Handover in progress at Boolcoomatta

Sunday 21 September, 2008

Charlotte Francis talks to outgoing reserve managers Paul and Bec O’Leary about their two years at this South Australian reserve.

Paul and Bec O’Leary with a wheel from explorer Sir Douglas Mawson’s vehicle, left behind when he crossed the property. Photo Julian Fennessy.

Paul and Bec O’Leary with a wheel from explorer Sir Douglas Mawson’s vehicle, left behind when he crossed the property. Photo Julian Fennessy.

When Paul and Bec O’Leary arrived at Bush Heritage’s newly acquired Boolcoomatta Reserve in July 2006, they had swapped the rustling of palm trees on a Pacific island for the vast, rugged beauty of a former sheep station in South Australia.

They were to spend two years managing this arid-zone reserve and its outstanding examples of saltbush plains, a habitat that is extensively grazed throughout the surrounding region and poorly protected in conservation reserves.

Paul recalls that they started out by building good relationships with neighbouring farmers and land-owners, including the managers of Bimbowrie Conservation Park to the west.

Gould’s monitor. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Gould’s monitor. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

Boolcoomatta had been a sheep station for 150 years, so one of the first management actions was to reduce grazing and begin to control feral pests. Ecological monitoring sites around the reserve enabled Bush Heritage to gauge the effectiveness of such activities.

Encouragingly, there are already signs that the land is starting to recover; a second round of survey results from 2007 has shown an overall increase in ground cover and an increasing abundance of shrubland birds such as the white-winged fairywren and rufous fieldwren.

However, Paul emphasises that it takes time to restore ecosystems to health: ‘100 years is not long in land-management terms. The combination of heavy grazing and drought conditions depletes the land and strips it of resources.’

A distant Dome Rock glows in the sunset on Boolcoomatta Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

A distant Dome Rock glows in the sunset on Boolcoomatta Reserve. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.

The O’Learys acknowledge the key role played by volunteers in the monitoring and management activities at Boolcoomatta. A visit by the Scientific Expedition Group of South Australia in September 2006 helped gather vital baseline data on the reserve’s flora and fauna.

A separate survey carried out by volunteers from the Mammal Club of the Field Naturalists Society of South Australia discovered the skeletal remains of threatened and extinct species such as the mulgara, golden bandicoot and Gould’s mouse.

The survey also found evidence of the nationally vulnerable yellow-footed rock wallaby that still occurs on neighbouring Bimbowrie Conservation Park. We are hopeful that the rock wallaby may return to Boolcoomatta as the habitat continues to improve.

Rabbits threaten many species of native flora but, with the help of volunteers from Australia and overseas, Bush Heritage is mapping their warrens. Using quad-bikes fitted with GPS equipment, it can take a month to map a tenth of the reserve but this information is critical to the development of strategies to control the rabbits.

During a working bee in April this year, volunteers also helped to repair boundary fences and treat with herbicide 500 pepper trees, which are invasive pest plants in semi-arid zones.

Paul and Bec also acknowledge the support of the Bush Heritage operations team and ecologists in helping them to establish Boolcoomatta over the past two years. They've enjoyed being the custodians of this beautiful landscape and are now passing on to their successors a work in progress.

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