A rose among the thorns | Laurel Fowler
Much like her favourite plant Grevillea mucronulata, Laurel Fowler would not consider herself particularly special or popular. Yet, just as the striking flowers are camouflaged amongst the foliage, the self-confessed plant nerd is a hidden gem within the bush regeneration industry, and an inspiration to many.
Laurel studied Environmental Science at the University of Newcastle, Australia, before focusing on botany in her graduate diploma at the University of New England. She is now leading the charge as a Bush Regeneration Site Supervisor, a testament not only to her hard work, but also to her dedication and commitment in pursuing a leadership role as a female conservationist. Laurel has been a member of the bush regeneration industry for seven years, and a supervisor for the last two and a half years.
“I did various other jobs before I got to bush regeneration… I just got into it and I loved it. It’s where I plan to stay.”
Laurel fell in love with plant identification during her studies at university, with an unwavering passion for being amongst the plants in the bush, and developing the skills to distinguish their individual characteristics and inherent beauty.
“The best part is getting to teach people plant identification and being in nature.”
Yet, she agrees that this can be overwhelming for amateur plant nerds, and gave advice on some great resources for complete beginners, experts, and everyone in between. Whilst some of these suggestions are ideal for budding conservationists in Australia, be sure to check out those catered to the unique plants in your area!
“There are a lot of books; they are quite out of date but are a good place to start. There’s always Plant Net, which is done by the New South Wales Herbarium. It’s a bit technical, so that’s good if you’re a bit further along.”
iNaturalist is a global initiative featuring over 106 million observations to date, including the identification of more than 300,000 species through the joint efforts of more than 5 million members!
“Definitely use iNaturalist as much as you can – it’s an app where you can take photos of plants, and there is artificial intelligence that can help to identify the plants… there’s also a lot of experts that will come in and tell you what the plants are on the app. It’s an excellent resource…”
Planting the seeds for success
Laurel knows that daily, small-scale efforts facilitate important steps towards preserving the natural environment. The early bird gets the worm, and that means early morning starts for her crew.
“[After] a safety briefing, we might do a few hours of hand weeding. We might brush-cut, and we use a lot of machines to slash weedy grasses back from the paths. We treat a lot of large woody weeds, and sometimes have to cut down trees”.
The use of chemicals in conservation presents an ethical dilemma for people like Laurel. However, she describes that although her recent work has discouraged the use of chemicals, herbicide use is a necessary evil. She shares how she combats the moral anxiety around this issue:
“I get to make the choice most of the time of whether I think it’s necessary. I think it’s really important to educate ourselves on the different chemicals, read the safety data sheets and the labels, so that we know that we are using them properly. And just don’t ever think of it as your first defence…”
Clearly, it’s not always fun and games out in the Australian bush…
“The worst is definitely summer. 40°C days are not fun and [neither are] the insect bites!”
Shooting for the stars
Laurel recalls that gaining a leadership role in conservation was a tough gig. But she shares the importance of subscribing to conservation employment advertising agencies (like NRMjobs for the Aussies out there), doing the necessary study for the role you are seeking (such as the Conservation and Land Management TAFE course), and never giving up on chasing your dream job.
“Just working really hard when I was a crew member, constantly applying for every supervisor position that came up until they got sick of seeing my application and gave me the position … Be persistent and work really hard … give it a go, see if it’s for you – it’s lots of fun!”
For more information, check out this webinar for six key steps towards effective Conservation Leadership!
Eventually, the hard work pays off, and you may even get to be a part of cutting-edge conservation programs. Yet, sometimes your career highlights are really just being able to wake up and do what you are passionate about every single day.
“I’ve done some jobs where we’ve worked for the Office of Environment & Heritage on the ‘Saving Our Species’ program…. Protecting endangered species is a big part of the job that I like. To be honest, the proudest moments are always when I identify a new plant [and] when we finish a project that was really hard and we nailed it.”
Check out this free Ultimate Guide for the key steps in getting hired as a Wildlife Conservationist!
Blooming with grace
For plant conservationists like Laurel, the bias towards charismatic animals (those that are cute and fluffy) and the concept of plant blindness is a constant struggle. She describes the importance of conservationists educating the public about these biases.
“Plant blindness is definitely a big thing, especially with people that want to live in big houses. Maybe they can’t afford to live in the city and tend to buy large houses out near the bush, but don’t appreciate it. That can be frustrating in the areas that we work in… It’s hard not to be antagonistic, but it’s important to try to be kind to them and educate them [about the importance of the bush]…”
You might be wondering about the value placed on umbrella species, and targeting community conservation efforts to something the community will be more interested in saving, like a tree. If we can work towards saving that tree, other things will be conserved in the process. But Laurel believes in the importance of community education, and appreciating the beauty of all natural forms and the complex interactions of ecosystem services going on behind the scenes.
“There’s a real focus on trees… but a big grassland can be just as important. People who haven’t been educated don’t realise that there are lots of native grasses, and they are habitat as well. Small and spiky shrubs are a good habitat for small birds.”
“[With] certain people, it will be hard to convince them of a native grassland [or an endangered snail] being worth anything. So maybe we do have to focus on trees and koalas publicly, and that’s the only way you’re going to get funding a lot of the time. But having said that… other things are just as important. I think there needs to be more community education, just to show and teach people how everything interacts with each other…”
Reaping what you sow
Although conservation efforts have been revolutionised by new technologies and the legacy of globalisation, it’s important, now more than ever, that we honour our roots and the traditional custodians of the land. It is only through these inclusive and diverse efforts that we will be able to truly make a difference in rehabilitating our environment.
“I think we should definitely be involving indigenous people more in all of the conservation industries… it’s difficult to have controlled burns these days, but I think if local councils could have indigenous advisors as part of their [environmental teams, this would be a big step in the right direction].”
Laurel is a firm believer in the value of every voice being heard, and she encourages you to read the literature of indigenous practices, and to join an inclusive team where you feel valued.
“Just get out in the bush, learn about it and appreciate what we have.”
Author Profile | Madison White
Madison is a proud Indigenous Australian with strong spiritual, cultural, and familial roots connected to the Kamilaroi tribe. She is pursuing a Master of Research at Western Sydney University, with a keen interest in, and contribution to, projects studying the platypus. She has a passionate commitment to ecological and wildlife conservation, which she hopes to achieve through a career in field research. She also volunteers for bush regeneration efforts with her local council.