Edgbaston Station – a ‘terrible place’ teeming with life

Sunday 21 September, 2008

Dr Rod Fensham from the Queensland Herbarium reports on his first visit to Bush Heritage’s newest reserve. 

Mountain yapunyah open woodland on the escarpment of the Alice Tableland at Edgbaston Station, Qld, showing extensive woodlands and grasslands beyond. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Mountain yapunyah open woodland on the escarpment of the Alice Tableland at Edgbaston Station, Qld. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

‘It’s a terrible place, the worst in the district,’ was the opinion offered by the grazier as he looked over his fat bullocks, up to their bellies in buffel grass. I had asked him what he knew about a property I had been looking forward to visiting – Edgbaston Station near the central Queensland town of Aramac and Bush Heritage’s newest reserve.

The words of the grazier seemed to ring true as I wound up the driveway and through the wrought-iron gate. Great, nasty hummocks of porcupine spinifex provided only sporadic cover on the station’s bare floodplain. And Lake Mueller could not look less like a lake, populated as it was by dry spindly shrubs just tall enough to block any view.

Australian bustards inhabit native mixed grassland. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Australian bustards inhabit native mixed grassland. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

This was not a landscape for the faint-hearted, nor for those seeking the romantic heartlands of Tasmania or New England. It was a desert in which it seemed life could surely not prosper. But life was what had drawn me to Edgbaston, for evolution has gone ape in this devilish landscape!

Edgbaston occupies the upper catchment of Pelican Creek, a system of diffuse drainage channels that carry water for only a few days after flash flooding. The creek separates landscapes that represent the extremes of Queensland grazing country. To the east, an escarpment rises steeply to a red sandy plateau clothed in eucalypt woodland, country that is difficult to manage and, if you're a pastoralist, fit only for the breeding of cattle.

To the west, a plain of Mitchell grass reaches towards the interior of the continent.

Artesian spring. Photos Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Artesian spring. Photos Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Nestled within the braided channels of Pelican Creek are a series of artesian springs, fed by very special water indeed. This water has spilled out of the ground over a timescale that spans multiple ice ages. It has seeped through the porous rocks of the Great Artesian Basin on its journey from a distant source and acquired its own distinctive chemistry, forming an ancient habitat that has borne a myriad of life forms.

What first made an impression on me were the wetland plants, nearly every species of which is unique to such rare desert springs. But a closer inspection revealed a host of small creatures within the pools, muscling about in crystalclear water only centimetres deep.

Endangered male and female redfin blue-eye (male above). Photo Gunther Schmida.

Endangered male and female redfin blue-eye (male above). Photo Gunther Schmida.

By my reckoning, the artesian springs in the upper catchment of Pelican Creek are the most important conservation site in arid Australia. This may seem an audacious claim, but in this one small area there are at least two species of endemic fish, four plant species, twelve species of snails and a number of other invertebrate species known to no other locality. And no doubt there are many more unique creatures awaiting discovery by specialists who know how to sample and identify them.

Those who want to join the long line of eccentric biologists who have visited the station will need to enlist the help of its residents Allan and Fay Wills. It's foolhardy for novices to venture alone onto the floodplain; the springs are not always obvious and can swallow a Toyota LandCruiser.

As a guide, Allan is generous in sharing his intimate knowledge of every hummock. I wanted to go trapping spiders in the middle of the night and Allan came along to make sure I got about safely.

Allan Wills pointing out the landmarks from the Alice Tableland escarpment overlooking the property. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Allan Wills pointing out the landmarks from the Alice Tableland escarpment overlooking the property. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Bush Heritage faces many management challenges at Edgbaston. Many of the springs have dried up as flowing bores have lowered pressure in the aquifer. The red-fin blue-eye, probably the most endangered fish in Australia, with a population numbering only a few thousand within four small pools, is being extinguished by the spread of the plague minnow through the network of springs.

Pigs can churn up an entire spring wetland in a single feeding frenzy and must be diligently controlled. And thorny exotic legumes – prickly acacia, parkinsonia and mesquite – have proliferated over a vast area, their seeds having dispersed downstream from the headwaters at Edgbaston all the way to Lake Eyre.

But hope is in sight. Through intensive and dedicated management, Bush Heritage can make a great contribution to Edgbaston, one that can extend beyond the property’s boundary and the local community to the region at large. This prospect is immensely exciting and I trust Bush Heritage to be an exemplary custodian of this ‘terrible’ yet wonderful place.

The purchase of Edgbaston has been assisted by a significant contribution from the Australian Government’s recently concluded Maintaining Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspots program. This program also supported the purchase of Yourka Reserve in Queensland. Such support is recognition of how critical these properties are to the protection of threatened species and systems of high conservation value in Australia.

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