (LTFL) team commenced their farm-scale natural capital accounting project in 2020. The project set out to describe environmental performance and natural asset management to investigate sustainable farm practices and producenatural capital accounts for farmers (read more).

The Animal Behaviour Group joined this project in 2022 studying ground predators alongside the LTFU’s invertebrate data (read more). After two successful trips to NSW in 2022, we were able to return to the field and extend the project into the country of the Dja Dja Wurrung people djandak (central Victoria), and the lands of the Wotjobaluk, Jaadwa, Jadawadjali, Wergaia and Jupagulk People of the Wotjobaluk Nations (north-west Victoria). This Victorian extension is thanks to Trust for Nature and their Scholes Student Scholarship program.

Gone were the rolling hills of the Great Dividing Range, replaced by the flatter plains of the Riverina, Goldfields and Uplands (Fig. 1). The easier terrain and more compact, central sites meant work continued at a better pace. In lieu of record floods the year prior, or the rain and hail colleagues and family were subject to in Melbourne, we enjoyed a consistent streak of sunny days in the mid 20’s.

Figure 1. Map of study site locations. Participating farms are marked with red unlabelled pins around Bendigo to Horsham.

The city of Bendigo served as a solid home base, even as the grand goldrush-era architecture got relegated to the rear-view mirror when heading out for the day. As with previous trips the goal was to sample ground predators, primarily active hunting spiders, over a 24-hour period on each farm. This involved installing pitfall lines throughout three pastures with different adjacent habitat: remnant, revegetation, and no woody vegetation (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Pitfall line creation. Left: Adjacent revegetation zone. Centre: Hammering in stakes and pegs for a pasture pitfall line. Top right: Above view of ground predator habitat and pitfall line. Bottom right: Close up of pitfall bucket setup.

I had the pleasure of meeting all the participating landowners who gave us permission to return to their property on this trip. Though a diverse range of personalities, I was left with the impression that agriculture of this scale produced, or attracted, people of substantial grit. Stories of hardships endured or overcome abound, and in the case of these graziers the burden of the recently plummeted livestock value seemed to loom ever-present. None of that seemed to have swayed the willingness to make us feel welcome. Not just that, but the assistance with site selection was half the reason we managed to maintain schedule at all.

Figure 3. Left: Remnant riparian zone adjacent to a grazing pasture. Right: Lace Monitor scurrying up a tree (centre-right of image, left side of trunk).

Outside the buckets we saw the regular pasture birds of prey from kestrels (Falco cenchroides) to black-shouldered kites (Elanus axillaris), the burrowing sudell’s frog (Neobatrachus sudellae) and rarer sightings such as the locally endangered lace monitor (Varanus varius, fig. 3). Inside the buckets were the usual suspects like rove beetles and butchy boys, however in Victoria we appear to have caught more centipedes, weevils and ants compared to NSW. Regarding our ground predators we appear to have caught more ground spiders (Gnaphosidae) and ant-eating spiders (Zodariidae). We will know more once all the samples have been sorted.

Many hands make light work, and thanks to the help of Dr Richard Peters and volunteer Jarrah Marginata there was even a little downtime to briefly check out Terrick Terrick National Park (as shown in the feature image of this post) and Kooyoora State Park. Third times the charm.

James Coles