Water has left its mark on Naree Reserve like fingerprints on a soft peach. Driving around Naree, you feel these marks before you see them.
A slight dip as you approach an old fence line delineates a once thriving wetland. A lurch upwards the first sign you’re entering a floodplain system.
A sudden bump? Odds are you’ve hit a gilgai – small mounds that occur when water causes clay soil to swell then crack as it dries.
“Signs of water are everywhere you turn here,” says Bush Heritage ecologist for New South Wales Dr Vanessa Westcott. Yet while the imprints of it can be felt, water is often nowhere to be seen.
Two things can be said with certainty about the rainfall at Naree – it’s wildly variable and entirely unpredictable. The reserve’s average annual rainfall is around 300 millimetres but some years it’s double that, and some years it’s less than half.
But this is smart country, Budjiti country, the famed ‘back o’Bourke’. The plants and animals here have evolved over millenia to persist even when it’s chip dry, as it was earlier this year and still is for much of the region.
Naree is part of Yantabulla Swamp, one of Australia’s most important water bird breeding sites, in the north-western part of the Murray-Darling Basin. Bush Heritage has responsibility for about 17% of this swamp through the management of Naree and the neighbouring Yantabulla Station (another reserve, owned by the South Endeavour Trust).
Bush Heritage has been working hard here since purchasing Naree in 2012, controlling destructive feral goats and pigs and removing invasive weeds like Buffel Grass and Mexican Poppy, which spread like a rash at the first sign of moisture.
This year, Naree was one of the lucky places in this corner of the Murray-Darling Basin. In March, flows from big rains in Queensland threaded their way south down the Warrego River and along the Cuttaburra Creek on Naree’s southern edge, spreading out over the reserve’s alluvial floodplains in what’s known as a dry flood. Two weeks later, 69 millimetres of rain fell locally.
“The land breathed a huge sigh of relief,” says Naree Reserve Manager Greg Carroll. “Soil seed banks and plants that had lain dormant and looked dead suddenly started sprouting and flowering. Budgies turned up, the frogs were deafening… everything just came to life.”
Budjiti Elder Phil Eulo visited the reserve soon after with his family. He described the change in one word: “magic”.
“The trees were flowering, even the colour of the leaves was different,” recalls Phil. “It was beautiful to see the green shoots coming out of the old dry stuff… it was amazing how it could change so quick.”
For hundreds of generations, Phil’s ancestors have called this part of north-western New South Wales, and over the border into southern Queensland, home. For them, water was a constant sight — natural springs covered the landscape, pushing up from the Great Artesian Basin.
“My people didn’t have to leave this area,” says Phil. “They had the water, they had food, they had everything here. We had Pademelon (small kangaroos) and native fish… there was food and water all year round.”
Evidence of Budjiti people’s longstanding connection to this country is everywhere — in the piles of blackened rocks from old oven hearths, the tell-tale pattern on rock shards from repetitive striking, and the smooth, rounded surface of grinding stones.
Today, most of the springs on Naree and in the surrounding region are extinct — dried up due largely to declining groundwater levels and aquifer pressure — making flooding events like the one in March even more precious.
“As a relatively unregulated and unmanipulated natural system, Yantabulla Swamp is a very special place to look after,” explains Vanessa. “Further south in the Murray-Darling Basin, there’s an inclination for water availability to be more regular and more constant. Up here we don’t have that, and that’s what’s really unique about this area.”
In major wet years, migratory water birds flock to Yantabulla Swamp in their tens of thousands to breed. But a breeding event didn’t occur in April. Vanessa believes this was partly because it was the wrong time of year, and possibly because flooding of other lakes offered water birds better breeding grounds.
As part of Bush Heritage’s preparations for the next breeding boom, 24 motion sensor cameras were recently hammered into the drying ground across Naree and Yantabulla Station.
The data captured by these ‘eyes on the ground’ will provide insight into the activity of feral pigs, goats, foxes, cats and rabbits, and reveal more about the native species using Yantabulla’s Coolibah-Black Box woodlands, which the NSW Government classes as a threatened ecological community.
At the time of writing – late October – the land is mostly dry again except for a few places including Naree and Yantabulla’s Back Creek Swamp and the culturally significant Mukudjeroo waterhole.
For Phil, the way forward is simple.
“I’d like everyone to have respect for water,” he muses. “Everyone owns the water, no one special person owns the water. It's for everyone to share.”
The new motion sensor cameras have been supported by the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program.