Community

A Fiery Season

This is a guest piece by Bruna Costa.

Autumn in Melbourne, the season to rug up, stroll across damp grasslands and wade through brilliantly tinted leaves and breathe in the cool, crisp air. It’s a time to sit by a wood fire and watch flames curl around glowing logs. And it’s the season when we ogle our neighbours’ persimmons ripening on their fiery tree, or their pomegranates, bursting with juicy, red seeds. 

It’s also the time when we wait for that phone call or text message.

‘The chestnuts are ready.’

The date is set for when we head for the hills equipped with gum boots, leather garden gloves, and loads of buckets and bags. Chestnut day encompasses all the magic that is autumn in the hills of eastern Victoria.

For one group of harvesters, the destination is Gembrook where morning fog, like a veil, obscures the rising sun and becomes trapped in the valleys, its whiteness a contrast to the display of autumnal colours on deciduous trees.

Pickers bring plates, fill the kitchen table with delicious home cooked foods, cheeses and wines, not to mention the sumptuous desserts waiting to be devoured. But before anyone tucks in, they must first pick chestnuts.

Young children, teenagers, parents and grandparents parade down the steep hill to where the chestnut trees line the paddock.

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Trees bearing the best flavoured chestnuts are where to begin.

There are as many burrs on the ground as those clinging to tree branches, but it’s the fallen ones that bear ripened nuts ready for the picking. Burrs split open revealing three chestnuts snuggling within the spikes; in some instances, the nuts spill out onto the ground. Children are encouraged to collect the ripe nuts scattered loosely amongst the leaf litter.

The procedure for collecting chestnuts is to split the outer shell open by running your boot over the prickly burrs. Alternatively, a good pair of garden gloves will help to pull the casing apart to reveal its contents. The best of the three nuts are chosen, and sometimes, all three nuts are worth collecting.   

The umbrella-like shape of the trees, with limbs hanging low, touching the ground, encompasses family, friends and newcomers that gather beneath their limbs. The closeness inspires light-hearted conversation. Voices rise up through the branches and drift uphill aschestnuts are rhythmically tossed into receptacles. Everyone is encouraged to pocket the largest chestnut for a weigh-in at the end of the harvest.    

After a morning of foraging, the workers arch and stretch their stiffened backs before trudging back up the steep hillside towards the homestead. The help of a small tractor to transport the laden bags and buckets up to the shed is welcoming.

Everyone shares a hearty lunch, and then they gather for the weigh-in. A small set of brass scales is placed on the table on the decking, its weighing plates each barely big enough to carry one large chestnut. Excitement fills the air as everyone jostles for a position around the table. Children are first to test their prized chestnut, while the adults wait their turn. The bearers of the largest fruits receive a packet of lollies and their names are written on a trophy. All good fun.

Then it’s time to test the fruits of the day’s labour. An old frying pan with holes poked through its base is filled with chestnuts, their brown skins already split with a sharp knife. The frypan is placed on the open fire and the chestnuts are left to cook until the skins are blackened and the insides are soft and aromatic. They are wrapped in an old towel and allowed to sweat for a while. Everyone digs in, peeling back the two layers of skin to reveal warm, softened flesh.

In late afternoon, the panorama that is Gembrook is a view worthy of the drive. The sun’s rays penetrate amassing clouds and the colours in the sky compliment the fiery red maple leaves. It marks the end of a rewarding day.

The pickings are distributed and everyone leaves with quantities of chestnuts for themselves and to be shared with friends back home where they make a suitable exchange for the neighbours’ ripening persimmons and splitting pomegranates.


Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group. She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

Crowdfunding for Conservation

Crowdfunding – whereby a large amount of money is raised by the proportionally smaller donations of dozens, hundreds or thousands of contributors – has taken flight over the past few years as a means for individuals and organisations to raise funds for their passion projects. In large part, it is associated with the arts: raising money for amateur theatre groups, for student films, for independent artists’ exhibitions, for the self-publishing of books. There isn’t much you can’t crowdfund, and the support of a combination of friends, family and interested strangers has successfully funded projects as varied as collecting meteorites from the Nullarbor or paying the vet bills of two dogs who had a brush with a porcupine.

