The countryside near Benalla in northern Victoria has been strongly marked by its two centuries of farming and forestry. The logging industries of early settlement have given way to agriculture, and now pastureland spreads like a sea between townships. Speckling the land are a few pockets of heavy, old eucalypts, left behind on roadsides and hard-to-reach hills.
It’s not easy finding time to speak with Ray Thomas, coordinator of Victoria’s Regent Honeyeater Project. Any spare second he gets is devoted to restoring the ancient forests that once covered the hills and plains around Benalla. Our conversation twice needed rescheduling – some unexpected rain had brought an unmissable opportunity of extra planting.
Acting on small chances like that has clearly paid off. This year, the Regent Honeyeater Project celebrates its 20th year of continuous work in the district, a testament to the tenacity of Ray and his associates. From an initial aim to protect the region’s last fragile remnants of ironbark and box forest, the project has grown in myriad directions: boosting the presence of food trees, to bring migrating birds back to the area; planting wilderness corridors between bushland patches, which allow wildlife movement and prevent inbreeding; a vast network of nest boxes to house rare mammals like the squirrel glider and the brush-tailed phascogale. The program’s eponymous bird has been saved from declining numbers, with wild populations increasing each year.
The project has always relied on the donations and cooperation of landowners: “We started out by cold calling, trying to find and fence the remnant box-ironbark forest around the district. That was our goal at the start, just to protect these rare, incredibly important fragments.” In Australia’s famously harsh climate, the idea of giving up any agricultural land was a hard sell.
“We saw pretty early on that the program needed to be a part of people’s farms that made sense to them... Everything I was bringing to landowners, I researched and tested beforehand. There was heavy prior investigation. I had to be sure of what I was saying – people can spot hoodwinkery a mile off, they know if you’re trying to put one over on them.”
Things have changed in two decades, however. A combined space of 1540 hectares of revegetated farmland is showing results: “Now, people are approaching us and asking how they can help. Recently we’ve been getting the choice of what land will be most beneficial for each year. But I still make cold calls, absolutely. There are always areas of land that would help the program, and sometimes people aren’t aware of how important they can be.”
This August, for instance, close cooperation with the owners of an ideal property has allowed the landmark creation of a seed orchard – a carefully choreographed planting that mingles the genes of isolated populations for the first time in decades. Robust and healthy vegetation will be bred from local sources, functioning as a new patch of forest while also providing seedlings for future locations. It’s a vital measure to stave off the effects of inbreeding, which has become so severe in some places that plants are incapable of reproducing.
The RHP team have always had another goal in mind: to work with the community rather than just amongst them. One of the keystone decisions was to bring schoolchildren from Benalla, Wangaratta and the nearby districts to help with planting. For Ray, involving schools was a crucial component of the project’s early design. The goal was to encourage members of the community to begin thinking about their land as early as possible, and to begin taking ownership: “We’ve included school groups from the first year of the project. Year One. There wasn’t much point otherwise – this needs to be bigger than any of us who are on the inside.
There’s a missing age group in volunteering, and it’s just after people are leaving high school. It isn’t always easy being green in a country town - like anyone of that age they’re getting on with other aspects of their life. But the students who help us do remember. Sometimes men and women will see me in the street and say, ‘Ray! You took us planting in high school, remember us? That was a great day!’, referring to a time 10 years ago or more. And then they come back once they’ve got the time.”
That idea of patient nurturing is central to Ray’s operation: “There’s no point in pushing, or aggressive arguing. One thing we’ve found over the years is that people are ready when they’re ready – they need to decide on their own, and there’s nothing we can say to force that. It’s best for people to digest an idea in their own time. That way when they come to us they’ve chosen to, and it creates longevity and faith in the project.
In any year, we’ll have around 20 schools involved. They need to see the whole program – propagation and planting, and seed collection too. We’ve seen volunteers from school groups coming back on the open weekends. Students from Northcote came to us on a school camp, and later in the spring we had some come back and bring their parents along.”
Of course, there’s no chance to rest on their well-deserved laurels. Monitoring and understanding the benefits of the revegetation is crucial in shaping the future direction of the project. With ever-present restrictions on time, labour and funding, selecting actions with the most benefit is an uncertain business.
“There have been some studies published about the vegetation establishment success rates, and some trapping studies looking at the insects and reptiles using the sites. But they were quite early in the program – sites are less weedy now, with changing bird populations. One of our rarest birds, the grey-crowned babbler, has increased from 50 to 120 birds over the past decade. It’d be great to know more about how they’re using the space.
And our nest boxes – we’ve got years of data collected by volunteers about box occupation. Squirrel gliders and phascogales move through our corridors just four or five years after planting. Our data from this year hasn’t been compiled yet, because we’ve been so busy with growing and planting and collecting. We need to look at how we’re going if we want to be as smart as possible next year.” The next year, next season, is always under scrutiny.
That’s not to say that the project will expand indefinitely: “I think it’s best for us to stick to our patch, and make it the best we can. But you can’t just think about one property or one district. The land doesn’t work like that. A farmer can invest thousands in restoring and maintaining his creek, but unless his neighbour upstream is doing the same, then it doesn’t count for much. We try to get conversations across fences. Landcare groups are starting to band together, to raise bigger voices – ideally we’ll be able to work alongside other groups who are improving their own land, and join at the seams.”
It’s a fair point. While the Regent Honeyeater Project has given us a stalwart example of community achievement, we mustn’t settle into the idea that a few others will do the work. The chance to make a change is open, for anyone who wants to step forward.
If you’re interested in further information, you can visit the Regent Honeyeater website or contact Ray Thomas directly: firstname.lastname@example.org
Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development