Field and Game
Ken and Jill Hooper are returning their farmland near Kerang in Victoria to a series of wetlands surrounded by bushland and open grasslands.
The 155 ha property was purchased in 1992 when the Hoopers operated a dairy farm at nearby Cohuna. The main attraction was the water right attached to the property, but as time went on, the Hoopers came to admire the landscape. “It was so beautiful with all the creek lines and the bushland areas that we hung onto it and used it for a bit of winter grazing and hay cutting, but all the time trying to look after the wetlands as best we could with the water we had,” Ken said.
Thirty per cent of the property was already remnant wetland or bush and the rest had been laser graded for irrigation.
The Hoopers stopped farming in the early 2000s, which was headlined by the crippling millennium drought. “The place became very dry and very stressed,” Ken said.
The Hoopers had looked at putting a Trust for Nature covenant over the nonfarming land but couldn’t find a way while they were still farming. “We had long wanted to do this for the wetlands and bush areas but because the farming areas are interwoven, it was a logistical nightmare,” Ken said. “Once we finished farming we put the covenant on all but a tiny little bit of the property.”
This major milestone in 2008 should have been the start of a wonderful wetland future for the former farm but ironically it was water, and too much of it, that really set the project in motion. “In 2011 we got the big flood down the Loddon River and the whole property went under water. It brought in plants we needed but it also spread lignum and red gums all over the place, which we didn’t need,” Ken said. “At that time the Victorian Government decided to act and put in place the Lower Loddon irrigation buyback scheme because the farming land in the district was just too flood prone. “They bought all the farms around here — nearly everyone took up the offer — but we were ruled ineligible because we’d already stripped the water off the property, which left us with a situation where we no longer had the irrigation tail water from neighbouring properties that sustained the wetlands.”
This natural disaster would eventually become a blessing, but then, surrounded by dry land farms, another challenge had to be overcome, the rationalisation of expensive irrigation assets.
Goulburn Murray Water’s plans were of little consequence for the farms that had converted to dry land under the buyback scheme but the Hoopers’ property and their plans for a network of wetlands held in trust for future generations faced the prospect of being cut off from the most basic and precious resource: water. “The original plan was to stop the main supply channel a few kilometres away and that would have left this property stranded without any hope of getting water for our wetlands,” Ken said.
“Jill and I went to the North Central Catchment Management Authority to explain what wetlands we had and how valuable we thought they were.”
Thankfully there was immediate interest and CMA staff went to see firsthand what the Hoopers were developing. In CMA program manager Louissa Rogers, the Hoopers found a fellow traveller, someone who was as passionate and proactive about wetlands as they were.
It took three years of persistent planning and negotiation between agencies but eventually agreement was reached, and the future of the wetlands was secured. “Louissa really dug in her claws and
we got there in the end; three years later, the first environmental water flowed in,” Ken said. “The CMA developed and committed to a 10-year restoration and management strategy to deliver environmental water.” Goulburn Murray Water, the Victorian Environmental Water Holder, CMA and the Hoopers are drawn together by the plan, and the real winner is the environment. “The wetlands are varying types: deep creeks, shallow areas, shallow timbered areas, shallow lignum, all different types of habitat and that is what we are aiming to maintain,” Ken said. “The different wetlands are separate entities but we plan to use them all as ephemeral wetlands on a rotating basis, so they will all get a chance at being wet and dry and we will always have some wetlands on the property with water, that’s the objective.”
So much has been achieved over the past decade with the landscape and the inhabitants. “The Growling grass frog had not been recorded in this region since 2008; it was the pinnacle of our plan, and they have turned up again,” Ken said. “They aren’t here in any large number >>
but they are here and they have the habitat to breed. “The property is noted for frogs generally; for some reason they love it and they breed here in their millions. “We have had some fantastic results: for a lot of the waterfowl, it is a feeding area rather than a breeding area but we do have some species breeding here, like crake, rails and a few duck species.
“We get Glossy ibis, Royal spoonbills, Great egrets and Intermediate egrets, grebe and a whole host of wetland species coming in, depending on the water levels.”
The current project is the Australasian bittern, another nationally threatened species, and one familiar to duck hunters, mainly for its recent ability to close wetlands because of the risk of disturbance.
Because of the covenant, there’s no hunting on the Hoopers’ property, and like any hunter conservationist, Ken is happy to do his bit for the bittern. “We are thrilled our property has been chosen for this project. The work is aimed at the bittern but these new wetlands will benefit all species, there’s no doubt about that,” Ken said. “I’ll be as thrilled as anybody when we see them on the wetlands we are creating.”
The question non-hunters might ask is why a hunter would put so much into creating habitat that can’t be hunted. For Ken Hooper, the answer is simple. “Jill and I both love natural areas and nature, especially birdlife, and we despair at some of the wetland destruction that has occurred and is still occurring,” he said. “Wetlands and some wetland species are in decline and we want to put something back into the country that has given us our livelihood and preserve something for the generations that come after us.”
Ken said when he was a more active hunter, the beauty of nature was always one of the main drivers. “We want a legacy and we want this property to serve as an example of environmental stewardship,” he said.
“I’m fully supportive of duck hunting; there’s plenty of places to hunt, and regardless of their status for hunting, hunters understand that more wetlands are needed.”
Amongst the broader population Ken agrees that wetlands tend to be undervalued and are not given the status or attention they deserve. “Wetlands are places of beauty and tranquillity, they are like the lungs of the landscape and they have a big part to play in keeping our water supply clean, storing carbon and keeping our birdlife abundant,” he said. “People who spend time in wetlands truly value their status, and that includes the vast majority of hunters. “When I was actively hunting for all those years I was always looking at the other birds, the aquatic plants and the bigger picture; I always saw myself as being a part of that broader landscape. “Even today one of my great joys is sitting on a log in the bush with three or four freshly harvested ducks to prepare and a wet dog; all this conservation work gets in the way of it sometimes, but I still like to do it.”
While Ken’s brain is always pondering the next step, he cautions that the property will never become a vast wetland.
“This property is a beautiful balance: one of the examples of that is that I’ve watched one of our old irrigation paddocks with spear grass taking hold and you see the little diamond finches coming in from the lignum where they nest in the wetland areas to eat the seed from the native grasses — there’s the balance. “People tend to think of wetlands as a round basin with water in it. This is distinct from that, it has many facets and is more representative of what existed on the floodplain before European settlement. “You can never get it completely back to what it was because it is a cut-off system, but we have environmental water and a long-term strategy, we can develop the habitat values to support those species we need to support.”