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Cool burn at Friendly Beaches Reserve, Tasmania. Photo Michael Bretz.
Cool burn at Friendly Beaches Reserve, Tasmania. Photo Michael Bretz.

A friendly fire

Words by Manuela Callari
Location: palawa Country, Tasmania
Published 17 Oct 2022
Led by truwana Rangers, cool burning at Friendly Beaches Reserve plans to create the healthiest possible habitat for the vulnerable New Holland Mouse.

When the truwana Rangers and Bush Heritage staff arrived early at Friendly Beaches Reserve on palawa Country in Tasmania, a thick frost cloaked the coastal shrub and sprawled toward a calm ocean. Patience and planning had paid off.

The sun’s debut brought with it a gentle Winter breeze, one that our excited team could work with to light the first cultural burn on a Bush Heritage managed reserve in Tasmania.

The fire crept across the reserve’s heathy vegetation, often self-extinguishing. Its slower flame allowed creepers and crawlers enough time to seek new, safe refuges away from the fire.

Cool burning in the midday sun at Friendly Beaches Reserve. Photo Michael Bretz.
Significant for many reasons, the burn forms part of a project funded by the Australian Government to promote a healthier habitat for the vulnerable New Holland Mouse in Tasmania.

The New Holland Mouse (or Pookila, derived from the word bugila in the Ngarigu language) is a small native rodent with big dark eyes, soft rounded ears and a long dusky-brown tail. The mouse’s dorsal fur is grey-brown with white-grey underparts.

Fiona Maher, truwana Rangers Coordinator at Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, reflects on the partnership, “truwana Rangers are thrilled to connect with Bush Heritage and work to create healthy Country to deliver important cultural and ecological benefits. We’ll watch the monitoring efforts with interest and look forward to seeing evidence of the New Holland Mouse on this spectacular block of heathland. We welcome the leadership of Bush Heritage in engaging Aboriginal rangers to employ their knowledge and skill in managing important values on its reserves.”

The New Holland Mouse is fond of heathy woodlands and coastal scrub where it can feed on a wide variety of seeds, flowers, fungi and small invertebrates. It is distributed throughout coastal south-eastern Australia, from Tasmania to south-east Queensland, where it nests in sandy soil burrows.

The Friendly Beaches Reserve offers an area of potentially critical remaining habitat for the species.

Located in the state’s east, it is part of an extended network of coastal lowland heathland - the rodent’s favourite.

The New Holland Mouse. Photo Bruce Thomson.

Since European settlement, its population has seen a considerable decline due to habitat loss caused by the expansion of towns and land clearing, and a lack of appropriate fire regimes (particularly in Tasmania). It is now listed as vulnerable in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The biggest threat to the species is habitat degradation.

The native rodent, known scientifically as Pseudomys novaehollandiae, hasn’t been seen on Tasmania’s mainland for over a decade. Late last year, it was detected on Tasmania’s Flinders Island, sparking a glimmer of hope that the mammal could still be present elsewhere in the state.

The burn will help improve the vegetation structure and composition on the reserve and bring about positive breeding and feeding conditions.

“Gentle patchy burns can provide the Pookila with all the benefits of fire, such as extra seed fall and germination of fire-dependent species, without increasing predation risk too much,” explains Dr Phoebe Burns, Native Rodent Biologist at Zoos Victoria and Chair of the National New Holland Mouse (Pookila) Recovery Team.

The balance must be right though. Extreme and too frequent wildfires, exacerbated by the climate crisis, destroy its food source and remove the vegetation cover, leaving it vulnerable to predators.

Cool burn in progress.

After sunset, the night’s frost returned. It blanketed the land and quashed any remaining patches that were still alight. The first burn was a success and will set the tone for the team’s ongoing plans.

Bush Heritage’s Ecologist in Tasmania Nick Fitzgerald reflects, “This is the only burn we will do this year, however, we intend to burn a few hectares every year. We want to get a mosaic of different fire ages, which will be ideal for the heathland ecosystem. The cycle will aim to model the cultural burning that would have happened on the land in the past.”

While the New Holland Mouse is yet to be recorded on the reserve, Bush Heritage is doing everything it can as an active land manager to make Friendly Beaches an enticing place for them to set up camp in the future.

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