Patrizia Reimer looks at people power at Wilsons Creek…….

Building community makes some people see green

Landcare is traditionally associated with agriculture, it was after all set up to assist farmers renew their properties after years of intensive agricultural use and degradation. But there’s nothing in the rule books to say it can’t be used as a community building tool and one group of residents decided to do just that. The Wilsons Creek Huonbrook Landcare Group (WCHLG) is a hugely successful example of how an eclectic group of professionals, artists, farmers and tree-huggers can help their environment and ‘all just get along’.

In the last few years the concept of bush regeneration has been embraced in areas where farming is not necessarily the main activity and Landcare has been a major player in this transformation.
The Byron Shire is the most densely populated rural area in NSW with once farmed land now lived on by sea-changers or people who just love the bush. The Northern Rivers, rich in rainforest and highly biodiverse, also lays claim to having the highest number of Landcare groups in NSW (10 per cent of the total in the State).

WCHLG works in an area completely surrounded by National Parks and comprising Wanganui Gorge, Coopers Creek, Huonbrook and Wilsons Creek. The valleys contain 50 per cent of the shire’s remnant rainforest as defined by the Byron Shire Council in its 1999 Flora and Fauna study. The area was also listed this year in the Council’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy as being of very high conservation value.

Coincidentally, in November this year the group, after applying jointly with the Byron Shire Council, was selected for one of 21 Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) funded projects to carry out high conservation value restoration work.

This is part of $2.08 million in Natural Heritage Trust funding received by the Northern Rivers Catchment Management Board (NRCMB) in July this year. These funds will allow NRCMB to implement part of the first year of its Catchment Blueprint - a ten-year plan to manage the natural resources of the Northern Rivers Region.

The WCHLG project, to be overseen by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources (DIPNR), will help achieve priority management targets highlighted in the NRCMB Catchment Blueprint and may lead to future projects.

The need for high accountability with the NHT funding has led the group to seek incorporation in the new year so it can manage the project independently of the Council. By ‘being its own boss’, so to speak, WCHLG will then be free to source other funding and exercise greater control of its finances and projects.
That’s not bad for a small group of volunteers who got together primarily to forge a community spirit and maybe get rid of a few weeds along the way.

Established in 1995, WCHLG has grown to become a strong force embracing more than 50 properties. The group has a core of 12 people running the business in areas of fundraising, sourcing grants, organizing workdays, disseminating information through newsletters and a website and organizing information days, field trips and training opportunities.

These people include accountant Robyn Berrington who does the group’s bookkeeping; ecologist Barbara Stewart who is an invaluable source of environmental know-how and has assisted with work plans and identifying species, including a couple of rare sightings, such as the Smooth Davidsonia, which have been acknowledged in the scientific community; lawyer Bill Tweedie who assists with document preparation and official business and Rob Dann, a bush regenerator.

This core is held together by Sue Riley, a goat farmer and former nurse with years of hospital administration experience who reluctantly admits her role as key administrator and organizer saying the group works because it’s a team effort.
According to Ms Riley and Mr Tweedie, the members both active and non-active include a zoologist, photographer, graphic designers, university professor, school teachers, doctor, sound recordist, nurses, engineers, psychologists, IT professionals, marketing executives, journalist, business people, builders and farmers.

“Many have retired in the area and have selected to live here because of the environment, beauty and peace,” said Ms Riley.
“Wilsons Creek is a small, cohesive society and the Landcare group is fortunate that members have a variety of qualifications and experience and are prepared to contribute this expertise to the group by doing things they know best.”

WCHLG was formed because of two Robyns, acting independently and spurred on by a longing for community. Somehow the concept of a local Landcare group inspired them both to start one where they live.
Robyn Herklots grew up in Huonbrook and has lived on the same land for 35 years. Sharing a 100 acre property with her mother Roslyn McKenzie and running about 20 cattle, the Ecology Field Worker for State Forests is the group’s most long-term resident. Despite her extensive ties in the community, having gone to school locally and mucked about in the streams and forests with neighbouring kids as a young girl, Ms Herklots felt the area needed more community spirit. After seeing an ad encouraging people to form a Landcare group in their local area, she contacted the Murwillumbah DIPNR office only to be told they’d just taken an enquiry from another Robyn, Ms Berrington, so the two joined forces and introduced Landcare to the valley in August 1995.

“When we first started we were happy just to meet people,” said Ms Herklots, “We’d go to someone’s house, work together, have a good time, the purpose of it wasn’t to make some amazing impact on the environment, that was a good side effect.

“I’ve still got people that I met through Landcare originally, in fact most of the friends I have and value are from Landcare. I’m still going to the workdays and by having the contact with others like that if you need to ask someone something you can and I’ve learnt some regeneration skills. Sometimes people acted like Landcare was this huge army that would go out and work on everyone’s property. We used to joke about that a lot.”

The other Robyn, Ms Berrington, and her husband Paul had just moved into the area the year before.
“It was a way of meeting people, to get people active in the valley and to do something for the environment,” she said.

“We had a public meeting, about 40 people attended, some just came because they wanted to know what was happening. Then we decided to choose a site, opposite the school, we had loads of people in the beginning about 20 to 30. That energy kept up for quite a while and then it died down for a year or two, then Sue came onto the helm and things have changed again.

Back in the old days we just worked on each other’s properties. It’s good for new people and if you can keep a core group of people going it keeps it available for newcomers. You just learn so much, talking to others for just two hours while you’re working and you pick up so much plant knowledge.”

The monthly work days which formed the group still take place like clockwork on the third Sunday, except for the odd day of inclement weather which, realistically, is quite frequent in the State’s highest rainfall area. But now there’s so much more going on with work teams and Government grant funding expanding the group’s reach into the community.

Cathy Saffin had been in the area for about five years and started some amateur regeneration on her five-acre river front property. But with her three young children and Slingalong, a fledgling home based business making baby slings, placing many demands on her so much time would pass before she could get back on the land that the weeds would win the day. Eventually Ms Saffin contacted Landcare and accepted a Green Corps team on her property.

“I was doing things the hard way, the wrong way,” she said, “when I saw how these people worked I learnt so much and now I’m in a position where I actually spend less time on it but I’m seeing better results. When I first moved here I used to say to myself ‘oh in 20 years it’ll all be pure rainforest’, now I’m saying it’s more like 10 years. Landcare knows the best methods for dealing with the weeds we have here and it’s less labour intensive.”

Bush regenerator Rob Dann is also a fairly new addition to the WCHLG and was driven by its ethos, saying, “It was a natural extension of my moving here, but the heart of it is more that there’s a family component.”
And that just about sums up the feeling amongst all the nature lovers involved, no matter how much they want to help their environment, the group works so well because it’s a connecting factor in an area where people can tend towards isolation. It’s a chance for like minded souls to get together and do something they all believe in, have a chat, make new friends, gossip, do lunch or have a drink afterwards. It’s a win-win situation for the rainforest and the people tending to it, a true meeting of nature and nurture.

Yabbies are found in the water courses in the area
© photo by Shaun Kerrigan

The aims of the group include:

Some of the projects managed by the group include:

More recently the group has:

Eastern Cod are found in both the Coopers and Wilsons Creeks.
© photo by Jim Tait