We swing through the first gate, and meander up through grassy woodland to the main fence, waving to the kangaroos as we pass. We enter the sanctuary through the sturdy metal door, making sure that it’s shut tightly behind us, so that nothing unwanted can follow us in. We unlock the lock box, grab the turtle rescue kit, and off we go, down the fence.
As we hike the perimeter of Mulligans Flat, our eyes are glued to the bottom of the fence, straying occasionally to take in the beauty of the reserve around us. Mulligans Flat is the home of one of the largest remaining communities of critically endangered Yellow Box – Blakely’s Red Gum grassy woodland (consisting of Eurcalyptus melliodora and Eucalyptus blakelyi) in and around the Australian Capital Territory. After years of overgrazing by livestock, rabbits and eastern grey kangaroos (Macropus giganteus), scientists, policy-makers and the wider community are striving to restore this valuable and endangered landscape (Shorthouse et al., 2012: 112).
In 2009, a pest-exclusion fence was built in Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, around the perimeter of Mulligans Flat Nature Sanctuary (Manning et al., 2011: 643). The fence is 11.5 kilometres long, 1.8m high and is electrified and fully feral animal-proof (Ferronato et al., 2014: 578).
The construction of the fence has been highly beneficial for conservation within the sanctuary. It allows the protection of threatened species and communities from exotic predators, competitors and diseases, as well as facilitating the reintroduction of threatened species such as the Eastern bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) (Ferronto et al., 2014: 577, 578).
Feral animals have been removed and excluded from Mulligans Flat since June of 2009 (Manning et al, 2011: 634). Foxes and cats have been eradicated from the area, but other species such as rabbits and hares are still being targeted by removal efforts (Shorthouse et al., 2012: 122).
The fence also provides the opportunity for education, ecotourism and research in the sanctuary, which is also indirectly beneficial for conservation (Ferronto et al., 2014 (577). The fence allows researchers and managers of the nature reserve to control conditions and collaborate on research projects, which will hopefully lead to greater ecological understanding of restoration of endangered ecological communities (Manning et al, 2011: 645).
However, while the fence does a great job of keeping unwanted invasive species out, it also has negative consequences for native species, such as the Eastern Long-Necked Turtle (Chelodina longicollis) (Ferronto et al., 2014: 577). C. longicollis move between wetland habitats, allowing them to thrive off of complementary resources (Roe and Georges, 2007: 67). The fence at Mulligans Flat therefore restricts their mobility greatly. Many turtles overheat, are predated upon, come into collision with vehicles, or become entangled in the fence, resulting in death (Ferronto et al., 2014: 577). Ferronto et al. (2014: 577) found that the fence has caused the death of 3.3% of the C. longicollis population, and disrupted the movement of a further 20.9% of the population within the enclosure. Movement disruption and high mortality was also observed for turtles on the outside of the sanctuary attempting to enter it (Ferronto et al., 2014: 577). Therefore, while the fence is clearly beneficial for the conservation of some species, it is detrimental to that of others.
This is where turtle patrol comes in.
Turtle Patrol is an organised group of residents of the ACT and near-by NSW, who walk the fence looking for, and facilitating the movement of, turtles attempting to cross the fence. Armed with a bag containing a hessian bag to put any turtles in to keep them calm, gloves, a snake-bite kit, a can of fluorescent orange spray-paint, and hand-sanitiser, people march along the fence and pick up turtles they find. Turtles are placed into the hessian bag to keep them calm, taken to the other side of the fence, and placed 10 metres away from the fence, so that they can then continue on their way. Any dead turtles found are recorded on the volunteer database, and marked with spray-paint so that they are not recounted. This service by the community has so far relocated more than 80 turtles this year.
This work is critically important for reducing the risk that the fence poses to the turtles. Movement between wetlands is vital for C. longicollis, and having volunteers help them past the fence severely reduces the risk of mortality mentioned above. This is important for maintaining an abundant population in and around Mulligans Flat, which is important for maintaining wider ecosystem diversity and health.
Canberra Nature Map
The Canberra Nature Map app is used in conjunction with the volunteer database, to record, track and monitor turtle populations. Canberra Nature Map is an app that was launched in 2014 and used on smartphone devices (Walmsley, 2015). Citizen botanists can record and upload photos of species of fungi, plants, frogs, reptiles, butterflies, birds and mammals that they see around the ACT and in NSW up to 300km from the centre of the ACT (Walmsley, 2016). These pictures are then identified by experts, and collated into a database of sightings from around the area. This allows Turtle Patrol to identify high-traffic areas, and concentrate efforts there.
The app is a great way for individuals to learn about the non-human animals that inhabit their environment. A community that is more aware of, engaged with, and educated about biodiversity and conservation issues in their area has more power to influence positive change, and contribute towards conservation initiatives. Furthermore, getting the wider community involved in collecting data about biodiversity is very useful for ecologists and policy-makers restoring the nature reserve. The more information that is known about how approaches to restoration are impacting the ecosystem, the greater our capacity to effectively restore it.
If you are keen to get hands-on with biodiversity conservation and spend some time outside roaming through a beautiful landscape, give Turtle Patrol a go. You’ll be helping some great little creatures out, and you’ll have lots of fun.
Get involved here: https://mulligansflat.org.au/get-involved-2/
By Jessie Smith (u5592288)
Capital Woodlands and Wetlands Conservation Trust, 2015. Contact us, Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, Canberra. Available from: https://mulligansflat.org.au/contactus/ (Accessed 19 October 2016).
Ferronato, B.O., Roe, J.H. and Georges, A., 2014. Reptile bycatch in a pest-exclusion fence established for wildlife reintroductions, Journal for Nature Conservation, 22: 577-585.
Manning, A.D., Wood, J.T., Cunningham, R.B., McIntyre, S., Shorthouse, D.J., Gordon, I.J. and Lindenmayer, D.B., 2011. Integrating research and restoration: the establishment of a long-term woodland experiment in south-eastern Australia, Zoologist, 35(3): 633-648.
Roe, J.H. and Georges, A., 2007. Heterogeneous wetland complexes, buffer zones and travel corridors: Landscape management for freshwater reptiles, Biological Conservation, 135: 67-76.
Shorthouse, D.J., Iglasia, D., Jeffress, S., Lane, S., Mills, P., Woodbridge, G., McIntyre, S. and Manning, A.D., 2012. The ‘making of’ the Mulligans Flat – Goorooyarroo experimental restoration project, Ecological Management & Restoration, 13(2): 112-125.
Walmsley, H., 2015. Citizen botanists help track rare plants and stop the spread of noxious weeds in Canberra, ABC Premium News 30 June, 2015.
Walmsley, H., 2016. Canberra Nature Map app to include native reptiles in online database, ABC Premium News 19 January, 2016.