I'm writing this introduction
with grubby hands, bags under my eyes, and one ear (okay, both ears) listening
for a maniac chirp from the living room window, that means that Fishtail the
Idiot lyrebird has decided his reflection is about to attack again, and is
going into his warning dance.
Chin down, tail up, one foot
out and then the next, chirp and warble, chirp and warble, with a few fairly
boring bird imitations thrown in - the odd kookaburra, a golden whistler, and
that's about it. Some lyrebirds I've known have been stunning musicians. Not
Fishtail. He's got far more testosterone than musical talent.
I've just come indoors from
sweeping up the latest mess from Fishtail's giant feet (if you think chooks can
cause havoc on in a garden, you've never lived with lyrebirds). I also replaced
the remnants of the doormat back under the doorstep where it belongs(Mothball
the wombat chewed it up last night in revenge for failing to leave carrots out
for her. She also chewed up my gumboots).
And the bags under my eyes are
due to the four- I repeat four- swallows nests constructed under the eaves
about three inches away from my pillow. The nestlings wake up at 5.20 am and
demand to be fed, and as I don't have any handy dead flies to stuff down their
gullets and shut them up, I get up too.
I have a feeling people
reading this will now be divided into two camps
a) those who think I'm crazy to complain about living in close proximity to
wombats, lyrebirds, swallows and the black tailed wallaby who has just jumped
the fence and is nibbling my favourite Papa Meilland rose(deep red and
wonderfully stinky); and
b) those who think I'm crazy to put up with it; why don't I get a shot gun, or
at least a couple of territory guarding dogs, plus an electric fence and some
bird scaring guns.
I'm not sentimental about
animals. If I were starving, or if humans had left more than a few small
corners for wildlife, I'd happily eat the lyrebirds in my garden.(Long slow roasting,
with plenty of basting and rich stuffing- I suspect their meat would be a bit
like peacock's, dry but full of flavour.)
In fact I'd rather eat the
lyrebirds in my garden than some poor beast who has lived through a week of
slow hell before it's death in an abattoir.
But I do choose to live with
wildlife. I have spent more than half my life, now, working out ways that crops
and gardens can still be grown without either killing them or- just as bad-
This is what this is about-
ways that humans can co exist with animals.
Why? Why do I put up with
wallabies in the corn, instead of reaching for the shotgun, like most of my
Why don't I live with a nice
obedient Pekinese instead of a wombat who has never even considered how to
please a human in her life?
Why, for that matter, have so
many generations of humans put out food for wild birds, spent precious dollars
taking an elderly dog to the vet, bought the one expensive cat food that their
moggie will deign to eat, all for no obvious return?
The answer is, of course, that
humans need animals. The need to live with animals is something I think that
goes very deep into the basis of the human character. We too are animals, and
if we recreate our world to be entirely human, then we will lose a great part
I want to be part of a world
of animals. And that is why I have written this.
The Tithe Garden - how to share your backyard
tithe garden is one that is shared with people and other animals.
Tithes were a Christian Church
levy: you paid a tenth of your income to support the Church and help the poor.
And though tithes were abolished decades ago, I have a feeling that the Church
may have got it right - when it gets down to it, a tenth of your income/effort/land
is probably what most of us can spare. (Often of course we can - and do -
spare a lot more. But a tenth is a good BASIC amount.)
A tithe garden is one that is
shared with others- both with people and especially with other animals.
In a tithe garden you can
either assume that you own the garden, and plan to share a tenth with others,
or assume that humans simply rent the world and that one tenth of the garden
just for you is a fair share.
I don't think it really
matters morally which one you choose- all of our circumstances are different
(we happen to have a lot of land and a reasonable climate and the knowledge and
experience to make a small bit of land feed us. If you can only spare one
tenth, fine. It's the decision to share that's important.)
Either way, a tithe garden
means accepting that others have a role and rights in your garden; that it's
not for you alone.
We have a 'one tenth for us
and nine tenths for everyone else' sort of garden. Nine tenths is planted with
seed producers and wild fruit and blossomers and vegies gone to seed and one
tenth is planted with crops or flowers just for us.
Actually there's no clear
distinction between plants for us and plants for animals: I enjoy the nesting
thickets and the grevilleas too...and of course the birds and others pig into
our crops too.
But I did make a conscious
decision that we wouldn't have a garden of apple trees, roses and carrots: the
first priority is the animals' needs, not ours - except for one tenth that is
just for us.
Once you acknowledge that you
don't 'own it all' your sense of injustice at depredations (mostly) vanishes.
Instead of really getting mad at the rosellas (a little bit of jumping up and
down at them is good exercise and cathartic too) I just say: Okay, they're
taking their share. (Maybe we just need to conquer an inbuilt human desire to
conquer and control all that we see.)
It's as though there's a
mental barrier you have to leap over ... we've been bought up to accept that
humans should have it all ... but when you cross that barrier and say: this is
for you, this is for me ... well, most of your anger disappears even when the
bastards take the lot.
As I write there are rosellas
in the apple trees out my window, guzzling their way through the Gravenstein
apples. At first sight it seems like the blighters are hogging the lot -
especially as they've been at it for days. (I do yell at them sometimes but
they don't take any notice. I'm just a crazy human who dances under the apple
trees - not a real threat.)
When I actually look at what
they've eaten, though, they've probably only taken twenty percent - two tenths
not one, but then you can't expect birds to stick to the bargain absolutely.
And while they've eaten more than their share of the Gravensteins they haven't
got into the Johnnies yet or the Delicious or Lady Williams - all of which I
like more than Gravensteins, and in fact they won't eat more than a tenth at
(One reason for their limited
depredations of course is that they have plenty of wild species in our garden
too, birds prefer wild fruit. See 'Birds'.)
Most of our vegie garden is
open to wallabies, snakes, bush rats, lizards, goannas, wombats, possums, roos,
but there is a definite portion (finally) that is fenced to keep EVERYONE away
and that bit's MINE.
So now we do have corn again
(it took the wallabies twenty years to realise corn was good stuff and scoff
the lot every year).
I don't know if any of you
accept the theory of morphic resonance (that once someone knows something the
knowledge is diffused throughout the race) but it certainly seems to work with
wallabies. Once one blighter decides something's good the whole population
move in the next day. It took the wombats ten years to discover that
watermelons are good - but the next season every wombat was crunching them
open... but maybe I'm just forgetting that wombats gossip on moonlit nights.
Sorry, I know this is a digression - blame it on the tithe system - animals are
so much of our lives here that stories about them keep creeping into other work
too. Back to the subject...
Anyway now at least a bit of
the garden is enclosed we do have carrots again too - yes, it was my fault the
wombats learnt that carrots are delicious - I started feeding the 'house
wombats' carrots then kicked myself when every one was dug up. If I'd had any
sense I'd have fed them parsnips instead. Wombats are very fond of parsnips -
fonder than I am and unlike carrots we always have parsnips to spare.
If I was starting a farm again
I'd leave nine tenths of my land alone and assume my share was the rest. But
large parts of our place have never been cultivated, and I don't include those
in the tithe system. We're custodians, not owners - that bit isn't mine to
give. So the tenth we do use is really a tenth of the 'humanised' land we
inherited, the paddocks that used to be orchard and market garden, nine tenths
of which we are 'letting go' back to bush.
('Letting go' is a most
accurate way of putting it too - simply relinquishing control. There's a
terrible myth that humans have to manage things to make them work. This place
doesn't need reafforestation: just leaving alone while the gums grow back and
the gullies fill with rainforest.)
Why One Tenth- or Nine Tenths- is Enough
you use your land intensively you'll find that even if you only get a tenth of
what the land provides, it'll be plenty - because one of the joys of the
tithing system is that by living with other species your land becomes more
productive - no pests, few weeds, incredible nutrient recycling and of course
your life will be richer in other ways as well.
