New habitat for wildlife at Kyabram

By Country News

The viewing platform on top of Brown Snake Hill is a prime bird-watching location.

The winds carry the sound of chirping birds as we stand on top the man-made hill at the centre of the old dairy pasture at Taripta.

An animated Russell Jones, 66, is quick to identify the bird species and deliver the count on how many he has seen on his property in recent months.

‘‘I can tell you every bird and every call. I’m just like any other good bird watcher,’’ Mr Jones said.

These bird calls were an unfamiliar sound 19 years ago, but today can be heard from every corner of Mr Jones’ property since he converted 8ha of his 16ha property on Sinclair Rd, about 6km out of Kyabram, into wetlands as a bird refuge. The property was once part of a neighbouring dairy farm.

Mr Jones has been a dairy farmer all his life and wanted to give back to the environment after decades of land clearing saw a decline in bird numbers.

At full capacity the wetlands hold six million litres of water which is sourced through run-off from the neighbour’s farm.

Maintaining the wetland comes at a price: Mr Jones spends $2000 to $3000 a year on its upkeep with $1500 of that on rates alone.

With no money incentives to be made from his converted land, Mr Jones keeps the wetlands alive with his passion for the environment and the creatures that live in it.

‘‘The benefits of the wetlands are endless for the environment, but financially there are no gains,’’ he said.

Before planting, Mr Jones’ paddocks were salt-affected. Although he hasn’t seen a direct effect of the increased tree planting on his land, he has attributed the improvement in the soil quality in surrounding paddocks to the increased presence of trees.

‘‘The trees have helped lower the watertable and prevent the problem of further salting,’’ he said.

Mr Jones owned his first farm at 22 and has worked every day for 28 years. Even in retirement, he says there are times when he visits the wetland daily for planting, watering and working on his next habitat creation.

‘‘It’s a play farm now, indulging in my passion for bird-watching,’’ he said.

He remembers a time when he could look out over the farm and see half-a-dozen flame robins perched along the paddock fences. Now he says you would be lucky to see one.

‘‘As a kid 50-odd years ago, you would see half-a-dozen in every paddock, but now you don’t see any and that’s a sign of what’s going on.’’

He has spotted 118 species visit and 33 birds nest at his carefully-curated wetlands in the 19 years since he first started planting.

He refers to his wetlands as a supermarket for birds — it’s an eclectic mix of native plants, some indigenous to the region and some from as far as Western Australia.

As a dairy farmer and an environmentalist, Mr Jones said the moral of his story was ‘plant and they shall come’.

‘‘The birds and the insects come back if you look after the environment,’’ he said.

‘‘Within two years of planting, you’ll start to see birds coming to feed on the flowering shrubs.

‘‘In the last month I have had three species of honeyeaters turn up, who probably came down because the Mallee is so dry. They are feeding very happily on all the flowering shrubs and trees.’’

Mr Jones believes there are limited examples of repurposed farmland into wetlands.

‘‘Only the likes of me who are pro-environment at the end of the day, and I have been fortunate enough to be able to afford the hobby.’’

Mr Jones hopes whoever takes over the farm will keep his wetland legacy alive for generations to come.

—Siobhan McKenna