If you venture towards the outskirts of north-eastern Canberra, near the suburb of Forde, you may come across a true hidden gem – Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve – and you may also catch a glimpse of one of its new local residents, the Eastern Bettong.
The reserve was established in 1995, to protect one of the last remaining patches of the critically endangered ecological community, yellow box-red grassy woodland, as well as a range of its native residents. Adjacent to Mulligans Flat is the Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve, which was established in 2004 – together they represent the largest intact area of grassy woodland left in the ACT (Manning 2011).
Before European settlement, this ecological community was once widespread across much of eastern Australia. Though in the early 1800s, most of the habitat was cleared by settlers and transformed into landscape used for crop and livestock production (ACT Government 2016). Today, only 5% of the original grassy woodland habitat still stands. However, majority of these patches are highly fragmented, and much of the life that once thrived in these communities have sadly been lost, due to loss of habitat and introduced species (Manning 2011).
Species which had disappeared from this local environment include the Eastern Quoll, Eastern Bettong, Bush-Stone Curlew, and the New Holland Mouse – some which had completely been wiped off the Australian mainland. In 2006, the ACT Government in a research partnership with ANU and CSIRO, announced their plan to build a sanctuary at Mulligans Flat, surrounded by a predator-proof fence, as part of the Mulligans Flat-Goorooyarroo Woodland Experiment. The construction of a 1.8m-high fence aims to keep foxes and cats out, and facilitate the release of locally extinct species back into the area, such as the Eastern Bettong (ACT Government).
This idea of ‘fencing in natives, fencing out ferals’ has been previously trialed by other nature reserves around Australia, such as the Arid Recovery in SA. These experiments found that the use of exclusion fences were the key to the success of small mammal reintroductions, to prevent introduced predators from decimating newly founded populations (Hayward & Somers 2011). By bringing these species back into the area and eliminating their key threats, will hopefully restore Mulligans Flat to how it may have looked and functioned pre-European settlement. The Sanctuary provides an opportunity to reintroduce locally extinct species, and understand the effects of excluding introduced species, and returning natives to the local ecosystem. Hopefully these restoration experiments will help guide adaptive management strategies and future conservation decisions, particularly for endangered ecological communities (Manning 2011).
Currently, the reserve is managed by ACT Parks and Conservation Services, and also receives management assistance from the local volunteer group, the Friends of Mulligans, which carry out a number of management activities in the reserve such as weed removal, tree planting, and helping promote community awareness. (ACT Government). For the last 6 months, I have been lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to volunteer with the Friends of Mulligans group, assisting with research and reintroduction programs including bettong surveys, bettong care and curlew feeding. Here I will share my wonderful experience with the Bettongs of Mulligans.
My Volunteer Work: Bettong Surveying and Bettong Care
The Eastern Bettong is a small kangaroo-like marsupial that was once commonly found across eastern Australia. However in the 1930s, it became extinct on the mainland, due to predation from cats and foxes and habitat modification. Now it is only restricted to the eastern parts of Tasmania and is listed as a ‘near-threatened’ species. Due to the recent introduction of foxes in Tasmania, establishing a founder population at Mulligans has become essential to their survival (Batson 2015).
As part of the woodland restoration project, the species made its return to the mainland when 32 individuals were released at Mulligans Flat in 2012. This marked the first time in more than 80 years since these guys had set foot in the area. These bettongs were purposely selected from 5 various locations across Tasmania to maximise the existing genetic diversity in the Tassie population, and to ensure the long-term survival of the newly founded population at Mulligans (Suen 2016). Their reintroduction is an important part of the woodland restoration project, which aims to restore the ecosystem to its former state. Eastern Bettongs are referred to as ‘ecosystem engineers’ as they are known to create diggings, which are suggested to have an important role in driving soil aeration and hydrology, dispersal of fungal species, and the turnover of soils and organic matter. Therefore, bringing back these ‘ecosystem engineers’ will essentially contribute to the ecological restoration of the area, and provide some valuable research into their relationship with the local ecosystem (Batson 2015).
In April 2016, I had the exciting opportunity to assist in the first round of biannual surveys on the thriving bettong population at Mulligans Flat. At the early hours of 2am, I accompanied a team of ecologists, researchers and volunteers in search of cage traps with these furry friends around the Sanctuary. From each captured bettong we recorded its ID (using a microchip scanner), gender, weight, body condition, and measurements such as head length, both left and right feet lengths, and tail width. If the bettong was female, we checked the pouch for young, and if present, also assessed its condition. If the individual had not been previously captured (‘clean skin’), it was given a microchip and a tissue sample from the ear was collected as a source of DNA.
This was a great way to get some hands-on experience and a behind-the-scenes insight into the processes involved in monitoring a fauna population, and its significance to the broader woodland experiment.
In the last 6 months, I have also been involved in caring for two cheeky (yet extremely cute) bettongs, Berry and Banksia. The bettong care involves a group of volunteers who regularly visit the bettongs to cuddle and feed them a few nuts (tough job, I know). As these two little guys have been selected to be used in the Bettong Outreach Program, it is important that they get use to human contact.
The main goal for this program is to educate school children, and to promote public awareness about the importance of these little guys and the Mulligans Flat project – as awareness, nature appreciation and education are key to ensuring this native species remains protected for generations to come.
Overall, it has personally been a wonderful experience contributing to biodiversity conservation and research, and being given the opportunity to get involved in such an exciting project that’s right on our doorstep. Thanks to these recent reintroduction programs at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, and the tremendous effort from the amazing team of rangers, ecologists, researchers and volunteers at Mulligans Flat, you may be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of these rare animals, happily roaming the area once again.
U5560255 Kristi Lee
To get involved go to : https://mulligansflat.org.au/get-involved-2/
ACT Government (2016) ‘Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve’ [accessed online] www.environment.act.gov.au/parks-conservation/parks-and-reserves/find-a-park/canberra-nature-park/mulligans-flat-nature-reserve
Batson. WG (2015) A tactic-based approach for improving the outcomes of eastern bettongs (Bettongia garimardi) reintroductions (thesis) https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/101799/1/Batson%20W%20G%20Thesis%202015.pdf#page=177
Hayward. MW & Somers MJ (2011) An Introduction to Fencing for Conservation, Chapter: Fencing for Conservation, pp. 1-6
Manning. A (2011) ‘Mulligans Flat – Gooroooyarroo Experiment’, (PDF) http://www.mfgowoodlandexperiment.org.au/PDFsMFGO/Mulligans_Flat_Goorooyarroo_Experiment_Manning_2011.pdf
Suen. A (2016) Reintroducing bettongs to the ACT: issues relating to genetic diversity and population dynamics, (PDF) http://www.npaact.org.au/res/File/2016/Bettongs%20April%20Suen.pdf