Biodiversity decline stands as a pressing environmental concern, with Australia ranking among the top seven nations contributing to over half of the global diversity loss, as reported by the Nature journal in 2017.

Nicholas Carter, an experienced ecologist at SMEC, along with Andrew Taylor, Team Leader in Ecology, VIC, recently published a research paper in the prestigious Journal Landscape and Urban Planning (Carter et al., 2024). Their study focuses on the Powerful Owl, scientifically known as Ninox Strenua, and poses critical questions about the adequacy of current environmental legislation in safeguarding this species across diverse land tenures. Nicholas’ passion for this species of owls started eight years ago when he started to capture and GPS-track these owls for his honours project with Deakin University. Over a rigorous three-year period since starting his PhD in 2021, Carter and his team meticulously tracked the activities of 39 Powerful Owls, juxtaposing their findings with the provisions of the State of Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (FFG Act 1988).


Nicholas Carter, Experienced Ecologist, Environment, SMEC


The research reveals significant gaps in the protection of Powerful Owl habitats across Victoria. Despite the FFG Act 1988’s intent to preserve critical habitats, a mere 61% of Powerful Owl critical habitat was covered by this legislation. Conversely, the Victorian Planning and Environment Act of 1987 emerges as a potentially more effective safeguard across private and public lands for Powerful Owl critical habitat. Interestingly, Powerful Owls inhabiting forested landscapes (such as national parks) receive heightened legislative protection, however, these protections do not extend adequately to owls in urban or agricultural areas despite these owls in modified environments more likely to face threats from habitat loss impacts. Moreover, habitat importance maps frequently overlook owl home-ranges, with meagre representation in the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas, underscoring the urgent need for improved documentation and conservation efforts.


In response to these critical findings, the research team proposes actionable recommendations to enhance the protection and understanding of Powerful Owl habitats. They advocate for the reporting of known roost and nest sites to local government biodiversity teams, catalysing discussions for enhanced protection measures. Encouragingly, some Local Government Authorities (LGAs) demonstrate a willingness to update planning frameworks to safeguard Powerful Owls. Given the scarcity of records in the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas, the team emphasises the significance of considering even a single owl record and suggests assuming habitat use in areas lacking comprehensive documentation. Furthermore, they propose the application of a 1km buffer around owl records to estimate potential home-range and habitat use, with the overarching goal of fortifying conservation efforts and deepening our understanding of Powerful Owls’ habitat requirements, not only in Victori, but throughout the species distribution.


Over the course of his research, Nicholas came across multiple challenges, namely he nocturnal nature of the animal which made it extremely difficult to track to the fact that they are quite elusive with camouflaged characteristics and a tendency to hide out in the thick canopy of trees. Finding them requires the team to trace their feathers and other distinct features such as faeces, which often look like toothpaste. As Nichloas highlighted, the field work activities are the hardest part of the process, so he is incredibly thankful for the Ecology team at SMEC who came out and supported him during this process.


Global implications:

From an engineering consultancy standpoint, the implications of this paper extend far beyond Victoria or even Australia, resonating with businesses and decision-makers globally.

"Let's look at the intricate tapestry of our environment. From road reserves to tiny patches of habitat, each contributes to the greater ecosystem and has incredible value in preserving the habitat of a species. As we delve into the realm of engineering, it's important that we adopt an Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) lens. Every action, no matter how seemingly insignificant, carries ecological consequences. We all bear the responsibility of safeguarding our planet. Collaboration is key; engineers, clients, governments, and communities must unite."
———— - Nicholas Carter, Experienced Ecologist, Environment

Apex predators, like the Powerful Owl, are often highly mobile and have large-home ranges to obtain the resources they require to survive. Sadly, apex predator populations have declined globally with numerous species considered as threatened. Although this paper was Victorian specific, it has applications to help mitigate impacts and conserve Powerful Owls in other states and even other apex predator species in Australia and globally.

By fostering awareness and collaboration, professionals in the engineering sector can play an important role to mitigate potential environmental impacts arising from projects to apex predators and threatened species, thereby contributing to biodiversity preservation. Lastly, Carter encourages teams and individuals to harness their curiosity and passion for animal species to conduct their own research ad learn how they can help support apex predators and threatened species local to their own backyard or on projects they are working on. This proactive approach aligns with a broader ethos of environmental stewardship, emphasising the importance of corporate social responsibility and proactive engagement in biodiversity conservation efforts.

To read this paper, please click on this link.


(1) Carter, N., White, J. G., Bradsworth, N., Smith, A., Neville, R., Taylor, A., & Cooke, R. (2024). Can environmental legislation protect a threatened apex predator across different land tenures? Landscape and Urban Planning, 244, 104991.