Creating a wombat
How to know if you have a friendly garden
Make yourself a cuppa tea. Go and sit in the garden. Take a deep sip, a deep sniff (gardens smell good) and look around.
Are there flowers? And the sort of almost invisible shimmer that means there are insects fluttering around the blooms?
Do you hear birds when you wake up in the morning? And as the night thickens and the dew begins to fall?
If you were thirsty could you drink?
If you were the size of a blue wren would you feel safe in your garden?
If you were a pregnant frog or dragonfly, is the somewhere you could lay eggs?
If you were a possum would you think your garden was fun?
Can you imagine kids racing around yelling and having fun?
Does your garden feel right? You know what I mean - some gardens feel like you need to leap out with a trowel and bash at the nearest weed in case it destroys the symmetry of the garden beds. Some gardens are so tidy you hesitate to walk on the lawn in case you leave footprints or the owner yells.
Other gardens make you just want to sit down and smile.
They're friendly gardens. And usually you know them as soon as you step into them.
What To Avoid If You want a Friendly Garden
NB: AVOID ALL PESTICIDES AND HERBICIDES
Pesticides may initially just kill insects but when the birds, lizards et al eat the insects they may die too. Or it may affect their breeding. Herbicides kill frogs and/or tadpoles.
One experiment I hope you won't try is counting the number of lizards in a section of your garden, then using snail bait, then counting the lizards again a few weeks later. The snails eat the bait and the lizards eat the snails. Snail bait kills. Many birds eat snails and slugs too, as do some possums, bush rats and other creatures. Just this morning I watched a yellow robin feeding a thick slug to its baby... well actually it wasn't its baby, it was a young brush cuckoo that had been laid in a nest and left for the robins to rear - it's been squawking outside our kitchen window for weeks.
Even if pesticides don't directly kill wanted wildlife, they may be destroying them indirectly. Most pesticides don't just kill their target species - if you spray mozzies, for example, you'll kill small moths, wasps and many others too. A garden without insects means no food for bats, birds, frogs et al and your garden turns into a humans only desert again.
Be especially careful of termite controls. One friend made a count of the bird species in her garden before and after termite spraying. It took four years for the blue wrens to come back, and the yellow robins never reappeared - presumably the original colonisers died from eating contaminated insects.
There is no need to use conventional pesticides for garden pests or even pests like mosquitoes and termites. See 'Natural Control of Garden Pests', Aird Books, 'The Wilderness Garden', Aird Books (which also tells you how to set up a self-maintaining garden) and 'The Organic Garden Problem Solver', HarperCollins, a book of bandaid solution, 'Organic Control of Household Pests', (Aird Books) gives termite, mozzie, fly, flea and other household solutions.BE CAREFUL WITH DETERGENTS, SOAPS AND OTHER CLEANERS These can kill frogs, tadpoles and water insects and make water deadly or at least unpalatable for birds etc. Don't use detergent to wash the car - it seeps into the lawn and kills worms, beetles, larvae etc. Stick to plain water, elbow grease, a squeegee and a bucket or even better, a car wash that recycles its water and soap. Ditto washing dogs - if you're using soap wash them in the bath - there's less chance they'll make a bolt for it with the door shut anyway.
Cover all drains and grease traps. Frogs may be attracted... but if say a bit of stove cleaner or something caustic is down there, well, dead frogs.
Cats. See also the chapter on Cats and Dogs for advice on restricting the harmful activities of your moggie. And keeping out visiting ones. Cats can be the most wonderful companions but only people who ensure the cats have the proper lives and facilities should own them.
How to Farm or have a Garden with Wombats (and other wildlife)
In the past thirty years I have developed a range of strategies that we practice here, that allow us to grow fruit and veggies (and flowers) and still have wildlife living here freely. In fact we have made this area far richer for wildlife - I think we possibly have the highest wombat density this side of Alpha Centauri. And we also grow far more fruit and veg per hectare than most people would believe possible.
