Situated along the northern urban outskirts of Canberra is a considerably large time capsule presently in its early stages of development: the Mulligans Flat and Goorooyaroo Woodland Sanctuary Reserve.
Prior to the establishment of the Sanctuary in 1994, the land had undergone 150 years of habitat degradation, invasion by introduced species, altered fire regimes, intensive pastoralism, over-grazing, and clearing (Shorthouse et al. 2012). Out of the grassy woodlands that historically covered the southeastern Australian landscape, only 5% of it exists today. Mulligans Flat and Goorooyaroo stand as the largest remaining pockets of the critically endangered ecological community (Department of Environment and Heritage, 2006). The Sanctuary has since been transformed into a large-scale experiment site, with the primary objective of restoring the landscape to what it was predicted to have looked like in the world of 1788, prior to the arrival of European settlers .
To achieve this, a range of restorative and management techniques have been applied to bring the critically endangered ecological community, along with its native inhabitants, back from the brink of extinction. The experiments that are carried out provide invaluable and pioneering insights into effective strategies for landscape restoration, that could be applied outside of the Sanctuary (Manning et al., 2011).
In addition to the scientific aspects of this project, community involvement is another vital component of the successful management of the Sanctuary.Not only does the direct participation by the surrounding community cultivate a strong sense of value for the land by the locals, but it also plays a critical role in the reserve’s operation. Since mid-2015, I’ve had the fortune of being able to take part in a diverse range of volunteer opportunities in conjunction with the Friends of Mulligans Flat, ranging from population surveys to personal animal care, on a regular basis.
Among the several ongoing projects taking place in the Sanctuary is the reintroduction of species that have long been absent from the area, but are believed to have had important roles in the ecosystem. Two of these species have since become iconic to the park: The Eastern Bettong (Bettongia gaimardi), and the Bush Stone Curlew (Barhinus grallarius). The reintroduction programs for both of these species were among the most exciting of the opportunities I’ve been able to play a part in.
Curlew pre-release care
After being locally extinct from the region for over 40 years, Bush Stone Curlews were introduced back into the Sanctuary, in 2014. This year, I’ve participated in the second gradual release of curlews into the reserve.
Releases can sometimes be a stressful process for wildlife, especially for timid creatures like curlews. It is therefore necessary for them to undergo a “soft release”. As opposed to taking them from one area and releasing them directly into another overnight, soft releases involve maintaining a a population in an enclosure where they are able looked after and allowed to acclimatise for several months. During this period volunteers would visit them on a daily basis to feed them (with dog food funnily enough), refresh their water supply, and ensure the security of the enclosure. By providing them with a regular supply of food, it was also hoped that this would provide enough incentive for the curlews to remain within the Reserve after the release from their enclosure. The environment beyond the predator-proof fencing of the Sanctuary has proven to be too hostile to nearly all curlews that have escaped due to feral cats and foxes that contributed to their initial extinction from the area in the first place.
Later this month the curlews are expected to be released from the enclosure to mix with the rest of the curlew population previously released into the reserve, after which they will be continuously monitored by camera traps and temporary tracker tags (that later fall off when their feathers are shed). The hope is that a stable breeding population will eventually develop for the growth and sustained viability of the little guys in the park.
The Bettong reintroduction program has thus far been a great success, with the latest population counts exceeding 200 individuals. This is especially significant considering that they have been absent from the mainland for over a century. Their reintroduction from Tasmania into the reserve was a key step in the restoration of the woodland ecosystem, owing to their prolific digging of soils for truffles. This activity is expected to assist in improving soil quality through aeration, encouraging water infiltration, and the spread of fungal spores (Shorthouse et al. 2012). Having established a stable population in the reserve, attention has now been turned towards community outreach and education.
Maintaining awareness of a species as symbolic to the revival of the box-gum grassy woodlands is a critical part of sustaining the restoration process. To address this, a bettong outreach program has been started up, with a primary focus on exposing school children to bettongs. At the forefront of the program are two hand-reared Bettongs (named Banksia and Berry), accommodated quite conveniently on the ANU campus. My role, along with a selection of other volunteers, was to visit the two and acclimatise them to human contact. To be honest, cuddling furry creatures all day has been one of my better jobs.
In addition to this education program, I’ve also had the pleasure of accompanying numerous Twilight Tours (as an assistant), witnessing the looks of wonderment as tourists spotted Bettongs out in their native setting, carrying out their usual nocturnal digging activities. The funds raised from these tours also contribute to the continued restoration of these Bettongs’ new home.
The Mulligans Flat and Goorooyaroo Sanctuary is a rare jewel in Australian biodiversity. Indeed, it is the only park of its kind in the world, and needs to be protected as such. Much has been achieved so far (just this year quolls have been the newest addition to the community and have even started breeding), yet there’s still much more to be done. I have every intention of sticking around, to continue lending a hand where it’s needed, and see life returned to the the last of the grassy woodlands.
Linden Muellner-Wong, u5562905
For those interested in getting involved (can recommend), here’s a link! https://app.betterimpact.com/PublicOrganization/ee4ae836-4c65-4bbd-af55-64aab6e436d2/1
Department of Environment and Heritage (2006). EPBC Policy Statement 3.5 – White Box –Yellow Box – Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy Woodlands and Derived Native Grasslands listing.
Manning, A., Wood, J., Cunningham, R., McIntyre, S., Shorthouse, D., Gordon, I. and Lindenmayer, D. (2011). Integrating research and restoration: the establishment of a long-term woodland experiment in south-eastern Australia. Australian Zoologist, 35(3), pp.633-648.
Shorthouse, D.J. et al., 2012. The “making of” the Mulligans Flat – Goorooyarroo experimental restoration project. Ecological Management and Restoration, 13(2), pp.112–125.