Not As We Know It: Williamstown to Werribee

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth

When I was a little kid, at least once a month I’d convince my parents to take me to Williamstown. I didn’t want to go for the beach, or the ice-cream, and definitely not the coffee – I wanted to go because there was a shop there that sold stone fairies and pretty rocks, and when I was six, I thought that was pretty cool. I’m in my twenties now, and amazingly, despite the surge of eclectic Melbourne designers, that fairy shop is still there. I still think it’s pretty cool, though I have to admit the allure of the beach and the ice-cream is what tempts me to Williamstown now. 

Before Williamstown began to be developed by European colonisers in the 1830s, open grassy woodland occupied much of the area, stretching from the centre of the area up through to Laverton. The area was rich in grasses and herbs, with species such as kangaroo grass, wattle mat-rush, weeping grass and kidney weed making up most of the ground cover. While there was the occasional Gippsland or river red-gum that popped up through the grasses, like in most of Victoria, these areas were dominated by grasses and herbs. While we now have the Princes Highway sweeping across Melbourne, 200 years ago grasslands were what swept through Victoria, over areas such as Williamstown, Altona Gate, Laverton North, and Derrimut. These grasslands contained a mountain of diversity of plants, insects, and animals – a diversity that is now drastically different, due to the huge development these areas have seen in recent history. 

Williamstown Beach, past and present?  Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

Williamstown Beach, past and present?  Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

There are some wonderful walks around Williamstown, with the Williamstown Beach to Altona Foreshore Trail being one of my favourites. Walking along the beach with the wind in your hair and the occasional shrubs and grasses, it can feel quite wild – especially if you arrive early enough, and you’re lucky enough to catch a water rat scuttling along the trail. It is difficult to imagine that around Victoria Street and up through the coast to Werribee, coastal saltmarsh once surrounded the ocean in a wide band. Succulent herbs, shrubs, rushes and sedges made themselves home along the tidal flats, species such as creeping brookweed, rounded noon-flower, and austral seablite sweeping up along the coast. Around Cherry Creek and extending to Queens Street in Altona Meadows, there was a small band of scrub that differed from the surrounding saltmarsh. Here, taller species were more common, with Moonah species, coast wirilda, and coastal tea-tree growing in the area, up to eight metres tall. Surrounding them were low-lying herbs tussocks such as bristly wallaby grass and coast blown grass that swept through the area, well- adapted to the soils.

Kororoit Creek, now a great location for walks or runs, was once full of aquatic, low-lying plants such as red water-milfoil, tiny duckweed, and water ribbons. Along the creek line there were occasional eucalypts scattered amongst the tussock grasses and herbs, extending up through Laverton North and past Sunshine West. Featherbrook Drive Wetland, another great location for bird-watching and walking, was a fantastic pocket of diversity, with sedgy wetland found in the area. Fine twig-sedge, wetland wallaby grass, and soft twig-rush found homes in the wetlands, which would have been ideal habitats for an assortment of native ducks.

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River meets the bay near Werribee South, and goes straight through the heart of Werribee. Two hundred years ago, wwamp gum, narrow-leaf peppermint and river red-gum would have been relatively frequent along its banks, towering up to 20 metres in height. Large sedges and tussock grasses such as kangaroo grass, tall rush, and the adorably-named bidgee-widgee would have made up much of the ground cover and understory along the river. Of course, this is dramatically different to modern times, as the river travels up through the extensive development that now exists there. While the river has seen some hard times, it has certainly added character to the area, with Werribee Mansion and Werribee Open Range zoo sharing their borders with the winding waters. Luckily, there’s now a lot of effort being made to improve its health, with hopes that doing so will entice back some of our native species.

About five years ago, I went on a rowing tour of the Werribee River. While I recommend one actually practices rowing beforehand, I truly enjoyed it. Our guide excitedly told us how the health of the river had improved monumentally, and was barely comparable to what it had been 10 years ago. He was adamant that one early morning a few months ago, he had been sitting on the banks of the river, and had actually seen platypus swimming together, doing their dance in the waters between reeds.

While I’m not absolutely convinced, I can’t help but be excited when I remember his face as he told the story. ‘Just imagine it!’ he’d said, ‘Wild platypus - In Melbourne!’

It’s certainly difficult, but not unachievable. Let’s hope we can make it happen. 

Cover image by Australian National Botanic Gardens

Not as we know it: A precolonial Port Phillip Bay

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth. 

The city of Port Phillip is an area that feels as though it’s made for warm and lazy summer nights, the perfect place to meander through tree-lined streets and markets to watch the sun set over the bay. Places like South Melbourne Market, St Kilda Esplanade, and Albert Park Lake are iconic pieces of Melbourne’s history. It is difficult to imagine these places as they originally were – a mix of rare and wild landscapes, thriving with life and biodiversity.  

