Fine fungi season underway

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In May and June, if there is enough rain, our gardens and local bushland are peppered with forms quite strange and wonderful – the sexual apparatus or fruiting bodies of fungi. Fungi are designated their own Kingdom, and their DNA is actually closer to animals than to plants. Long overlooked by the scientific community, the value and role of fungi on the planet Earth is slowly becoming apparent. Fungi are becoming regarded as a living matrix – a magical connector system between soil, minerals, and living things such as plants and animals.

The parasol form is the most common form – as it just works! The umbrella shape protects the gills and spores from rainfall, the stem raises the gills away from the ground or log. The fungus pictured is a classic example of this form, and indeed its common name is Parasol Mushroom. Most of our fungi species do not have common names, so it’s best to get used to Latin if you want to take up fungi spotting as a hobby. The Latin name for this species is Macrolepiota clelandii.

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This fine specimen was photographed at Lyonville Springs in a group of three, growing from the soil, in a mix of native and introduced grasses, underneath some old candlebarks. Its identifying features are unseen in this photo, such as pale white gills and stem, and a ring of material around the stem known as an annulus.

If you are taking a photo for identification purposes, it is always a good idea to take a pic of the underside of the fungus – and many fungi fans carry a small mirror for this purpose. The use of a mirror means you can photograph the reflection of the underside of the mushroom, rather than pulling out the mushroom before its spores have shed. It seems a shame to destroy a fruiting body for identification!

I took the photo, as well as a few of its underside,  to a fungi talk in Trentham on Saturday May 19. This was part of Wombat Forestcare’s fantastic speaker series known as “You, Me and Biodiversity”. May’s presenter was Dr Sapphire McMullan-Fisher, a passionate fungal ecologist who is giving a series of talks around Victoria on a new smartphone app for FungiMap, and  a new citizen science project called “Lost fungi: help us find our uncommon Victorian fungi”. For this article, I will just be talking about the Fungi Map app.

FungiMap is a fungal mapping project that has been going for over twenty years, and involves members of the community reporting on 100 recognisable target species. The new app runs through a global citizen science database called iNaturalist, and the FungiMap Australia project is one of many thousands of projects running globally.

I will be downloading the app, and having a go,  as this project is in the testing phase, and Sapphire and the team welcome any feedback to make the use of the app as easy as possible. Unlike local biodiversity apps such as Bowerbird, or the Atlas of Living Australia app, the iNaturalist app uses an algorithm to help the person submitting a photo identify it automatically – sometimes to genus level! The link to get to the project is https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/fungimap-australia , but it helps if you download the iNaturalist app first and get your log in sorted.

In terms of identifying fungi, Sapphire says it’s best to start with recognisable species, and then go from there. Another point emphasised is that you really are best to start with LOCAL fungi guides, such as the foldout brochure that Wombat Forestcare produced. This is because 72% of our fungi are endemic to Australiasia, that is found nowhere else.  So an online search could come up with similar looking species in other countries which are actually totally unrelated.

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Inevitably, someone asked about how can we find out about the fungi that is safe to eat locally. Sapphire said we must be very cautious as so much is unknown about our fungi – and the best way to find out is to ask a trusted local expert. And lucky for us – we have one! In the spirit of locavore foraging, Patrick Jones is at the Daylesford Sunday Farmers Market every Sunday from 10am-noon in the month of May. Patrick presents a very informative talk and mushroom display each week, with mushrooms that he and his son Woody have collected locally. And you can bring in any species you are unsure about, and need identification.

Another incredible community expert is the wonderful Alison Pouliot – I could not post about fungi without mentioning Alison. Alison is a professional photographer and educator, and a damn fine writer too! See Alison’s work and notice of upcoming workshops at her website https://alisonpouliot.com/

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Sociable Skinks on Granite outcrops

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For the December Nature News, Tanya Loos from Connecting Country writes about the sociable skinks photographed by Nick Schulz on his property in Nuggetty.

