Conservation at Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve

23 August 2017

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One of the great joys of living in Canberra, is living in a city surrounded by nature.

Our National Parks, protected grasslands, fresh air and some pretty amazing sunsets are a few gems our nature offers us.

All contribute to our enjoyment as we go about our everyday lives. 

But our very presence within the diverse and dynamic systems of the natural environment in many ways disrupt the way our natural elements function. 

Sometimes with little impact and sometimes with a lot.

This is no more so than in areas where in the past humans have trodden a bit too heavily on nature. 

Where our activity has disrupted the functioning of our natural environment it may result in natural areas taking on a new landscape but not necessarily a better landscape.

As I have said before, we need to look after our environment so it can look after us.

The ACT Government has taken many steps towards rehabilitating the natural environment within the ACT. 

Both through direct action and collaborative efforts involving many local scientific, environmental and conservation groups, the ACT Government has played a part in a number of projects aimed at preserving and enhancing the nature within our city.

Mulligans Flat

Following a community lead campaign to protect box-gum grassy woodlands, Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve was established in 1995, in North East Gungahlin on the ACT / NSW border.

Box-gum woodland is a critically endangered ecological community, having been cleared, modified and grazed by farmers since the 1820s.

Despite this, Mulligans Flat has retained substantial ecological value. The reserve covers roughly 750 hectares and is popular for bushwalking and bird watching, as Mulligans Flat is known for its diverse and rare birdlife.

Described as a living science experiment, the fact that so little was known about the ecological systems in Box-gum woodland was part of the motivation for establishing the reserve.

Preserving this invaluable area therefore also offers opportunities in recreation, research and education.

Nearly 10 years later a similar area of box-gum grassy woodland was protected just southeast of Mulligans Flat, in Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve.

In combination, the two reserves total roughly 1500 hectares, constituting the largest and most intact area of Yellow Box – Red Gum Grassy Woodland in Australia.

Protecting an area of land from being developed or further cleared is not enough to help the ecosystem fully regenerate.

Part of this effort to return the environment to its natural condition includes removing the threats presented in the nature itself.

After beginning collaborations with the ANU and CSIRO in both reserves, it became clear in 2005, that the Mulligans Flat reserve could include a Sanctuary, free from cats, foxes and rabbits, and that this could help establish an environment hospitable to native species that were previously extinct in the region.

The Sanctuary

Having now been established, the Sanctuary is protected not only by an 11.5km long fence, but a cleared buffer zone between the fence and Gungahlin homes.

The area was cleared of foxes and feral cats, as well as rabbits and kangaroos, which have had a heavy effect on the landscape and vegetation.

Since the creation of the Sanctuary, researchers have had a home to start reintroducing species that went extinct in the area 40 – 100 years ago.

Thanks to Tasmanian ecologists’ efforts to preserve and restore the wildlife populations, several small mammals have been re-established in the ACT from populations in our southernmost state.

36 Eastern Bettongs were released into the Sanctuary in 2012.

The critters are like rabbit-sized kangaroos, and their population has since sprouted to 350.

The Eastern Bettongs burrow for truffles and other food, aerating the soil and enabling new native plants to establish roots in the loosened soil.

Quolls had also vanished from the ACT, and after 50 years, were reintroduced in 2016 from a Tasmanian population.

As native predator, quolls can now be included on the reserve to help complete the food chain that herbivores are now naturally replenishing.

Bush Stone-curlews and New Holland Mice have also been reintroduced. Other charismatic species like Echidnas, Red-necked Wallabies, Stumpy Tail Lizards and Antechinus are also rebounding, relieved from the pressure of foxes on their populations.

The Sanctuary intends to eventually include goannas and bandicoots.

The ANU is working with the reserve to help monitor the animals’ condition and track their behaviour across the reserve.

While the animals make for a great poster-child for the Sanctuary, it’s important not to forget the immense work with plant life too.

Several of the experiments have involved the scattering of 2000 tonnes of large logs like fallen trees, known as course woody debris.

Researchers are now monitoring the ways in which flora and fauna are interacting with the dead material.

This relationship and the important role it plays in maintaining the careful balance within an ecosystem had previously been largely prevented by farmers who had cleared the land to drive stock.

Mulligans Flat

Jason Cummings, the General Manager of the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust highlights just exactly why Mulligans Flat is so unique. He says:

“Importantly Mulligans Flat is not a remote, elitist, locked-up space.

Although the fox-proof fences look foreboding, this is a place borne of and for the community.

 For generations now conservationists have sought to protect the place and now it is a haven for wildlife and the community. 

While every week there are guided tours, every day there is joggers, pram-pushers, school and university students, and cyclists enjoying their reconnection with nature.

The partners involved work hard to balance the opportunities of visitation, recreation and conservation – in addition to learning how to restore the woodlands, it is a place to inspire the community to care for our unique Australian wildlife. 

Volunteers with the Friends of Mulligans Flat help in all aspects of Sanctuary management, from ‘Turtle Patrol’ helping Eastern Long-neck turtles pass the fox-proof fence to weed control, citizen science and management planning.”

I visited the Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary with my team in late June.

Walking through the reserve after dark, hearing about the ground breaking work being done and the findings made was brilliant.

The closeness of nature was remarkable, spotting the bettongs bouncing through the bush with living room lights on the horizon.

The reserve is almost literally on Gungahlin’s doorstop.

ACT Government Commitment

But the Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo Reserve aren’t stand-alone reserves.

