From outback to ocean – a new island reserve

Saturday 20 March, 2004
Rocks and sand patterns on the beach at Hunter Island.

Rocks and sand patterns on the beach at Hunter Island.

Bush Heritage Conservation Programs Manager Stuart Cowell reveals the newest Bush Heritage reserve.

With your help, Bush Heritage has just completed the purchase of Ethabuka Station in Australia’s Outback, protecting 214 000-ha of vital small-mammal habitat, arid-zone wetlands, grasslands and woodlands.

Now, nearly 2,000km to the south, we've contracted to purchase the grazing lease on Hunter Island in Bass Strait, a 7,300-ha jewel safeguarding threatened vegetation communities and bird and plant species at risk.

Flying along the coastline of Hunter Island for the first time, I could hardly believe that we might be allowed the opportunity to protect this spectacular place for conservation. Its breathtaking scenery of rocky coves and white sandy beaches, wetlands, woodlands and heath surrounded by the surging power of the southern ocean, and its importance for conservation, made it seem like a jewel of inestimable value.

Now, over a year later, following a lot of hard work, even more determination and a bit of good fortune, our hopes for Hunter Island have nearly become a reality.

There's something about an island that touches us all at a fundamental level. Perhaps it's the isolation, perhaps the opportunity to feel apart from the rest of the world, that attracts us. Maybe it's an understanding of the significant role that islands play as arks for endangered species or the importance of islands in the evolution of varied, even bizarre, forms of life.

Hunter Island is all of these things, and with your generous support this Bass Strait jewel will soon be protected for all Australians.

Location and history

Hunter Island, the largest island in the Hunter Group, lies 6km off the north-west tip of Tasmania. The island is 7,330 ha in size, approximately 25km long, and 6.5 km wide at its widest point.

Orange-bellied parrot. Photo Dave Watts.

Orange-bellied parrot. Photo Dave Watts.

Three Hummock Island, another island in the group, is already managed for conservation. The highest point of the island lies at 90 m above sea level, from where low undulating hills roll away to the coast.

The native vegetation is largely intact with only 860 ha cleared for grazing and residential use. Heathlands and coastal scrub make up nearly 80% of the native vegetation, with swamp forests, buttongrass moorlands, native grasslands, woodlands, muttonbird colonies, saltmarshes and lichenfields providing a wide range of habitats.

Hunter Island shows evidence of 23 000 years of continuous occupation by Aboriginal people and has been inhabited by non-Aboriginal people for approximately 170 years. Many different owners have grazed cattle on the island lease since 1853.

Wildlife

As can often be the case, despite its history of occupation, clearing and grazing, Hunter Island still retains its significance for conservation. The island is important for six threatened bird species, including the orange-bellied parrot, swift parrot, whitebellied sea eagle, shy albatross, Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle and fairy prion.

The orange-bellied parrot is nationally endangered with only 200 mature individuals remaining. The birds use Hunter Island as a resting and feeding place each year on passage to King Island and the Victorian and South Australian coasts.

White-bellied sea eagle. Photo Dave Watts.

White-bellied sea eagle. Photo Dave Watts.

However, in recent years there has been significant damage to the island’s saltmarsh and coastal dune communities on which the parrots depend. Erosion and inappropriate burning have allowed the spread of marram grass (Ammophila arenaria), and sea spurge (Euphorbia paralias), both of which aggressively swamp many of the native plants favoured by the parrots.

Vegetation management, through fire and revegetation, will help to restore the quality of these habitats for this endangered species. White-bellied sea eagles, recently listed as vulnerable in Tasmania, nest on Hunter Island in numbers greater than anywhere else in the state.

Vegetation

Hunter Island supports six ecological communities that are of priority for conservation at state level:

  1. Eucalyptus viminalis coastal forest,
  2. muttonbird colony,
  3. Leptospermum/Melaleuca swamp forest,
  4. Melaleuca ericifolia forest,
  5. dune vegetation and
  6. shrubby coastal heath.

There are eight plant species of conservation significance, including one of the most spectacular of the greenhood orchids, the endangered leafy greenhood, Pterostylis cucullata.

Eucalyptus viminalis woodland is a threatened community.

Eucalyptus viminalis woodland is a threatened community.

This amazing, ancient plant was thought to be lost to science until rediscovered on Hunter Island in about 1970. The leafy greenhood grows only along the very old (Holocene) sand dunes that transverse certain sections of the island, unfortunately the same areas where cattle grazing has been concentrated.

Threats

Over the past few years some of the island’s values have been degraded by cattle, inadequate fire management, poor weed control and lack of infrastructure maintenance.

The destructive soil fungus Phytophthora has also been recorded on the island. Our active management of these threats should result in immediate improvement and with time it's likely that the threats can be mostly eliminated.

On the positive side, rats and mice appear to be absent.

The future

The skills learnt in the past from managing both Erith and Deal islands on the eastern side of Bass Strait will be invaluable in the effective management of Hunter Island. One key difference will be that Hunter Island will have a full-time reserve manager who will be supported by volunteers assisting through our Conservation Partners program.

We hope to have volunteers working on the island by late 2004. The lease terms for Hunter Island are for ten years, like those on all Bass Strait islands. The current lease expires in 2005.

Bush Heritage is pressing the Tasmanian Government to guarantee the leases for at least the next 20-year period. Now we need your help to ensure we can secure this wild, beautiful island and manage it to preserve its wildlife and unique ecosystems.

Please send your donation today and help us to protect this jewel in the south.

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