Earlier this year, landholder Nick Schulz sent us a series of stunning photographs from a rocky granite outcrop on his property in Nuggetty. The pictures show a large group of plump, spiny and spotted skinks seemingly enjoying each other’s company near the safety of deep rock crevices. They are Cunningham’s skinks and they turn the idea of reptiles being cold loners on its head!
The skinks live in long term family groupings, with a large sized breeding pair and many immature siblings of various ages and sizes from previous years. This kind of social system is more commonly seen in birds and mammals. Researchers suggest that the family group represents safety in numbers, with more eyes to look out for predators such as birds of prey. Another advantage may be temperature-related as the skinks huddle together on cold days and nights.

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A skink family by Nick Schulz

The breeding pair remains faithful to one another from season to season and also over many years – similar to the Stumpy-tail lizard or Shingleback who also has long monogamous relationships. Both the Stumpy-tail lizard and the Cunningham’s skink give birth to live young instead of laying eggs .
Cunningham’s skinks are only found around rocky outcrops – each family group must have a rocky habitat with nice deep crevices to hide in.  If threatened by predators, the whole group scuttles into the cracks to hide. If the bird of prey or fox is persistent and tries to remove a skink from a crevice, they will inflate their bodies and make their spines stick out, thus becoming incredibly hard to dislodge from cracks.
Like other large skink species such as Stumpy-tails and Blue-tongue lizards, Cunningham’s skinks are omnivorous, with a large part of their diet made up of plant matter such as flowers, fruits, soft leaves and shoots. They also eat insects, spiders and small lizards.
We have had reports of this species in Sutton Grange, and Elphinstone and now Nuggetty – if you have granite outcrops on your property, you may be hosting a whole family!
Addendum: This article was written for readers of the Midland Express. I have photographed one Cunningham’s skink in Hepburn Regional Park, near Tipperary Springs. I would be very interested to hear about any Wombat Forest sightings. Email me at  t.loos@bigpond.com 🙂

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Near the safety of a large crack… by Nick Schulz

Bush peas and friends ablaze in the forest

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This year the various pea species in the region are putting on a wonderful show. The Large leaf bush peas in my local forest are covered in huge, healthy looking yellow and orange flowers.  The peas are a very important plant group in our local forest – and surpass even the wattles in their variety of form and colour. There are orange and yellow peas – known colloquially as egg and bacon, and also peas with purple, yellow and red flowers.  They occur as small shrubs, large shrubs,  ground covers and as creepers – both large and small.

The flowers are pollinated by a variety of tiny native bees and flies, which then provide important food for insect eating birds. The seeds are eaten by birds, reptiles and insects. The leaves are browsed on by Black Wallabies and also hares and deer.

There are bush peas, bitter-peas, flat peas, parrot-peas – which are known b y their common names, and then in some cases the common name and the Latin names are the same –Bossiaeas, Hoveas, and Austral Indigo or Indigofera. I believe it is much easier to learn the Latin! This walk through the pea family in Daylesford and surrounds will therefore be a little Latin heavy.

Large leaf bush pea

Large leaf bush pea on my bush block

The bush-peas are Pultenaeas – the large leaf bush pea pictured above is Pultenaea daphnoides. Our other local Pultenaea has a very different form: the Matted Bush-pea (P. pedunculata) has a very tight mat-forming ground cover that can be seen in the drier forests such as around the Blowhole.  The Wombat Bush-pea (P. reflexifolia) is listed as Rare as it is only found in the Wombat State Forest region. This small shrub has pea flowers which are quite yellow, and small pointed leaves that point sharply away from the stem, hence the Latin name reflexifolia. Wombat Bush-peas are locally common around Trentham.

Bitter-peas are small to medium shrubs, also with the classic egg and bacon flower – the Narrow-leaf bitter-pea (Daviesia leptophylla) is very common in dry heathy forests such as the slopes above Tipperary Springs. As you head into wetter forests towards Trentham the Gorse Bitter-pea (D. ulicifolia) becomes very common. Gorse bitter-pea is a small shrub with a pointed, dark green leaf . Around Porcupine Ridge, and Glenlyon,  we have the Hop Bitter-pea (D. latifolia) with very large, wide leaves and absolutely magnificent sprays of golden and red flowers.