'Wild' fruit trees don't need
fertilising, for example, because they feed on bird/ant/grasshopper etc dung
and last time I looked at a hitherto sickly tangelo - planted in the wrong
spot, neglected ever since and covered with scale for the past three years - it
had no scale at all and had even turned green, instead of yellow. But now
there's a giant red browed finch nest in it (they have communal nests - some
become enormous. The birds eat the scale, feed the tree and forage other food
that gets dropped from the nest to feed the tree as well.
I've never seen ANY system
that couldn't be made more intensive. The acre around our place supports a
handful of humans, 34 bower birds, 6 lyrebirds, 6 fulltime and three
semi-transient wombats, three blacktailed wallabies, about 67 resident other
birds, their offspring and many transients, 1 giant male roo (he was ousted
from his position as leader of the mob last month and lives under the avocado
trees now - it's a bit like having a retired President or Prince living on the
property), innumerable bush rats and black rats, two sorts of mouse (haven't
even tried to count them) - and I don't know how many other species as well.
But every year it becomes more productive, more intensive and I reckon it'll
get even more so every year for at least the next decade or two.
And in fact the ways you can
'intensify' production are probably infinite, once you break through the
barriers that say you have to grow things in such and such a way. I've only
just started to explore the potential of growing things up trees, mound gardens
and the like.
Most Australian gardens are
severely under planted - too much mown lawn, neat beds and unused space, and
most of us have only small bits of land. If you want to grow enough for you,
your friends and other species, and still not claim more than your fair share
of space, you need to intensify its production.
Ten Steps to Intensify Your Garden
1. Tall trees and the three tier system
Wilderness Garden'. Basically this involves planting trees, pruning off their
lower branches so light can get underneath, then planting shrubs and perennials
and then ground covers below that... and letting animals, domesticated and
otherwise, rummage through the lot.
As I look out the window, for
example, I can see an elderberry with its lower branches pruned off, so it's
quite light below it. Roses, sage, daisies, berries and grevilleas are planted
on three sides of it; on the fourth are impatiens, pansies, florence fennel,
foxgloves and the odd strawberry. (We get a few of the elderberries, and a lot
of the flowers- they make an excellent hayfever preventive and I use them for
their natural yeast too, but we don't get any of that lot of strawberries. The
wombats love them too much.)
Chooks, ducks, and the other
wild animals forage through the lot- and a space about two metres square
probably provides more food than many small gardens. See also 'shady bits'
2. Trellises and posts
You may only have
a handkerchief sized garden - but if you grow upwards instead of outwards you
may find an acre or so. Angle trellises so they catch the morning sun; grow
climbers up posts and other forms of support. See diagrams. You can buy
climbing forms of tomato, beans, peas, pumpkin, rock melons, watermelon,
We also grow hops, grapes,
hardenbergia, clematis etc UP other trees- graopes peering out of lemon trees,
hops tangling through limes, chokoes in the oranges, kiwi fruit up the
chestnut. this saves space...but it also means that you help disguise the
plants so that pests don't attack them. (Our hop laden limes are always the
last to be attacked by stink bugs, and most times they miss out altogether.)
And birds, possums et al love nesting in vine laden trees - though they may not
forage under the tangle to eat the fruit.
3. Bits on the side
houses have these bits - shady sections that are neglected except for maybe a
rubbish bin and a leaning bike. Fill them up instead with shade loving edibles
or herbs. Remember that the hotter your climate, the more shade the plants
below will tolerate. In cold climates this means light dappled shade under
high pruned deciduous trees. In tropical climates the shade can be quite dense
and you'll still get a crop. Apart from this vague instruction, you'll have to
experiment to see what amount of shade plants in your particular area can cope
Some Shade-Tolerant Edibles
strawberry; bamboo - some species are shade-tolerant but beware as they may
become weed; blueberry varieties like Everbearer, Knoxfield Barbara, Fairview,
Knoxfield Fiona; avocado - will grow in semi-shade, in fact needs semi-shade to
establish, but fruits only with at least some light, establish at the dark side
of the house and it'll fruit when it reaches the roof; bilberry - will fruit in
semi-shade; cape gooseberry - will fruit in quite deep shade in temperate areas
or in cool areas next to a warm wall; Chilean wineberry - like a raspberry with
yellow berries, very hardy, fruits in temperate areas in medium shade;
Chilacayote melon - will ramble up and down trees, grows in shade but needs
sunlight to flower and fruit; feijoa - shade tolerant but won't fruit without
some hours of direct sunlight (and often a pollinator too); hops - will twine
happily through trees; Monstera deliciosa - frost free areas only;
strawberries - hot to temperate areas only and they won't crop as well;
rhubarb, grows tall and succulent in semi-shade, especially in hot areas;
chives (Allium spp), garlic chives (Allium tuberosum); elder (Sambucus nigra);
fennel (Foeniculum vulgare); garlic (Allium spp) will grow in the semi-shade
under trees in temperate to hot areas, but may not flower; American ginseng
(Panax quinquefolius); horseradish (Armoracia rusticana); parsley, curled
parsley (Petroselinum crispum) - Common parsley will accept semi-shade in
temperate to hot areas, Japanese or Perennial parsley (Cryptoaenia japonica)
will also grow in semi-shade in temperate to hot areas or in a pot in cool
areas on warm paving or patio; salad burnet (Poterium sanguisorba); Sorrel
(Rumex spp); watercress (Nasturtium officinale); artichokes - Jerusalem
(semi-shade under decidous trees); asparagus (semi-shade); celery (in temperate
to hot areas); leeks (hot summers only - good under deciduous trees); lettuce
(hot summers only); mizuma (Japanese salad green or green veg); potato (hot
summers in dappled light under trees or pergolas); silverbeet (dappled light in
hot areas, ornamental chard and other chard varieties are more shade-tolerant
than the common Fordhook Giant; spinach - English (dappled light in hot
areas). See aslo 'Plants That Never Say Die', Jackie French, Lothian Books.
4. Plant your eaves
up eaves with hanging baskets - not in straight line but at lots of levels so
you can fit more in, and they look better. There are masses of edibles you can
grow in hanging baskets- see Gardens For Everyone.
5. Make use of fences
fence can provide pumpkins for six families or enough melons for a glutton to
gorge on all year. Plant them out with passionfruit- either banana or black or
grenadilla, perennial beans, hops, grapes, kiwi fruit, bramble berries like
loganberries or marionberries. See Trellises, posts and walls.
6. Don't use your grass like a carpet
have to be wall to wall grass. If you want flat stuff around your house plant
strawberries instead, with paving stones in between, or prostrate thymes (There
are several- not clumping thymes but small elafed very flat creepers),
prostrate pennyroyal, Corsican mint, Treneague chamomile(the only flat one),
woodrufff in shady spots, or kangaroo grass for seeds for the birds. Don't
worry about 'summer grass' and other seed bearing short weeds either- birds
love the seeds- and after all, a quick mow will tidy the place up if Aunt
Gladys is coming to visit.
7. More garden beds
If you don't use
a bit of grass, plant it out to garden beds, preferably perennials and useful
low maintenance ones, or masses of shrubs.
8. Cover walls
forget your walls either - clothe them in edibles like grapes, kiwi fruit,
passionfruit - both black and cold tolerant banana - hops, perennial beans
(runner beans or tropical Dolichus lab lab), as well as a host of ornamentals
that birds, possums et al love to nest and clamber in.
9. Plant more thickly
lot of planting advice is still based on northern hemisphere cold climate
planting, where you need lots of space and bare ground around plants so they
Unless you live in a very cold
area, plant so that your tomatoes et al mingle together. They'll grow faster in
their moister CO2 rich environment, even in cold climates you can plant close
together once the soil has warmed up - the mass of plants will insulate the soil
so it cools less on cold nights.