As the practice has evolved, particularly in Australia, more and more groups have come to recognise the potential of crowdfunding to support conservation. In 2014, a group of lobbyists and scientists who have studied the montane ash forests of the Central Highlands of Victoria for more than 30 years, launched a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible to gather public support for the proposed Great Forest National Park: a large protected area for the region which would preserve more than 500, 000 hectares of forest. The highly successful campaign, which raised $71, 965 (significantly exceeding its target of $60, 000), directed funds to community outreach and broader awareness-raising about the park proposal to the Victorian public.

Funds are also being crowdsourced for conservation on the ground. In November, a campaign led by Mt Rothwell Landcare Volunteers entitled “Quoll in the hand, worth 2 in the bush” successfully raised more than $11, 000 for a captive breeding program for Eastern Quolls: an iconic species that is extinct in the wild on the Australian mainland. Another campaign, “Where do Wedgies Dare?”, run by environmental scientist Simon Cherriman, has raised more than $20, 000 to monitor a pair of wedge-tailed Eagles by GPS tracking, with the aim of learning more about the raptors’ biology.

This growing propensity to turn to the general public for funding could be seen as an indicator that funding from traditional sources is increasingly less available. However, an initiative by DELWP (the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) in Victoria demonstrates that the government is aware of the medium’s potential. The Threatened Species Collection, currently running on Pozible, is a group of five campaigns aimed at protecting some of Victoria’s most vulnerable species. Each campaign in the collection that successfully reaches its target will receive dollar-for-dollar matched funding from DELWP. White-bellied sea-eagles and brush-tailed phascogales are among the species intended to receive support from the campaigns, run by a collection of community landcare and conservation groups. This and similar projects would allow the government to invest in those issues deemed most important by the Australian public itself.

That crowdfunding for conservation is enjoying such success in Australia indicates just how much the general public cares for the natural world. The community is already heavily involved in conservation on their own land and in the lands that surround them, and is deeply invested in the future of the country and its species. Crowdfunding for conservation projects is a natural extension of an extant love for the Australian landscape, and the inclination of its people to take conservation into their own hands.

Cover image by Robert Geary Photo and is used with permission.


Alex Mullarky

Alex Mullarky is a freelance journalist and works part-time in threatened species conservation. Her other passion is ex-racehorse rehabilitation and she is currently completing her Masters.

You can find her on Twitter at @ajmullarky

Changing Landscapes: Following the Regent Honeyeater Project

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.

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The beautiful regent honeyeater.

The beautiful regent honeyeater.

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.”

Our habitat corridors reduce erosion, create windbreaks, and maintain water quality in streams – practical outcomes that mean everybody wins.

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.

On the left were seeds collected from a parent group of 50 plants. On the right, from a parent group of 10. They were planted at the same time. Photo: Paul Jones

On the left were seeds collected from a parent group of 50 plants. On the right, from a parent group of 10. They were planted at the same time. Photo: Paul Jones

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.”

Squirrel gliders use the nest boxes set up by the Regent Honeyeater Project team. Image curtesy of the Regent Honeyeater Project. 

Squirrel gliders use the nest boxes set up by the Regent Honeyeater Project team.
Image curtesy of the Regent Honeyeater Project. 

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.

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If you’re interested in further information, you can visit the Regent Honeyeater website or contact Ray Thomas directly: ray@regenthoneyeater.org.au


PAUL JONES

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

Melbourne's Green Laneways: Back Creek Reserve & the Importance of Urban Green Spaces

Just how important are green spaces in urban environments? What animals use these spaces? How valuable are these spaces to people? With increasing urbanisation occurring across Australia and indeed the world, it is becoming more and more important to answer these questions so that these small tastes of nature can remain as cities expand.

The team at Wild Melbourne has pondered these questions for some time, so we set out to find the answer. Using Back Creek Reserve in Camberwell as a case study, we set out to find just how important urban green spaces are to maintaining biodiversity, as well as keeping people in touch with nature.  To do this, we spent a couple of weekends at the reserve documenting every species of animal we saw or heard, as well as chatting to passers-by to find out their feelings towards the space. Read on to see what we found: 

Mammals
Chances are, if you live in a remotely leafy suburb of Melbourne, you’re likely to be familiar with two species of marsupial: the common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) and the common ringtail possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus). Green spaces such as Back Creek are havens for possums, as they provide plenty of cover from predators such as powerful owls, and food resources such as flowering native plants.

