A passionate Heart

Gary Howard’s first recollection of the area known as The Heart Morass, near Sale was back in the mid-70s when the property was still managed as a farm, the water in the Latrobe River was fresh and the whole area looked, in Gary’s words, “phenomenal”.

“1975 was a phenomenal year for wetlands, for water…I just have very vivid memories of what it looked like then. It was fresh. All the shallower areas were covered in water grasses as well as big stands of round rush…Now all that’s gone. The salt has killed them. What would have been fresh water plants are now gone.”

It is partly that memory that has driven Gary, or ‘Pud’ as he is more often known to invest time and effort over the last dozen years to improve the Heart with careful management and a desire to restore it at least partly to its former glory.

Part of that management plan carried out in partnership with the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority has included the area receiving flows of water for the environment. These inflows have both reduced salinity and provided a boost for semi-aquatic grasses.

But how can a wetland suddenly become such a hostile and harsh environment? Gary says the real damage was done over the last 30 years as the salt levels in the Gippsland Lakes changed and was compounded during the Millennium Drought, when fresh flows down the Latrobe River dropped.

“That really put the nail in the coffin…the salt coming in from the Lakes, no flow coming down the river to push it out. Every year, the tidal influence in the Lakes would rise, come over the bank…cover 60-70% of the Morass, then summer would come it would dry out and leave the salt.”

In speaking with Gary, in a noisy café, he may not strike many people as a passionate conservationist. This is a man who has been an active hunter for many years and is a key figure in Field and Game Australia, an organisation that advocates and promotes hunting as a valuable part of Australia’s culture.

However, he, along with countless volunteers, have been carefully and judiciously bringing the almost 3200 acres of wetland back to life since taking co-ownership of it in 2006 through a partnership with the Hugh D.T. Williamson Philanthropic Trust, the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority (WGCMA), Field and Game Australia and Watermark.

“Through the CMA’s Water Management Program, we’ve improved it. It’s noticeable in the vegetation. There were areas there that were bare, red dirt bare.” Gary says the red colour comes from the influx of salts to the soil. “We now have areas that are improving very slowly and other areas where plants are again starting to grow quite successfully.”

A major piece of infrastructure that has aided the Heart is the construction of new water control gates (regulator) at the south eastern end of the Morass. This project, funded through the Gippsland Lakes Coordinating Committee, allows fresh water to be held on the wetlands or drained as needs arise and for saline water to be kept off the property, in many ways recreating the natural cycle of a wetlands

In terms of flora, the rehabilitation of Heart’s Morass has been something of an experiment with a ‘trial and error’ approach taken to what plants, particularly trees, can be planted where, with some species not tolerating a higher salinity environment and others thriving.

A $30,000 grant from the GLCC to preserve 60 hectares of Swamp Scrub is a good example of learning on the job as well as an indication of just how harsh the Morass has been.

“After extensive preparation of the area which included slashing and burning and fumigating; I mean a lot of hard work to get the area right, we planted around 6,000 trees only to find that they struggled with rabbits, wallabies and deer and the dry conditions,” recalls Gary.

“So, it was back into it with even more preparation before planting out the area again. It’s a lot of hard work, but we’re hopeful that we can see success with this recent planting and, basically, ‘repair’ the landscape.”

In August 2019, the Heart Morass received a flow of water through the Water for the Environment program managed by the Victorian Environmental Water Holder with the aim being to assist in ‘flushing’ the salt from the soils.

“The plan is to bring water in, elevate the level of the Morass, then open the big flood gates at the bottom end of the Morass and as soon as the river goes down then off it goes taking the salt with it.”

The Environmental Water inflow coincided with one of the many community events held at the Heart through the year with a National Tree Day event seeing around 80 volunteers on site and 2000 trees planted.

“Field and Game certainly want to improve the site, but we also want members of the public to come and enjoy it too. We’re building new walking tracks, maintaining other tracks and really encourage people to come in for a walk or bike ride. We might be the key manager at the moment but it’s a community asset we want people to enjoy,” says Gary.

To say this is a long-term project for Field and Game Australia and Gary in particular, is something of an understatement. But one gets the feeling that taking a long-term view is something both the organisation and the individual is comfortable with. A fact born out when Gary discusses how an organisation best known for advocating hunting became a partner with philanthropists and government to take ownership of the Morass in the first place.

“Although we were instrumental in getting the State Game Reserves set up across the state, it had always been a dream of the Field and Game to own and manage their own wetland.”

However, Gary pushes back on the idea that the desire to own a wetland was driven by a desire to ensure security for shooters to be able to hunt ducks.

“We didn’t need security because we had the State Game Reserves. We didn’t do it for access. We did it to prove our credentials as wetland conservationists…There was a view that ‘wetlands were wastelands’, that they could be drained. We were there fighting to save, protect and enhance them.”

That management has seen thousands of trees planted, weeds and other debris removed, paths and tracks established and countless days where school groups and other members of the community have enjoyed what at least some locals call ‘the Kakadu of the south.’

While the past dozen years have seen ups and downs, dry periods and good floods (“the best thing for a wetland is a good flood,” says Gary). There are still plans to continue managing the property so that it improves and remains a community asset.

“There are areas up the top end of the system that never see flood water due to an embankment that was built up in an earlier era. Currently there are plans and money is being sought to design an inflow system for that section to allow flood waters in to help rehabilitate the area.”

Despite all the hours of labour carried out over more than 10 years Gary is realistic when asked will the vision of the place he came across in 1975 ever be recreated?

“We’ll never create it. It was a genuine freshwater wetland. There are only two genuine freshwater wetlands left in the Gippsland Lakes system. McLeods Morass at Bairnsdale and the Sale Common. But we can still improve it. We’ve had a vast improvement over the last 12 years, so we can keep improving, but we’re never going to get the fresh water to take it back to what it was.”

While restoring the wetland to a state prior to salt incursion, with a fresh water river supplying it with flushing floods may not be attainable, the transformation of the Heart over the last dozen years is a true success story of determination, vision and trusting partnerships between government, philanthropy and community groups. A partnership that will continue to provide a community asset for the Gippsland community for many years into the future.

Funding for the Heart Morass Regulator project and the Swamp Scrub Restoration was provided by the Victorian State Government through the Gippsland Lakes Coordinating Committee.

Published Thursday September 5th 2019

Gary Howard (Pud) and Geoff Glass (Pa) at the Heart Morass near Sale
Gary Howard (Pud) & Geoff Glass (Pa) - Heart Morass nr Sale Episode 1.
Pelicans enjoying the environment at the Heart Morass
Heart Morass
Local landmark at eastern end of Morass known as the 'Rickety Bridge'