Let’s start in Port Melbourne - a hub of cruise ships and coffee shops. Walking down Bay Street now, the path is lined with trendy cafés and apartments. Two hundred years ago, most of this area was overgrown with dense shrubbery, with species such as common heath and broom spurge dominating the area with gnarled branches and bright flowers. The taller trees were few and far between, a mix of species such as rough-barked manna gum and saw banksia sprawled across the landscape. Closer to the coast, the nutrient-poor soil won out, and the trees are replaced with thick shrublands full of coast wattle, seaberry saltbrush, and spear grasses. These reached down as far as they could into the sand dunes. Beaconsfield Parade and the Bay Trail, areas now busy with cars, skaters and sun-bathers, were once a mess of sharp, prickly shrub and heath.

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like?  Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Ever wonder what Port Melbourne might once have looked like? Images: Wikipedia & Parks Victoria

Albert and Middle Parks are similarly transformed, streets now lined with old Victorian architecture and large, non-native trees. When you come across Albert Park Lake, lush grass sweeps the ground, perfect to picnic on. Pre-colonisation, the coastal regions of these areas were similar to the environment seen in Port Melbourne, but at Richardson Street, the dense shrubbery lessened. Small plant species such as small poranthera, ivy-leaf violet, and weeping grass were scattered across the exposed ground. In spring and summer, the flowers and grasses popped in bright reds, pinks, whites and yellows. In the centre of Middle Park, extending from Boyd Street to West Beach Road, was a band of brackish wetland, which also surrounded what we now know as the Albert Park Lake.  These areas were poorly drained, full of salty soils that prevented taller plants from growing. Low-lying herbs and grasses such as the common reed, streaked arrowgrass and creeping monkey flower poked through the parts of the ground that were slightly more habitable than the rest.

In South Melbourne, starting along what we now call Nelson Road, the soil became more fertile, and grassy woodland took hold. Here, trees, shrubs, herbs, grasses and ferns were found in almost equal prevalence, each of the forest layers clearly represented by species such as common Heath, honey-pots, kidney-weed, and common apple-berry. Drooping sheoaks and species of eucalyptus emerged sporadically from the landscape. This place was bustling with a diversity of plant life in intense competition for resources. It was a different sort of intensity when compared to the bustling South Melbourne Market of today, but for the plants that lived here, it would have been a constant struggle for access to nutrients and sun.

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.   Image: http://ianluntecology.com/

The Port Melbourne landscape would once have featured the beautiful rough-barked manna gum.  Image: http://ianluntecology.com/

St Kilda, a favourite evening haunt of Melbourne, has become a hub of trams, restaurants and bars. Two hundred years ago, we would see grassy woodlands stretching out across the majority of the area. Acland Street, full of quirky stores and cafés, would have been an undulating plain of trees and grasses. Gippsland red gum and river red gum were common, with the dense shrubbery surrounding the coastline thinning out into tufted grasses such as kangaroo grass and common bog-sedge. Between St Kilda and Elwood, there was a band of sedgy, swampy woodland, dominated by herbs and grasses that could withstand occasional waterlogging. What we now call Marine Parade was surrounded by a thick scrub of low trees, such as woolly tea-tree and swamp paperbark, the shrubs so thick the ground rarely saw light.

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after.  Images:  Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

A view of Acland Street, St Kilda - before and after. Images: Rachel Carbonell & Corporate Real Estate

Walking along the Bay Trail now, it is hard to imagine that once upon a time, sightings of wallabies, wombats, and native mice and possums wouldn’t have been uncommon. Birds of all shapes and sizes, from rosellas to fairy-wrens to New Holland honeyeaters, would have been seen flitting around the area. Now, the most common animals that dominate the City of Port Phillip are cats and dogs.

It seems, at a glance that our human-made environment has pushed out all that once lived here – but walking along the trail and looking up into the palm trees, it’s possible to make out nesting rosellas and roosting parrots. If you look out into the water surrounding Princes Pier, native water rats can be found swimming through the shallows. Native bushland is being restored along the coast, to protect our beaches from erosion.

It is not as it once was, but parts of once-wild Melbourne can still be found, if you know where to look.

Life of the City: A Short History of the Yarra River

Before dawn, under a soft scattering of clouds, the Yarra River is still and silent. Most mornings the sight goes unappreciated by the majority of Melburnians – shared only by joggers, rowers and the early commuters who pass along the banks. The sky upriver is slow to warm, splashing orange and gold across the tallest city buildings until the day opens with a flash.

