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FeatureLiving Well

(What if) We were wilder (?)

Meet Victoria Johnson and Stuart Inchley, the current (and passionate) stewards of the remarkable Tarwin River Forest.

Jan 15, 2023


Words: Karli Duckett

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A leech momentarily threatens to disrupt the serenity we’ve found in a breezy wooden structure wedged between two towering mountain ashes.

If this hadn't been my first meeting with forest stewards Stuart Inchley and Victoria Johnson, I may have voiced my concern with a shriek (!) rather than the politely subtle gesture that occurred. Sitting in Stuart’s newly constructed bird hide, occupying an unassuming space between the twin mountain ashes (Eucalyptus regnans), the absurdity of my disproportionate fear about this tiny creature while exploring this vast forest dawns on me.

“We have the habitat and hollows… we would love some help.””

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Seeking more time to connect with the natural world, Stuart and Victoria eventually purchased the largest property in South Gippsland with a Trust for Nature covenant. Situated on Gunaikurnai Country, the Tarwin River Forest currently stores about 12,000 tons of carbon and captures an additional 1200 tons of carbon annually – for those of you interested, a deeper look at how these figures are calculated can be found at tarwinriverforest.com.au. As Stuart points out, “The research says that protecting the carbon stored in existing forests is more important than planting new trees.” Not only is the 300-acre forest a terrific carbon sink, but the associated catchment provides the Tarwin River with 435 million litres of pristine water each year and is a living, breathing hub of biodiversity.

Trust for Nature has been working with private landholders in Victoria for over 50 years to protect ecosystems and wildlife. Their conservation covenants provide legal protection for the natural environment and cultural significance of private land. With Victorian climate action targets set to achieve net zero emissions by 2045 and with 62% of the state’s land privately owned, impassioned, environmentally-conscious, hardworking caretakers are more important than ever.

Through their partnership with Trust for Nature, Victoria and Stuart have borrowed camera traps that have revealed the introduced predators threatening this fragile system. Stuart explains, “The more we learnt about this forest, the more we realised it needed our help. Feral goats and deer are destroying the vegetation, and foxes and cats are killing thousands of birds, reptiles and mammals here every year – we had to act.”

One of the unforeseen and confronting elements of conservation work is the need to cull pests and invasive species – a potentially daunting task for a gentle, slow-living ‘greenie’. While big-sky thinking is needed to effect real change, fast, “Someone still has to kill the foxes and goats,” adds Stuart. A task Stuart describes as “hard and thankless”, he has realised the immense importance of rapid pest eradication in restoring the land.

Not one to miss an opportunity to honour beautiful creatures – it’s just that these ones have found themselves in the wrong place – Stuart has been exploring the art of tanning these animals’ hides using wattle bark, as well as making liver treats for four-legged ‘pest-itarian’ Timmy – this man’s best friend.

As is the case with returning delicate systems to balance, a steward must be patient and celebrate the wins when they appear. Two years ago, Stuart and Victoria experimentally reintroduced pygmy perch into their dam. Not spotting any for a good time, they wondered whether their efforts were in vain. Recently, the appearance of an opportunistic azure kingfisher, with a catch-of-the-day in its bill, gave the pair hope that the perch numbers may be increasing.

Using the iNaturalist Network to contribute to citizen science and crowdsourced species identification, Stuart and Victoria have identified a host of rare and endangered species – slender tree ferns, powerful owls, blue-winged parrots and South Gippsland spiny crayfish. A favourite visitor, the distinctive gang gang cockatoo with its scarlet red head and crest, makes keenly anticipated visits to the forest – bravely approaching the house occasionally to establish its presence at the watering hole.

In a natural evolution of the role of steward, Stuart’s focus is now on forest succession planning. “We are working on developing a model for funding the conservation work we do here so that, when we come to hand over this property to the next stewards, it will come with the funding needed to manage it effectively.” The creation of community employment opportunities is a long-term vision for the pair. Stuart implores, “We have the habitat and hollows… we would love some help.”

Help that can allow the Tarwin River Forest to flourish far into the future – the goal of every steadfast steward.

Learn more about the Tarwin River Forest and how you can get involved at tarwinriverforest.com.au or @tarwin_river_forest.

Gippslandia - Issue No. 29

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