A vast new reserve in South Australia

Thursday 20 March, 2008

Ecologist Dr Steve Morton is Vice-President of Bush Heritage and conducted the property assessment of Bon Bon Station.

Sturt’s desert pea. Photo Steve Heggie.

Sturt’s desert pea. Photo Steve Heggie.

As you drive north from Port Augusta in South Australia, the Stuart Highway takes you across country so wide and spacious that you can almost see the curve of the earth.

Travelling on towards Coober Pedy under one of the biggest skies in Australia, you pass through swathes of saltbush and bluebush, and stands of mulga and stately myall trees.

It's remarkable country, and knowing that Bush Heritage will shortly become custodian of a big slice, 215,500 hectares in fact, gives me great pleasure. The big slice is Bon Bon Station.

Everyone who drives to Alice Springs along this highway experiences the vastness of this part of South Australia. I have travelled the road many times while living in the Centre but haven't had many opportunities to pull off and explore the surrounding bush.

Some months ago my wife and I turned off the highway between Woomera and Coober Pedy to meet the manager of Bon Bon Station, Paul Blight. We spent an enthralling day with Paul, looking over just a small part of this huge property and assessing its potential as a reserve to add to Bush Heritage’s expanding network of protected areas.

Conservation significance

Thick-billed grasswren. Photo Graeme Chapman.

Thick-billed grasswren. Photo Graeme Chapman.

Bon Bon is located between the Great Victoria Desert and the large saltpans of Lake Eyre, Lake Torrens and Lake Gairdner. It has a number of outstanding natural features including a significant freshwater wetland and three ecosystems that are listed, at the state level, as threatened.

Major plant communities that are currently poorly reserved also occur here. In future surveys we also expect to find nationally threatened birds such as the elusive and fascinating chestnut-breasted whiteface, which has a very restricted range, and the thick-billed grasswren, which also occurs on Boolcoomatta Reserve to the east.

With luck, the kultarr, a dainty yet fierce little marsupial that prefers bare stony plains, will also be found.

Past management

Southern hairy-nosed wombat. Photo: Dave Watts/Lochman Transparencies.

Southern hairy-nosed wombat. Photo: Dave Watts/Lochman Transparencies.

Paul Blight and his family have owned Bon Bon since 1979 and run it as a sheep station. Although the property is permitted to carry up to 23 000 sheep, Paul has managed the land conservatively and currently runs about 11 000 head.

As we drove across Bon Bon’s enormous expanse, Paul constantly pointed out to us shrubs and grasses that were once overgrazed and were now regenerating. He's proud of his careful management of the land and delighted that his gradual restoration of the native habitats has been rewarded by Bon Bon’s being identified as an area worthy of becoming a Bush Heritage reserve.

Vegetation

The most northerly third of the property consists of stony gibber plains and bands of mulga and other acacias. The southern two-thirds supports a fascinating and ever-changing matrix of habitats. There are stunningly beautiful expanses of pearl bluebush (Maireana sedifolia), some enclosed by patches of shapely western myall (Acacia papyrocarpa), which form a broken canopy over the bluebush, and patches where myall, mulga (Acacia aneura) and black oak (Casuarina cristata) grow in varying mixes.

Threatened mulga Acacia aneura woodland. Photo Steve Heggie.

Threatened mulga Acacia aneura woodland. Photo Steve Heggie.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the property is the widespread presence of the western myall. The species is regenerating well under Paul’s management and he told us that young myall plants were establishing in many vegetation types now that the grazing pressure had been reduced. Throughout the region, where heavy grazing by sheep and rabbits still occurs, this degree of regeneration is worryingly rare.

Myall are among the most handsome and graceful of Australian plants.Their drooping shape is wonderfully symmetrical, and the soft, downy sheen of the outer foliage is set off by the roughness of the shaggy trunk and branches. This species left such a distinct impression on me that I found it easy to imagine Bon Bon becoming known principally for its stands of myall.

Landscape features

Bon Bon has very low relief. The Gosse and Wallabyng ranges, which extend into the property, are just a few tens of metres above the plain.

Sunset over bluebush and flowering senna. Photo Steve Heggie.

Sunset over bluebush and flowering senna. Photo Steve Heggie.

There are only a couple of local drainage systems. One of these drainage lines feeds the remarkable wetland at the centre of the property. When full, Lake Puckridge covers an area of approximately 1400 hectares (8km by 4km) and is up to 7 metres deep.

It fills about once every ten years and retains water for about three years. During our visit, there were only a few birds on the water but Paul showed us photos of the flocks of waders and waterbirds that descended on the lake when it filled after good rain in 2007.

Bush Heritage’s ecologists will be keen to make the journey to explore it further.

Management

Of course there will be management challenges at Bon Bon. Recently, grazing has been kept to a moderate level but there are areas where erosion will need to be controlled and erosion damage repaired.

Bomb shelter, as constructed by the government in the 1950s on all properties in the Woomera military zone. Photo Steve Heggie.

Bomb shelter, as constructed by the government in the 1950s on all properties in the Woomera military zone. Photo Steve Heggie.

Fire, though rare in this landscape, can be very damaging to saltbush, mulga and myall if it occurs. Thus fire will need to be carefully managed.

Rabbits are few in number but constant work will be needed to keep their population down. Remarkably, goats appear to be absent.

The purchase of Bon Bon by Bush Heritage will ensure that the recovery begun under the Blights’ careful management will continue more rapidly when the property is managed solely for conservation.

Please help us to protect Bon Bon

Protecting Bon Bon Station is very important. With your help we will secure spectacular areas of saltbush and bluebush shrublands that urgently need to be conserved, considering how widely these vegetation types are used for grazing.

The kultarr, a marsupial expected to be found at Bon Bon. Photo Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies.

The kultarr, a marsupial expected to be found at Bon Bon. Photo Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies.

The rare and threatened plant and animal species that live in these habitats will be protected too.

We'll also be securing a major freshwater wetland in a region where it's been more common for salt lakes to be protected.

Bon Bon is a massive area of inland Australia (80km by 25km) and is soon to be dedicated to saving our native biodiversity. What a significant contribution we'll be making to expanding our national reserve system!

I drove away from the Bon Bon homestead feeling deep satisfaction that Bush Heritage’s supporters will share in the knowledge that Bon Bon’s broad plains, vast spaces and classic arid-zone plants and animals will soon be secured for the future.

Bush Heritage Australia gratefully acknowledges the assistance of both the Australian Government’s National Reserve System Program and the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage in providing support for the purchase of Bon Bon Station.

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