Transforming the landscape

When Katie and Ben found their property at Toora North, they knew it was exactly what they wanted for their family – 35 acres of lush, green forest featuring a picture-perfect 1920s wood cabin.

They bought the property just over a year ago and with their three young children, began their idyll of living between Toora North and Melbourne, getting to know their new home and working out what they wanted for it.

From the beginning, they recognised the privilege of being the custodians of such a beautiful corner of the world and as they started to realise the challenges the property was facing, it became their goal to restore the forest to its natural state.

“What we didn’t realise was how little we knew,” Katie says.

“When we bought the property, we saw this beautiful forest with lovely drooping willows down the creek that the kids could play in. We didn’t realise a lot of that green lushness was blackberry, or that willows were an issue.”

From their first conversations with neighbours and locals they began to realise the magnitude of their problem, and it was recommended that they join their local Agnes River Landcare group.

“Our willow was a forest of willow,” Katie says.

“As pretty as it was, we used to walk through it to the gully, and there would be no sounds of wildlife, nothing. Just silence and stillness – there was no life other than the willows. We called it the Swamp of Sadness, out of the Never Ending Story.

Ben and Katie were advised that their only hope of eradicating the willow was to ‘drill and fill’ – drill holes in each individual plant and fill the holes with neat Roundup, then wait for the trees to die. The process would have taken decades.

“We would never have had a hope of seeing the restoration of the forest in our lifetime, but we were OK with that, we just wanted it to happen,” Katie says.

“However, I decided to look into it a bit more; I thought there had to be another way.”

Katie was referred to the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, and their project coordinator, Richard Allen.

From their conversation, Richard decided he needed to go and have a look at the property.

“When he got here, all he could see was a wall of green. The cabin was virtually in a tunnel of willow,” Katie says.

“He said ‘I think we could use a combination of mechanical with drill and fill here – leave it with me’. We didn’t know what that meant, but when Richard came back, it was with this massive, brontosaurus of an excavator that just plucked these hundred-year-old willows out of the ground – they would have weighed several tonnes each.”

Rich said the first thing that grabbed his attention was Ben and Katie’s commitment and enthusiasm for their property and the changes they wanted to make.

“Ben and Katie’s place is on Walla Walla Creek which is largely willow free,” explained Rich.

“We recognised that this was the perfect project – super motivated landholders willing to put in their own time and effort, as well as an opportunity to rid the whole Walla Walla Creek Valley of willows.

“Their property fits right in with our Agnes River project,” continued Rich.

To date WGCMA has complimented Ben and Katie’s weed control efforts by removing and burning willows.

“They spent four days here with the excavator and chainsaw. We watched the landscape change as they took the willows out and opened it up,” Ben says.

“There were hills we hadn’t known were there. There were parts of the creek we couldn’t see, there were gullies we hadn’t realised existed. You just couldn’t see any of it because the willow was blocking it like a wall.

The excavator driver told Ben and Katie the willow had climbed 50 metres up the hillside beyond the creek bank – higher than he had ever seen it go.

“It was very well established. There were a few paths where you could get through, but much of it was impenetrable.”

And the Swamp of Sadness?

“It was cleared, and although it looked lush and green before and now it looks desolate and destroyed, the wildlife and the birdlife have already come back. It’s like the earth can breathe again,” Ben says.

The family recently spotted a pair of lyrebirds – the first they have seen on their property – in a natural amphitheatre revealed by the willow clearing process, and the children are particularly excited by the prospect of locating a tiger quoll. The James’s are using a motion sensor camera to help in this quest.

There are platypi in the creek that runs by the house, a couple of different types of Gippsland burrowing crays, and a species of earthworm that is related to the giant Gippsland earthworm.

“And at the first chance of sun, air and moisture with the clearing of the willow, blackwood seedlings have sprung up everywhere. The willow was blocking the indigenous life that was here,” Ben says.

Along with the blackwood seedlings, there are tiny ferns sprouting from the newly cleared ground, marking the start of the indigenous forest’s regeneration, and creating cover for other plants to also begin their recovery.

“This is our first and biggest step in achieving what we want here, which is complete, authentic biodiversity, true to what would have been here before European settlement,” Katie says.

“What was a project that would have lasted the rest of our lives and beyond, is now something we can hope to see real results from within five years – the change is just amazing.”

She adds that it is imperative they stay on top of their weed control, as the blackberry canes are already growing back, and just a twig off a willow tree stuck in the ground can regenerate into a tree.

“A lot of people are restoring forest by replanting on cleared land. Our focus is more on weed control than planting – to regenerate the indigenous forest by taking the forest of willow and blackberry away.

“We will need to plant some mountain ash and eucalypts as there won’t be an existing seed bed for those species because the willow has been dominant for so long. But we want to do it in a way that is authentic – we don’t want to just plant any old gum from Western Australia because it’s a native.”

Although they still have a huge, and ongoing, job ahead, the James’s couldn’t be happier – they have a vision for their property and they are making significant progress with real and rewarding results.

“It’s just so different here, and so good for the children to just have the natural environment,” Katie says.

“In Melbourne, even if you go for a picnic there are fences or paths or restrictions. Here, there is nothing like that. We’ve got no television and the iPads get put away as soon as we arrive. The kids can identify most of the plants that even we couldn’t identify a year ago.

“We’re into the fun part now; seeing our progress, deciding where to put things like paths and bird hides. Having the willow taken away has opened everything up for us.”