Bringing back the Bush

This year’s theme for the United Nations World Environment Day (5th of June) is ‘Reimagine. Recreate. Restore’. In this strange, crazy era that we’re in the middle of it’s a refreshing change to celebrate and promote positivity. And when it comes to conservation most of what we read is the seemingly endless bad news stories. While we shouldn’t forget the sad realities of climate change, extinctions, habitat loss and other disasters we need to acknowledge positive action. Some amazing work is being done quietly to try to go some way to reverse the damage that has been done.

According to the last census approximately 71% of the Australian population lives in our major cities. But it’s outside of the cities where the heavy lifting is happening on the conservation front. There is often a city-centric belief that the Australian bush is full of farmers and other people who don’t care about the land beyond what they grow or graze. Looking from the cities and suburbs it is hard to reconcile farming and rural life with conservation. There are some historical reasons for these doubts.

Almost immediately after European settlement for Australia’s ecosystems and habitats to be changed forever; In addition to housing convicts, Australia was seen as a vast, open land waiting to be farmed. Colonial settlers were industrious at tearing up the landscape to be cleared for pastoral farming. Animal species not previously on the continent were introduced either accidentally or deliberately. Modern day landowners have learnt from history and many are now doing what they can to work with nature, rather than compete with it.

Earlier this year I spent a week out in Victoria’s Western District around the Grampians region. It was here that I met families, landowners, individuals and organisations who are doing amazing work to bring back the bush and the species that live there.

Corea station

My accommodation during that week was Corea Station at Dunkeld. Corea was the perfect place to experience the history of farming and what the future looks like. The property was purchased by William Thomson back in 1905 and is now owned and managed by his Granddaughter Cee, her husband Bill and their sons Charlie and Edward. You can feel the history of the property staying in renovated shearers quarters that were built in 1940.

Looking towards the Grampians from Corea

I never get bored of looking at the rugged peaks of the Grampians. Looking towards them from under the verandah of the shearers quarters the view is punctuated by lines of gum trees. Cee Blackwell laughs when we calculate that the trees are the same age as me. The trees were planted back then for the sake of providing a wind break to protect the sheep and cattle from the wind and rain; this part of the state regularly provides the prime statistics for wind and rain events. The trees have matured to provide valued habitat to some of the rich birdlife that can be found around the Grampians region. Cee and Bill shared their casual observations on bird species that they have increasingly noticed around the property over time that weren’t around in the past.

As soon as I parked the van at Corea I took a short walk over to the wetland that happened to be only 100 metres from the shearers quarters. The water and the surrounding vegetation were alive with various bird species including Musk Ducks, a White-necked Heron, Yellow Spoonbill and Spotted Pardalotes. I was thinking how perfectly natural this wetland looked and the good fortune to have such an asset within a farm. When Cee told me that the wetland was not at all natural I was surprised: it’s been excavated and maintained in different stages by different generations of her family, The wetland is much more than a farm dam especially with islands, specifically selected plantings and the mature River Red Gums.

My stay coincided with the annual shearing of Corea’s sheep. I managed a quick chat with Bill and Cee’s son Charlie as him and the work dogs were rounding up the flock. He shared with me that he believed it was crucial for farmers to work with nature, rather than against it. It was Charlie who helped arrange a visit to Mount Sturgeon Homestead, where I would meet some special characters.

Mount Sturgeon Homestead

Most people who visit Dunkeld know of the famed Royal Mail Hotel, which has a reputation as the finest gastropub in country Victoria with two chef’s hats. The organisation that own and manage the Royal Mail Hotel also manage the accommodation at nearby Mount Sturgeon Homestead, a wonderfully maintained example of 1800s bluestone architecture. The property also houses a number of predator-proof enclosures for several wildlife species who are now uncommon in the wild due to habitat loss and predators such as cats and foxes.

I think it may have been when I got to handfeed Bruce the (Rufous) Bettong that I lost my adult mind and regressed to being an excited child. Bruce was more excited in the cob of corn I was offering rather than my attempts at conversation.

Fat-tailed Dunnart

It was equally exciting to watch a family of Fat-tailed Dunnarts zoom about. These tiny carnivorous marsupials are part of the Dasyuridae family and are related to Tasmanian Devils and Quolls.

While Tasmanian Devils are world famous fewer people would be aware of Quolls. There are six species within the Quoll genus – 4 are Australian and 2 exist within Papua New Guinea. At Mount Sturgeon they have a few Eastern Quoll individuals. I was trying to get a photo of the agile animals as they darted in and out of tree hollows. Jay, the ranger who was taking me around the enclosures knew that I was staying at Corea and thought that I’d be interested in an excerpt of a newspaper article from over 100 years ago.

It’s important to know that the Eastern Quoll was previously known as the ‘Native Cat’ and is now classified as extinct on mainland Australia .The article published in The Australasian in 1910 is summarised as follows:

‘I know Corea well. It is within easy distance from my home. We had cats by the thousand in my young days. I remember when a youngster seeing them in and on all the walls. They were everywhere then. I used to catch hundreds of them in my rabbit traps. This would be in the (eighteen) eighties. Then suddenly they disappeared. Some observers are of the opinion that the abundance of rabbits available was the indirect cause. But I do not think so. Mr. H. Quiney, of Mortlake, who is a keen observer, thinks, with me, that their extinction was due to some epidemic disease. For the cats died in myriads, almost simultaneously’.
‘F.R.’ The Australasian, 1910. The full article can be found below:

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Reading such observations makes one frustrated about the plight of our treasured wildlife. Sadly Australia is a world heavyweight when it comes to species extinction. There are captive breeding programs happening to attempt to one day bring the Eastern Quoll back to the wild on the Australian mainland. Given the lack of foxes in Tasmania they are still roaming amongst their Devil cousins. Much more than a cute, carnivorous marsupial, Quolls are one of Australia’s apex predator species, playing an important role in keeping their ecosystems in check.

Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby

Mount Sturgeon’s sanctuary has its own captive breeding program for a species that is being released back into The Grampians National Park. The Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby may be Victoria’s fauna emblem, but it is far from famous like its kangaroo cousins. Not only have Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies suffered from fox predation, but they were also historically killed for their fur. After individuals were initially being reintroduced back in 2008 there is now evidence that they have mated and produced their own offspring in the wild. The Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby is an amazing animal to experience; not only are they incredibly agile, but they can hop their way around rocky ridges and even up trees, like the one photographed above.

Conservation projects like the Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby require a lot of resources, hard work from a lot of people (paid and unpaid) and the signs of success can often be hard to see. But when you stop to think at what has been undone and what has been lost in such a short space of time it’s important that we do what we can…before it’s too late for more of our special wildlife and their homes,

Graham