Closely planted veg need less
watering because they form growing mulch, less weeding because weeds can't get
a toe hold. They are a wonderful cover for lizards, frogs and ground dwellers
and you get more veg and flowers too. Of course you may have to tread on the
odd tomato or bean plant to do your picking - but then you're getting more than
enough there is extra to compensate.
10. Plant flowers and veg together
French's 'Guide to Companion Planting' and 'The Wilderness Garden'. Flowers
and veg to do better together ... for reasons I won't go into here but you can
probably work out once you start thinking about it. It's another variant of
close planting - getting more from the same space with greater pest and disease
control and more wildlife into the bargain.
'Our' Garden (note:
this is the 'collective our'- I'm just one of the owners)
I don't know who lives in
'our' garden. I've never done a census - not a complete one anyway.
Our garden is about an acre
round the house. It (mostly) feeds us and totally feeds countless other
species, with gifts to friends as well.(Humans too)
I know there are wombats in
our garden because there are droppings on the doormat every morning, not to
mention teeth marks in the door. Wombats are determined creatures and capable
of chewing through a door in two or three nights which is just one reason why
we have a stainless steel sheet bolted to our back door. Luckily our house is
made of granite rocks and even wombats can't chew through granite.
I also know we have wombats
because we chat with them, play with them, watch them and sometimes release one
brought up by WIRES back into our garden so they can learn to be wombats again
before returning to the bush.
I know we have wallabies in
the garden because they eat the corn, carrots and lower branches of the apple
trees - and usually most of the roses.
I know we have an echidna
because it works hard every summer sticking its nose in the paving stones
hunting for ants.
I know we have bull ants too
because they ran up my gum boots and stung me a few years ago.
In fact if I go on like this
I'll take up all the book (publishers put very strict limits onto the length of
most books). Suffice to say that we have the above plus roos, at least six
species of snake, seven species of lizard including a giant goanna who gets
drunk on fermented peaches, 127 species of birds, some resident and some just
droppers in, at least three species of frogs, five species of wasp, eight
species of spider, five species of ants (and more just outside the garden) - in
fact who knows how many species of insect. One survey of an average English
garden found 40,00 species, most microscopic and we probably have a good many
more than that.
Last night we played 'bump'
with a baby wombat (its mother is Lurk from the bottom of the garden... but I'd
better stop before I get carried away by wombats). This morning we watched the
yellow robins feed their foster offspring in the nest in the rose bush outside
the kitchen, and the eastern spine bill taste the first flowers from the new
grevillea I put in last year to see if they were good (they are). The
bowerbirds are performing acrobatics in the apple trees and yesterday we fed a
lizard just a crumb of leftover turkey - it took half an hour to coax it but it
took it from Bryan's fingers. Then there was the time we watched a blue tongue
crunching snails and a snake dislocate its jaws to eat the frog and the bright
green frog on the window last Tuesday with its tongue flicking at the moths.
We must have watched it for half an hour.
The animals in our garden
aren't pets - not even the baby wombats we play jump and bite with (that's a
game all baby wombats play, brought up by humans or not. They hide behind a
bush and leap out at you and knock you off your feet. Then you have to hide
behind a bush and leap out at them; but enough of wombats.)
The animals here are fellow
inhabitants. Most have got used to us just as we have got used to them. (There
are exceptions. The echidna is still nervous of us. And I get a little edgy
too when I meet a brown snake.)
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 garden. But mostly I do it for
myself because without the others in my garden, I would be less.
How to know if you have a friendly garden
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
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
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 You Gain By Having a Tithe Garden
When I first came
here we had probably every pest that this region would support - including
codlin moth, year round fruit fly, scale and dozens more. Most of the trees
were dying of pest or disease attack, most of the crop was lost.
Now twenty years later I don't
use pesticides or fungicides except to experiment. We still do have the pests,
or most of them, but they no longer have an impact on the crop.
We practice natural pest
control - designing areas where the predators control the pests for us. There
isn't space here (the publisher is probably already grinding his teeth because
this book is too long to be cost effective) to describe how it works. It would
take a book in itself, which has already been written. See 'The Wilderness
Garden', Jackie French, Aird Books, $17.95.
As a summary however - we
don't have to spray, buy or mix sprays or worry about pests. This in itself
may be enough of a reason to have a tithe garden.
As any one who
has kept a budgie knows, one bird produces an awful lot of manure. And we have
hundreds of them, permanent and visitors.
Birds recycle nutrients in
your garden and help feed your plants especially if you have nesting birds
feeding elsewhere and dropping their lovely dung on your place. It's hard to
quantify the amount of fertility we gain but I reckon its equivalent to several
bags of Dynamic Lifter a year.
We don't have TV.
Who needs it? There are lyrebirds dancing on the garden chairs, frogs sticking
their tongues out at insects on the window at night (much more exciting and
bloodthirsty than 'The Gladiators'), bower birds doing somersaults as they try
to grab the kiwi fruit on the pergola outside the kitchen, baby swallows
learning to fly and going flop on the paving and there's always a wimp who has
to be coaxed to make that first jump. I could go on for pages and pages. In
fact forever as I just described what I can see from the window outside - a
continuous entertainment according to the season.
It is a far richer, more
complex entertainment than you'll get on TV. Infinitely complex (why are there
more juvenile bower birds this year? What is so fascinating to the eastern
spine bills in the balled up roses? Your thoughts can run for miles.) It is
also irrevocably linked to our lives. Who wants soap operas? We have plenty
of our own.
(Edward's friends here don't
miss TV either - they're too busy watching wombats play, lyrebirds roll giant
zucchini down the hill, rosellas dribble apple pulp, spinebills hover as they
stick their beaks into the sage.)
See above. If
you have fantasies of living in an artificial satellite with hydroponics and
other humans well, this book isn't for you.
But if your dream of the Garden of Eden is one where other animals and birds
are all around well, that's what you gain with a tithe garden. I could sit here
all my life and just observe and work out why and how. It makes life in an air
conditioned office seem awfully tame.
5. The future of the earth
Humans impact on
earth and its ecosystems is increasing. More people treading more heavily and
expecting more and more too.
Humans can't survive without other
species, without complex systems around us. We haven't yet created an
artificial biosphere that works, much less one that works indefinitely. Yet so
many humans refuse to accept that the earth belongs to others too or at least
hope that the bit of it other species will be given is somewhere far away
''This isn't a National Park, it's my back garden' as someone said to me
recently complaining about the possum in her cherry tree.
If animals own the earth as
well they own all of it, not just the sort of reserves whites once tried to
herd native Americans and Australian and other indigenous people into.
National parks are essential, but we need to allow other species into our
everyday lives - not just for their sake, but our own.
6. Something indescribable
Do I mean soul?
Or spiritual depth? Or just the wakening of ancestral memories when we too
watched the wolves and hunted deer and were hunted in our turn? Or just a
feeling of being one animal among many, the knowledge that this is the richness
of the earth..
I don't know what it is or at
least can't put it into words. But if you've felt it you'll know what I mean.
Just like life is richer after you've been on a bushwalk, after you've watched
a lizard darting at mosquitoes for half an hour, understood how yellow robins
eat aphids because you've watched it, have a wombat choose to sit with you
while you eat breakfast, two animals on a hill . . .
This is the heart of what I'm
writing about and I don't have words to explain it. But if you've ever felt a
hint of it, you'll know why I wrote this book.
Designing a Tithe Garden
Useful Items in a Tithe Garden
Fruit trees -
lots of them. Birds like fruit. So do humans - it's one of the world's great
joys to give away baskets of fruit.