Sunrise over the Yarra River.  Image: Paul Jones

Sunrise over the Yarra River. Image: Paul Jones

The banks of the Yarra are a major drawcard for residents and tourists alike. From the 1980s, extensive cleaning, replanting and developing have created a new urban precinct with admirably natural features. During the rest of the 20th Century, the river was notorious for the detritus of industry and the pollution of suburban runoff. Now, fresh beds of wetland plants line the river’s edge; swans, egrets and cormorants call and fly from the nearby refuges of Herring Island and the Botanic Gardens; rubbish traps collect the worst of the upstream spillage.

The thing is, these natural features aren’t very natural at all. The shaping of the Yarra – widening, straightening, grading – has led to a much more stable river course than what was originally present. Water from storms is filtered and driven into the bay along bluestone-lined banks. Upriver, dams and weirs keep the catchment rains and spring snowmelt in check as they tumble out of the mountains above the Yarra Valley. Nowadays, it takes the heaviest downpours to show unsuspecting people just how the landscape originally functioned.

Journalist Neville Bowler's iconic photo of the Elizabeth Street flood.   Image: Neville Bowler

Journalist Neville Bowler's iconic photo of the Elizabeth Street flood. Image: Neville Bowler

A winter flooding in 2014 saw the river leave its banks behind and inundate waterfront businesses, saturating social media with images and stories. Cultural memory recalled a similar event, when the tributary creek sealed beneath Elizabeth Street spectacularly resurfaced in 1972 after heavy rains – perhaps the first time that many were given cause to consider the reason for the street’s low-lying topography.

Before European alteration, however, these events would not have been isolated quirks. The floodplain of the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers is home to an ecosystem that thrived on annual deluges, with the iconic river redgums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) requiring spring floods to stay healthy. Each year, thawing snowfields would deliver a torrent of water through the Yarra Valley (its own floodplain now the location of fertile vineyards) down to Port Phillip Bay, recharging the soil and enriching those extensive wetlands of which Albert Park Lake is one final remnant. There is also evidence from other Australian sites that this cycle can prevent salinity from building up in the soil, having a direct impact on which plants could grow in the area and which animals could reside.

Floodplains rely on variability to maintain a patchwork of ecosystems, both temporally and spatially. Australia’s climate creates an especially changeable environment, with low rainfall leaving many parts of the region dry through the majority of the year. Their occasional submersion led to an eruption of germinating seeds and rapid new growth. Closer to the river, the more stable water supply allowed softer plants to grow and encouraged amphibians and birds. In contrast, the unchanging conditions of modern engineering favour some groups while stressing others, and can eventually lead to a loss of biodiversity.

Apart from the regulation of flow, other changes have affected the vegetation along the riverbanks as well. The slow-flowing surface of the river is undercut by a wedge of heavy salt water from Port Phillip, creating a saline gradient that runs well upriver. Unexpectedly, this common estuary pattern has only made a relatively recent appearance in the Yarra’s dynamic. It’s been that way since the 1880s, when a natural ford damming the Yarra downstream of Queen Street was blasted away to build the bridge that still stands.

Historically, the river was completely bifurcated by this rock formation, to the great advantage of the Wurundjeri tribe who took care of the land. Freshwater from upriver was retained en masse, ensuring a secure drinking supply that was kept separate from the saltwater of the bay. Eels and other fish were abundant in the region, along with birds arriving for the same purpose. The ford, and the waterfall it created, would also become a pivotal component in the decision of European settlers to start building; the deep, wide basin drummed into the riverbed below the falls was ideal to be used as a turning circle for cargo ships visiting the new city.

A downriver view of the original Yarra course, with the rock wall visible in the centre.   Image: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au

A downriver view of the original Yarra course, with the rock wall visible in the centre. Image: http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au

Changing the water from fresh to brackish meant that vegetation along the banks needed to cope with much higher amounts of salt, leading to community restructuring and a general reduction in quality. But while the upstream basin was significantly changed by saltwater mixing, it arguably couldn’t have been made much worse. Industries springing up in 19th Century Abbotsford and Collingwood, along with the suburbs encroaching along both banks, meant that an incredibly high level of sewage and commercial waste travelled directly into the river. At this point, the river was still being used as drinking water for the city, leading to chronic outbreaks of waterborne diseases. Continuous clean-up and revitalisation campaigns through the last century have improved matters, but the river still contains high levels of bacteria and heavy metals.

