Don’t be put off by the big words

Prevailing wisdom in the political class envisages big population increases in Victoria in the next few decades. Whether these increases are a good idea, or will prove to be illusions after COVID 19 is not clear, but in any case the state parliament is running an enquiry into ‘the current and future arrangements to secure environmental infrastructure…for a growing population in Melbourne and across regional centres.’

In the Lushington Hill bushland reserve. Areas of bushland in urban or urban fringe areas are part of what the enquiry wants to ‘secure’ for the benefit of people.

‘Environmental infrastructure’ sounds complicated, but is simple: it includes ‘parks and open space, sporting fields, forest and bushland, wildlife corridors and waterways’. The enquiry is mainly interested in land ‘within or close to urbanised areas.’

You don’t have to be very sharp to get that this list includes the very thing that DELWP staff have just devastated in Maldon: bushland close to an urban area, popular for recreation by townspeople. We’re hearing a lot about the very real mental health problems caused by COVID 19 and the resultant lockdown: pleasant places close to home are a substantial benefit to mental health, and should be looked after, not trashed by the very people trusted to manage them.

We suggest that readers have a go at submitting on this one. A few words would be enough, to plant the idea that one good way to ‘secure environmental infrastructure’ would be for government employees to refrain from destroying environmental assets.

Submissions are due on September 28 via

Email to eii@parliament.vic.gov.au; or

eSubmission at www.parliament.vic.gov.au/eii; or

Hard copy to:The Committee ManagerLegislative Assembly Environment and Planning Committee, Parliament House, Spring Street,EAST MELBOURNE  VIC  3002

Email or eSubmissions are preferred, owing to staff problems arising from the virus.

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Send a card to stay in touch . . .

Three of the greeting cards in FOBIF’s set of 8 local nature cards.

Our greeting cards are now available from Buda, 42 Hunter St, Castlemaine, Friday to Sunday, 1-4 pm and Falkner Gallery, 35 Templeton Street, Castlemaine, Thursday to Saturday, 11-4 pm. We can also deliver them if you live reasonably close to Castlemaine.

You can see all the photos plus information about buying the cards online on this past post. Cost for set of 8 is $20 including postage.

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Cats, dogs and biodiversity

Readers of the daily press will have noted the damning report on Australia’s biodiversity protection laws, which concluded, among other things:

  • “The EPBC Act is ineffective. It is not fit for current or future environmental challenges, such as climate change.”
  • “The EPBC Act has failed to fulfil its objectives as they relate to Indigenous Australians.”
  • ” The EPBC Act is duplicative, inefficient and costly for the environment, business and the community.”

Muckleford Castlemaine road, winter: What is holding this landscape together? This is one of the questions provoked by the Biodiversity report.

If you want a bit more detail on the horror story, click here. The draft report is open for consultation till August 17. To have a go, click here.

The government has responded to the report by sending out signals about ‘cutting green tape’—always a bad sign, and mostly meaning ‘cutting environmental protection’.

Here’s an opinion worth brooding on, from conservation ecologist Megan Evans:

‘The EPBC Act is in genuine need of reform, but many of its problems can be fixed with investment in basic regulatory infrastructure – think actual IT systems, not hard copy records – and on-ground action that science has demonstrated to be effective, but continue to go unfunded.

‘Stopping extinctions isn’t even that expensive.

‘The latest science estimates 1,700 of Australia’s threatened species could be recovered with about $1.7 billion annually. For comparison, Australians spend about $13 billion a year on pet food.’

That last figure comes from a 2019 survey by Animal Medicines Australia. It’s not an argument against pet ownership, but it is a question mark against our priorities.

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Dogs, cats, chooks, biodiversity…and viruses

Which one of the above is the odd one out?

Answer: none.

The world is a pretty tangled place, and pretty well everything in it is linked.

This is the gist of our recommended lockdown reading for the month: On Pandemics: deadly diseases from bubonic plague to coronavirus, by David Waltner-Toews [Black Inc 2020]. This  is an update for COVID 19 times of his 2007 book, The chickens fight back: pandemic panics and deadly diseases that jump from animals to humans. As you can tell, it’s a cheery read, made so by the writer’s obvious affection for viruses, bugs, ticks, fleas, rats and other discomforting things. Five minutes into it and you’ll be slightly surprised to be still alive, given the number of threats to your existence hovering over your head, or maybe gazing at you through the eyes of your beloved cat. Viruses don’t pop out of thin air: they have often been living quite comfortably in other creatures, only to emerge when that arrangement has been disturbed by humanity…

One important lesson from this book (among many), is the writer’s clear outline of the link between ecological disruption and virus borne diseases. Broadly, his argument is that viruses which have found a home in wild places are forced to relocate to humans when these invade those places; and that biodiversity is an important barrier against pandemics. Here are a few typical quotes:

‘Triatomine bugs originally lived (happily?) in free living forest animals in south and central America. With deforestation, some bugs that were originally sylvatic….seem to have developed a penchant for certain types of human dwellings.’