EVERYONE has room for fruit
trees - even if you only have a patio. Stick dwarf trees like dwarf peaches,
dwarf nectarines, 'Ballerina' or other dwarf apples, cumquats, calamodens,
chinottoes, strawberry guavas in pots; grow banana passionfruit up wire netting
on the wall or over the balcony. (Banana passionfruit, Passiflora mollissima,
are the most cold tolerant of the passionfruit and will even fruit meagerly in
Canberra on a hot north-facing wall. Their flowers are glorious, big and gaudy
pink. They are incredibly fast growing, drought hardy and wonderfully prolific.
Birds adore their fruit and there'll be so much that you can snaffle a few for
yourself too. They aren't quite as sweet as black or purple passionfruit - but
fine for fruit salads, topping pavlovas and cakes.
One of the glories of a
friend's childhood in Canberra was the most enormous conventional purple
passionfruit vines that her parents had planted on the north-facing wall of
their house. It covered the two storeys, framed the views from within the
house out the windows and bore an embarrassingly gigantic crop of the most
delicious fruit - so huge that all the neighbourhood children would gather and
we would have seriously messy passionfruit fights. So they are certainly more
cold tolerant given certain parameters than usually thought.
If you only have a small
garden - and want a good amount of fruit for yourself - plant trees close
together, say two metres apart in a hedge around your property. Now prune off
the lower branches to let light down below (otherwise you'll have a garden like
a dingy prison cell). The trees will hedge and if you don't mind using a tall
hooked stick to get your fruit - or persuading a few kids to pick it for you -
you'll get a good range of fruit all year round because so many trees mean you
have a greater variety.
Who Gets What Fruit?
you relax and assume the birds deserve one tenth of the fruit you'll save
yourself a lot of stress. I accept that all the high fruit belongs to the
birds; the lower branches belong to any kid who wanders by and feels like a
snack; the middle branches belong to me. If the birds refuse to follow this
rule see 'Birds'.
and fruit bats prefer native fruit. If they have native fruit they'll leave
yours alone. See the chapter on birds for possible native fruits for your
Native fruit has other
advantages. As well as feeding - and decoying - birds and fruit bats, it
provides reliable tucker in harsh seasons.
Fruit Without Fruit Fly
there ain't no such thing but except in very bad fruit fly seasons you can be
fairly sure that the following are pest free. So if you don't want the fruit
for yourself but do want to grow it for others - try:
crab apples, especially M. floribunda, M. rubra and other small crab apples;
cherry guava, kiwi fruit (they mature in cold weather and are gone by spring,
avocadoes (currawongs love avocadoes and once they've pecked a hole in them
the small birds peck too), cumqauts if you pick them all before summer,
elderberries, orange tamarilloes, native figs or olives.
are perhaps the most valuable item in a tithe garden - even more than fruit.
Many birds and other species are nectar eaters but insects are attracted to
flowers too - and most species in the garden from nesting birds, even if they
normally like nectar, to wasps, lizards, frogs, and certain possums love
See 'Birds' for a good range
of constant or regular flowerers that produce nectar or attract insects. Every
garden should have at least six things flowering at any one time, and I don't
mean six varieties of rose.
of us don't want a jungle stretching along our garden. But most don't mind the
odd bit of jungle going upwards.
Vines up posts and trellises
tangle wonderfully - a perfect habitat for small birds' nests, possum nests,
rats' nests (all right, you may not be so keen on that possibility), lizard
hideaways, frog leaves, -they'll be relatively safe from predators and look
good too, because even though the inner bit is a tangle of vines and old
leaves, the outer covering may be covered with flowers. Consider climbing
geranium, jasmine, honeysuckle... even the ones that may invade the rest of
your garden are reasonably safe if you grow them up a tall post that you can
are tough or dense places where birds, lizards, frogs et al feel safe and
mostly are safe. The best places to find nests in our garden are: in the
middle of giant rambling rose bushes - birds know, like Sleeping Beauty's evil
godmother knew, that only handsome princes would bother to sneak through
rambling roses or someone with a very good pair of clippers, ditto the cumquat,
a good green thicket, vines (see above), bougainvillea, the loganberry mess
down the back (nothing - even I - can find its way through there) and other
Plant a group of three or more
of the prickly grevilleas (G. rosmarinifolia or G. juniperina and their hybrids
make a good starting point) and within two years they will have made a mound of
intersecting branches decorated with a fairly constant display of flowers and
small birds darting in and out of the safety of the tangled branches.
around your suburb. If you couldn't turn on a tap and didn't care for
chlorinated swimming pools - where would you find water?
Water is the greatest
constraint on how many animals live where. The lack of water is why you don't
find many animals in the desert - or perhaps in your street. Even dogs and
cats prefer larger bodies of water to the often hot, sometimes stale, water in
Fresh water is easy to
provide, once you put your mind to it. There are two sorts of water you need to
consider: drinking water and habitat water ie water for other species to live
or breed in.
wary of birdbaths - the birds may get used to it, then when you go away no one
fills it up. Birds are much better able to scavenge for food than water and
can go for longer periods without food than moisture.
Instead attach your bird bath
to a dripper, so that tiny amounts are always flowing (less expensive than a
dripping tap) or install a timer or a chook watering system - one of those
great bottles upended on a drinking dish that you fill every few weeks. Of all
of these I prefer the dripper - the water is always fresh but never in great
Make sure the water is in the
shade too - sunlight means water evaporates and becomes hot and more likely to
grow algae. It will probably get algae anyway unless it's regularly cleaned.
The tiniest possible pinch of copper sulphate will destroy algae without
Consider who you're providing
the water for. Are they vulnerable to cats and dogs? Do they fly or climb?
Simple ways of providing water include:
. hanging birdbaths - often as easy as just stringing up a nice pottery dish or
even an old plastic wash basin (aesthetically less pleasing to you) that has a
good edge for birds to perch on. Birdbaths are good under the eaves - lots of
shade and with luck you'll see the bird cavorting from your kitchen.
. a bucket or other container (even an old garbage tin lid) strapped to a metal
post or 'star picket' - buy from garden centres or hardware stores - or a more
decorative wooden post.
. a basin under a dripping tap (if you're fairly sure birds won't be pounced on
by neighbourhood cats)
Wherever and however you
arrange the water, make sure its
. always there
. in the shade
. clean and fresh
. has a spot to perch - and preferably a spot to observe and queue.
. in the same place every day - most birds and animals are creatures of habit.
A sprinkler going over the
water supply for the odd half hour for a few days will let birds and other
creatures know the water is there. Otherwise it may take weeks or months for
them to discover it.
How to Make a Hanging Bird Bath (for possums, dragonflies, lizards and others too)
First of all you need raffia
or waterproof string that won't rot in the rain and an attractive bowl. It
doesn't matter how big the bowl is, or what shape. If it's wide and flat the
birds will perch on it and splash; if it's deep they'll cling onto the edges
and drink - but in both cases they'll be grateful.
Turn the bowl over and fit the
string around the rim - then tie it a little too small. Make another four
rings the same size for extra strength.
Fit the strings around the
bowl - they should just sit there without falling off - if they slip off make
them smaller. Cut 12 lengths of string, plait them so you now have four
plaits, then tie the plaits onto the ring of strings.
When you turn the bowl over
you should be able to hold it up by the plaits. Now tie some cross pieces
under the bottom for added security, tie the plaits to a tree branch, fill with
water and watch the birds.
aren't just great places for frogs and tadpoles. Lizards love them especially
if there are rocks for basking on. They like to catch the insects that cluster
over the water. Birds enjoy them, dragonflies need them to breed - in fact
you'll find your garden is much richer if you have a wet spot.
can be the classic lily pond - either homemade or bought prefab. Home made
ones are relatively easy as long as you have a bit of confidence in shoving
things together yourself.