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The Hop Bitter-pea – WOW!

Our most common ground cover pea around Daylesford and Trentham is Podolobium procumbens:  this has a flower with an almost fluorescent pink tinge. I discovered while researching this article that this is called a Trailing Shaggy-pea – a new common family name for me!

We have two common types of parrot-pea. The Grey parrot-pea (Dillwynia cinerascens)is  a lovely low growing shrub also with orange and yellow flowers. The Bushy parrot-pea (D. ramosissima) has tiny leaves and is a sparse, one metre high shrub and very common throughout drier forest types.

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Bushy Parrot-pea

Bossiaea are a very interesting group –in Porcupine Ridge, Glenlyon and in the Daylesford area there is a beautiful ground cover known as Matted Bossiaea (Bossiaea buxifolia). Matted bossiaea is locally common here, in most parts of Victoria this plant is actually the very similar Creeping bossiaea (B. prostrata) which just to make things confusing is also found here albeit much less often! In the wet areas such as Trentham and Blackwood the ground cover Bossiaea actually has a climbing habit – the Wiry Bossiaea (B. cordigera). This species is listed as Rare.
Also rare, are the odd- looking shrubs known as Leafless Bossiaea– the pea flowers actually grow out of the flattened green stems! There is a beautiful specimen of Mountain Leafless Bossiaea (B. bracteosa) growing at Tipperary springs. The rarest pea locally is definitely the Wombat Leafless Bossiaea (B. vombata). This leafless pea shrub was rediscovered in 2010 in the vicinity of Spargo Creek by the rare plants team of Wombat Forestcare. This plant was known by the Herbarium to be present in only one location, and the rare plants team discovered several more populations – and were awarded Certificates of Recognition by the then Department of Sustainability and Environment.

It says a lot about our local peas that I haven’t covered all the egg and bacon peas found locally in the above list – nor even had a chance to describe our lovely purple coloured peas – Hovea, Hardenbergia, Indigofera! What beautiful diversity in these forests…

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Mountain leafless bossiaea

The farmers’ friend – a friend in need

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The paddocks near my place in Porcupine Ridge are busy with visitors. Almost a hundred Straw-necked ibis may be seen there each day, first on one paddock then in the other; busy probing the soil with long bills and stalking through the grass tussocks.

Straw-necked ibis are large heron-like birds with naked heads and a long curved bill. Their neck and bodies are whitish, and their wings look black from afar, but are actually iridescent – with metallic green and gold colouring. As we are nearing breeding season for ibis, their necks are decorated with yellowish,  filamentous feathers – hence the name straw-necked ibis.

Also within the flock of straw-necked ibis are about eight Australian White Ibis, a close relative and similar in appearance, but nearly all white in colour, with black tail and black plumes. The white ibis is also referred to as a ‘bin chicken’ due to its habit of scavenging bins and rubbish dumps, especially in NSW. Wjote ibis may be seen tame and scavenging in parts of Melbourne and at Healesville Sanctuary, but the less bold and adaptable Straw-necked Ibis never engages in such behaviour.

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A beautiful capture of the iridescent feathers, by James Niland. Creative Commons.

The ibis are here to feast on the frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles and crustaceans such as land yabbies that are flourishing in our wet paddocks. One of the old name’s of the straw-necked ibis is the ‘famer’s friend’ due to their eating of grasshoppers and beetle larvae – a much nicer name than the bin chicken!

The ibis will stay on as long as there is plenty of food, roosting in nearby tall trees at night. This habit protects them from predators such as foxes, and also shields them from exposure to cold winds and frosts.

Straw-necked ibis are often seen flying high overhead, in a v-shaped or chevron formation, or in even larger flocks wheeling slowly on the warm air currents.  They are great fliers, and often fly hundreds or thousands of kilometres between temperate locations in the south and tropical areas, and between inland sites and the coasts, possibly as regular seasonal movements, and sometimes in response to local environmental conditions. The longest recorded movement of a Straw-necked Ibis was from Muchea in south-western WA to Beaudesert in south-eastern Queensland, a distance of well over 3500 kilometres.

