David Baker-Gabb oversees the management of Judith Eardley and Nardoo Hills reserves in Victoria and undertakes property assessments for Bush Heritage.
Dome Rock on Boolcoomatta Station. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
As a potential conservation reserve, Boolcoomatta Station in outback South Australia stood out from the start.
My initial research on the property showed that it was one of only two grazing leases to receive a Pastoral Board Land Condition Index of 2.8 out of a possible 3. It seemed that, despite a long history of sheep grazing, the property’s outback land systems had survived relatively unscathed.
I also knew of numerous records, going back over many years, of nationally threatened plains-wanderers at Boolcoomatta.
Rare Acacia. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
I had been asked by Bush Heritage to assess the 63 000 hectare Boolcoomatta Station as a possible reserve. This meant looking at the property’s significance within the region, assessing the conservation status and quality of its vegetation communities and land systems, identifying management issues and threats to the property and assessing its importance for threatened species.
Should it prove worthy of acquisition, then Boolcoomatta would be acquired with funds provided by the Nature Foundation SA and the Australian Government’s Natural Heritage Trust’s National Reserve System program.
Endangered plains-wanderer. Photo Tom Wheller.
I shared the inaugural journey to Boolcoomatta with Jim McHugh from the Nature Foundation SA and Tim Bond from the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage (DEH). The department had been generous in providing us with survey records and information about the property, and Tim had experience in reserve assessment.
At the time of our visit, southern Australia was in the grip of a major drought. The ungrazed, drought-tolerant roadside vegetation contrasted starkly with the parched, bare paddocks that stretched depressingly to the horizon.
As we entered Boolcoomatta’s front gate my spirits lifted, because, here at least, there were some scattered saltbushes surviving. I recalled that the South Australian Pastoral Board had recorded 32 species of saltbush on these plains, ranging from tiny ground-hugging fissure weeds to swathes of bluebush and blackbush.
An ancient river red gum on Boolcoomatta. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
We drove past Boolcoomatta’s airstrip, the heritage woolshed and shearers’ quarters built from local stone in the 1870s, and up to a gracious homestead. Alongside were a fully restored cottage, an impressive manager’s residence and sheds galore. There was hardly any rubbish.
Paradoxically, my hopes began to fade. It's not usual to find properties as well resourced as this one appeared to be that still retain their natural values for conservation. Often a lack of resources, and thus the inability to fully develop the land for pastoral use, means that the vegetation and wildlife are inadvertently preserved.
We headed out across the plains like detectives, looking for signs of overgrazing and land degradation. We were also alert to future management issues, looking at the condition of boundary fences and assessing weeds, fire susceptibility, rabbit warrens, goat numbers, road access and communication systems.
Numerous stops later, we agreed that Boolcoomatta was scoring well. Despite the dry, the bluebush plains were dotted with copses of bullock bush and black oak, and cane grass swamps were evident. Massive red gums lined dry creek beds, the headwaters of which lay in the distant purple Olary Ranges in Boolcoomatta’s south-west corner.
Native bee. Ptilotis sp. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
In the north-west, impressive rock stacks were splashed with the telltale whitewash of cliff-nesting birds of prey. A nearby outcrop displayed a dazzling collection of turquoise and green shards that told of the presence of copper, a feature of much of the region and another management issue to note.
On sandy rises in the sandbush plains we found the threatened purple-wood (Acacia carnei), with its vivid purple timber. This species is now threatened because stock and rabbits eat the seedlings, preventing regeneration, and rabbits also undermine the ageing trees.
Most of the vegetation and landforms on Boolcoomatta proved to be typical of this part of the Outback, and either not protected or only poorly protected in reserves. The spectacular rocky range country, low mulga and prickly wattle woodlands, river red gum woodlands, blackbush and cottonbush shrublands, freshwater wetlands and the Oonartra Creek all provided vital habitats for wildlife, including threatened thick-billed grass wrens.
Gould’s monitor. Photos Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
The grasslands were of special significance; they were some of the few occurring in the region that were suitable for the plainswanderer, a small grassland bird threatened nationally as a result of cultivation and overgrazing. The plains-wanderer needs drought refuges, and there are currently no reserves for it in South Australia.
Jumbled rocks at the foot of steep cliffs also held promise of nationally threatened yellow-footed rock wallabies. With effective goat and fox control from DEH’s Operation Bounceback, this endearing rock wallaby has made an impressive recovery on the new Bimbowrie Conservation Park that adjoins Boolcoomatta. It's not too optimistic to hope that with further goat and fox control this species may well return to Boolcoomatta’s rocky hills.
Threatened slender bell-fruit (Codonocarpus pyramidalis), which also occurs on Bimbowrie, may yet be found on Boolcoomatta.
Boolcoomatta has a history of mining and we examined the relics of a copper mine and some old shafts. Gold and uranium are still mined nearby but these activities have no known direct effect on Boolcoomatta at present.
Boolcoomatta’s historic shearing shed and quarters. Photo Wayne Lawler / EcoPix.
We headed for the rounded rocks of the ram paddock which station owner Langdon Badger had told us was one of his favourite places. As I sat on a large bare rock beside an Aboriginal gnamma hole, with its cap rocks nearby, and gazed out over the vast plains below, I could sense that this was a special place. It would be an ideal reserve.
The sky had been threatening throughout the day and finally it began to spit with rain. The rain began in earnest as we started on our journey south. It felt like a good omen at the time, and so it turned out to be.
Boolcoomatta Reserve was launched on 26 April 2006. Another very important part of our natural heritage has been protected. Now Bush Heritage needs your help to manage this wonderful property in perpetuity. I have sent in my donation. Please help by giving whatever support you can.