How to Make a Home made pond
a hole. Make sure the edges slope gradually. Line it with old chook wire (from
the dump or redo the chook house) or new chook wire. This makes it more
flexible and less likely to crack.
Buy sand and cement. (You can
buy it premixed but it's much more expensive.) Make a good mix of 1 part
cement to four parts sand. Add water till it's the consistency of a loose
cowpat. Spread thickly over the wire in the hole. Let it dry a little then
This is of course just the
basic recipe. Add the odd big rock around the edges or even in the centre
(make sure the seal is good between the rock and the cement. Seal it half way
up the rock if you can. In any case a few, or lots of, rocks around the edges
with plants in between greatly increase the attractiveness of the habitat. You
can also bung in a few rocks in the middle when it's set but gently, gently so
it doesn't crack.
Pond liner is even simpler
than concrete. Real pond liner is a butyl rubber and very strong and resilient
but not cheap. Black plastic is cheaper but doesn't last and can taint the
Now fill with water.
Well-planned lily ponds have a
drain at one end so you can let the water out. If you are good with plumbing
you'll find several good books in the library that will give you instructions.
We just bucket ours out when we want to clean it - the thickish water (what
with weed, algae and assorted droppings) is good for the garden. and there are
very many buckets full. You can also siphon the water out if you want to
water an area below the pond - this is the best if you don't want to stir the
pond up - you can even choose which part of the pond to drain - you can
concentrate on the murky layer at the bottom or you can replace the warm
deoxygenated water further up.
The easiest way to fill a pond
is with a hose. We have a hose connection poking up through the base of ours
and an ordinary microjet attached to that. When the microjet is on we have a
simple fountain. (I say it's ours but the birds probably would claim it too.)
See 'Frogs' for way of keeping
cane toads out of ponds. Dogs are best kept out by saying No in a firm voice
(assuming your dog is trained enough to recognise the word) or by covering with
builders mesh. Builders mesh may look ugly but birds love perching on it.
A Tyre Swamp
is fun - but a very little is all most animals need. Boggy bits are just as
To make a simple swamp forage
a few old tyres from the local garage. Place them in a circle or any pattern
you like for that matter. Now bury them so that their rims are level with the
Part fill the tyres with sand,
smoothing it up so that the centres are neat egg shaped cavities rather than
deep holes. Dig out the spaces between the tyres and line them with sand too,
so you have a pattern of bumps, lumps and hollows.
Cover the whole lot with pond
liner. Place rocks in between the tyres - small piles if you can so they have
lots of crevices for beasties to hide in. Fill crevices with dirt.
By now you'll probably have
hauled the pond liner up a few times to deepen some bits and raise others. Just
give yourself a few hours to play around and see what works.
Finally water well. Part of
the dirt will slide into the ponds, so you need to add more to the rocky bits.
Eventually you'll have sandy dirty ponds (which will soon clear) and hummocks
of rock and dirt. Plant the hummocks with ground covers. Plant out the rocky
bits, then place pots of waterlilies et al in the swampy bits or plant
watercress or mint at the edges.
The secret of a home-made
swamp is to plant is as soon as it is made. Otherwise it'll be an eyesore.
Most water edging plants grow very fast, so you should only have a few weeks of
But the birds, frogs and
reptiles et al will love it.
PS. Don't worry about mosquitoes as long as you've got tadpoles and lots of
frogs. We have had no more mozzies since we built our pond, in fact maybe
fewer as we have more frogs. Ours breed mostly in damp foliage anyway.
Island or Moated Gardens
there's a damp or boggy bit in your garden consider major earthworks - build up
islands so that instead of a flat boggy patch you have high ground and low
ground - or islands and moats. Grow crops on the islands. (They'll also be
far more frost free, safe from wallaby and goat attack - or stick a chook house
there for free fertility so the chooks are safe from foxes.)
Plants for Wet Spots
The more plants in and around your pond the better - for shelter, for food (and
to attract insects for food for other species) and for general aesthetics. Most
creatures seem to prefer a well vegetated pond.
The following are my
Plants to grow in the pond itself. (Plant in large pots at least 30 cm deep):
Lotus - sacred (Nelumbo nucifera).
All parts of the sacred lotus
are edible. Temperate to hot areas, though there is a southern native lotus
that is also apparently edible.
Waterlily (Nymphaea spp)
Choose your waterlily
according to your climate - once established they tolerate extreme neglect.
Eat the cooked rhizomes or peeled stems; other parts of the plant are also
edible. Waterlilies provide shelter for tadpoles from marauding birds.
Iris - several species are water tolerant, especially Iris kaempferi or
There is an enormous arum lily
relative that goes by the name of Green Goddess - it is huge and has wonderful
green and cream lily flowers that will grow in the water or at the edge.
Plants for the wet edges and swampy bits:
potatoes, duck potatoes, false water chestnuts (Sagittaria sagittifilia
We were given tubers of this
by a neighbour - they'd grown for decades in poor soil, died down in
Braidwood's freezing winters and returned each spring. Kuwai is very like the
waterchestnut, but much hardier, tolerating colder winters and longer dry periods.
Don't eat kuwai raw.
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis).
Choose the cultivated
marshmallow if you can get hold of it, not the weed form. Cultivated
marshmallow has mucilaginous edible roots, once used to make marshmallows
(gelatine is used nowadays). The young leaves can be used as a cooked or raw
Mints (Mentha spp)
These prefer damp soils. Some
like spearmint and eau de cologne mint and watermint will grow in still or
running water. We grow them around our fountain - and they invade the pool
happily. Many 'escapees' (not from our garden) grow wild in our creek, as do
at least two native Australian mints. (See 'The Book of Mint', Jackie French,
Harper Collins 1993) for a full list of possible mint varieties. Vietnamese
mint (Polygonum odorata) also prefers wet soils.
Sweet Flag, Calamus (Acorus calamus)
This is mostly grown for its
sweet root, used in perfumery, but it is also edible and can be eaten candied
or used to perfume jellies. It won't flower unless grown in wet conditions, preferably
by the side of ponds or dams.
Taro (Colocasia esculenta 'Euchlora').
Tolerates hot to temperate
climates, but only mild frost. The plant grows to about one metre high, with
wide leaves and a swollen stem base or tuber, harvested when it's large enough
to bother with (it can get enormous but is usually harvested after 6 - 8
months). The small side tubers are then replanted. The cooked roots are
edible but need experience to prepare. Other varieties are grown for their
edible or ornamental leaves.
Watercress (Nasturtium officinale)
This will grow in cool sun or
semi-shade, in moist soil or in running or still water. It is suitable for
cold to cool temperate climates, or hotter climate with cold water. In cool to
cold areas it stops growing in winter and may die down; in warmer areas it
grows all year. Sow seed at any time of year, cut when it's big enough to
Water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcius)
We grow our waterchestnuts in
damp soil, they can also be grown in shallow water. they tolerate total drying
out for weeks once the bulbs are large. They are suitable for hot or cold
climates. Harvest the root in autumn before the leaves die back in the cold,
eat thinly sliced raw or stir fried with other veg. Feed well for good growth though
the plants survive in poor soil.
Ferns - Blechnum spp and most other ferns love growing round the borders of
swamps and ponds.
The ones above are reasonably easy to get hold of. More specialist suppliers
can provide you with:
Siberian Marsh marigold (Caltha palustris)
Water avens, geum (Geum rivale)
Gunnera (Gunnera manicata)
Bog sage (Salvia uliginosa)
Cunjevoi lily (Alocasia macrorrhizos)
Saw sedges (Gahnia spp.)