The strategies we use include:
. Growing native fruits that birds prefer to introduced ones (birds like sourer fruit than us - which is why they eat your apples two weeks before you want to).
. Netting and pruning fruit trees till they are above wallaby reach, then reusing the tree guards elsewhere.
. Growing roses up fruit trees instead of on bushes - this keeps the roses from the wallabies and deters possums from eating the fruit
. Growing fruit in thickets, instead of neat lines - this makes it less attractive to birds, far more drought and frost resistant (we grow avocadoes, custard apples and sapotes here even though we go down to minus 9 in winter. In fact we grow about 260 sorts of fruit - possibly Australia's largest fruit collection. )
. Grow grevilleas and other natives for the birds - who do most of our pest control (plus both the birds and the flowers are beautiful).
. Study which plants wallabies and wombats prefer - this will vary from season to season. (Blacktailed wallabies will eat rhubarb leaves if they are starving, for example, and wombats will eat green apples, but both ignore those foods in all but the worst years.)
We have only two small areas - Tiger Pens One and Two, because they look like they were built to keep tigers in, not wombats and wallabies out - that have been fenced to keep out wallabies and wombats. I grow lettuce, carrots and corn in there - but veg like potatoes, tomatoes, capsicum, chilli, okra, beans, cucumbers, burdock, zucchini, pumpkin, chokoes, chilacayote and many others can usually coexist with wildlife. (I don't count feral goats, rabbits, foxes, wild dogs or neighbours' starving cattle as wildlife.)
Farmers often exaggerate the amount of damage wombats - and other wild animals - do. Wombats eat grass - but they also eat tussocks and tough species that cattle and sheep don't like, and may help keep those in control. Often wombats are blamed for eating grass or causing erosion that is really the fault of rabbits - a wombat's big droppings on high spots are more obvious than rabbit's pellets.
The amount of damage a wombat does is subjective. One farmer may see half a dozen holes in their netting fence as a calamity; another may see it simply as a nuisance. Many farmers resent the intrusion of any non-domesticated animal onto their pasture - others revel in contact with other species. Wombats do very little harm economically - more often they are a psychological threat to a farmer's control over their domain. This threat makes some people exaggerate the damage wombats do.
No fence stops a wombat. If they can't push through it they'll dig underneath. If you've tried to fence rabbits out or young lambs in, wombat holes will negate weeks of fencing.
The easiest solution to wombat damage is to install a wombat gate. There are many designs around, all effective. Wombats are creatures of habit and will keep using the same hole - and will push through anything blocking their way rather than try to dig a new one. You can swing a neat gate made out of wood and wire if you like - or try an easier though uglier solution, an old car tyre filled with old fencing wire. (The rim will keep the wire in, and the wire is usually too prickly for a wombat to press through.)
Tie the tyre to the top of the hole. It'll block rabbits and lambs, but a strong wombat will be able to push through it easily.
Another wombat 'gate' design we tried here was simply an old, two metre long culvert pipe (broken and bought cheaply from the Council). We pushed this through the hole. Wombats went down it happily but lambs and wallabies didn't like to crawl that far. Unfortunately, I imagine rabbits wouldn't be deterred by it.
Bryan also ties a flap of two thicknesses of netting between two heavy bits of iron and ties this above the hole - result, a heavy gate that wombats can push past, but wallabies don't.
Wombats can also be kept out with electric fences. Place two electrified wires on each side of the netting fence about 30 cms from the fence and 30 cms above the ground. This will also help keep out wild dogs, dingoes, most foxes and at least cut down rabbit invasion.
Wombats are often blamed for erosion, probably because if land is cleared or new gullies formed or banks eroded away, wombats will build tunnels there - then when the erosion gets worse they get blamed.
Wombats don't cause erosion. They don't even make it worse. They just happen to be there at the time.
