Merri Creek, Fawkner: Revisiting revegetation

By Brian Bainbridge

Tony Faithfull and Brian Bainbridge have a continuous connection to the restoration of Merri Creek going back to 1988. An IFFA excursion to the Merri in Fawkner last December was an opportunity to reflect on the project’s history and its future with other IFFA folk.

At the parking lot at Jukes Road, many of the group were surprised by the amount of open space. Tony revealed how a major road, then a freeway was to run through the area, and showed now-defunct plans dating back to the 1950s. Thankfully, this is a now distant nightmare, but in the 1980s, far-sighted community members saw that the strip of retained open space was custom-made for a different role as a corridor devoted to habitat and recreation and successfully fought the freeway.

Our group tramped north along the Merri shared trail through flat sunburnt lawns. Our first stop was a native grassland, the fence containing a wild tangle of over 60 grass and wildflower plant species. This four hectare remnant is named Bababi Djinanang, meaning ‘mother’s foot’ in the language of the area’s traditional custodians, the Wurundjeri people. Tony related how in 1989 the site was unmanaged, covered in gorse and rubbish where it was too rocky to slash. In 1995, three hectares of the highest quality vegetation was fenced and a cycle of ecological burns with follow-up herbicide application began. I recalled the dramatic reduction in fennel, gorse and dense Phalaris swards in the late 1990s. Chilean Needlegrass has proven more intractable and maintains a stranglehold over large patches of grassland. When a wildfire in 2007 destroyed the original fence, opportunity was taken to enclose a further hectare of lower quality grassland. The larger reserve meant more work but also reduced disturbance to the reserve ‘core’, which has encouraged sensitive fauna such as ground-nesting birds. Recently, Grey Kangaroos have been using this as a place to snooze during the day.

Just past the grassland, another unplanned opportunity arose where the path constructed in 2005 interrupted drainage. An intermittent wetland has resulted, colonized by a suite of indigenous grasses and rushes. We discussed how this could be fostered and protected, extending the local variety of habitats.

The path passed a woodland of Drooping Sheoke, planted in 1998 with funding from Moreland Council. Drooping and Black Sheoke, Manna Gum and Black Wattle were established into a weedy sward of the ubiquitous Chilean Needle Grass. The group observed how the woodland is starting to ‘self-mulch’, reducing the vigour of the weedy groundstorey. It stimulated ideas of a project to spray out the weeds and boost the process of colonization by shade-tolerant wallaby grasses and saltbushes.

We reached a vantage point overlooking a bend of the creek that looks now like it was never cleared. Tony evoked the unlovely landscape of the 1980s where the banks of the Creek were a Fennel ‘forest’ and a convenient place to dump waste from slaughtered animals.

Half a kilometer south of Mahoneys Road we looked over a valley of treetops. A photo from 1988 shows a surreal transition taking place as the Northern Waterways Project crew installed dozens of ‘pie-dish’ plots of black plastic weedmat into a landscape of slashed weeds.

The weedmat provided minimal follow up maintenance – essential as ongoing funding was far from certain. However, after a few years it was apparent to the newly established Merri Creek Management Committee that the plastic was strangling trees and preventing the natural establishment of indigenous understory plants. It had to go. Even with community volunteer labour largely from Friends of Merri Creek, the work seemed endless with roots and branches tying the weedmat to the ground. The weedmat also provided ideal Redback Spider and snake habitat! Subsequent plantings used long-lasting organic mulches that required more maintenance but, ultimately, less work and allowed natural regeneration of understory. These pie dish plots expanded as trees canopies matured, creating un-mowable gaps, another problem… but also an opportunity to expand and ‘join up’ plantings.

Small remnants of shrubland, grasses, Tree-violets and Sweet Bursaria, survived on the escarpments. These formed the nuclei of restoration sites that were strung like beads along our excursion route. We showed the group a flowering plant of Matted Flax Lily, Dianella amoena, one of about 50 remnant plants of this critically endangered species here. A project has been devised to foster pollinators, particularly the Blue-banded Bee, through re-establishing plants rich in nectar. Re-connecting pollination pathways might increase the genetic viability of isolated plants where gaps remain between the ‘beads’ of indigenous vegetation.

On our return, we passed the beautiful volcanic ‘Moomba Rocks’ escarpment. Gradual removal of African Boxthorn, blackberry and fennel has allowed establishment of the native shrubland that now frames the dramatic boulders. The slope below the rocks, being erosion prone and baking in summer, is dominated by annual winter-growing weeds. It has confounded several attempts to establish indigenous plants by direct seeding and planting. A strategy of establishing seeding grasses and forbs on the stable cliff top above will provide a seed ‘rain’ that will hopefully be better at taking advantage of the rare favourable niches and environmental ‘windows’ for establishment. Today’s restoration work often involves such shifts of focus between the scale of the landscape to that of micro-terrain.

Our tour ended with a BBQ in the park, sheltering below a marquee as drowsy Soldier beetles dripped from the blossoming Redgums. It is easy to take for-granted the pleasures of close connection to nature that over twenty seven years of restoration has made possible.

Community engagement projects, along with the installation of sealed pathways, resting areas and signage are fostering a growing local park user community. I find it a source of pride when I have to explain to new visitors that their urban oasis is not ‘natural’ bushland. Sharing old stories of restoration is not just an exercise in nostalgia. The stories are full of information needed to secure and replicate this example of re-wilding in the many areas it is needed.

Brian Bainbridge