Nardoo (Marsilea drummondii)
Fringed water lilies (Nymphoides spp)
Bulrush, Cumbungi (Typha domingensis)
Tall trees and pergolas
is a way of getting more garden for your space. You may only have a quarter of
an acre flat but if you send your garden skywards you can have two or three
Birds, possums, bats et al
like to roost up in tall trees - or at least perch and survey the world. If you
don't have a tall tree - and don't want one either - stick in a tall post, with
a cross piece on it and grow a creeper up it. The birds can perch up it, and
myriads of creatures will nest in the thicket of the creeper.
In fact even a common garden
swing will attract roosting birds - look at the white streaks on swings in
playgrounds. As long as it's tall and perchable it will be used
in the rough stuff on trees, not what dogs do. Good things live under bark -
insects and lizards. And birds like black cockatoos and tree creepers love to
eat what's under bark too. Many birds also need bark for their nests.
Note: Just as I wrote the
above I looked out the window and watched a skink climbing through the rough
bark of the pepper tree outside the window. The bark provides cover,
camouflage, insects, it's a lot harder for a cat or snake to catch a lizard on
a tree than it is to catch a lizard in grass or on a fence or paving. So about
six metres of habitat for the lizard and the tree takes up very little space in
the garden as we've pruned off the lower branches so the plants below get
plenty of light.
Rocks or bricks or a nice hot fence somewhere where lizards can bask in the sun
and soak up heat but duck for cover if a kookaburra or cat prowls by
I was small I wondered what the world was like before lawn mowers. Didn't the
grass grow and grow and just keep on growing till it was over peoples' heads?
All grass grows to a maximum
length and then stops. Usually not a very tall height either. It's weeds that
grow like Jack's beanstalk. And it's mostly weeds that make lawns look untidy
too. Grass can be long enough to seed but still fairly even and (almost) neat looking
- but add a few weeds and it looks like shaggy Harry.
Grass is good stuff. It's only
lawns that are unfriendly (especially those lawns that you aren't allowed to
walk on. My son's school has one like that. Footless grass is one of the
stingiest things in creation) Lawns have to be mown on Saturdays, fertilised,
pesticided, herbicided, trimmed. Grass just grows and if it's lucky gets a
haircut now and then and a scatter of Dynamic Lifter or other food once a year.
Everyone likes grass except
the odd fanatic. If you want a native garden try a native grass (a spread of
Kangaroo grass can be stunning).
Dogs like grass - they like to
romp on it, sleep on it, chew it when they're feeling sick. Cats like grass.
They can look over it and pretend they're mountain lions searching for their
prey. Kids like grass. It's good for cricket, riding bikes and rolling on.
Lovers like grass for
canoodling on, friends and families to picnic on...
Birds love grass seed (a flock
of red headed finches sweeping through the grass is one of my favourite sights
at breakfast); lizards prowl through grass - they like its protection against
birds and other predators and if you're lucky enough to have grass eaters in
your garden - from wombats to geese - well, you'll know the importance of a
lush green crop.
Grow lots of grass, it doesn't
have to be turned into lawn and golden grass is just as beautiful in summer as
diarrhoea green. Grass is friendly stuff. It's a pity it's been clichéd into
squares of green carpet that need cosseting and endless resources.
Make Use of Your Eaves
and the ground under them are mostly dead space - a few spiders' webs (please
never get rid of spiders' webs. Spiders eat pests and birds eat spiders... and
many birds need spiders' webs to stick their nests together and if they don't
have webs the nests fall apart. We had lovely dangles of spiders' webs here
for years till the bird numbers increased and suddenly one year we had no webs
at all. Now we have the odd web in winter but they vanish by early spring,
transmogrified into secure bindings for grass and bark and any bits of wool,
wire, fur, feathers the birds find to make their nests with.
Everyone has eaves - even if
you live in a flat. So hang things from them - bird feeders and birdbaths
(which will provide water for other creatures too).
Which brings me to....
love hanging baskets. Not just the tomatoes and other fruits you may care to
grow in them (try baskets of strawberries too, blueberries, flowers) but also
the coconut fibre or wool liners. They make great material for birds' nests.
One window eave should be able
to hold at least four hanging baskets - if not more for large windows. Don't
hang them in a straight line: a few up, a few down and it looks much better and
you can fit many more in.
Note: Possums find it
difficult to pinch stuff from hanging baskets - they're too unstable.
kills insects. (Anyway it's bad for your back and your temper). Mulch
feeds worms and worms feed birds and lizards. Mulch is also a great shelter for
all sorts of things. It's good for gardens too - but that's in other books.
What To Avoid If You want a Friendly Garden
NB: AVOID ALL PESTICIDES AND HERBICIDES
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
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)
the past thirty years I have developed a range of strategies that we practice
here, that allow us to grow fruit and vegies (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
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
. 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
. 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.
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.
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.
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
Wombats are also blamed for
fouling dams. Wombats don't foul dams - and may not even drink if pasture is
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
'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
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
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
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
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
5. Clear road verges
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
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
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
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
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.zebra2
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.
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
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.
. Bush Fire.
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
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
How to Look After an Injured Wombat
you see a dead wombat by the side of the road, do stop and see if it has a baby
in its pouch. (It will be pretty obvious if the wombat is male when you turn it
If the baby is standing by the
mother, do try to catch it even if it runs into the bush - a baby at this age
possibly still won't survive by itself and a few months of care will give it a
much better chance.
Remember that the baby will be
terrified, in a strange light world with noise and people. Don't try to comfort
the baby as you would a dog, by speaking to it and patting it.
DON'T try to care for the baby
yourself. First of all it's illegal - and for very good reasons. Too many
people have tried to rear a young wombat on condensed milk, soy milk, bread and
marmalade etc, treating it like a dog or human baby. These young may survive,
but they won't become healthy adults - you have only created a toy for your own
amusement, not really helped the wombat.
But DO join one of the
wildlife carers' associations if you love wombats, where you will be properly
trained to care for orphans. You, too, can then have your life totally disrupted
by a small furry dictator who will insist that you play with them - mostly at
night when they are awake, nurse them while they sleep, need feeding every
couple of hours, leave its droppings in your kitchen cupboards, destroy your
bedspread, tunnel through your dirty clothes basket, totally destroy the entire
garden - and many other wombat amusements to keep your life interesting.
In return you will have months
with possibly the universe's most cuddly and infuriating creature, totally
different mentally from any pet or human. You will also have the heartbreak of
saying goodbye to them, when they go bush again. But it's a joyous sort of
heartbreak, as you will know that they are leaving for a life of real
fulfilment, that they can no longer get with their human carers.
Once a wombat is about a year
old it needs to have the bush around it. If it is kept in a human situation for
any longer than that it has far less chance of learning to cope in the wild -
and may grow so dependent on humans that it will pine if kept away from them.
Some denatured wombats find homes at wombat parks and at least here they can
have a reasonable life but still be near people. But it is a much more
restricted life than they would have in the bush.
Never just dump a wombat back
into the bush. They will almost certainly die. There may not be holes to
shelter in - or other wombats may keep them out and they may suffer shock and
disorientation. Wombats MUST have a halfway house - a place where they can
venture out at will as they gain more confidence.
Please, please never keep a
wombat for more than eighteen months. The wombat may seem happy, but it is like
the happiness a human would feel kept as a pet by aliens in a comfortable room,
fed slops and petted by the alien kids. The human might seem happy, because
that was all it ever knew. It is not fair to turn a wombat into a long-term
Wombats are wild animals. They
need to be free
Caring for an Orphan
1. Wrap the baby
in something soft - like an old sheet - and keep it warm with a hot water
bottle or cuddle it next to you - the wombats preferred heat is about the same
as human's body temperature, 36 C. Keep the baby in as quiet and dark a place
as possible - a pouch made from an old sack or a pillow case, well padded and slung
over your shoulder is great, with a hot-water bottle replaced a couple of times
through the night.
