From tin whistles to tinsel

Published 25 Sep 2020 
by Jane Lyons

As Bush Heritage prepares to commence a first-of-its-kind program to return native species to the Fitz-Stirling landscape, Noongar Traditional Owner Aunty Carol Petterson reflects on the changes she’s seen in her lifetime.

Aunty Carol Petterson, a 79-year-old Noongar Traditional Owner from Albany, still remembers her childhood excitement as she watched large tracts of Fitz-Stirling land being cleared for farming in the 1950s.

Noongar Traditional Owner Aunty Carol Petterson with her two grandsons. Photo courtesy of Aunty Carol.

Noongar Traditional Owner Aunty Carol Petterson with her two grandsons. Photo courtesy of Aunty Carol.

As a young girl living in the bush near Fitzgerald River, south-west Western Australia, Carol was lucky if she ever saw a truck — let alone industrial-scale equipment or men with flamethrowers.

Nor could she and her friends believe their luck when they saw all the animals pouring out of the area as they tried to escape the machines and land-clearing fires.

“I remember my Elders mumbling amongst themselves, but us kids were absolutely amazed at the huge machinery that was just mowing down the land,” Aunty Carol says.

“We were gleefully catching all these animals like Mallee Hens [Malleefowl] and little wallabies. We put up fishing nets, and we caught all these beetles to see who could get the prettiest beetle. We were really laughing to see who could get the best animals.”

For weeks afterwards, a young Carol carried around two Numbats by day and held them tightly to her chest as she slept at night — until they finally escaped. According to Aunty Carol, Numbats are not only cute bed companions; they are also considered a blessing, along with Chuditch, or Western Quolls, and Echidnas.

A Chuditch or Western Quoll (Dasyurus geoffroii). Photo Jiri Lochman.

A Chuditch or Western Quoll (Dasyurus geoffroii). Photo Jiri Lochman.

“For my family clan, it was a blessing when we saw them because [it meant] the Country was healthy — like today, people understand frogs are a barometer of the environment,” she says.

Decades later, Aunty Carol’s childhood exuberance over the land clearing has long since been eclipsed by sadness for that event and the “dust bowl” that parts of the Fitz-Stirling region have become. She has also witnessed the decline of many native animals — including her beloved Numbats which are no longer found in the region.

But Bush Heritage has combined forces with Noongar Traditional Owners, private landowners, South Coast Natural Resource Management and the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) to help many of these native animals re-establish themselves through the Fitz-Stirling Fauna Restoration Program. The five-year program will target feral cats, foxes and rabbits across 37,000 hectares, and kicks off in Spring with the support of a Lotterywest grant.

The program builds on Bush Heritage’s work over the past 10 years revegetating and reconnecting native bushland fragments in the region. And, like Aunty Carol’s family, it considers the Chuditch a blessing and barometer.

Sleeper by day and hunter by night, the carnivorous marsupial is a great climber and can blend with dappled woodland moonlight thanks to its spotted coat. But its camouflage and climbing prowess have not been enough to protect it from foxes, feral cats and land clearing.

Once found across 70% of Australia, Chuditch are now confined to the south-west where they're classed as vulnerable.

Increased detection of Chuditch is one of the Fitz-Stirling Fauna Restoration Program’s measures for long-term success.

A volunteer assists ecologist Angela Sanders with baseline fauna monitoring on Monjebup Reserve, WA. Photo William Marwick.

A volunteer assists ecologist Angela Sanders with baseline fauna monitoring on Monjebup Reserve, WA. Photo William Marwick.

“The Chuditch is a key species that'll be one of our program’s success criteria,” says Bush Heritage ecologist Angela Sanders. “We’ve been putting cameras out over hundreds of trap nights over the years, and we've only ever seen one animal on the Peniup Nature Reserve.”

Other native animals will also share the spotlight as program staff roll out cameras and pitfall traps to start baseline monitoring in September. They’ll be assessing the numbers of Honey Possums, Pygmy Possums, Western Spiny-tailed Geckos and ground-nesting birds such as Scrub Robins.

“After we've started the baiting and other controls for the predators, we’ll repeat the monitoring at least once or twice a year, every year,” Angela says.

Control of the foxes, feral cats and rabbits will start in Autumn using techniques very different to those of Aunty Carol’s childhood; she still remembers a government initiative that paid five shillings for each dead fox tail, and the clever way her dad would attract and kill the foxes.

“Our dad made a little tin whistle, and you whistled and the sound would be like a rabbit squealing. The fox would come right up and dad would shoot it,” Aunty Carol remembers.

Jeff Pinder, who recently joined Bush Heritage from the DBCA and is now managing the Fauna Restoration Program, has a few tricks of his own for attracting feral animals to the monitoring cameras. His shopping list? Thirty metres of tinsel and a few jars of cat anal gland.

The Fitz-Stirling landscape is a patchwork of farm land and conservation reserves. Photo by Greenskills.

The Fitz-Stirling landscape is a patchwork of farm land and conservation reserves. Photo by Greenskills.

“The tinsel moves and reflects light, and is a novel landscape feature that attracts cats. The scent lure is a product called Catastrophic, which is blended up cat anal gland,” Jeff says.

But the biggest tricks up our collective sleeve include the program’s landscape scale, the simultaneous targeting of all three animals, and the use of an innovative bait that attracts and kills both foxes and cats.

“There is still a lack of understanding of the inter-relationship between foxes and cats, and how their numbers, movement and prey choices might be affected by each other,” Jeff says.

“We do know that controlling rabbits will remove a significant prey source for foxes and cats, which could lower numbers. There is also suggestive evidence from the Fitzgerald and Cape Arid national parks that feral cat densities appear high after sustained fox control,” he says.

"On the back of the great work that Bush Heritage has already done across this region of WA, controlling introduced pests is one of the final pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of re-creating a working, thriving, healthy landscape.”

Bush Heritage thanks Lotterywest and Michael Tichbon for their significant contributions to the Fitz-Stirling Fauna Restoration Program.