Despite the fact that we see them in paddocks, ibis are regarded as water birds, as they need water in the form of large rivers and lakes to breed communally in large colonies.  In the past, colonies of 5,000, 20,000 and even 150,000 nests were common in wet years. These mass breeding events would ensure there were plenty of young ‘farmer’s friends’ to replace their parent’s generation.

In the past 30 years, there have been very significant declines of all of our waterbirds – spoonbills, egrets, herons, ibis and waterfowl such as ducks.  Scientists from around Australia are studying these groups to try to determine the cause or causes of the declining numbers.  In the case of the ibis, it seems that it is the very high mortality rate of young ibis that is the problem.

The Straw-necked ibis had a relatively good year in 2015-2016 with over 150,000 nests in the Murray Darling basin, and many young fledging. Yet, the flocks such as the one visiting my local paddocks seemed to be exclusively  adult birds.

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Straw-necked ibis feeding in a paddock. By Cyron Ray Macey, Wikimedia Commons.

A team at CSIRO attached radio transmitters to twenty straw-necked ibis in spring 2016, ten adults and ten juveniles. Just three months later, only two adult individuals had survived.  The birds succumbed to a litany of tragedies– predation of juveniles, death of adults by disease (botulism), starvation, and poisoning from pesticide affected insects on paddocks.  Weather extremes such as very hot days followed by cold windy nights resulted in the deaths of two juveniles, and three birds went missing in these conditions. Surprisingly collision with cars is a cause of death for many waterbirds, and one of the juveniles was hit by a car. Some ibis are shot, as they get caught in the firing line of duck shooting season.

Twenty individuals is not a large sample size, but it is clear that it is a harsh world for both adult and young Straw-necked ibis.

How can we help the farmer’s friend? We can support environmental water flows in the lake and river systems of the Murray- Darling, support organic farming, and campaign to end duck shooting in Victoria. I think the story of the aging ibises in our Daylesford paddocks is a bit sad – and a reminder that we are intimately connected to other parts of Australia.

https://research.csiro.au/ewkrwaterbirds/satellite-tracking/juvenile-mortality/

Koala scats on Cornish Hill: a Chillout adventure

One of the things I love most about leading nature walks is that you just never know what you may see. One family nature walk, deep in the Wombat Forest, we encountered a wombat, staring at us from the other side of the creek. Some of the mums thought I had put a wombat statue there for the kids. More recently, while leading a walk for a big group of locals and tourists on Cornish Hill Reserve, we found koala poo.

This is a first for the Reserve. In 2016, I wrote about the results of Wombat Forestcare’s camera trapping efforts on Cornish Hill. The survey revealed native animals such as tawny frogmouth, echidna, and a black wallaby with a joey in the pouch, and another wallaby eating fungi in its paws. And a surprise – a common brushtail possum (rather than the wombat forest specialist the mountain brushtail or bobuck). But a koala has never been spotted – in ‘person’ or by scats – until now.

It was so wonderful to see some fifty people and a few well-behaved doggies on leads turn up for the walk on Saturday, March 10. Margie Thomas and the Friends of Cornish Hill Committee had agreed to do something a bit different for this nature walk, and so we were in the printed and online program for Chillout Festival. We had visitors from around Australia and even the world.

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This beautiful photo was taken by Helen Greenwood

With such a large group, one must walk slowly through the bush, and then stop and share points of interest. I had done a reconnaissance the day before, but had chosen a different path. So as always, I scanned the ground for clues such as pine cones chewed by yellow-tailed black cockatoos, and there were the koala scats, here and there across the path. I stopped the group and held the scats up in my hand for all to see.

Koala scats can be identified by their uniform oval shape. They are scattered beneath the tree, and unlike possum scats, they are very similar to one another, with a smooth, but granular surface. And when you break them open, they are uniform in texture –composed of very finely chewed eucalyptus leaves. And if the scats are fresh, they have a delightful musky eucalyptus scent.

