Just as so many native trees, shrubs, birds and mammals love the sea air, we humans are particularly fond of it too. Unfortunately, this means that if you’re a coastal habitat, you’re almost destined to be disturbed, dug up or built on. When Europeans arrived in Victoria, they were particularly destructive, and from Brighton to Beaumaris, through to Aspendale and Frankston, the native coastal habitat was etched away, replaced with roads, shopping centres, coffee shops, impressive houses, and a particularly pretty bike route along the coast. When I find time to head to the Mornington Peninsula, I always make my way down along the coast, sweeping along the road and taking in the ocean views. While there’s some coastal scrub hanging on along the coastline, it’s only a glimmer of what would have been almost 300 years ago, before Europeans arrived.
Around Brighton and through to Beaumaris, the gentle slopes opened the area up to grassy and herb-rich woodlands. In some areas, the sandy soils became more infertile, with sedges and shrubs such as common heath and prickly tea-tree dominating the area. Where the soil had a few more nutrients, eucalyptus and sheoak species were able to grow, and were subsequently scattered through the landscape. There was a thick understory of species such as tall sundew, weeping grass and cranberry heath surrounding them. While you’re much more likely to see trendy dog breeds like French bulldogs and spaniels bounding through the area now, hundreds of years ago kangaroo and wallaby would have bounded around instead. The red-bellied pademelon, now restricted to Tasmania, would also have been prevalent. Hundreds of years ago, they were free from the predation of foxes and the habitat destruction that later wiped them out on the mainland, and they happily roamed around Port Phillip Bay.
This beautiful grassy woodland habitat would have stretched out through to Bentleigh. Reaching up to ten metres high, species such as Jimmy’s shining peppermint and messmate stringybark would have sprouted up across the landscape. In some places, shrubs grew in thick, dense thickets, with swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree outcompeting most species. In the areas where light could pass through the thick shrubs, moss, lichen and liverwort tried their hand at survival, drinking up the sun and spreading through the understory. This interesting concoction of environments continued through Mordialloc, Parkdale and Braeside.
As well as the thicket of swamp scrub, herb-rich, heathy and grassy woodlands occurred in patches throughout the areas. Some river red gum, swamp gum, and rough-barked manna gum would have been scattered around, but generally speaking, it was the understory of grasses, reeds, and bracken that reigned supreme. The beautifully named stinking pennywort and variable stinkweed made up a good portion of the understory, along with the more endearingly named swamp billy-button and tiny water-milfoll.
From Aspendale through to Seaford, which have some of my favourite ocean views as you drive towards Frankston, the area was wetter than the surrounding habitats and as a result was mainly treeless. While some swamp gum may have popped up here and there, it was shrubs and grasses that loved this environment the most. White purslane and wattle mat-rush were widespread, bringing bursts of white and yellow into the green landscape. These grasses would have continued through to Carrum Downs, with kangaroo grass and reed bent-grass sweeping through the area, until swampy riparian woodland emerged around Lyndhurst, snaking through parts of Carrum Downs, Cranbourne, and Dandenong South. Swamp paperbark, blackwood and woolly tea-tree made up the majority of the habitat. Birds would have loved this environment, with the flowers of the swamp paperbark beautifully fragrant to our native species. Native butterflies such as the imperial hairstreak and tailed emperor love blackwood, as it is a host plant for their larvae until they become adults.
In Frankston, heathy woodland began to emerge again. Eucalypts reached up to ten metres tall, shrubs such as the common heath, prickly tea-tree, and prickly broom-heath dominating the understory. The bright colours of the flowers of common heath, combined with the beautiful soft whites of the prickly species, would have made a wonderful sight. No doubt honeyeaters and native bees could have been heard throughout the area, happily pollinating our shrubs and heath. Moving through to Mount Eliza, we once again meet grassy woodland, with sheoaks and eucalypts emerging and kangaroo grass and wattle mat-rush sprouting up in the understory. Lovely natives such as feathertail gliders, echidnas, and bandicoots would have made themselves at home between the trees and shrubs, gobbling up beetles, ants and other crawling creatures.
On the drive along the coast from Brighton to Frankston, it’s difficult to imagine the diversity that would have once been. It’s particularly difficult in Frankston, which is now almost a city in its own right. A train station, shopping centre, movie theatre, and many delicious fish and chip shops now stand where trees, shrubs, animals, and birds used to be abundant. But nature is resilient in the strangest of ways, and native shorebirds such as pelicans, gulls and cormorants can still be seen on the beaches throughout the bay. Ringtails have managed to survive despite the presence of cats and foxes. Rosellas, cockatoos, and even birds of prey like falcons aren’t unfamiliar sights, soaring above our suburbs, searching for places to roost and feed. In the last few years there has been an increase in planting along the coast of Port Philip, to stabilise our beaches and help to conserve our native species. While too late for our once wide-spread pademelon, it may be enough to help birds and other mammals increase in number. Maybe one day we will even be able to get a glimpse of what it would have been like all those years ago.
Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.
Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.