‘…populations of plants, mammals, birds and insects living in ecosystems with low biodiversity tend to be more adversely affected by host-specific disease, and more effective at spreading it, than populations in ecosystems with high biodiversity…’

‘…Lyme disease was less likely to occur in more biologically diverse habitats, since the ticks and the bacteria they were carrying were less likely to find suitable hosts on which they could feed in such habitats…diverse habitats, which buffer against disease, are resilient, which means they have the ability to adapt and change.

Waltner-Toews  paints a complex picture, but the general thrust of it is: biodiversity is good for the health, in more ways than one. He makes it clear that this fact applies to cities as well as rural areas. Green belts, complex streetscapes and biodiverse gardens can all be barriers against disease. And he has an intriguing set of reflections on the value of household pets–and their possible dangers.

All of which is relevant in the context of the current questions being asked about the origins of COVID 19.

There are many other dimensions to Waltner-Toews book, especially his strong argument that poverty is a major factor in the damage done by diseases. But we’ll just leave you with this, er, fun fact: Did you know that the global body mass of commercial chickens now exceeds that of all other birds combined?

On pandemics can be had from Stonemans Bookroom in Castlemaine.

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A small, good thing

Pandemics are global matters, of course, but David-Toews insight that preservation of biodiversity is an important factor in preventing them offers us plenty of ways to be part of that prevention.

One such is open to us now: a chance to support a Shire initiative to get some grip on weeds, which are a major threat to biodiversity in this region.

Who’s a pretty weed, then? St John’s Wort on Mount Alexander shows how weeds can cause monocultures that reduce landscape resilience: but the presence of weeds on public land is no excuse for neglecting them on private property.

The Shire’s Local Law is under review, and the Mount Alexander Shire has proposed the addition of this clause:

19.Control of noxious weeds

(1) An owner or occupier of property must not allow cause or suffer the property to have upon it noxious weeds.

Max penalty: 10 Penalty Units

(2) For the purposes of subclause (1) eradication or control of noxious weeds must be undertaken as prescribed by Catchment and Land Protection Regulations 2012

This clause will help because noxious weed infestations on private land don’t respect property boundaries and can easily jump the fence into areas which volunteers have made weed-free. By expressing support for the proposed new clause, we all have an opportunity to help ensure Council accepts it.  Submissions don’t have to be long and detailed – a sentence would be OK.

No one is suggesting that the clause in question will solve the weed problem. There’s plenty of confusion about what is a weed and what isn’t, for example. There’s the intermittent problem of nurseries selling weeds to the public. And, of course, there’s the very large elephant charging around the room: the rampant growth of weeds on public land.

There are big challenges here about informing the public, and about putting pressures on politicians to adequately fund public land managers so they can do their job properly.

But none of this is an argument against the new clause. It’s a small, good step towards making our townships better places, and it deserves support.

Council will receive submissions, headed Local Law Review, up until 5pm this coming Friday, 31 July.  Email to info@mountalexander.vic.gov.au or write to Jeffry Amy, Co-ordinator Community Safety & Amenity, MASC, Box 185, Castlemaine 3450.  A draft of the new law is at www.mountalexander.vic.gov.au/HaveYourSay.  For more information, phone Jeffry Amy on 5471 1764.  Submitters may also indicate if they wish to address a council meeting.

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Want to do your bit for biodiversity? Do it in the garden!

You have to admire weeds: their tenacity is an example to us all. Every gardener knows that they don’t give up without a fight, and the struggle against them can seem to be both thankless and futile. Even talking about them seems to cast a pall over the garden scene.

For a more positive take on gardens and nature, take a look at Wombat Forestcare’s recent publication: Grow wild: gardening to sustain wildlife in the Hepburn shire, by Jill Teschendorff. This publication is of course centred on the area to our south, but much of it is of practical relevance to the Mount Alexander region. The 71 page handbook contains advice about habitat creation and protection, garden design and plant selection. Importantly, there’s a section on creating habitat in an exotic garden: most local gardeners are reluctant to go for fully indigenous gardens, and constructive compromise is offered here. Finally, there’s a list of recommended plants: though based on conditions in Hepburn, it contains many plants suitable for our region. The book does tend to lend itself to larger gardens or bush blocks, but there’s plenty to interest the town gardener.

You can buy the book by emailing info@wombatforestcare.org.au ($15 plus postage).

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Free spectacle on show now

This year has been a good one for mosses. Their bright green colours have been prominent, even dominant in many places. The roadside pictured below is a fair sample:

Walmer roadside: There are four species of moss in this photo. The most prominent–the bright green spiky one–is Triquetrella papillata. The others? Check out FOBIF’s Moss guide, now in its fourth printing. 

