Last month, Wild Melbourne ventured out to the town of Marysville to explore the surrounding wilderness. During our adventure, we went on a few of the nature walks that encompass the township, including a visit to Steavenson Falls, an underestimated hike up to Keppel Lookout, and a night-time walk to the Trestle Bridge. For me though, none of these stood out quite like the Beeches Rainforest Walk in the Yarra Ranges National Park.
The journey out to the Beeches was beautiful and awe-inspiring in its own right. We took the turn onto Lady Talbot Drive and, soon enough, the towering white skeletons of Mountain Ash trees - relics of the Black Saturday bushfires - surrounded us on all sides. These ghostly figures were all that we could see for kilometres, overwhelmingly illustrating the huge scope of the bushfires that occurred here in February 2009. Although this was sobering, there was also evidence of recovery and regrowth, with almost every naked tree surrounded by a sea of saplings. It looked impenetrable. Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) recover from bush fires by dropping huge quantities of seeds. The developing saplings then grow into dense communities, until one by one individuals are outcompeted for light, nutrients and water by their neighbours. It is these surviving saplings that go on to form the new forest canopy.
Lady Talbot Drive follows the Taggerty River, which bubbled and flowed alongside us as we drove up into the hills. About thirteen kilometres up the road, we reached the Beeches: a pocket of cool temperate rainforest, nestled in amongst towering stands of Mountain and Alpine Ash. Its canopy is dominated by Myrtle Beech trees (Nothofagus cunninghamii), but you will also find Southern Sassafras (Atherosperma moschatum) and Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) trees. Some of the trees in this rainforest are even thought to be 300 years old. This is quite plausible, as Myrtle Beech canopies can be up to 500 years old, with root system of up to 1000 years old. Before eucalupts evolved, Myrtle Beeches are thought to have been much more widespread. However, that was 25 million years ago - now they are restricted to cool, shaded forests and sheltered valleys throughout Victoria and Tasmania.
We didn’t see a great deal of animal life whilst wandering through the Beeches, but the plant life compensated for this. You cannot take a step on this walk without seeing a myriad of different mosses, or stumbling across some native ferns. Lichens and creepers cover the trees, whilst rocks and boulders guide the Taggerty River down through the rainforest.
In the town of Marysville, however, wildlife was abundant. Wood Ducks waddled down the main street, Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos foraged for grass seeds on the nature strip, and Currawongs loitered around the cafes. These three species were common throughout the town and seemed to exist in higher numbers than the town’s human residents.
Although we didn’t see many mammals (despite our keen searching), there is one marsupial that I would like to draw your attention to. The Leadbeater’s Possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) was originally declared extinct in the 1950s, having not been sighted since 1909. However, after the discovery of a colony near Marysville in 1961, the Leadbeater’s Possum was declared Victoria’s faunal emblem and is now an ambassador for the endangered species of Victoria, and even Australia.
Leadbeater’s Possums are most often seen at dusk when they emerge from their tree hollows to feed on insects and tree sap. From head to tail, this possum is just thirty centimetres in length, its body measuring just half of that, and is primarily distinguished by its club-shaped tail that is characteristically wider at the tip than at the base. These marsupials live in family groups consisting of a breeding pair and their offspring from previous years, often including as many as twelve individuals. Due to their highly endangered status, Leadbeater’s Possums are only found in Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve and the Victorian Central Highlands. These secretive creatures are found mostly in forests with a high occurrence of tree hollows, smooth-barked eucalypts and dense vegetation structure. As such tree hollows need over 150 years to develop, these possums can generally only live in mature, old growth forests (hence their localisation in only two particular areas).
It is these tree hollows that are the core issue surrounding the plight of our Leadbeater’s Possums. As they are essential habitat features for these marsupials in terms of nesting, tree hollow abundance directly affects the number of Leadbeater’s Possums in the wild. Due to logging, land clearing and bushfires, the number of tree hollows is unfortunately decreasing, with any destroyed tree hollows of course not being replaced for at least another 150 years. Bushfires also provide a threat to Leadbeater’s Possums, the Black Saturday fires wiping out almost all of their already diminished habitat. Subsequently, this loss of a suitable environment can lead to habitat fragmentation and a decrease in connectivity between populations, further worsening this fragile species’ chance of survival.
However, although population numbers are expected to decline further, there are a few things that we can do to help our state emblem. Zoos Victoria is currently running the ‘Wipe for Wildlife’ campaign, which encourages people to buy locally produced toilet paper made from 100% post-consumer paper, whilst containing no harsh chemicals. We can extend this notion to many other aspects of our lives, such as purchasing products that are sustainably packaged, as well as choosing wood and paper products that are ethically and sustainably sourced. In doing this, the high rate of logging in Victoria can perhaps be decreased enough to give this species a fighting chance to achieve higher population numbers, as well as a less vulnerable position on our endangered species list.
With fewer than 1000 individuals remaining, Leadbeater’s Possums are in desperate need of our attention. The extinction of this iconic species would be a huge loss to our state and nation, both biologically and culturally, and would leave a stain on Victoria’s already unfavourable faunal history.
For one thing, the beautiful wilds of Marysville would not be the same without them.