Wetlands and life, World Wetlands Day

Wetlands in Australia have, to a large extent, had a troubled time since European settlement.

As graziers started to work the land before them, wetlands were an impediment to production and would frequently be drained to allow pasture to grow and stock to graze.

Adjoining areas were cleared of trees resulting in landscapes being drastically altered.

However, times change. As does knowledge and practice.

After the devastating drought of the mid 70s, Jenny and Robert Davies moved from Melbourne to a 110-acre former dairy farm in Jack River near Yarram in Gippsland.

A few years later, the neighbouring 240-acre farm became available and Jenny and Robert were able to purchase that and build an Angus beef business.

“I had a dream of owning my own farm. A dream I had since I was a teenager,” recalls Rob on a typically wintery, summers day in Victoria.

The property, known as Tarrawarra, includes a wetland complex in the centre of the property which following 40 years of planning, planting and fencing is now both protected but also functioning as it should, holding flood waters and sediment, allowing clearer water to eventually enter the Albert River and then make its way down to the Ramsar listed Corner Inlet.

As the drive continues, we come across a small section of a larger area now fenced and replanted with local trees, enclosing one of the fingers of the wetland.

An area, Jenny recalls with some emotion from her earliest days on the property in the mid-70s.

“I can remember walking in this area and seeing many, many stumps which the early landholders had cut for fencing and building and I remember thinking that it is important to restore that.”

In reflecting on the decisions taken to fence, protect and enhance the wetland areas of the property, Jenny concedes that while they had a desire to improve their new environment, they were also fortunate in some ways as they did not ‘need’ the wetlands to be an area where cattle had to graze.

“We were able to have enough land… to be able to preserve the wetland. It wasn’t necessary to have that grazed. So, on a practical, economic basis that really contributed to us looking at the wetland, seeing what was there and preserving and enhancing as much as we could which has in turn created useful sheltered areas for our herd.”

Picking up on the theme as he navigates the 4WD through the landscape, Robert reflects how much has changed in attitudes to land management over the time he and Jenny have been farming.

“I think in the last 45 years, we and a lot of Australians have become a lot more environmentally aware. It wasn’t such a strong feeling when we first came here, and I think a lot of farmers now are trying to right the wrongs of environmental practice of the past.”

The role the wetlands plays in the broader catchment is raised and both clearly understand the important role their individual property plays in protecting downstream environments.

“It works as a good filter, as a tributary to the Albert River because our wetland has quite a significant flow into the Albert…in a flood situation, that water has a chance to slow down, settle out and flow back into the Albert a lot cleaner,” says Rob.

“The catchment we are in flows into the Albert River and then into Corner Inlet which carries sediment into the river from land use up stream. That’s been shown to be detrimental to sea grass growth which in turn limits fish stocks as they use that sea grass as a nursery for young fish,” adds Jenny.

As the tour continues it is clear both Jenny and Rob are deeply, both committed to continuing to improve this part of the world but also have a strong connection to this place that has been home for the last 40 years.

The work they and other landholders have done over the last handful of decades not only improves individual properties through the catchment but has a significant positive contribution to the health of the Ramsar listed Corner Inlet, described as one of the most unique natural wonderlands in Australia.

“Certainly, the work done by people like the Davies family, but many others in the Jack and Albert river catchments has enormous positive impacts downstream in Corner Inlet,’ said CEO of the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority Mr Martin Fuller.

“Corner Inlet, the catchment above it and the sea grasses, wetlands and other eco-systems within it have been a large focus for us over several years with projects funded by state and federal government and incorporating some wonderful partnerships,” added Martin.

The work done with the commercial fishing sector to plant sea grasses to boost nursery areas and fish stocks is just one example of the sort of creativity and connection the area has seen,” said Martin.

Projects since 2015 have seen improved water quality flowing into Corner Inlet, increased protection of critical wetland areas including mudflats, mangrove and saltmarsh as well as protection of waterbirds.

“Interventions like fencing off waterways, the development of soil erosion plans, protecting wetlands as well as spraying of invasive weeds. These things might in isolation only seem like small things, but the collective total of these things is significant and will continue to protect and enhance the Corner Inlet system for future generations to enjoy,” concluded Mr Fuller.

The Corner Inlet Connections project is supported by West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program and the Victorian State Government.

Robert and Jenny Davies at their Jack River property
A small part of the wetlands at the Davies property - restored over 40 years.
A small part of the wetlands at the Davies property - restored over 40 years.
Protected wetlands at Davies property - Jack River
Protected wetlands at Davies property - Jack River.