An army of volunteers is working to conserve an endangered ecological community in one of New South Wales’ largest freshwater wetlands.
Hexham Swamp, north-west of Newcastle, is part of the Hunter Wetlands and is about 2,500 hectares in size. The site makes up 45 per cent of the remaining freshwater wetland habitat in the Hunter region, according to the NSW Government.
The swamp is recognised as important because of its storage role during floods, being a home for wildlife, and as a breeding ground for aquatic life. The wetlands also contain an endangered ecological community of swamp oaks, which conservationists are working to restore by planting 47,000 small trees over the next year.
Hunter Wetlands Centre is leading the project, in conjunction with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and with funding from the Federal Government. The marshy swamp is a vast open space, brown in colour after a dry winter. Dusty access roads lead to a flat swathe of land dotted with thousands of shin-high, white containers.
While the site looked like a neat military cemetery with perfect headstones, the white containers protect the thousands of small swamp oak trees from the blustery winds which sweep across the landscape. “It’s one of the largest freshwater wetlands in NSW,” Stuart Blanch, CEO of Hunter Wetlands Centre, said.
“It’s only here because the Hunter River is such a large river and when it floods out, particularly in big floods, the water is soaked up into Hexham Swamp and it retains the water for a long time.
“This area has been important for Aboriginal people for well over 10,000 years — the Awabakal people.
“It’s very important for the environment, it’s a big important place for breeding fish and prawns and crabs, which then are caught by people and professionals in the Hunter estuary. “It’s been very important for over a 100 years for cattlemen, and then around us we also have heavy industry.”
Trees protect an endangered ecological community
A total of 47,000 trees will be planted over the next year. Mr Blanch said the volunteers were planting casuarinas, paper barks, and swamp mahogany species. “There [used to be] a lot of swamp oak, and they were chopped down,” he said.
“Swamp oak is the dominant canopy tree species in what’s called the ‘Swamp oak ecological community’ — it’s an endangered ecological community listed under state law.
“I think we could plant another 10 to 20 hectares of endangered floodplain forest here over the next 10 years if we get the money and the ongoing support from NPWS and other stakeholders. “When I see plants here, I see great hope.
“If these trees can get through two or three years of grazing, or heavy storms, or maybe even fires or strong wind, in 10 years you’ll be driving on the train through Hexham, you’ll be able to look west out the window and you’ll see a forest. “I’ll be very thankful [when] we can do that.”
Conservation only buys time
University researchers have recently cast dire warnings for coastal wetlands, saying they could have just 80 years left to live due to rising sea level. Mr Blanch said a re-think on fossil fuels was needed.
“We’re just planting trees today, but in 10 years there’ll be a whole new diverse forest. “In time, if Australia and the world doesn’t greatly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, including coal, all this wetland will disappear — that’s based on solid projections around the world, and for places like the Hunter.”
A motley crew of volunteers are helping plant the trees. Raymond Tran is a university exchange student from Hong Kong helping on the project. His job has been to drill thousands of holes in the ground so the trees can be planted.
“I feel relaxed here, and I’m happy with that. “It is a [great] experience because in Hong Kong, they mainly focus on economic development and technology. “I’m very proud to have planted so many trees because it is our responsibility to protect the environment.”