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Interview with Alison Russell-French
Kate Miller

Interview with Alison Russell-French

We had a chat to the President of Canberra's Woodlands and Wetlands Trust.

Our sister sanctuary in Australia is Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. Located in Canberra, Mulligans Flat is home to native Australian bandicoots, bettongs, mice, a variety of birds and other wildlife. They have a fence similar to that of ZEALANDIA's, except it is designed especially to keep cats, rabbits and foxes at bay. 

Find out from Alison Russell-French, President of the Trust, about the challenges and successes of this very different, yet very similar, wildlife sanctuary. 


So what is the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust?

Well the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust is something of a unique arrangement where we have basically a not-for-profit organisation that works in partnership with the Parks and Conservation Service of the ACT Government. So it’s a joint arrangement; they have on ground management responsibility of our two reserves, Mulligans Flat and Jerrabomberra Wetlands, and our role is to provide enhanced management.  We have been responsible for looking after one of the first projects, which is expanding our sanctuary from 400ha to over 1100. We’ve raised $1.6m to go towards predator-proof fencing this additional area. We’re also looking ahead to building new Visitor Centres at each reserve, which, unlike ZEALANDIA, we don’t yet have.


Sounds interesting! What’s your role within that trust?

So I’m actually President of the Trust, and Chair of the Trust Committee, which is the equivalent of your ZEALANDIA Board. I’ve been doing that since 2014, when I was invited by the Minister at the time to take on the position, and it’s been a fantastic opportunity, really enjoying it!


Nice, so do you have a background in conservation?

A very long background in conservation, I was with the Commonwealth Department of the Environment, although it’s gone through many names since then, working for them for 16 years in the Senior Executive Service. So a long background in policy, program administration, across things like wetlands, biodiversity, coastal and marine areas.


You sound like the person for the job then. What sort of ecosystems are you working with over there?

Mulligans Flat is a very unique area in Canberra region, being the biggest area of publically owned land that’s yellow box red gum grassy woodland. This kind of ecosystem used to be right along the eastern side of Australia and we’re down to less than 10%. It’s been cleared because a lot of it is productive land that’s gone into agriculture and other things. It’s a very very rich ecosystem in terms of biodiversity, with a huge range of species. I’m actually also an amateur ornithologist so birds are an icon for other species and what’s going on, and we’ve had declines in a large number of our woodland birds and that’s really showing that this type of ecosystem is under considerable threat.

 Jerrabomberra Wetlands is actually a partial natural wetland but also a partial artificial wetland that came out of when Lake Burley Griffin was formed. That’s going back to when Canberra was basically created as capital city. The wetlands are very valuable, being such a large wetland area in an urban setting.


So kind of similar to here, where dams have created artificial lakes, which have ended up becoming very important natural areas in their own right?

Yes, well there are a lot of similarities between ZEALANDIA and the two reserves we’re involved with. We’re both very much involved in reintroducing species that are no longer in the urban context. In our case, we’ve got two species that we are particularly focused on. This project is a partnership between us and ANU, CSIRO, and Parks & Conservation. Eastern Bettongs were the first to come into the predator proof area. We started with 37 and we’ve now got over 300. So once we’ve expanded that area and got rid of some of the introduced predator problems, we’ll be able to expand out and probably have some Bettongs that will live their whole life without ever seeing a human!

We started with Eastern Quolls in March this year, and like all species reintroductions there have been ups and downs. We started with 14 Eastern Quolls and lost seven that climbed over the fence. We’ve got seven there now, with all females breeding, so this means we have about 20 joeys lined up, and we’re expecting more Quolls to come next year.


So Bettongs and Quolls and other species would have been in this area before?

Yes they would have been there 100 years ago, but probably not since. They’ve been a real absence in the landscape. The Bettongs especially are really important as what we call ‘ecological engineers’. Their main food source is truffles, we have about 1300 native species of truffles. The Bettongs dig neat little holes right across the landscape, which actually allow moisture to go into the soil in a much gentler way, and you get a much gentler moisture base. So they’re actually very productive at making soil productive!


You mentioned introduced predators before. What sort of species are we talking about?

The main predator pests are foxes and cats, although cats are less of an issue for us in an urban context. We have a very large fox population around Canberra and it’s much harder to control outside of the sanctuary, because baiting’s not on with domestic dogs and cats around and shooting’s obviously not something you can do in suburban areas. We found with the Bush Stone-curlew, a bird species we’ve reintroduced, that out of 11, six flew outside of the sanctuary and three of these were taken, almost immediately, by foxes.

Another big problem we have is rabbits. In the current predator-proof area we’re probably down to about one or two rabbits. Consequently they become very expensive to get rid of. Park officers and contract shooters with gear that would probably send the US Army into fits of jealousy are out there trying to take down these last couple of rabbits using night vision and who knows what else!

We’ve also been using what they call ‘judas rabbits’, which are rabbits with transmitters attached to them. They go into burrows, and if there are other rabbits there we can track them down.


So aside from introduced predators, what other similarities are there between Woodlands & Wetlands Trust and ZEALANDIA?

Well I think the similarities are very strong, in fact we’ve modeled our twilight tours to look at Bettongs and Quolls on your night tours here for Kiwi and that’s proved to be very successful and we’ve now gone to two a week. So that’s a strong similarity. I also think the reintroduction of species that were native to the areas is another strong similarity and we can do a lot of research and compare notes on how we operate and the successes and failures.

We’re very interested in continuing staff exchanges, and maybe even look at some Iwi and Indigenous Australian exchanges and learning on the Indigenous people’s side as well. So there are a lot of strong similarities, and with the MOU both Denise and I are very keen to make this an active arrangement.


Cool, so expect to hear more from both trusts in the future?

Absolutely! We are very keen for people from Wellington to come and visit our reserves and also give us feedback on things. We are a bit behind you in terms of our Visitor Centres, we don’t have them as yet, but we have made arrangements otherwise for people to go and see these areas and they’re really unique in a large urban context like Canberra.


What would you recommend for a ZEALANDIA Member to check out if they make it over to Canberra?

I think they should definitely go to Mulligans Flat and book up for a Twilight Tour because you’ll actually see Bettongs, and maybe Quolls. You’ll see them at night, and in their environment, and they’re really fantastic. Our two ecologists and volunteer guides do a great job of explaining to visitors how the whole place actually works.

Now, Jerrabomberra Wetland is near the airport, so an easy one to visit for visitors too. I think the best thing is to check our website as there’s always interesting things going on that they could join.


Sounds great! Finally, what’s your favourite animal? You can be biased if you’d like…

Well I’ve got three actually. I think the Saddleback is fantastic and just a really beautiful bird. At our end I’ll probably go for the Quoll, they are the cutest things out!

But probably my most favourite is actually New Zealand and Australian, which is the Bar-tailed Godwit, the migratory shore bird. I’ve been involved with shore birds for a very long time and the story of E7, who was the first Bar-tailed Godwit that had a satellite implant that showed us where and how they migrate between the hemispheres. They only stop in one spot in the Yellow Sea and that’s been absolutely fantastic information for us because it’s helping us work with countries in the East Asian-Australasian Flyway such as China and South Korea who are really critical in terms of the mudflats there. So they’re my favourite animal because I think it’s such a remarkable story!

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