mallee

Oasis in the Desert

Imagine, just for a second, that you were transported to far-Western Victoria as it was 300 years ago. The sweeping plains and occasional dunes continue on as far as the eye can see, with not a scrap of barbed wire in sight. There are enormous malleefowl mounds everywhere; on every sand dune the scurried traces of bilbies, quolls and bettongs abound. The many stemmed eucalypts explode from the sand in slow motion, hinting at a fire-scorched past.

These days, the Little Desert tells a different story: a story of rabbits, weeds and European farming. But what if that picture first painted could be recreated? What if the Little Desert, or at least sections of it, could hark back to a wilder time?

Medium-sized mammals like this rufous bettong (left) and brush-tailed bettong (right) once roamed the Little Desert.  Image: Emma Walsh

Medium-sized mammals like this rufous bettong (left) and brush-tailed bettong (right) once roamed the Little Desert. Image: Emma Walsh

Conservation Volunteers Australia, in partnership with FAUNA Research Alliance and the Little Desert Nature Lodge, are hoping to do just that using rewilding, an emerging approach to conservation. Essentially, rewilding means reintroducing species where they once were and generally allowing nature to take its course. Putting the wild back into nature, as it were. The practice has grown to prominence recently in the UK, with the proposed reintroduction of lynx in Scotland. In Australia, a rewilded Little Desert may give people the opportunity to experience a Victorian landscape as it once was.

For Ben Holmes, Rewilding Manager at Conservation Volunteers, the opportunity to help rewild the Little Desert is an exciting prospect, especially given the rapid decline of Australia’s biodiversity: “If we can prove that rewilding works and implement it at landscape scales, we might be able to conserve some of Australia’s threatened species, and that’s why I’m on board.”

As Ben explains the Little Desert project in depth, it’s difficult to stop the mind from wandering, marveling at the possibilities that come with rewilding and what it means for conservation: “It’s time to try something new, and the evidence from around the world is starting to show that rewilding might be a key piece of the conservation puzzle.” Indeed, if a conservation program as ambitious as this is successful, it could inspire many others across Australia.

The effects of rewilding aren’t just about conservation, though; they can also permeate throughout society. Ben and Conservation Volunteers also want to use the project to rewild people: “Giving volunteers and the community an opportunity to get involved in a meaningful conservation project and connect with nature and Australia’s unique wildlife is integral to our vision.” Studies from many corners of the world show the benefits of connecting humans with nature.

Conservation projects can often take a little while to get going and while this project is two years in the making so far, Ben and Conservation Volunteers are keen to get things moving quickly: “Our aim is to run our monitoring program this spring and summer to give us an understanding of what species are here and how the ecosystem is functioning.”

The Little Desert Nature Lodge's predator-proof fences will keep the rewilded species safe from invasive predators, as well as provide a controlled environment in which to conduct the management experiments.  Image: Billy Geary

The Little Desert Nature Lodge's predator-proof fences will keep the rewilded species safe from invasive predators, as well as provide a controlled environment in which to conduct the management experiments. Image: Billy Geary

After reaching this milestone – a crucial step in science – it’s time for the main event: “In about 12 months time, we will start reintroducing animals and monitoring their impact on the ecosystem.” The proposed species read like a mammal-watcher’s wishlist, with the western quoll, numbat, brush-tailed bettong and western barred bandicoot all expected to be returning home in the imminent future. All of these species are incredibly charismatic, but also in dire need of conservation support.

To reach this point, however, Conservation Volunteers and FAUNA Research Alliance are already years into the project, says Ben. Part of this is ensuring that this ambitious project is backed by the best science available: “FAUNA Research Alliance is helping us to develop a scientifically rigorous monitoring and research program to assess the impacts of rewilding. The baseline-monitoring program is being developed so that it can be undertaken by the community. For more complex monitoring and research, the academics from FAUNA will help us to find students to deliver the work.”

Very soon, species that haven't been in this landscape for 300 years will return.  Image: Billy Geary

Very soon, species that haven't been in this landscape for 300 years will return. Image: Billy Geary

Despite the continued and seemingly unstoppable rise of rewilding in scientific literature as a viable addition to a land manager’s toolkit, it does have its critics. Some suggest that rewilding has too many unknowns associated with it, or that some proposals are unrealistic in their goals. However, Ben reiterates that the team is taking an evidence-based approach: “FAUNA Research Alliance, with their wealth of scientific knowledge and management expertise has helped design the scientific program to evaluate rewilding as a conservation tool. This, in combination with Conservation Volunteers’ community engagement skill and infrastructure, means the experiment can happen with minimal risk. Together we can make this happen.”

It’s that theme of togetherness that is fundamental to the ethos of Conservation Volunteers and those associated with the Little Desert project. As Ben explains, the community and volunteers will be involved every step of the way: “We will be developing a range of volunteer opportunities for the local and wider community. No matter where you’re from, you can come and stay with us at the Little Desert Nature Lodge, get your hands dirty and help rewild the desert.”