Common RIngTail possums are found throughout Melbourne's Green spaces (Photo: Emma Walsh)

Common RIngTail possums are found throughout Melbourne's Green spaces (Photo: Emma Walsh)

Whilst Melbournians are quite familiar with a few of the mammals that call our city home, there are also a few that fly under the radar, so to speak. These are the winged variety of mammal: flying foxes and microbats. Back Creek appears to be a stopover for grey-headed flying foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) on their evening journey, whilst the space appears to be home to at least one microbat: the white-striped freetail bat (Tadara australis). This tiny bat is one of the only microbat species whose ecolocation is audible to humans, and can be heard in most parks around Melbourne as they search for food.  

The kookaburra (Photo: Cathy CavAllo)

The kookaburra (Photo: Cathy CavAllo)

Birds
The birdlife spotted along Back Creek was quite diverse. The 22 species recorded fell into five ecologically distinct groups. Amongst the carnivores were the grey butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) and the laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae). These two species often feed on insects, but also feed on small lizards and other vertebrates. To our surprise, a collared sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus) was also spotted. This species feeds mainly on small birds, which shelter in green spaces such as Back Creek. The nocturnal tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) were also observed. 

Several insectivorous passerine species were recorded, including brown thornbills (Acanthiza pusilla), willy wagtails (Rhipidura leucophrys), grey fantails (Rhipidura abiscapa), silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) and white-browed scrubwrens (Sericornis frontalis). These species are attracted by the food sources provided by urban parks, and require shrubs and bushes for shelter in order to hide from predators.

Several species important for pollen dispersal were recorded, including both parrots and honeyeaters. Ecologically-important species such as rainbow lorikeets (Trichyglossis haematodus) and galahs (Cacatua roseicapilla) were seen frequently. Honeyeaters observed included eastern spinebills (Acanthorhychus tenuirostris), red wattlebirds (Anthchaera carunculata) and noisy miners (Manorina melanocephala). These species feed on the nectar produced by flowers, and in doing so help to disperse pollen and therefore influence the reproduction of various plant species.

Other species observed include the Pacific black duck, and omnivorous corvids such as the Australian magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen), the little raven (Curvus mellori) and the pied currawong (Strepera graculina). Several invasive species, such as spotted turtledoves (Streptopelia chinensis), Indian mynas (Acridotheres tristis), common starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and common blackbirds (Turdus merula) were also observed.

The noisy Minor is a common sight in many parks and green spaces (Photo: Emma Walsh)

The noisy Minor is a common sight in many parks and green spaces (Photo: Emma Walsh)

Amphibians
We also recorded two species of frog calling at various times: the common brown tree frog (Litora ewingi) and the pobblebonk frog (Limnodynastes dumerilii). Green spaces with running water such as Back Creek Reserve can provide a rare opportunity for frogs to persist in urban areas. Frogs are also fantastic indicators of water health, which suggests that Back Creek must be in good condition to support the observed frog community.

The People
The benefits of nature extend beyond aesthetics and the conservation of wildlife. Numerous studies have shown that interaction with nature can vastly improve mental and physical health. Living next to green space has been shown to lower stress and anxiety, and even improve concentration in children. But can we experience this same effect in what appears to be just a small sliver of wilderness in the heart of suburban Melbourne? The overall consensus of up to 76 people interviewed along the Back Creek trail was that the area offered solace, was quite relaxing and provided a much-welcomed escape from the urban environment and their daily stressors.

The continued success of Back Creek is also a shining example of community involvement. The restoration and maintenance of the area is a source of pride for locals; many have contributed to the wellbeing of the environment, the fruits of their labour clearly extending to the happiness of the broader community. Back Creek’s ability to provide an escape amidst the hustle-and-bustle and pressures of modern life is testament to the power of just one of Melbourne's many 'green laneways'.

Overall, we recorded 28 species of fauna across just two weekends of surveys at one urban green space in the middle of Melbourne. This, along with the feedback from people using the park, is a strong indicator of just how important green spaces can be for both biodiversity and our own wellbeing. It is therefore critically important that we look after our green spaces, as they are a vital part of a healthy community - for both humans and other animals alike.