The unavoidable fact is that, like most metropolitan rivers in the 21st Century, the Yarra is at the mercy of the community around it. But it can also influence that community – as something so very visible in Melbourne, the river is uniquely positioned to remind us that our actions aren’t separate from the world around us. The new plantings along the riverbanks remind us that we can restore habitat if we try; the rubbish traps show us that waste removal doesn’t need to be complicated to work (as well as remind us to be more careful); the calling birds reward us by returning to the spaces we’ve made for them. As long as the river keeps flowing, it can be changed – one way or another.


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.

Banner image courtesy of Paul Jones. 

The Extinction Of The Thylacine: A Cautionary Account

The thylacine sounds like something out of a children’s book: it was an animal with the body of a dog, a kangaroo’s tail, a pouch, and stripes from its shoulders to its tail. It is said to have had an awkward gait and was rarely seen to move quickly, yet it was a proficient carnivore, preying upon a variety of marsupials under the cover of darkness. Thylacinus cynocephalus (dog-headed pouch-dog), also known by its more common name the Tasmanian tiger, was once an apex predator throughout mainland Australia, Tasmania and New Guinea.

This unusual creature is an excellent example of convergent evolution, which occurs when two unrelated species are put under similar evolutionary pressures and exist in a similar ecological role, producing two species that possess similar features. In other words, similar problems produce similar solutions. Although the thylacine superficially resembled members of the family Canidae (such as wolves and dingoes) with its sharp teeth, raised heels, muscular jaws and dog-like body form, its marsupial pouch, kangaroo-like tail and relatively short legs point towards the fact that this species is only distantly related to its canine doppelgangers. It was the only extant member of the family Thylacinidae, its closest relatives being the Tasmanian devil and the numbat.

One of the few photographs taken of the last thylacine, a resident of Hobart Zoo.  Photo courtesy of Australian Museum.

One of the few photographs taken of the last thylacine, a resident of Hobart Zoo. Photo courtesy of Australian Museum.

The modern thylacine evolved around four million years ago, and although it had previously been found throughout continental Australia, it became extinct on the mainland at least two thousand years ago. The mainland extinction was possibly due to competition with dingoes. However, this is arguably related to the two species’ opposing lifestyles: dingoes typically hunt during the day, whilst thylacines were mostly nocturnal.

The thylacine's last stronghold was the island of Tasmania, but the arrival of Europeans to Tasmania in 1803 spelled the beginning of the end for the marsupial carnivore. When sheep were introduced to the island in 1824, the thylacine began to gain notoriety among farmers as the culprit responsible for attacks on livestock. While Tasmanian tigers would have had some effect on the growing population of sheep on the island, their impact was greatly exaggerated. One infamous photo of a Tasmanian tiger with a chicken in its mouth is now thought to have been staged, with the photographer likely to have created the scene by placing a dead chicken in the mouth of a taxidermied thylacine. Due to the hype surrounding its apparent effect on livestock, a bounty was placed on the thylacine, with the Tasmanian government paying one pound per head. Between 1888 and 1909, over 2184 bounties were paid out to farmers and hunters alike.

The infamous image of a thylacine with a chicken in its mouth - most likely staged.  Photo courtesy of Australian Geographic.

The infamous image of a thylacine with a chicken in its mouth - most likely staged. Photo courtesy of Australian Geographic.

By this time, hunting had taken its toll on the species. Thylacine sightings became infrequent, and zoos around the world sought after the strange animal. Still, the extermination undertaken by farmers and hunters continued. The last known wild thylacine was shot by farmer Wilf Batty in 1930, and then finally, the last captive thylacine died in Hobart Zoo on the 7th of September, 1936. Only then, once the last known Tasmanian tiger had perished, was it placed on the threatened species list. Ultimately, having not been seen in the wild for fifty years, the thylacine was declared extinct in 1986. In addition to the hunting pressure brought about by humans, the demise of the thylacine has been attributed to habitat loss, competition with dingoes and introduced wild dogs, and the concurrent demise of its prey species.

The extinction of this mysterious marsupial is commemorated every year on Threatened Species Day, which falls on the 7th of September: the day that the last known Tasmanian tiger died. Now more than ever is the loss of the thylacine relevant to the struggles we face in trying to combat the extinction of our native animals, and should serve as a reminder not to take our unique wildlife for granted. Victoria is home to an array of species that not only fascinate and inspire, but also play an integral role in their respective ecosystems. Personally, I would have treasured a sighting of a Tasmanian tiger in its natural environment, but sadly this is something that I and countless others will never experience. We need to rally behind our native wildlife today so that as we grow old, we will not look back and wish we had done more.

Australia has the worst mammalian extinction rate of any country in the world, having lost 29 species over the past two centuries. I wonder, what is in store for the next 200 years?

A combination of all known video footage of the thylacine. Courtesy of The Thylacine Museum.

Banner image courtesy of Joseph Gleeson (painter)