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Catch me if you can

Published 21 Dec 2010 

Patience may be a virtue. But if you’re looking out for the bridled nailtail wallaby, it’s also a job requirement.

Map of Goonderoo Reserve

The bridled nailtail wallaby is as elusive as it gets. Murray Haseler was ecstatic when he caught a glimpse of one in June at Goonderoo Reserve in Central Queensland.

'I managed to get a clear view of the tiny kangaroo before it disappeared into the bushes. It was passing within 500 m of the reserve homestead,' Murray recalled. Although there is not yet evidence of a population at Goonderoo, this sighting was a very good sign.

But these kinds of experiences are few and far between as the Olive-Prothero family found during their six months as volunteer caretakers in 2009.

Supporters may remember from our Winter newsletter that parents Cathy and Steve, and children Jiri and Toby, were hoping to record a nailtail on Goonderoo, but unfortunately, they weren’t quite as lucky as Murray.

Bridled nailtail wallaby on dirt with grass behindBy returning the brigalow woods to their natural state, it is hoped that more bridled nailtail wallabies will be born and survive in the wild. Photo: The Bridled Nailtail Wallaby Trust

Declared extinct in 1937

Way back in 1937, the bridled nailtail wallaby had been declared extinct. So when it was rediscovered some 40 years later, conservationists began breeding the species in captivity.

While any bridled nailtail is better than none, Murray won’t be happy until he is sure this marsupial is reproducing in the wild in sufficient numbers and its offspring are surviving in the face of predators.

Murray has been busily trapping and conducting wildlife conservation studies for much of his career, previously with Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service and other state agencies, before being appointed by Bush Heritage in 2003.

Only a few wild populations of this wallaby still exist. A number of bridled nailtails were reintroduced to Avocet, adjacent to Goonderoo, between 2001 and 2005, in the hope the animals would eventually broaden their habitat range to feed and breed on Goonderoo as well.

Preserving the nailtail's habitat

To what extent this has happened, Murray is not sure, but in hopeful anticipation, he and our reserve managers are doing their best to make the habitat on Goonderoo as suitable and productive as possible. That means, in part, protecting the nailtail’s preferred habitat: brigalow, a silvery wattle tree that forms a dense shrubby woodland.

About 90% of Australia’s brigalow has been lost over the last 200 years, leaving the nailtail only a few scattered patches in which to live. So the battle for the nailtail begins with saving our brigalow forests, like those found at Goonderoo.

Like much of the brigalow forests in the region, Goonderoo’s brigalow has been flattened with a bulldozer and chains in order to introduce an African pasture grass called buffel grass, as feed for cattle.

Buffel is highly competitive and productive, but it’s not until a fire comes through that it reveals its secret weapon: while brigalow will quickly succumb to repeated burns, buffel loves fire.

Dr Jim Radford, Bush Heritage Science and Monitoring Manager, says 'Buffel is highly flammable – it burns hot then regenerates to grow back thicker and stronger than ever. The problem is that buffel not only chokes out native grasses and shrubs, it fuels fire outbreaks.'

'Wherever buffel is thriving without grazing pressure, you risk frequent, intense burns. These continual fires will eventually eradicate the brigalow.'

Cattle as conservationists?

Brigalow’s dislike for fire is well known to cattle farmers, who often use fire as a tool to make brigalow country more suitable for running cattle.

At Goonderoo, our team have turned that situation on its head: rather than using fire to make way for cattle, our team is using cattle to fight fire.

Cattle might sound like unwelcome visitors on a conservation reserve, but at Goonderoo, they have become the unlikely answer to an ecological challenge: as it happens, cattle are very good lawnmowers, and they love buffel.   

Murray and the team decided to introduce cattle to chew down the buffel, in turn, allowing the brigalow and other fire-sensitive species to flourish and eventually shade out the buffel.  This arrangement suits the nailtail just fine – it’s such a tiny animal (standing not much taller than a crow) so it prefers low-cropped grasses and finds tall, dense grass difficult to negotiate.

Other solutions to manage Goonderoo's ecosystems

While this is a nifty solution in the fight to protect the nailtail’s brigalow habitat, it’s not the only technique used to manage ecosystems on Goonderoo.

Brigalow sits among other ecosystems on the property which have very different requirements. A system of fire breaks and controlled burning is needed, as well as close cooperation with the neighbours. While some ecosystems at Goonderoo require burning to regenerate them, others don’t.

Just like at Goonderoo, this summer is a big time for all your Bush Heritage reserves: our reserve teams across the country will work to manage fire on each of these reserves.

And at Avocet, the bridled nailtail continues to fight for survival. Let’s hope that one day, the nailtail will make its home at Goonderoo Reserve too and Murray will be ringing in, excited, to say that his patience – and your wonderful support – has been rewarded with sightings of more wallabies … and perhaps, sticking out from their pouches, he’ll see pairs of little ears.

Murray and his team’s work to provide a healthy habitat for the nailtail wallaby at Goonderoo Reserve is made possible by supporters like you. Thank you for your ongoing support.

By Lynn Clark

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