Heading south out of Melbourne, the search for wild spaces is quicker and easier than you might think. Two turns off the Peninsula Link freeway (built to help shuttle increasing numbers of residents and visitors to Mornington or Rosebud) and the suburban sprawl breaks on the edge of a unique remnant of natural bushland.
The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve is 214 hectares of dappled stringybark woodland, flower-spotted heaths, and wetlands that reappear every spring, announced by calling frogs. From the long central break, paths curve and twist among soft hills and sand dunes left behind by the changing levels of ancient seas. At the peak of the greatest dune, surrounded by squat Epacris and heath wattle, the view stretches clear to the Dandenong Ranges in one direction and Arthur’s Seat in the other. Descending through the taller stands of Eucalyptus and Banksia interrupts a dizzying whirl of wrens, thrushes and cuckoos. Patient strolling is rewarded by the sight of shuffling echidnas, while the bounding black wallabies make an unusual hazard for bike riders.
The quality and variety of wildlife in this small space is staggering. At least 50 orchid species have been found within the reserve, including some rare and threatened examples like the purple diuris. The critically endangered New Holland mouse, and the southern emu-wren have both been spotted. The southern brown bandicoot has habitat here that is repeated almost nowhere else.
These assemblages would be wonderful enough on their own, but take on a particular significance in this location. The Langwarrin Flora and Fauna Reserve was only made a protected space in 1985; from almost 100 years earlier, the land had been in military hands, belonging to the Victorian Government in the late 19th Century and the Commonwealth following Federation. During this tenure, land was cleared for parade grounds and encampments, for training, and for the grazing of local livestock. In one tense period during World War I, German prisoners of war were interned on the site. A little later, as blithely related by a sign near the reserve’s carpark, a hospital was constructed to treat returning soldiers suffering venereal disease.
Prior to the establishment of the military reserve, it is likely that the area was cleared for agriculture along with the majority of the Mornington Peninsula. Pasture and cropland were crucial in the expansion of Melbourne, both for trade export and to support the booming population that arrived with the gold rush. However, poor soils and inconvenient landscapes meant that some of the bushland was left uncleared – in the Langwarrin district this left behind reservoirs of seed and habitat that have been lost elsewhere, along with evidence of the First Australian Boonerwrung people’s cyclic passage as they tracked seasonal food sources. Nowadays, the reserve is used by residents for exercise, recreation, horse riding, and nature study.
It is a rarity to find a space like the reserve, as well as its larger neighbour the Pines Flora and Fauna Reserve, in an area that has consistently seen a dramatically increasing residential community. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, the outer suburbs of Melbourne have experienced some of the fastest population growth in Australia. New housing estates and the rezoning of agricultural land saw building booms in the Frankston area of up to 30% expansion between 2001 and 2011. There is a more complete development of land, an increase in population density, and pressure on roads and other infrastructure.
It is to be expected that all this impacts negatively on those remaining islands of native bushland. Management plans for the reserves of the area are constantly looking to the dangers of feral animals, of foxes and rabbits, and of the occasional presence of free-roaming housepets. There is also a cost that comes with allowing human access to each space, with risks such as erosion exacerbated by cyclists and horse-riders to the point of path closures during wet weather. A further danger is the spreading of invasive plants from nearby gardens: Pittosporum undulatum has a well-deserved reputation for choking out woodland understories, while coastal tea-trees alter fire regimes in uncertain ways. Pathogens like the cinnamon fungus, Phytophthora cinnamomi, are spread on the soles of walkers’ shoes and cause indiscriminate damage to vegetation.
Inevitably, though, people will keep coming into these spaces – and they have a right to. Using green spaces for walking, relaxing, or exercising has been shown to improve mental health and a sense of connection with the landscape. The reality is that without that tangible value, it is difficult to explain the necessity of preserving these beautiful, complex and fragile ecosystems.
While of course no one likes to brag, it is mentioned quite often that Melbourne is the world’s most liveable city. The Economist Intelligence Unit has ranked our city first among 140 locations each year since 2011, and other polls put us in similarly high positions. Our parks and gardens do a lot to contribute to our own mental wellbeing, and shape our lifestyles for the better. These islands of natural bushland are equally beneficial, with the added bonus of keeping Australia’s native plants and animals on the ground and in our perception.
These parks are kept for all of us, not just the conservationists who catalogue their secrets. Make the time. Look around you. Seek out a new wilderness to explore.
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