Ecologists buy 1,000-acre blue gum plantation and transform it into wetland it once was

February 7, 2021
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It was 2016, Mark Bachmann was stumped.

He and his team of scientists were three years into transforming a huge tract of agricultural land into the wetland it once was, but had no idea how their small, regional, not-for-profit could negotiate the final step: to buy 1,000 acres of commercial blue gum plantation.

That was when he spotted the platypus.

“I drove out after a big flood to see how our two trial swamps were looking, I’d just taken a few steps off the road and saw a black thing moving up along the bank of a deep drain,” Mr Bachmann said.

“I thought it might be a water rat, but then I got a look at the bill and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a platypus!'” he said.

That platypus appeared at the right time, providing Mr Bachmann with inspiration in the face of what seemed, at that point, nearly impossible.

It’s not easy for a small, science-based environmental organisation like Nature Glenelg Trust to buy a 1,035-acre blue-gum plantation, strip it of trees, allow it to flood, and transform it back into wetlands.

“We’re rural people, practical people, we work with farmers a lot, science underpins what we do,” Mr Bachmann said.

“There are no layers of bureaucracy; we are a very lean operation, but we get a lot done.”

At that point, a local band of nature lovers, the Hamilton Field Naturalist Club, had thrown a sum of money in the hat, but a lot more was needed and the land simply wasn’t for sale.

“But that platypus had been bunkering down in the permanent pools that our previous work had created. It confirmed that what we were doing was so important for the river,” Mr Bachmann said.

“It was an indicator that by allowing the place to flood, we’d enabled everything to go ‘boom’ and start spreading out looking for food and habitat, or a place to breed.

“That was pretty exciting. Little did we know then that a couple of years later we’d have bought the plantation and fixed the whole wetland system.”

Turning back the clock

When the Nature Glenelg Trust ecologists first laid foot on this piece of land, known as Walker Swamp, it was in a highly altered, depleted state.

For two centuries, water had been diverted and drained.

In the 1950s the land was drained for grazing. Then in the 1970s, more water was diverted from the entire catchment to the Wimmera-Mallee headworks system.

Finally in the 1980s, much of the land was converted to blue gum plantation.

“Now we’re trying to turn back the clock, essentially,” Mr Bachmann said.

They started with trials — building temporary structures that would allow the neighbouring grazing land to flood.

By 2014, two swamps had been fully restored.

“The birds all came back, the frogs all came back, threatened fish turned up,” Mr Bachmann said.

Now, it was just the looming stands of the plantation that stood in the way.

“We knew that the plantation out there would eventually be harvested and the property sold. We wanted to be the ones to buy it,” Mr Bachmann said.

Ecologist Lachlan Farrington remembers when he first saw the site.

“It was in a pretty sad state really,” he said.

“You could tell it was a wetland but half of Walker Swamp had been planted with blue gums and it looked like it was really suffering.

“What was here was pretty sparse and all the same,” he said.

Mr Bachmann explains why the state of the place wasn’t thoroughly discouraging for their team.

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