Wombats eat most grass species. They'll eat young oats too (at least some wombats will - many ignore them) and occasionally wheat. Their favourite food, however, is tough native grass, especially kangaroo grass and poa tussock and, around here, sword or blady grass. They also like rushes, wire grass, various leaves, succulent roots and bits of thin twig. None of these are relished by sheep or cattle and, in fact, wombats may help to keep these in check and from competing with introduced grasses by eating them before they seed and spread.
It is also easy to overestimate how many wombats you are pasturing. One wombat produces about 100 scats a night, spread prominently on tall rocks, by posts and on any rise or bit of pipe left around. Droppings can take a long time to decompose, especially in winter when they freeze or if cattle or horses have been drenched with a vermicide that also kills the dung beetles that feed on their droppings, so there are few dung beetles to break up the wombat droppings. (Though this is usually done by different beetles). If you wonder how many wombats you're supporting, count the FRESH scats - the soft moist ones - then divide by a hundred.
Wombats are also blamed for fouling dams. Wombats don't foul dams - and may not even drink if pasture is lush.
Most wombats aren't killed deliberately. Wombats are frequently poisoned with poisoned grain and baits meant for rabbits and birds. They are trapped by wild dog traps. Many are shot by farmers who resent their damage to fences or simply feel that a non-domesticated species has no place on their farm.
Even more wombats however are killed by starvation from clearing, by the pressure of cattle feet that collapse their burrows, by ploughing (even occasional ploughing will rid your area of wombats).
How To Encourage Wombats
Most 'wombat retention' techniques should be used anyway, for other reasons like soil and watercourse conservation.
1. Establish shelter belts
Keep belts of bush around dams, wet gullies, springs and watercourses - these will help stop erosion and water fouling as well as provide shelter and habitat for wombats.
Leave belts of bush on rocky areas, around fence lines, tops of hills, steep land etc - this will also act as a reservoir for bird and other predators to help control pests like Christmas and other beetles, mites and other pasture pests.
2. Wildlife corridors
If you have bits of bush link them together with corridors, fenced and revegetated if necessary, and link dams, wet gullies and swampy areas too. Make sure they're not interrupted by fences or roads.
3. Avoid barbed wire
In our barbed wire loving district you often see 'roos with their feet caught in barbed wire, wallabies with ripped tails, possums who've been tangled. Avoid barbed wire if you can. If your fences are good - taut and well strained - barbed wire may not be needed. Barbed wire is very useful for restraining cattle who don't want to stay in a designated paddock (the other cow's grass is always greener syndrome is undoubtedly a real bovine phenomenon but some cattle are genuinely starving and their choice is break out or die of malnutrition) but unnecessary for most animals with thinner hides.
4. Don't burn your pasture
Burning is an old-fashioned device to destroy weeds and give you young bright green spring growth. Actually it'll eventually increase your weed problem unless carefully managed - weed seeds won't have any grass competition and will be the first species to come up on burnt land. Burnt pasture becomes compacted, lower in organic matter and loses much of its nitrogen. The bright green growth is temporary as the first flush makes use of the depleted but readily available store of nutrients.
Burning starves wombats, even if they survive the fire. But as most wombats die in their burrows you may not realise how many are lost. (See page for wombats in bushfire and control burns.)
5. Clear road verges
If you really care about your wombat population, try to have a cleared space near any fences next to a road. Many farmers leave a belt of trees next to these fences or there are trees on the road verge - often the only trees around. Wombats congregate there and so are killed by traffic.
Have your green belts somewhere else, on internal fences, not external ones. A clear strip next to external fences will not only deter wombats, it'll help act as a firebreak - you can either plough it or use a herbicide at the start of the fire season.
6. Stock more lightly
Don't calculate the maximum stocking rate of your land - calculate the maximum stocking rate in a poor year - then take off a tenth and stick to that. Or be prepared to be much more flexible in your stock management and ownership regimes - you don't have to own all the animals that graze on your place. Look carefully at agistment arrangements (these can have weed implications), buying in stores that can be turned off as fats in a few months in abundant seasons and electric fencing as ways of increasing both your management flexibility and your ability to manage your farm for the greatest biodiversity as well as productivity/profitability.