Given the precarious state of many species in Australia, and indeed Victoria, giving them a chance at a new (but very old) home can only be a good thing. Besides, what Victorian wouldn’t want to see bilbies, western quolls and numbats darting through the Little Desert as they once did, many years ago?


Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary

Big Desert Adventures: Part Three

Since settlement times, Victoria’s Mallee region has captured the public imagination. Upon digging up old newspaper articles documenting early expeditions to the region, tales of ‘tiger cats’ hell bent on attacking people, and medium-sized marsupials (e.g. bettongs and bandicoots) in apparent plague proportions, are common. Over time, these bush yarns have only enhanced the region’s mystique and reputation as somewhat of a wild frontier. 

Once upon a time quolls and dingoes appeared to rule the Big Desert/Wyperfeld region from the top of the food web. It’s now a slightly different storey, but no less intriguing.  

The third instalment of my Big Desert Adventures blog is being hosted on Euan Ritchie's website. To find out what my camera traps have revealed so far, read on here.


Big Desert Adventures: Part Two

I’ve just returned from my first foray into Victoria’s spectacular Big Desert, and it was every bit as successful as hoped. Currently, there are 35 predator cameras and 35 prey cameras deployed across 35 sites within the Big Desert Wilderness Park, Big Desert State Forest and the Wyperfeld National Park. It really is a beautiful region, hosting a range of ecosystems not seen anywhere else in Victoria.

A picturesque Big Desert sunrise. Photo: William Geary

A picturesque Big Desert sunrise. Photo: William Geary

With any luck, there’ll be a nice array of critters dancing in front of my cameras as you read this. Specifically, at each location I’m targeting Dingoes, Red Foxes and Feral Cats with the predator cameras and a bunch of small mammals (including the Silky Desert Mouse, Mitchells Hopping Mouse and the House Mouse) with the prey cameras. Why these animals though? Well, have a read of my last article describing the background of my project in a little more detail.

You might be wondering what these cameras I’m speaking of look like, so here’s some examples below. The movement of heat (i.e. a body) across a detection zone triggers the cameras, taking video or photos in response. However, that’s where the similarities end; the predator cameras are outward facing, in order to observe larger animals. On the other hand, the prey cameras face downwards as this aids the identification of many small mammal species. Without the help of camera traps, there are quite a few species I wouldn’t even be able to detect, making them an essential tool for any wildlife ecologist. 

The downward facing prey camera, complete with delicious peanut buttery bait. Photo: William Geary. 

The downward facing prey camera, complete with delicious peanut buttery bait. Photo: William Geary. 

The outward facing predator camera in some early successional heathland. Photo: William Geary

The outward facing predator camera in some early successional heathland. Photo: William Geary

In addition, I surveyed for predator scats at each site, collecting nearly 100 samples across nearly 90km worth of transects. Helpfully, Canid and fox scats are generally very easy to spot as they tend to be placed quite prominently in order to mark territory. These will give me another insight into what habitats the local predators are using most. We’ll also be sending the scats off for diet analysis to find out just what’s on the menu in the Big Desert for our furry carnivores.

At our last site we got a true indication of just how merciless fire can be in the mallee (see the photo below). With absolutely nothing left, save for one or two coppicing Eucalypts, one really gets an idea of what the phrase ‘resetting successional trajectory to year zero’ means. Or, in layman’s terms, clearing the ecological slate and starting from scratch. There are very few places in Victoria where succession can be viewed as vividly as in the mallee.

Fire can be absolutely devastating in the Mallee, leaving very little behind. Photo: William Geary

Fire can be absolutely devastating in the Mallee, leaving very little behind. Photo: William Geary

Having traversed a myriad of sandy 4WD tracks, both in the car and on foot, one really gets an appreciation of just how vast and untouched the region is. The sensation of looking out from the top of a dune, with not a single man-made feature in sight is something pretty special. This was compounded at one point with three or four Wedge Tailed Eagles flying overhead whilst gazing off into the distance. Importantly, the Big Desert’s vastness shouldn’t be mistaken for emptiness, with the place absolutely crawling with wildlife.

The vast landscape of the Big Desert. Photo: William Geary

The vast landscape of the Big Desert. Photo: William Geary

Throughout our expedition we managed to happen across a range of reptiles (Mallee Dragons, a Burton’s Legless Lizard & Stumpy Tailed Lizards) as well as the standard mobs of Emus and Western Grey Kangaroos. However, perhaps the most fun aspect was deciphering the origin of the plethora of animal tracks found in the sandy soil. Everything from echidna and dingo to legless lizard and emu tracks were spotted. Following one particular track in the sand resulted in a particularly excellent encounter with a Burton’s Legless Lizard. A definite trip highlight.

Given the recent cold snap, the reptiles will be well and truly hidden away when the time comes for the next Big Desert Adventure. Despite this, I’ll hopefully have some exciting camera trap pictures to share, as well as more photos of the beautiful landscape that is Victoria’s mallee.