With a bit of luck the season will get even better as the various mosses put up intriguing spore heads. Get down and have a look!

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FOBIF July walk: Exploring the valleys

Yesterday’s FOBIF walking group was divided into two for the expedition into the upper reaches of the Columbine Creek catchment—COVID 19 regulations obliging us to keep each group’s numbers below ten. The two groups approached the circuit from opposite directions, crossing briefly half way.

One of FOBIF’s July walking groups: social distancing made getting this photo a tricky business, but perspective did the job—get that depth of field!

The day turned out to be good winter walking weather,  brisk but dry, with patches of bright sunshine and little wind. The area looks to be on the verge of a great wildflower season, with Hill Flat-pea starting to bloom, plenty of wattles,  Grevillea alpina, and masses of Pink Beard Heath a week or two away from a spectacular show. Abundant fungi gave the groups plenty of opportunities to pause, and there was the odd orchid to add variety.

This walk gave the groups access to some of the least spoiled corners of the region, with a striking number of mature trees. Our thanks go to group leaders Jeremy Holland and Bernard Slattery.

Next month’s walk is planned for the hills beyond the Expedition Pass reservoir.  Owing to ongoing uncertainty about COVID 19, arrangements for this walk cannot be confirmed yet. Please check this website closer to the due date.

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Next FOBIF walk on 19 July

The planned FOBIF walk led by Jeremy Holland will take place next Sunday 19th July. We will meet as normal at Community House in Templeton Street, Castlemaine at 9.30am.

Total walk distance will be 8.5 km and you will need to bring lunch for a mid afternoon finish. We will be walking in the Columbine Creek and Stony Creek area. There is more information on our walks page.

Due to current restrictions and regulations we can only have a maximum of 10 people in a group on the walk. We are therefore requesting that people register with FOBIF (info@fobif.org.au) by next Friday 17 July if they are planning to go on the walk. If there are more than 10 people we will divide up and have two separate walks groups of 10 or less. We will confirm your registration before the walk. Alternatively ring Bronwyn Silver by Friday on 0448751111.

We will also be practicing social distancing on the walk and not car pooling to the start of the walk. 

For more information contact  Bronwyn Silver 0448 751 111.

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What is it? And where is it going?

So: what’s that grey discolouration in the water of Forest Creek at the Wheeler Street bridge, after rain last week?

Answer: It’s pollution runoff come down the gutter from somewhere in the town. We won’t speculate as to exactly what works–in fact, it’s reasonably common for rubbish and other pollutants to pour into the creek at this bridge, and pedestrians passing over it at almost any time of the year would be able to peer over the edge and get an insight into the less attractive aspects of our culture, as we’ve pointed out before.

The grey flow coming down the Wheeler Street gutter contrasts with the relatively clear water coming down Forest Creek. The great Australian tradition: pour it down the creek, and it will go away…

 

This discolouration is a bit different from your normal junk, though. It looks like construction waste, and it’s a reminder that there’s a great Australian tradition we could do without: treating our creeks as drains carrying the debris of our industrial system out of sight. That grey colour puts the observer in mind of…that’s right: sludge.

Sludge: a toxic mix of ‘thick, semi-liquid slurry of sand, clay, gravel and water that flowed out of mining operations.’

Readers of one of last year’s horror publications, Sludge—disaster on Victoria’s goldfields (Latrobe Uni Press and Black Inc) will know that throughout the second half of the 19th century mining sludge in terrifying volumes was dumped into our waterways. In fact, the embankments at that point in Forest Creek were built in 1860 to divert sludge from mining works  away from the town of Castlemaine. Those walls have a kind of charm nowadays, but we shouldn’t forget that they were built to turn the creek into a  drain.

FOBIF recommends Sludge as a good read for Coronavirus times. It’s not exactly joyous reading, but it’s a handy reminder of times when there was virtually no restraint on industry’s tendency to trash the environment, when protests by farmers and citizens against the destruction of our waterways were powerless against mining interests. Those were the days when ‘cows wandering down to drink at Campbells creek in Castlemaine routinely got bogged and half drowned (in sludge)’; when Laanecoorie lost half its capacity in its first 40 years, silted up with sludge; when sand slugs clogged up the Loddon at Newstead, reducing its capacity to form deep pools (they’re still there). Levee banks five feet high were powerless to protect farmland against the flow. The situation was in some ways bizarre: a bloke at Fryerstown got a permit to withdraw 68 million litres of water a day from the Loddon—twice its actual flow!

These are practices we’re still paying for, as the book points out. It’s handy to keep that in mind when people complain about ‘green tape.’

Meanwhile, Forest Creek is sometimes a striking reminder that bad habits die hard.

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