If you will take more than a
couple of hours to get the baby to qualified care (WIRES or other wildlife
rescue organisations) and if it is very hot and you feel the baby has been
without milk for more than day, stop at the nearest vet's and ask for a
marsupial teat and bottle to feed it sterilised water or buy a low lactose milk
(like Divetalac) from the chemists. A baby wombat's mouth is very small and
tender and can be damaged by a large human size teat or by forcing a teaspoon
of water or milk into its mouth.
2. Take it as soon as you can to an agency like WIRES, where experts can care
If this is not an option,
apply to your local National Parks or equivalent for a license to keep the
baby, and ask WIRES or National Parks for the most up-to-date information on
keeping orphaned animals (and just be aware that these recommendations are
being fairly constantly refined - so what you 'knew' for sure as a fact based
on information you were given a decade ago may now be lamentably out of date.
Make sure you are operating from the most recent recommendations based on the
most current research). These are a few absolute essentials, however, that you
need to know before caring for a baby wombat.
1. Baby wombats need between 10% - 15% of their body weight in milk every day
- you will need to weigh the wombat if you are not sure they are getting enough
and to check that it is putting on weight, just like a human baby - i.e. an 850
gram wombat will need at least 85 mls of milk a day, and probably more if it is
hot or active (say about 130 mls a day).
This MUST be low lactose milk.
You can now buy milk especially formulated for marsupials from Wambaroo Food
Products in South Australia. Most vets in country areas now carry these. Other
low lactose milk products may be used for a short time. NEVER feed a wombat
cow's milk in any form at all, including condensed milk or any vitamins or
anything with sugar or salt in it.
2. Baby wombats need to be fed every two hours till they get fur, and about
every three hours after that. Wombats are nocturnal and you may find that your
orphan goes to sleep on you during the day and may take most of the day just to
drink enough milk. Normally a baby feeds almost constantly in the mother's
pouch - and some wombats just don't ever fit in with the human idea of 'guzzle
it fast then go back to sleep' pattern based on human infants. You will almost
certainly have to keep waking the baby up to feed - pulling the nipple gently
from its mouth is a good method - you want to wake it enough to feed, but not
enough to make it want to wrestle you.
Most baby wombats prefer to feed lying on their back, which is the way wombats
feed in the pouch, but I have known one demand to be on her stomach. Try the
back position first but don't try arguing with a wombat.
Never force-feed a wombat -
you may force milk into its lungs and kill it. Just keep cuddling it and
offering it the milk till it finds its scent and taste familiar enough to try.
If the wombat wants to be fed,
If the baby develops
diarrhoea, dilute the milk with 50% sterilised water and get vet advice AT
ONCE. Sterilise the teat and container after every feed and clean around the
baby's mouth with a damp cloth to make sure there is no dried milk caking the
baby's lips or chin. Change bedding when it gets soiled - there is a delicate
balance here between hygiene - like any premature baby an orphaned wombat is
very susceptible to infections - and keeping a nice familiar wombat smell to
reassure the baby.
3. Wipe the baby's anus after its bottle. This may stimulate it to urinate or
4. If the baby is unfurred, wipe it every day with lanolin, and make sure its
bedding is very soft.
5 When the baby is fully furred, though still pink rather than brown - about
eight months old - let it play on fresh clean short grass - green if possible.
The baby should start to eat grass about now. Don't let the baby feed on dry
grass with hard stems or hay - they can puncture the intestine and the baby
will die. If possible give the baby access to other wombat's droppings that
will provide useful bacteria for their guts; don't worry if they eat their own
scats either. The baby may also eat rolled oats, carrots or chunks of sweet
potato or sweet corn, but these should just be a treat or supplement, not the
Your baby wombat will probably
decide that it would like to try the cat's food, dog food, your toast, any cake
on the coffee table and your socks. Remove all temptations - wombats will get
diarrhoea form too much carbohydrate, and kidney damage from any other foods.
The chief food should be milk and grass,
6. Give the baby dirt to play in and dig in, branches to gnaw, lots of walks on
grass and also through bushland as much as possible, so they learn about space
and scents and terrain - they won't run away from you and get lost. On the
contrary, they will keep you carefully within bumping distance! Don't worry if
their claws are long - they need to be long to dig, so don't file them off or
think that, like dogs, they need to run on concrete or hard ground to war them
Play with baby wombats a LOT -
as much as possible - rough and tumble and tug of war, to develop muscles and
coordination. Let it follow your around the garden or anywhere it will be safe
from dogs and cars but keep an eye on the weather and the baby's sun exposure.
Don't punish a wombat. You
can't train a wombat, but you can scare it. A hurt wombat will learn to fear
you, but it won't learn to be toilet trained, nor to ignore the cat food, or
not to dig through the dining room floor or through your bedroom door if it is
The joy and despair of living
with a wombat is accommodating yourself to a wombat's desires!
(The only way I know to
encourage a wombat to use a toilet spot is to find a nice dark cupboard or
wardrobe - the broom cupboard is great, as brooms have such interesting smells
- line it with lots of newspaper and put some of its droppings there, to
encourage it to keep using that area. Or if it chooses another, go with the,
er, flow and line that place with paper so at least the droppings are
7. Don't let the wombat associate cars and dogs with humans - it may run
towards both in later life, hoping to find you - with desperate results.
8. When the wombat is about ten months old consider finding it a half-way
house where it can come and go at will, still be bottle fed but gradually learn
how to cope with the bush and other animals. Once a wombat is about a year old
it should be living in a hole with a safely fenced area around it to keep it
safe as it roams at night. (If you have a safe 'orphan hole' the baby may
choose to live in the hole much earlier - but don't force it if it is scared.)
By the time the orphan is
eighteen months old make sure it has complete access to the bush and freedom -
so it can wander off if it likes without a farewell grunt to you. But there
will be memories - and while our bush survives, more wombats to take its place.
How to See a Wombat
people see wombats in zoos - dusty, sleepy animals who lumber a few steps and
go to sleep again, who are used to narrow restricted lives behind the zoo
If you really want to meet a
wombat, you have to go bush - and you have to watch them at night or in later
afternoon on winter days.
Watching wombats, though, is just
part of the whole experience of being in the bush - watching wombats at a zoo,
even in a large enclosure, can never be anything like watching free wombats, in
an environment that changes with drought and flood and rain and storm.
(You can't really experience
the bush from watching TV either. You can't smell it, feel the moisture on your
skin, watch how it changes.)
How to 'see' the bush
best way to understand an area is not to tramp though it. Find a quiet place
and sit there. Look at what is growing around you - the small plants covering
the ground (there'll probably be dozens besides grass), the small shrubs then
climbers, plants that ramble or twist or twine. Look for plants growing on
high rocks, on tree trunks or from high branches. See what plants are
flowering or setting seed or look like they might be dying back.
Then come back to that same
spot - again and again. Try to come back in dry times and compare your spot
with what you saw before. Try to come back after a drought has broken - or
after fire - or in a very wet year.
The bush isn't static. It is
constantly changing - and the only way to know an area or begin to understand
it is to live there - or come back time and time again.
Don't Just 'Go Bush'
extremely wise man (who I won't name but you may have read his books) once told
me that when he decided to move to Australia he knew he would have to prepare
himself to really see the land. He read all he could before he came here, so
he'd know what to look for - then spent a year just looking.
You'll see more in the bush if
you do some reading first, about animals, lizards, snakes, flowers, birds... Often
when people go into new areas of bush they go 'cold turkey' - expecting to
understand or notice things in an area they've never been before, just by
following the map or track. But even with those you will miss a lot - that
rustle in the undergrowth that's a ground thrush, perhaps, the gully where the
lyre birds dance - you'll only see them if you creep up - the koala colony in
the trees by the creek, or the bunyip swamp just past the waterhole. Even if
you have guide books to tell you what birds you see, what flowers are blooming,
you'll miss so much that an experienced guide might show you.