The ability to move animals around in different grazing patterns and at different intensities is of prime importance in terms of retaining a wide range of plant species and keeping weeds, woody and otherwise, under control. It also enables you to create good firebreaks in seasons when these are imperative.
7. Pay rent to wildlife - accept it is their land too
Back to the one in ten system: one tenth of the carrying capacity of all Australian land should be reserved for wildlife; one tenth of our land mass for non-human forests; one tenth of pasture allowed to go to non-profitable stomachs or left to go back to trees. (Some of us of course have the view that it should be one tenth to humans and nine tenths to everyone else... but I'm trying to be restrained here.)
Native animals are part of the natural ecology of our farms. Their feet suit the soil, their grazing techniques suit the natural pasture. Australians have discarded many 'useless' parts of our ecosystems such as destroying natural predators like wasps with spraying, leading to even more massive pest depredations; 'improving' land by draining and clearing - reducing the flocks of ibis that keep plague locusts in check; leaving park-like clumps of trees that are vulnerable to Christmas beetles - assuming anything that's isn't immediately useful can be dispensed with - a million mistakes made out of ignorance, destroying before we understand.
Who wants to live in a world just of human beings and their domesticates? For us, wombats are one of the privileges of owning land - furry obstinate creatures, whose lack of domestic docility is one of the chief joys of farming with them.
If I were asked for one clear, overwhelming financial reason why you should encourage wombats on your property, I couldn't give one. Yes, they are useful in our orchards - they eat the grass around mulched trees, add manure, eat fallen fruit. They help keep poa, reeds and other weeds in check. For most farmers this probably isn't enough.
I've used wombats here simply as one example. I could have spoken about 'roos or wild ducks, or any one of the species that do intrude to some extent on our human activities.
The question is: How much should they be allowed to intrude?
For many farmers the answer is not at all. One blade of grass that goes to a wallaby instead of a sheep is too much and the 'intruder' must die.
For others there is an unspoken threshold - they can tolerate a certain amount of wildlife, but then the guns come out. This may be quite a high level of tolerance in good times but in bad times any competition with stock may be seen to be a luxury. Even a few years of shooting or trapping may be too much for vulnerable populations. (If an animal population falls below a certain size they may become too inbred to survive.) And so the wildlife disappears again.
If you are a farmer reading this, who feels wombats intrude on your property, consider:
. a Voluntary Conservation Agreement may give you tax or local government rates relief in return for protecting wildlife on your property (contact your local National Parks to see if this is available in your state);
. grants for fencing corridors or planting species for wildlife may be available through Landcare;
. work out exactly how much wildlife costs you - compare that to feral pests like rabbits. Work out how much wildlife you can afford to keep (as opposed to blindly assuming that anything that eats a blade of 'your' grass must be eliminated).
The world would be boring if it was inhabited only by humans and their pets and useful species. Not just boring - I think we would lose our souls.
I'm not sure what a soul is. But it is an essential part of being human. And being human we evolved with other species and with trees and flowers and myriad living things. I know that when I am in cities, surrounded by only humans and their products, I find life very simple. There are only the complexities of one species, not 100,000.
Possibly there is a moral reason to share my land. But mostly I do it for myself because without other species, I would be less.
Wombats are not endangered (Though Northern Hairy Nosed wombats are) - but in many areas they are disappearing, or their populations are too small for them to be sustainable in the long term. The wombat population in a farmed area may seem healthy, but it may still be close to collapse as the population ages and few young survive.
Wombats are mostly killed by:
. Overgrazing, fencing, gardens - anything that takes away a wombat's food supply. (A vegetarian can be as dangerous as a meat eater here - the land they grow their food on takes away a wombat's life just as surely as a gun.) Wombats that are hungry come out more in the day and become more vulnerable to mange. They will also graze on the edge of the road where a little moisture condenses on the tarmac and trickles to the edges - and roads are almost always a fatal place for wombats to graze.
