The aboriginal name Goorooyarroo identifies one of the two reserves on the northern tip of the ACT where an important landscape-scale woodland restoration experiment is being conducted.  The other adjoining reserve is Mulligans Flat.  Rather then use the initial double-barrelled name for the experiment (Goorooyarroo-Mulligans Flat) , there is a trend to call it Mulligans Flat as it is easier to pronounce.  I feel strongly that the aboriginal name Goorooyarroo should be used and we should just make the effort to learn it.  After all Woolloomooloo rolls off people tongues easily enough.

Goo-roo-ya-WHAT? – an introduction to the experiment and its bigger vision.
Another terror” – the unbelievable story of the demise of the bettong in the Goulburn district.

Goo-roo-ya-WHAT? – March 2013

Along the northern ACT/NSW boundary are two significant Nature Reserves: Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo.

South of the Federal Highway there is a section of Goorooyarroo Nature Reserve of around 200 ha adjoining land owned by the Department of Defence.  Owing to the discovery of unexploded ordinance in the reserve (whoops!), public are not permitted to enter, and even park managers have limited access.  That is one way to ensure nature is left to its own devices.

The more visitor friendly end of the reserves is north of the Federal Highway, on the north side of Horse Park Drive, and close to the Gungahlin township and associated suburbs. Here Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarro proper, flank the ACT boundary, joined together by a small isthmus of land.  Together they total 1600 ha in size.

Before gazettal as reserves, both Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo were grazing leases, and while they represent an important area of grassy woodland in better-than-usual condition, there is a legacy of heavy grazing and pasture improvement in some parts. The topsoil is depleted in large areas and the usual array of pasture weeds and exotic plants are present.  Various grazing-sensitive native wildflowers are in short supply, as are a number of native animals.  Dingoes are long gone, and most of small mammals that might be expected aren’t there either, with foxes blamed for their demise.  Add to this the long-standing habit of the citizenry removing nearly all the fallen timber for firewood and you have an ecosystem in need of some help if its potential health and diversity is to be restored.

For about a decade, there have been active efforts to restore the grassy woodlands in the reserves beyond the considerable self-healing properties that ecosystems have when their stressors are removed. Cooperation between the ACT Government, Australian National University and CSIRO has led to the establishment of a large experiment trialling different restoration treatments.  This includes areas of reduced kangaroo grazing and the addition of logs to both re-create habitat for plants and animals, and improve the capture of rainfall run-off.  Another treatment being established is the regular burning of some sites to manage grass build-up and encourage wildflower diversity.

In addition, one of the reserves, Mulligans Flat, has had a predator-proof fence erected around it and there are planned re-introductions of some of the locally extinct fauna. The first of these had now been introduced – Tasmanian Bettongs.  Freshly imported from the Apple Isle (where they are now in peril due to the recent introduction of the fox) these small hopping marsupials are now breeding up happily at Mulligans.  Early settlers use to be annoyed by bettongs digging up their potato crops, and a bounty was put on their heads.  Presumably their aboriginal and dingo predators were less influential at that time.  Eventually the fox swiftly put an end to it all and bettongs have been extinct on the mainland for most of a century.

Tasmanian Bettongs eat native truffles and plant tubers, and spend a lot of time digging. They are little ecosystem engineers and it is hoped that their digging will improve water infiltration, seed germination and litter accumulation at  Mulligans.  So they are not just a cute furry rarity.

Bettongs can breed quickly, and without dingoes or foxes in the sanctuary, numbers can easily get very high – not necessarily good for the bettongs, or the vegetation.  Wouldn’t it be nice, if the excess bettongs could be released into the wider landscape and survive in limited numbers?  How might we restore the wider landscape to enable some of our lost species to return.  The two reserves and the sanctuary are just the start.   It will be a very long journey from now to bettong sightings on the Gundaroo Common, but stranger things have happened.  Meanwhile, there is much groundwork that can be done to make our woodland landscapes special, with a diversity of otherwise threatened native flora and fauna, healthy soils and trees, productive native pastures – a source of pleasure and pride.

“Another terror” – October 2015

A couple of years ago I wrote about the once common Tasmanian Bettong (Bettongia gaimardi) that used to be widespread in south-eastern Australia and is now extinct on the mainland.  A number have now been introduced to the Mulligans Flat sanctuary and are breeding successfully.  It is henceforth being referred to by its other common name, the Eastern Bettong, to reflects its previously more widespread distribution and its return to the mainland, albeit in very small numbers.

It has already been recognized that it was a pest of agriculture and commonly persecuted under the name of the kangaroo rat. But I was still amazed when I typed kangaroo rat into the National Library’s Trove search engine and it returned 4,700 references to kangaroo rats in ACT and NSW newspapers.  It is even stranger that most people today would hardly know what one of these creatures was, because it really exercised our predecessors.

The sorry tale of the bettong in southern NSW can be told in a few news snippets over a 40 year period between 1886 and 1926.

Australian Town and Country Journal, May 1886:

Another great danger is threatening us in the kangaroo rat, which is destroying thousands of acres of good grass lands, digging up the roots to the depth of 4in and 5in, thereby totally destroying the grasses. They also dig up whole fields of potatoes, turnips, and other crops and eat up everything that is in the garden unless wired or paled in. Hundreds of them can be found around haystacks devouring the hay at night. They are easily shot at night by one person holding a light the other person shooting, as the light seems to dazzle them, and they sit up on their haunches and gaze quietly about. They are rapidly increasing, owing to the destruction of the native dog, and the aboriginal being extinct in this district.

A loss of predators coinciding with the discovery of potato crops would have been a boon to the fast breeding bettong, whose food previously would have been limited to tiny tubers and native truffles just a few grams in size. With a need to be self-sufficient in food, the settlers’ response was fast and decisive.

Queanbeyan Age, July 1887:
The Local Board having recommended that the provisions of the Pastures and Stock Protection Act should be applied to the Queanbeyan district, for the destruction of kangaroo rats within the area of their jurisdiction, a proclamation has been issued in the Gazette, so applying the provisions of the Act.

The going price was 2d a scalp.

Newcastle Morning Herald February 1903
The Goulburn Pastures Protection Board last year paid scalp money on 10,000 kangaroo rats and nearly 49,000 hares.

With numbers like that being killed, one might expect that there would be large impacts on the population.

Goulburn Herald April 1907:
It was like market day at the office of the Pastures Protection Board this morning from 10 a.m. to noon. It was by far the busiest scalp day experienced for some time. Altogether about 200 fox skins were brought in for payment, and about 2650 kangaroo rat scalps. Mr. Hamilton of Currawang, presented 31 fox skins and there were a number who had 8, 10 and 12. Foxes are becoming very numerous around Currawang, and it is said that packs of them may be heard nightly.

So, foxes were invading at the same time, and seem likely to have delivered the coup de grâce.

Evening News, February 1926:
The kangaroo rat is fast becoming extinct. The fox is principally to blame. The rat does not take cover, but relies solely on its speed to get away from its enemies. It makes a cosy nest in a tuft of dry grass or undergrowth, but does not always take the precaution to select a safe or secluded spot.

Boom times to mainland extinction in forty years. It is a tale of the same epic proportions as the extirpation of the Passenger Pigeon in North America.  But how would we all feel if the rehabilitated bettong started getting into vegetable gardens again?  A joy, or another terror?