Welcome to the News section of the iNSiGHT Ornithology website (
www.simoncherriman.com). This blog contains updates about various things I've been up to, interesting environmental issues and observations I make regularly while going about my day. It is designed to be fun AND educational, and inspire you about our wonderful natural world. Happy reading!

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Scratch Beneath the Surface

What does this photo tell you? There are 3 pieces of evidence that tell an INCREDIBLE history. Read on to find the answers...

I recently visited a station in the northern Murchison region of WA, and was shown an interesting section of river by the farmer Tim, where just near the dry riverbed, the remnants of a historical homestead and wool shed stood. It was amazing to see how remote this would have been for the white settlers who first dwelled here. Thinking back 150 years was difficult... but not as difficult as thinking back thousands of years.

My good friend Jeff then pointed out some important features of this landscape.

Firstly, some thorough searching along a section of riverbank revealed the area was covered with Aboriginal artefacts - mostly stone tools and spearheads. This indicated it was probably  a well-used campsite by indigenous people who had lived here for thousands of years. And soon we noticed why.

Apart from the water source provided by the seasonal creek, a serious of mounds every hundred metres or so along the creekline told us there was once an abundant food source here. Native marsupials called Boodies (Burrowing Bettongs Bettongia lesueur) are small, hopping animals that live communally in ‘mounds’ or warrens. A mound is a serious of burrows dug in the same area, which connect in a complex underground warren. The mound is formed as the soil excavated from each burrow accumulates. In the above photo, a Boodie mound is visible and takes up about three-quarters of the photo, from the left hand side across.

So, why are are the Boodies gone? The above photo also tells this story. Firstly, it has a car track on the right, which cuts through the right hand quarter of the mound: white people arrived. They brought many changes to the landscape including altered fire regimes, hunting, and feral animals like cats, foxes, goats and rabbits. Secondly, it has a stock trail which cuts right through the mound: cattle. These herbivores were the most significant ‘ecosystem engineers’ that Westerners introduced to the arid Murchison. Cattle eat and trample native plants and remove significant amounts of vegetation, opening up the land enormously so that native mammals like Boodies loose vital sheltering habitat. While they have the warrens to hide in during the daytime, they still need dense cover to protect them at night while foraging. Any predators in the area, whether native or feral, kill them easily. Together with the pressure of competition for food from rabbits (which also invaded their warrens), the Boodies lost the battle.

And now they are gone from the Australian mainland.

Extinction is forever. Once these animals disappear, that’s it, they don’t come back. The thing is, Boodies aren’t totally extinct (yet).

They are locally extinct from over 95% of the area that they once thrived in. And I believe that not enough is made about LOCAL extinction, that is, the total disappearance of an animal from a particular area. Can you imagine if lions or elephants disappeared from almost all of Africa? Or if the Sistine Chapel or Sydney Harbour Bridge were almost completely knocked over? 

Boodies are still found on four islands, and in a few fenced mainland enclosures managed by Conservation groups. These populations can be restored to much of the landscape with the right planning and management. Now here’s where I am going to get a bit controversial. I stopped eating beef a year ago because I believe that cows are bad for Australian landscapes and their native fauna. If Westerners didn’t bring cows to the Murchison, much of the vegetation could still be intact, and Boodies may still be widespread. I would sooner eat Boodies, if they could be farmed in a sustainable way, for several reasons: they can live on the land with minimal impact, and their presence does not cause mass extinctions of other natives like cows do. Also, if we ate Boodie, then a few more people might know about them.

Knowing about both the natural and cultural history of the area you live in is the most important thing you can do, in my opinion.  I’m not saying we should all eat Boodies, or that what I mention here is any sort of solution to a problem. But my point is that we should all know about and understand the history of our land. True Conservation is about finding ways in which we can learn from past mistakes, and use natural resources in a way that makes them renewable for years to come.

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