They’re part of Canberra Nature Park, a group of 30 nature reserves over Canberra that help maintain our natural environment throughout our built environment.

It’s a large part of what defines Canberra as the Bush Capital.

And this is something that Canberrans value.

Having just gone through the submissions for the Billboard Inquiry, I was reminded how passionate Canberrans are about the way their city looks and feels, and how our identity as a Bush Capital plays into this.

It’s integral to our sense of place and home in the Territory.

In every electorate, every town centre you can see out to the mountain ranges, the national parks, the nature reserves.

This year’s ACT Budget continues to address biodiversity and conservation in our local community.

A further $2.5 million will be invested in tackling environmental issues and protecting nature reserves in the ACT.

$162,000 will be provided to the Woodland and Wetlands Trust to work on design of the Mulligans Flat Ecotourism Centre.

The Woodland Sanctuary at Mulligan’s Flat will be extended to create more than 1200 hectares of predator-free woodland.

Under the expansion, the woodland sanctuary's fence line will be extended to the doorstep of the new Canberra suburb of Throsby.

But it’s not enough to simply carve out patches of land where we permit nature in our city.

We have to protect and integrate our built and natural environments so the people living here can use and learn from nature without harming it.

Since the release of the ACT Nature Conservation Strategy in 2013, the Government has made a significant impact on the Territory landscape through restoration and rehabilitation.

Partnerships between the ACT Government, the Federal Government, community groups and researchers have guided the process.

Achievements include

  • Improvements to regional connectivity between natural environments
  • Substantial development of knowledge of local soils, vegetation and hydrology
  • The creation of new apps for the community to monitor plants and animals in their areas
  • Successfully conducted captive breeding programs, redistribution of animals and propagation of vegetation
  • Improved systems to manage biosecurity, including managing threats presented by new weeds and pests.
  • Community engagement through groups like Landcare and ParkCare

The Government is now focussing on restoring vegetation of priority areas

  • continuing to restore priority landscapes and re-establishing vegetation
  • teaching the community about biodiversity in their areas
  • Supporting better management of native plants on farms
  • Supporting traditional custodians in the application of Aboriginal land management methods on Country
  • Encouraging Canberrans to spend time amongst nature to improve their health and overall wellbeing
  • Strengthening the ACT’s capacity to plan for and adapt to climate change, such as through the ACT Climate Change Adaptation Strategy
  • Building our ability to monitor the effectiveness of conservation within reserves

This commitment to our environment, to conservation and to nature is not limited to the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate.

These concepts and values are being extrapolated into our parks and playgrounds too.

Nature Play

As part of our strategy to integrate the built and natural environment, the ACT Government has recently opened 3 new Nature Play Parks in Greenway, Barton and O’Connor. 

On the weekend I was at the community launch of the O’Connor Park. 

Nature Play parks seek to provide more than your typical swing and slippery dip by introducing natural play opportunities to make nature fun for all ages.

Where traditional playgrounds offer a specific type of experience, Nature Play brings people together from all demographics to get active.

Going out into my home suburb of Giralang, I’ve heard that traditional playgrounds are quickly outgrown by anyone over the age of 6.

They also age quickly and limit the imaginative and creative elements of play that children want.

Nature Play works to use the landscape in place of play structures, allowing for the maintenance of existing ecosystems and opportunities to interact within them.  

It aims to get us more excited about nature, right from the start.

For children and adults, it encourages engaged play within a natural setting that values the structures and tangible physical objects around us.|

When I visited Mulligans Flat earlier this year one of the fascinating species that our Guide, Shoshanna, pointed out to us was the Mistletoe plant.

Not just a cheesy excuse for a Christmas peck, this parasite carefully disguises itself as a dense cluster of eucalypt leaves and clings to branches of gum trees.

As a parasite, the Mistletoe uses its host plant as a root system, for water and support.

Their fruit is sweet and full of carbohydrates that possums, sugar gliders, birds and insects rely on. Koalas even eat the Mistletoe’s leaves.

The thick foliage also provides shelter for smaller birds, mammals and insects from the elements and predators.

But unlike a typical parasite, Mistletoe provides a benefit to its host. Mistletoe doesn’t kill its host, instead, the native plant encourages fauna to spread the host’s seed as well as the Mistletoe’s.

Its sugary fruit can also distract pest species from attacking its host and potentially destroying forests of Blue Gum.

Charles Sturt University has found there would be 1/3 fewer birds around without it, evidence of how the Mistletoe assists its whole habitat.

This mutually beneficial relationship is one I think mirrors our relationship with the environment.

It’s sometimes hard to see why we should care about the environment.

We can hear the calls from climate scientists and environmentalists that we have to change what we’re doing but these warnings seem so far removed from our day-to-day lives.

Quolls and bettongs are cute, and we can all stop using take-away coffee cups, but it’s hard to really get a good sense of the change we can make through our individual actions.

Our community will continue to grow, a reflection of the fact Canberra is the best place to live.

You cannot blame anyone for wanting to live here, however being a Canberran comes with a responsibility to not place undue burden on our environment.

We don’t have to see taking care of our environment as a hassle.

It doesn’t have to be something we’re encroaching on, nor does it need to be something we lock away indefinitely. 

The work being done at Mulligans Flat and across the ACT is showing the rest of Australia that we can enrich and strengthen our environment, while enjoying the amenity it offers us. 

The living experiment taking place at Mulligans Flat shows us just what can be achieved when we work responsibility within, and with, our environment.