If at all possible find
someone who knows the local area and can tell you what to look for - the local
National Park workers, local farmers - or just someone who has walked that way
many times before.
Do not make the mistake of so
many who express disdain for books and information, claim 'not to need' to know
the names, distribution and habits of plants, animals, fungi, insects. Sure,
this is only the beginning of knowing an area - but it is an important
beginning and certainly enables most humans to find a way in.
You will be surprised and
delighted how having a mental framework and some little knowledge will assist
you to discover the bush. Not because all knowledge is held in books and
theory, not at all - in fact once you have read and memorised and disputed with
all that the authorities have recorded you can begin to build up your own body
of observable knowledge and if you go on for long enough and deep enough something
akin to wisdom can be acquired.
Using All Your Senses
we mostly use only two senses - our eyes and our ears - and we severely
restrict how much we use of those. In the city or suburbs there is so much you
want to forget about, that you learn only to half use your eyes and ears - how
not to hear the noise of the traffic at night when you're trying to sleep or
the ads on TV. How not to see the neighbour's washing or ugly billboards, How
to forget about all the unpleasant 'crowded' things of modern life. We tend to
see things with a narrow vision, not a wide one - just to see what we are
looking at directly, instead of being aware of everything around.
I'd been living here for years
when this suddenly changed. i was sitting up by the 'dragon pool' - where the
water dragons sleep on the rocks on cool days, or dive into the water and sit
an the bottom in the heat. Suddenly I realised that the way that I looked at
things had changed - I was looking with the corners of my eyes, I was seeing the
whole world around me, not just the bit in front - was automatically 'feeling'
as well as 'seeing' how the water ran down to the creek, how the grass changed
as the slope grew steeper, how the birds flew with the currents of the wind.
It's hard to actually describe what happened - because there are no real words
that suit it - but when it happens to you you'll know what I mean.
It is the same with hearing.
In noisy places you learn 'not to hear' a lot of what's happening around you.
But in quieter places you get used to all the usual sounds - and will notice a
new noise immediately. (I find it hard to sit still at friends' houses in the
suburbs - every time a car comes along the street I automatically want to get
up to investigate.)
We've all but forgotten our
sense of smell, too - unless we sniff at something deliberately like dinner, or
a perfume, or to see if something's gone bad. We no longer use our sense of
smell to tell us about our surroundings.
Or our sense of 'feel' either
- like the feel of the air on your skin.
Next time you are in the bush,
shut your eyes. Find out what you can 'see' in the darkness - how the air on
your skin is dry or moist (and how it changes when you walk from a sunny track
into a cool wet forest - or even get close to a creek). 'Feel' the air in your
nostrils as well as using your nose to smell - you'll feel how the air seems
'thicker' at dusk, or 'heavy' before a storm.
Learn to smell - learn what a
creek smells like - the scents of water and wet soil, what different winds
smell like - a southerly smells quite different from a north-west wind.
Learn to notice what your body is
telling you. Lizards get cranky before a fierce storm (I once saw tens of
lizards tearing at each other, biting at throats and twisting with tails - and
then the most extraordinary thunder storm I have ever seen came up the valley -
and sent me and the lizards scurrying).
People get cranky before
storms too - or old injuries ache before a change in the weather - and there
are dozens of other ways our bodies sense what is happening in the world around
us. We still pass on folklore about ants and birds sensing storms - but we've
lost touch with what our own bodies tell us.
Many people see the bush with
lots of other people - a party of bushwalkers or a school excursion. While
these are fun - and you can learn a lot - you still won't experience as much of
the bush as you would if you went by yourself - or with just one other person.
This is partly because animals
hear - or smell - large numbers of people and stay away - but also because when
you are with other humans you are 'human oriented' - you are chatting or
thinking about the person beside you - you're not really part of the bush at
Go by yourself
best way to see the bush is to go by yourself - or to go with a party, but find
a 'special spot' of your own - and just sit there for an hour or so, smelling
and feeling and watching what happens around you. Don't think about dinner or
your blisters - just try to be as aware a you can be of your surroundings.
If you do decide to go into
the bush by yourself, leave a note saying exactly where you are going and when
you will be back AND STICK TO IT. Even if you are safe, other people can worry
- and go to a lot of trouble traipsing after you. There have been an awful lot
of Search and Rescue missions that have been called out for overdue walkers,
who have simply decided to spend another night or go out by a different track.
Consider your fellow humans too - not just the other animals around you.
How to find a wombat in the bush
1. Look for
Adult wombats leave about a hundred scats a night - if there are wombats about,
you will soon see scats.
Wombat droppings are usually
grassy looking, dark brown to black in dry seasons and green in lush times.
Adult wombat's droppings are usually large and squarish and they'll be very
visible - deposited on any high point around - rocks, fallen logs, your boots.
However, dung beetles very soon break up wombat droppings, so within a few hours
they can turn furry or start to disintegrate - except in cold winters when they
freeze in shape.
Baby wombats mostly leave
their droppings hidden under a bush and they will be smaller and moister and
slightly pointed at the end that comes out last. A wombat will mostly leave
some of its droppings in the same place every night.
Once you get to know the scats
of one wombat, you can usually recognise them and be able to tell which wombat
has wandered where and even when by the freshness of the dropping. Other
wombats - but not us olfactory challenged humans - can tell much more about a
wombat from its scats - if it is on heat, feeling aggressive, how old it is and
probably many other things. (Don't ask me for more - I'm human.)
Wombats also leave scratches
and scent markers for other wombats - but again, what they communicate is
mostly a wombat secret.
2. Look for wombat holes
A wombat hole isn't a reliable guide to whether there is a wombat about - it
may have been unused for years. Look for fresh digging, prints, scratches and
droppings. If the leaf litter at the front is undisturbed and there is grass
growing that hasn't been tramped down, it is either an unused hole or the
wombat is using another entrance.
3. Look for wombat sits
These are often high on a ridge or hill, looking out over a view - which I
suspect wombats 'see' by their sense of smell. There won't be droppings there
but there will be nearby.
4. Look for dust baths
Places where a furry animal has rolled in the dust.
5. Look for wombat tracks
A wombat's front paw print looks a bit like a dog print; the back print looks a
bit like a very small human footprint. When a wombat is trudging along normally
the front and back prints are close together, but when they are running they
will be further apart.
You'll find wombat tracks in
sand by creeks, bare soft dirt, by wombat holes. If you are in doubt about a
wombat's presence, rake sand around the hole entrance and check it for prints
6. Look for wombat scratches
Wombats love fresh dirt and will often scratch it - or just scratch wet lush
ground to see if it is good for digging. Wombat scratches though can be
confused with scratchings made by other animals until you become familiar with
them. You may also find parallel wombat scratches on the ground near their
Wombats have a very definite wombat scent - and another even stronger scent
when the females are on heat. Once you learn it, it is impossible to mistake -
and sometimes even a poor smeller like me can track a wombat by its odour.
Most wombats die in their holes, but a few years later the burrow will be
'spring cleaned' by another wombat - and dogs and foxes and goannas may drag
them out too. You can tell a wombat skull by the two long front teeth in the
upper and lower jaws, with smaller teeth much further back.
Around here the most obvious noise is the scratch - again, unmistakable after
you have heard it once. You can also hear grunts, huffs, snarls, yips if they
are mating and other wombat noises - but the scratch and the sound of grass or
tussock being torn in wombat teeth will often carry fifty metres or more on a
Wombats are creatures of habit - though they do vary their routine fairly
often. But if a wombat comes to a certain pool to drink at dusk, a certain
patch of grass to eat at 1 am, likes to scratch on that branch etc, you will
probably find them there the next night - or even the next month. (But probably
not the next year.