. Ploughing, land clearing and forestry - anything which destroys wombat holes. Most wombats are NOT good engineers and a shortage of holes is the biggest barrier to an area being colonised by wombats. Often a wombat will take shelter under a house because other holes have been destroyed. (The land owner may not realise they have been - soil compaction and heavy machinery may mean the holes collapse but all that is visible is a slight depression in the ground, especially if it is a relatively deep hole.)
. Cattle and heavy-footed animals that make the ground too compacted for wombat holes or collapse the ones that are there.
Possibly the best protection for wombats is mowing or ploughing along road verges, so they are not tempted to graze there, wombat tunnels under roads - pipes that the wombat will keep clear, but 'seeded' with a wombat scent so other wombats can find it easily - will protect wombats crossing the road. But most wombat deaths come from grazing wombats, not rambling wombats.
A shallow or short hole can't protect a wombat from fire, but deep holes do - the temperature inside them stays relatively cool and moist. But fires consume oxygen and wombats can suffocate down their holes and burnt ground is more likely to collapse - and once a fire has passed a wombat may starve.
Many wombat holes also use tree roots or fallen logs for 'lintels' to support the entrance, or tree roots to give structural integrity to a longer hole. If these trees are burnt the hole may collapse - and while wombats can dig their way out of some collapses, they can be killed in hole collapses - or go into shock or become disoriented and not dig at all.
Most natural fires are followed by rain - the heat evaporates most of the moisture in the vegetation and as the air cools this condenses resulting in a light shower that at least gives some green pick a few days later.
But 'control burning' may not produce this effect - and too often 'control' burns are out of control, burning hotter or across larger areas than was planned. Land that is frequently burnt retains less moisture, grass withers sooner and the area may be more prone to supporting fire resistant (and even fire dependent) shrubby growth which is less hospitable for wombats.
Even if a wombat survives - and there is green pick available - they emerge into a strange world, with all their scent markers gone and often literally fierce competition for food - and, once again, hunger may drive them to other dangerous behaviour, grazing by roads or during the heat of the day.
If you do control burn, do try to make sure they ARE controlled - burn only on still cool days and burn in a mosaic pattern, a chequerboard of small patches each year, rather than one great conflagration, so that animals can still find food.
Human killers. These exist in surprising numbers - people who trap wombats or shoot them to stop them digging holes under fences or forcing their way through, or digging tunnels that may collapse under cattle's feet. (The farmers usually don't realise that these holes are old ones and that the present wombats contribute little, if anything, to the overall number of holes.)
Around here there are men who deliberately run over wombats, for the sport of it, the blood lust, or because they regard them as vermin. There is a Council contractor who takes delight in using his grader to crush burrows - and boasts of how many he destroys. Two years ago I (and several others) found a wombat in a trap on the outskirts of a nearby village. The animal had died of heat and thirst, a horrible death. We all separately reported it to police, National Parks and the RSPCA but despite photos, the testimony of several people and the fact that the animal was still there, dead in its trap - and the owners had admitted and even boasted of what they had done - no action was taken by any authority. Killing wombats - especially cruelly - is against the law, except in a few small parts of Victoria. (Landowners, however, can apply for a permit to get rid of if they are causing damage.) But even though laws protecting wombats exist, they are very rarely enforced.
A young, fit wombat can outrun most dogs and may even attack the dog if it follows them down the burrow. A fit wombat can fight a dog, too - and the dog will often come off worst. However, animals that are deaf from mange or old age are vulnerable - the dog may have it by the throat before the wombat realises its danger - and young wombats are often killed by dogs too. (Most often around here by dogs running free at night - their owners probably have no idea what their dogs are doing and would vigorously deny they were killers.)
Some wombats won't cross a track that smells of dog, and may suffer severe thirst- or worse- till the scent fades.
Foxes too kill old vulnerable wombats and very young ones.
Most pine forestry areas are used intensively - the land is cleared in between each crop, each time destroying holes.