Flora and vegetation surveys are used to gather information about the plants and collection of plants (vegetation), that is, the floristic values, of a specific area. The flora component refers to individual species while the vegetation component refers to the composition of the collection of flora species.
A survey is generally undertaken by botanists or ecologists, which requires specialist knowledge. Surveys can be used by government agencies, universities, private companies of the environmental industry and community groups. Surveys are undertaken for various reasons, including:
- environmental impact assessments
- monitoring programs
- to determine the conservation status of a floristic feature
- educational purposes
- baseline studies.
Undertaking surveys helps expand our biological knowledge of an area. Outcomes of surveys include:
- potentially identifying new or threatened species
- expansions in the range of known species
- identifying morphological changes in a species
- determining geographical extent or a species or community or changes in this
- determining habitat requirements of a species or community.
What makes for a good flora and vegetation survey?
In Western Australia, where an impact on the environment is proposed, including for any development project, flora and vegetation surveys are required to be carried out in accordance with a guideline issued by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA). This guideline is the basis of all flora and vegetation surveys conducted by consultants, with the EPA’s expectation that the standards in the guideline are met.
The quality, and outcomes of a flora and vegetation survey depend on many factors. A good survey, one that meet the requirements of the guideline, requires:
- an understanding of influencing factors
- attention to detail
Given the extent of Western Australia’s flora, experience in a particular region is fundamental to a good survey. Experienced botanists/ecologists are able to identify floristic values and when and where to find them. Experience also helps to identify anomalies or novel characteristics that may indicate important values not identified during research. The EPA acknowledges the importance of experience, which is captured in survey guidance where it is stipulated that surveys undertaken in Western Australia must be led by a suitably qualified botanist with at least 5 years of experience in the area to be surveyed.
Optimal survey timing gives the best chance of observing and recording all flora species during a survey. Native species have evolved to the climatic conditions of their area, producing flowers and fruit at optimal times for survival. Optimal survey times vary throughout Western Australia, generally being driven by geographic location and regional weather patterns. In some instances, an area may require surveying at distinctly different time periods to capture the full suite of species present. While other instances require multiple surveys in close succession to capture species with short and defined flowering periods. In areas where sporadic rainfall determines growing and flowering periods, multiple surveys following favourable events may be required.
Fundamental to a good survey is research. Prior to undertaking field studies, it is important to gain as much knowledge of the flora and vegetation of the designated area to better prepare for the survey. For example, identifying potential threatened or rare flora that is likely to occur within the area, what habitats are likely to occur and the vegetation communities they will support. Background information varies for regions and places around Western Australia. Some areas of Western Australia have been intensely surveyed, for example, the Swan Coastal Plain upon which the Perth region sites is well-understood from a high volume of surveys, because of the high level of development, demand for land and a dense population. Areas in the Pilbara have also been reasonably well surveyed because of regulatory requirements associated with clearing applications for mining, which have accelerated in recent decades. Other areas, particularly less populated and less economically lucrative areas have far less information available.
Many factors, and changes in them, influence the success of a survey and interpretation of results. Abiotic factors, such as rainfall, fire and soil chemistry, and biotic factors, such as leaf litter accumulation, weeds and animals, can influence which flora may be able to exist or the composition of species in a vegetation community. In some areas of Western Australia human activities have caused extensive disturbance to ecosystems and they no longer resemble their state at European settlement. Consideration of these factors help interpretation of the flora and vegetation identified during surveys.
Attention to detail, a commitment to achieving the highest quality and early anticipation of events are important components of a survey. Many companies offer survey services, but consideration should be given to the standard of work provided as the quality of a survey and subsequent report could be insufficient for regulatory bodies. Commitment to doing the job right requires an investment of resources; time and money, which can save money in the long-term by eliminating the need for additional surveys. Sub-standard surveys can extend the application process and require more investment in subsequent surveys because regulatory bodies require adequate information, attained at a suitable standard, to make an informed decision. Early anticipation of survey needs will allow for planning and thoughtful design of a survey, including multiple phases and thorough inspection of all elements critical to the project.
Importantly, good planning for a flora and vegetation survey involves pulling together the experience, suitable survey timing, research, understanding of influencing factors and resources, combined with attention to detail, field logistics and a robust study plan, to appropriate plan for the collection of field data. This may involve one mobilisation to site or more, across a single, two-phase or multiple-phase survey, during one or more seasons. Sound planning from the beginning ensures that seasonal windows are not missed, adequate data is collected (at the right time) and ensures the best possible outcomes for the survey. This investment in good planning helps projects to stay on a smooth path for formal assessments and environmental approvals, saving time and money in the long-term.
The bottom line
Flora and vegetation surveys are undertaken by suitably qualified botanists or ecologists.
Flora and vegetation surveys provide biological information and help inform decision makers, conservation management and build knowledge.
Flora and vegetation surveys need to be thoughtfully designed to maximise success and reduce or eliminate the need for additional surveys, which ultimately saves projects time and money and protects reputation.