Every little community has a story to tell. A while back we were lucky enough to get the chance to tell the story of the Ballarat Environment Network.
In many ways the Ballarat Environment Network (BEN) is following a tradition that started 118 years ago with the city’s first tree planting day at Victoria Park.
“The community might have been planting exotic trees way back then but it was still a very strong recognition of the damage the gold rush had inflicted on the natural environment,” says BEN’s executive officer, Hedley Thomson.
One of the first moves to get the network off the ground was a gathering called the “green presidents” meeting, which included representatives from the local Bird Observers club, Landcare and local community groups.
“Quite a few of the people involved really took umbrage at that reference to green,” says Hedley. “They didn’t want to be seen as ‘green activists’.
“We wanted it to be a positive group that took action and moved forward. That’s the Ballarat way. People get involved. They don’t just bitch and whinge, they get on with the job.”
And what a job they’d set themselves, cleaning up a natural environment torn apart by more than 140 years of intensive gold mining and land clearing.
“The waterways were completely devastated by mining,” says Hedley.
“All the stuff you didn’t need, the sediment, the wash material, all went straight back into the waterways. The photographs of the time show environmental carnage – piles of rubble, pit heads, slop everywhere, guys puddling in mud – it’s just appalling.”
A history of neglect
Ballarat’s landscape alters dramatically depending on which side of the Yarrowee River you’re standing on.
The eastern side is typified by messmate stringybark, manna gum forests and woodland. The understorey is made up of native grasses and grasstrees.
To the west of the Yarrowee lies 270 kilometres of the Victorian Volcanic Plain, which before European settlement was home to much of the state’s grassland species.
“That area copped a real hiding when it was cleared for agriculture,” says Hedley. “The 1850 to 1880 gold rush brought with it a huge influx of people, expansion of the railway and road networks, and a greater demand for food.
“Basically the grasslands disappeared. Less than one per cent remains.”
Despite operating in such a damaged landscape, BEN has been responsible for some remarkable achievements over its 16 years, including creating a network of more than 50 biodiversity reserves.
All parcels of crown land, the reserves were originally created to serve human needs and range from disused racecourses to water supply reservoirs, former police paddocks and even old nightsoil depots.
As human populations have moved away the reserves have been allowed to return to their natural state, and are now managed for their biodiversity values.
Ranging in size from just half a hectare up to 400 hectares the reserves protect a range of threatened ecosystems, including examples of Victoria’s critically endangered native grasslands.
One of the driving forces behind the reserves is Tim D’Ombrain. A tireless worker with an unstoppable enthusiasm for nature conservation, Tim helps maintain the reserves through his role as co-ordinator of the BEN Biodiversity Services project.
“I found it impossible to sit back and watch some of the most interesting remnant patches of native bush further degrade through a lack of management and generally, a lack of weed control,” says Tim.
“Fortunately, the BEN committee shared the vision and the push began to create a network of biodiversity reserves, form a biodiversity crew, employ a ranger and demonstrate how these wonderful areas could be managed.
“The Department of Sustainability and Environment had the faith that we could achieve the aim and 52 parcels of crown land are now biodiversity reserves under BEN management.”
Tim says a large part of the vision has been to help the broader community see these areas through different eyes.
“Once you get involved you can’t help but be fascinated by the distribution of plants in the region and the diverse habitats they provide,” he says.
“The more you see, the greater your understanding, fascination and appreciation. Secondly, you become acutely aware of the parlous state of much of these remnants.
“These grasslands, grassy woodlands, streamsides, wetlands and open forests have a natural beauty that needs to be promoted so that more people can understand and enjoy them.”
Although recognising the tremendous effort that has gone in to restoring Ballarat’s waterways, grasslands and forests, Hedley fears many of these gains are being undermined by new and emerging threats.
“There has been a real turnaround in community attitude to Ballarat’s natural environment,” he says. “But there’s also been a lot of behavioural changes that have gone the other way.
“There’s been a considerable increase in the intensive use of agricultural land, including raised-bed cropping and intensive animal agriculture.”
He also believes new technology is making it easier to farm previously untouched areas of remaining bushland.
“Wetlands in the area continue to be drained to make way for development and rock crushing is turning important areas of remnant native vegetation into farmland,” he says.
These new threats have stirred people into action, including a number of groups associated with BEN.
“Some of the groups get really despondent when they see all this land clearing going on,” he says. “But others are getting more active and are opposing these developments.
“There was a new residential development approved recently at the top of the Yarrowee River catchment that was opposed by both the Ballarat Field Naturalists and Bird Observers clubs.
“It’s unusual for some of these groups to take this sort of action. They usually say that’s not the way we function, we’re just amateur experts who don’t get involved in the politics of issues, but now they’re getting quite active about having their say, which is really important.”
Custodians of biodiversity
The Ballarat Environment Network represents nearly 80 groups and organisations working on conservation issues in southwest Victoria.
Affectionately known as BEN, the network’s membership is as varied as the landscape it operates in and includes schools, bushwalking clubs, Landcare groups, universities, field naturalist clubs, wildlife shelters, friends of groups, councils, water authorities and conservation groups.
Its sphere of influence ranges from Daylesford in the north, east to Bacchus Marsh, south to Colac, and west to Ararat.
BEN’s catchphrase, “custodians of biodiversity”, reflects the network’s core work, and in recent years the group has focused much of its attention on biodiversity management, with a strong emphasis on community education.
How to get involved
New volunteers are always welcome at BEN. Activities range from learning how to grow native plants to helping protect and restore the habitat of threatened species.
To find out how you can become involved, telephone BEN on 0438 660 501 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information go to: www.ben.org.au.