Wetlands & Wildlife
For more than 150 years, farming altered the natural landscape of south-east South Australia, draining water trapped between the dunes to create more productive land but Wetlands & Wildlife is doing the reverse.
Tom Brinkworth is one of Australia’s biggest private landholders. He happily chats with hunters as they arrive for the opening of the South Australian Duck Season, but leaves it to others to talk about the conservation projects he has fostered with the creation of Wetlands & Wildlife. The opening hunt of the season is taking place on the Cortina system, a conservation project aiming to create 5000 ha of connected habitat, including some of the most valuable wetlands in the region.
The Morella project was completed in 2014 and now connects 13 000 ha of wildlife habitat near the Coorong National Park, Martin Washpool Conservation Park and Bonneys Camp Well.
The scale is vast, making it one of the largest conservation projects on private land in Australia. Dave Rehn from Keith Field & Game traces the history back to a Jip Jip, a favourite waterhole frequented by local duck hunters. “When Tom Brinkworth first bought the area, he was planning to develop it and put it to pasture,” he said. “A few of the locals recognised they might lose it and they lobbied pretty hard to get Tom to change his mind and Tom, as he does, not only agreed but put a weir
“There is nothing even close to this anywhere else in South Australia but with the water regime and the highly managed systems we have, Wetlands & Wildlife have had to lobby hard to make sure these wetlands get their share of water within the system.”
across the water course to manage the water and turned Jip Jip into the great area it is today.”
Dave said that early interaction with hunters was the catalyst for Tom Brinkworth to create Wetlands & Wildlife, a conservation company aiming to complement the national park system on private land. “It shows what can be done when people get together and work towards improving the environment,” Dave said. “It has grown into a huge environmental success; for all the controversy over the years, Tom Brinkworth has been able to deliver on environmental outcomes — it isn’t just talk.”
Keith Frost has been involved from the beginning and remains a director of Wetlands & Wildlife and a key figure at organised hunts with help to fund ongoing conservation works. “Tom was the brainchild: he acquired land that had been hunted in the past, and he has continued on with hunting and locking up important habitat for future generations,” he said. “A lot of this country was grazing land and it had been reclaimed, a lot of the banks that were in place to keep water out are now being used to keep water in and wetlands that were seasonal are now more permanent.”
The land and water is also used for academic research, education, and tourist activities.
At a landscape level, the region is similar to the Coorong, which attracts the most attention during debates about water policy and the environment.
Parallel coastal dunes interspersed with flats were formed by rises and falls in sea level over the past 400 000 years. Winter rains left water trapped between the dunes and it slowly flowed in a north-westerly direction until it eventually disappeared into limestone sinkholes or found its way into the Coorong via Salt Creek.
This created more than a million hectares of seasonal wetlands with some >>
>> permanent lakes and ponds, which teemed with waterbirds and aquatic plants and provided abundant food for the indigenous inhabitants.
A settler colony founded in 1836 encountered a landscape dominated by water in winter, which made overland travel difficult and any low-lying country unsuitable for farming without extensive drainage.
The first drain was dug in the 1860s and the digging has been going on ever since, to the point where the term ‘natural landscape’ had little meaning — only 6 per cent of the original wetland habitat remained, and 90 per cent of the original vegetation was cleared.
The Morella and Cortina systems are significant environmental assets but even so, it has been a battle. “There is nothing even close to this anywhere else in South Australia but with the water regime and the highly managed systems we have, Wetlands & Wildlife have had to lobby hard to make sure these wetlands get their share of water within the system,” Dave said.
Evan Pettingill, another long-time director of Wetlands & Wildlife, said landholders encouraged to preserve important wetlands decades ago were now having to fight for water. “We are at a disadvantage,” he said. “There has been such a change from the 1980s when landholders like Tom were encouraged to manage these wetlands, now the water is needed elsewhere, but it will probably all cycle around again.”
Keith said the company continues to argue the case for the south-east wetlands. “Water is highly political and there has been a lot of lobbying and negotiation to ensure these wetlands have water supply,” he said.
“It is part of the traditional water course that flowed into the Coorong; our argument is that this area is just as valuable, or even more important than the Coorong.”
Keith Field & Game is still involved and Dave reckons the impact of private conservation of wetlands in the south-east has been cultural as well as environmental. “Going back to the 1970s, the pressure to stop duck hunting was high and without this there is a chance South Australia would not be still hunting today,” he said.
Membership of Wetlands & Wildlife is at record levels and in addition to the 27 000 ha of Watervalley Wetlands, the organisation has stewardship of the Warraweena Conservation Park, a 355 sq km former pastoral property in the Northern Flinders Ranges that has now been destocked.
Wetlands & Wildlife membership is $50, which includes discounts on tours, camping, accommodation and hunting. Find out more at