Recover, replant, regenerate – the Bush Heritage story

Supported by Volkswagen, Bush Heritage is at the forefront of reviving Australia’s unique flora and fauna.

By Paul Gover

When the former Greens leader in Canberra, Senator Bob Brown, decided in 1990 to protect a small parcel of land alongside a Wilderness World Heritage Area in his home state of Tasmania, he had no idea what he was starting.

Today, the seed he planted with a humble $49,000 investment has grown to cover more than the total land area of Tasmania - and it’s still growing.

The land is the heart of Bush Heritage Australia, a national non-profit organisation dedicated to purchasing and preserving native Australian bushland. It owns or manages a total of 11.3 million hectares, through its 37 reserves and another 25 indigenous people partnerships, with various groups around the country.

Bush Heritage has become a very big business, with around 130 employees headquartered in Melbourne and spread around the continent. It has not always enjoyed smooth progress.

Its programs took a massive hit during the devastating Black Summer bushfires in 2019, when many of its reserves were victims of the unusually vicious blazes. The focus turned to recovery, re-planting and re-generation efforts across the country.

Help for that recovery work has come from Volkswagen, which first donated $1 million as part of a from a global rescue package allocated to emergencies from the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

The original funding focussed on repairing damage to Bush Heritage Australia’s 400-hectare Scottsdale Reserve, in the semi-alpine region south of Canberra, with the planting of 20,000 native trees and shrubs, and for the Eurardy Reserve in Western Australia, which was part of the organisation’s One Million Trees Project.

The initial 2020 donation was followed this year by another $500,000 for other ongoing projects; further tree planting and re-vegetation projects at Eurardy in addition to projects at Tarcutta Hills Reserve in New South Wales and Kara Kara Wedderburn Landscapes in Victoria.

“After the bushfires we were really fortunate to have a really generous outpouring in the crisis. We were well supported in the community,” says Claudia Wade, Philanthropy Executive at Bush Heritage Australia. “But it was a surprise to us that we were supported internationally as well.”

She says the funding has done much more than just provide triage and essential help in recovering from the bushfires.

“There is always a budget for known things, and this additional support meant we could recover and plan ahead. There are always more fire seasons coming.”

There are many success stories in Bush Heritage’s 30-year history of, all of which is united by the common themes of returning the Australian bush to its original state and the wholistic management of the native eco-system to benefit the land and future generations.

“It’s a point of difference between us and National Parks. Our reserves are for conserving what is there,” says Wade. “The original aim of Bush Heritage was to own and manage one per cent of the landmass in Australia. We’ve well and truly smashed that.

“Our core business is buying and managing land, so the strategy, looking ahead to 2030, is to double our impact. We’re looking to buy more land, and sometimes we receive gifts of land. The latest donation was the Round House, near Melbourne. One of our volunteers gifted the property to us. It’s 87 hectares about 100 kilometres north of Melbourne and it’s a lovely story”.

Wade talks passionately about the work of the organisation and the many successes, including spin-off projects as diverse as conservation and accommodation.

“That changes in different parts of the country. Some reserves are very inaccessible, or they might protect something that is really precious. At our Pullen Pullen reserve, we protect the critically-endangered Night Parrot. It was previously thought extinct. It is a really precious species. So we don’t have people going in and out.

“Scottsdale has volunteers going quite often, and open days from time to time. We have an accommodation program at Hamelin Station in Western Australia.”

According to Wade, it’s about tailoring the response and the program to varying needs.

“The landscape focus is much bigger than buying a piece of land and restoring a couple of hectares. A lot of the Bush Heritage work, and how we do things, is having a very broad conservation team. And to keep innovating.

“So each region has their own ecologist, and they are absolutely experts in their field. It can be arid versus fresh-water ecologies. They are highly specialised in what they know about.

“The majority of the reserves have a reserve manager. They are sort-of like farmers, doing the day-to-day work. Inducting volunteers, checking cameras.

“They have usually been working on the land for a long time, usually in conservation.”

Part of the role is spreading the conservation message, particularly into the lives and land surrounding the various reserves.

“Bush Heritage’s strength and focus is working across entire landscapes. We’re not just focussing on a specific 50,000 hectare. We’re working with neighbours, we’re trying to connect up with everyone.”

The terms might be unfamiliar to ordinary Australians, but there are red soils and yellow soils, wetlands and alpine areas. Each creates both an opportunity and a challenge for Bush Heritage.

“Finding an intact eco system is pretty rare. So restoring it is a pretty major job. We are trialling lots of new and innovative measures,” says Wade. ”It depends on the reserve and what’s happened on the reserve in the past. It could have been cleared or had cattle grazing on it. It takes a long time to get the soil back to healthy condition.”

Part of that work is finding, growing, planting and nurturing the right native plants.

“Scottsdale is a good example. It has a state-of-the-art nursery, where we raise a lot of seedlings and then grow them in the nursery,” Wade says. “Finding the seeds can be hard. Sometimes you buy seedlings, sometimes you buy seed, sometimes you grow plants yourself in a nursery, and sometimes it’s collecting on the reserves. Eventually the plants start to drop seeds and grow themselves.

“A little bit of the Volkswagen money is going towards a seed orchard.”

And that brings Wade back to the dreadful bushfires.

“It was awful for us. We had seven of our reserves impacted, in Western Australia, Queensland and NSW. Obviously, the hardest-hit ones were in NSW, in the south-coast area. We had particularly bad fires on Scottsdale reserve. About 70 per cent of the reserve was impacted. It was pretty big.”

She talks also about the type of fire, and why the 2019 burns were so bad.

“It’s all about whether the country is meant to burn. But Burrin Burrin reserve was definitely not intended to burn at that intensity.”

The post-bushfire remedial work is now going well and Wade, on behalf of Bush Heritage, is thankful for the contribution from Volkswagen.

“The first million was primarily directed towards our bushfire work. With a small proportion towards Eurardy, in Western Australia,” Wade says. “It’s an ex-agricultural property with some very precious yellow soils."

The work goes on and even Bob Brown, many decades after his original contribution, is still making a difference. As recently as 2011, after stepping aside from the presidency of Bush Heritage Australia, he donated another property to the program.

It is a 14-hectare plot in the Liffey Valley, close to Launceston in Tasmania, that he had owned for 38 years. It’s typical of him, and the work of Bush Heritage, that it is recognised as a site of historic and symbolic significance by Australian Geographic. an external link

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