Our latest purchase – another bit of the Outback

Wednesday 21 December, 2005

Bush Heritage’s latest reserve, Cravens Peak, is ‘just down the road’ from Ethabuka Reserve in far-western Queensland but, as Conservation Programs Manager Paul Foreman points out, this new pastoral lease is very different.

Grasslands and creek lines spread out from the rocky Toko Range where foxtails Ptilotis sp. emerge from between the rocks. Photo Paul Foreman.

Grasslands and creek lines spread out from the rocky Toko Range where foxtails Ptilotis sp. emerge from between the rocks. Photo Paul Foreman.

On my first visit to Cravens Peak Station in May this year I stood on an outcrop of the Toko Range and gazed over the source of the Mulligan River. This is one of the headwaters of the immense Cooper Creek system that braids its way through hundreds of kilometres of the Outback to finally spill into Lake Eyre.

The colours and the vastness of the landscape took my breath away. Rich ochres of every hue and cobalt-blue sky seemed to stretch into infinity.

I was standing on the edge of the Channel Country, that highly productive region of Queensland famous for fattening cattle, and for this reason so far poorly reserved. I contemplated the significance of Bush Heritage’s buying and protecting some of this valuable ecosystem at Cravens Peak Station, where the Mulligan River plains are still relatively intact.

On 31 October 2005 Cravens Peak became the 21st Bush Heritage reserve. It's our largest reserve ever at over 233 000 hectares (2330 square kilometres or about the size of metropolitan Melbourne or Sydney) and also the most expensive because of the ‘value’ of the Channel Country. We still have a great deal of money to raise!

Cravens Peak is now our most diverse reserve, in both its geomorphology and biology. It's an exciting acquisition and presents us with an unprecedented management challenge.

Purple-necked rock wallaby. Photo Australian Museum.

A purple-necked rock wallaby. Photo Australian Museum.

Landscape

Striking parallel dunes, plateaus, low ranges of ancient sandstone, and grassland and woodland plains make up this magnificent landscape. The Mulligan River carves its way along the eastern boundary of the reserve through soft rocks that were formed under the ocean about 500 million years ago and are subject to erosion.

The adjacent Toko Range – at 280 metres above sea level, one of the highest points of the region – is formed of harder, more resistant sandstone. Not far south of the homestead the Toko Range disappears beneath the Simpson Desert sands, and the river meanders on to Pulchera Waterhole on the eastern boundary of Ethabuka Reserve.

The Toomba Range, with its gorges, lies to the west, the result of upheavals along a massive ancient fault line. In these oldest rocks is located the conspicuous mesa ‘Cravens Peak’, for which the property is named.

The dunes and swales that cover much of the east of the reserve are just a thin veneer of wind-blown sand deposited in very recent geological times on these older sandstones.

Plains-wanderer. Photo Tom Wheller.

Plains-wanderer. Photo Tom Wheller.

Most of the 21 known vegetation communities on Cravens Peak are either unreserved or poorly reserved in Queensland. The property supports some unique vegetation types including hummock grassland with red mallee (Eucalyptus pachyphylla). Short open grasslands with saltbush; Mitchell Astrebla grasslands; shrublands of acacia, hakea and emu bush Eremophila; and vegetation communities associated with the rocky ranges, waterholes, drainage lines, swamps and claypans provide an abundance of habitats for the desert wildlife.

Spinifex Triodia grasslands on the dunes are some of the most important habitats for small mammals. Once all the cattle have been removed, the grasslands so prized by the pastoral industry will be able to grow and set seed without the pressure of stock, for the first time in decades.

Wildlife

Fat-tailed pseudantechinus. Photo Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.

Fat-tailed pseudantechinus. Photo Jiri Lochman/Lochman Transparencies.

Cravens Peak has three main landscapes types – dunes, ranges and plains – and each has its own characteristic wildlife. Over 220 species have been recorded. As at Ethabuka, the dunes are home to a great diversity of small mammals, including the carnivorous mulgara, and one of the richest reptilian faunas of any desert area in the world.

The plains, with sparse short grass and herb vegetation, provide habitat for a nationally vulnerable bird, the plainswanderer. Small animals such as the fat-tailed pseudantechinus occur in the ranges, well east of the centre of their distribution in the MacDonnell Ranges near Alice Springs.

Suitable habitat exists for the bilby, purple-necked rock wallaby and spectacled hare wallaby and unconfirmed records suggest that we may find them at Cravens Peak.

We may even discover the elusive night parrot.

Threats and management

Flowering foxtails Ptilotis sp. on the grasslands. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Flowering foxtails Ptilotis sp. on the grasslands. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Overgrazing and trampling by cattle are the main threats to the vegetation communities, and thus the wildlife, at Cravens Peak. Wetlands and watercourses are especially vulnerable. The bores, which provide readily available surface water, also sustain artificially high numbers of native herbivores.

Grazing reduces or even removes the vegetation needed for food and shelter by small mammals, groundnesting birds and reptiles. Even some birds of prey are affected, as the cattle prevent the regeneration of trees suitable for nesting.

As part of the conditions of sale, stock will be removed from Cravens Peak within 12 months of settlement. This was a necessary concession to secure the property and was considered acceptable given our long-term vision.

Rain brings a green flush to the desert landscape. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Rain brings a green flush to the desert landscape. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Fire is also a major threat. Too many or too few fires change the extent and structure of woodland communities. Wildfires eliminate the ground cover, exposing ground-dwelling animals to predators such as cats and foxes.

Under Bush Heritage management, strategic ‘patch-burning’ will create a mosaic of small burnt areas that will give variety and stability to the landscape and reduce the likelihood of broad-acre wildfires. Cat and fox control will begin in conjunction with control programs run by our neighbours.

Weed infestations, especially of buffel grass, will be managed once the stock has been removed.

The future

Cravens Peak is entirely surrounded by pastoral leases. It will soon be an island of protected habitat without cattle, unprecedented in western Queensland. It will provide a permanent refuge for an  extraordinarily diverse assemblage of arid-zone animals and plants including many species and vegetation communities of national importance.

Once the homestead is properly equipped, supporters will be able to visit and explore this magnificent new reserve.

A great deal of work lies ahead, both in raising the necessary funds and establishing the reserve. We would love your help. You can help us to buy and protect Cravens Peak by sending your donation or, if you enjoy the desert landscape, you can get involved as a volunteer ranger or in future working bees.

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