Looking south-east to the Wychitella Nature Conservation Reserve beyond. Photo David Tatnall.
Bush Heritage fundraising team member Kate Fitzherbert travelled to north-central Victoria to visit our first reserve in that state.
In August this year I arrived 15km north-west of Wedderburn in north-central Victoria to explore the 344-hectare property that will become the 18th Bush Heritage reserve.
What a delight it was for me to see a grassy woodland as it should be: grand old hollow-bearing trees, fallen timber all over the ground, rotting logs, a blaze of yellow wattles mixed with other native shrubs and grasses, and all accompanied by a symphony of bird song. There were birds everywhere!
Grassy woodlands like this are now one of the most threatened plant communities in Victoria. The possibility that Bush Heritage and its supporters could protect this one was very exciting.
Yellow-footed antechinus. Photo Andrew Henley/Larus.
A very generous gift from the Judith Eardley Save Wildlife Association in Healesville has allowed us to acquire this property, which will be known as the Judith Eardley Reserve. It will form part of a complex of protected land. On its eastern, and part of its southern, boundary it abuts the Wychitella Nature Conservation Reserve, a series of blocks of remnant habitat totalling about 6300 hectares.
With a protected reference area of 460 hectares to the south-east, the new Bush Heritage reserve will bring the reserved land to over 7000 hectares, not insignificant in a region where the land has been heavily cleared or modified.
The property rises from the plains in the north, encompasses undulating foothills and climbs to the summit of Mt Kerang at 398 m. There's a stunning view from the top down over the extensive area of protected land to the grazing land beyond.
The property is sparsely timbered over most of its extent with an intact understorey of native shrubs and grasses on metamorphic soils. Areas of mallee and grey box are more heavily timbered.
Looking south from Mt Kerang. Photo David Tatnall.
The reserve will protect five vegetation communities that are listed as threatened in Victoria. These include grassy woodland (endangered), shrubby woodland on metamorphic slopes (vulnerable) and three communities that are considered depleted – box ironbark woodland, mallee and hillcrest herb-rich woodland.
Hundreds of old hollow-bearing grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa), yellow box (E. melliodora) and yellow gums (E. leucoxylon) provide homes for an abundance of wildlife, from parrots and possums to tiny insects and wood-boring larvae. Patches of old red stringybarks (E. macrorhyncha) and green mallee (E. viridis) make the habitat more complex and may provide homes for species such as the nationally vulnerable malleefowl, which has been recorded in the adjacent reserve.
The large number of logs on the ground is a good indicator of the quality of this habitat and also helps to explain its very high bird diversity.
In spring the woodland comes alive with native orchids, daisies, flowering shrubs and herbs.
Southern whiteface. Photo Rob Drummond, courtesy Birds Australia.
The importance of this area for wildlife, particularly birds, cannot be underestimated. A whole suite of woodland birds now considered ‘near threatened’ occurs here in exceptional numbers, including hooded robins, brown treecreepers, black-chinned honeyeaters, southern whitefaces and diamond firetails. Endangered swift parrots are likely to forage in the box trees, and the lowland section of the block is ideal for bush stone-curlews and painted honeyeaters.
Bird surveys will produce a healthy and exciting bird list. So far, the charming yellow-footed antechinus, western and eastern grey kangaroos and echidnas have been seen but mammal surveys should reveal a good list of species including the sugar glider.
Threats and management issues
The most significant threat to this property has been eliminated by Bush Heritage’s purchase of it. Illegal commercial firewood harvesting was under way and has removed a significant number of the hollow-bearing trunks from old trees in the most accessible parts of the property.
Echidna. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
The loss of these is tragic but doesn't significantly reduce the value of the property for conservation. Over most of the property, which is less accessible, the old trees have survived.
The property has been grazed by sheep but small eucalypt seedlings and saplings are thriving, suggesting that sheep grazing has been light or episodic in recent years. Patterson's curse, horehound, cape weed, saffron thistle and wheel cactus are localised and in manageable numbers and will be controlled by spot-spraying with herbicides. Small numbers of goats and rabbits will also need to be controlled.
There has been strong local support for Bush Heritage to buy and protect the Judith Eardley Reserve and for it to be part of the Wedderburn Conservation Management Network. Support from the local Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) staff has been invaluable.
There's also significant potential for extending the protected area through the subsequent purchase of additional blocks of private land in the district. Reconnecting these isolated areas of remnant woodland would make a valuable contribution to regional conservation in the 'sheep–wheat' belt, the most threatened area in south-eastern Australia.
Our particular thanks to Peter Morison (DSE) and Greg Hargreaves for their assistance in achieving this purchase, and to the board members of the Judith Eardley Save Wildlife Association for their patience and generosity.