It was very enjoyable encouraging people from Lithuania, New Zealand and Belgium to pass around and sniff koala poo. Surely an important part of the Australian experience.

Seriously though, members of the Friends of Cornish Hill are excited to add the koala to the growing list of native animals using the reserve. The eucalypt trees on the side of the hill where the scats were seen were mostly narrow-leafed peppermint. It is a bit of a myth that koalas only eat manna gums. Koalas actually eat a dozen or so of the local eucalypts, and it varies from place to place. In the You Yangs, the favourite food trees are river red gum, blue gum and yellow gum. In the Ballarat area, it is messmate, manna gum, and brown stringybark. Here in Daylesford – who knows. Messmate, manna gum and candlebark are likely candidates.

We are blessed to have regular sightings of healthy koalas in the Daylesford and district area. In other parts of Victoria, the disease chlamydia and over-population in tiny forest remnants cause terrible suffering. Our forest is large enough and hopefully healthy enough to sustain populations of koalas, and still provide enough food.

The Friends of Cornish Hill insist upon dogs on lead in the reserve, on their brochure, and on some delightful signage. This is fantastic as dog attack is a major threat to these beautiful animals. Female koalas will stand their ground to protect their joeys in the face of a dog attack, and sustain terrible injuries and even death to do so. Another threat to koalas is car collision. Koalas have very little road sense, and seem to sit placidly on the road in oncoming traffic. This means they are very easy to spot – so the best thing to do is pull over if it is safe to do so, usher the koala off the road.

The walk on Cornish Hill was very enjoyable, and a great success, so we will definitely be part of Chillout Festival 2019. In the meantime, do go and see this wonderful place – and look out for koalas.  www.cornishhilldaylesford.com.au.

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The crowd of humans and doggies gathers in spectacular Autumn weather

Gang gang family returns

Gang gang cockatoos are known mainly in this district for their habit of feasting on Hawthorn berries in Autumn.  But one Winter delight I am privileged to witness is the behaviour of a family of gang gangs on my bush block!
Gang gangs are small, stocky cockatoos that are mostly grey, with finely patterned feathers that are tinged with red and green. The males sport a red cap and delightful fringed and floppy crest of bright red feathers.

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A beautiful male Gang Gang By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Gang gangs are not as conspicuous as other cockies, and it is often the sound of their creaking calls, or the gentle dropping of half eaten gum nuts that belies their presence.  They feed primarily on the seeds of eucalypts, wattles and Hawthorn berries, and will also eat insects and their larvae. The gang gang is one of the few birds that can eat sawfly larvae, or spitfires – they may work their way through a whole clump!

Gang gangs are known as altitudinal migrants; they move up and down the forests of the Great dividing range – inhabiting mainly tall wet forests in summer, then moving down to more open dry forests, or even box –ironbark in winter.   They only occur in South Australia, Victoria, NSW, and are the faunal emblem of the ACT.  In NSW they have declined in numbers to such an extent that they are listed as Vulnerable. Their main threats are timber harvesting ( which removes the large old trees required for nesting), wildfire events and planned burns, and climate change impacts.

Very little is known about their breeding habits in the wild.  I was delighted to host not one but two gang gang families in the winter of 2012. One family had a young male, the other a young female. I have not seen them here since!

Then late one afternoon two weeks ago, I heard the familiar rising creaky call and saw a couple of grey shapes flitting through the canopy. An adult male and female, with a young female! Once they perched together, the young bird made the classic constant begging call characteristic of the cockatoo family, although a gang gang baby is not quite so crazy and insistent as a corella baby. My bird book, the Handbook of Australian and New Zealand birds (HANZAB) refers to the young gang gang’s call as a buzzing Morse code! The female fed the young a few times, while the male fed quietly on messmate nuts nearby.

On Sunday 23 July, in the morning and in the afternoon, the three birds could be seen messmate gum cracking and devouring.  This time the young gang gang was fed by the adult male. During feeding, the young stares at the adult with a crouched, somewhat ridiculous posture, and sways back and forth with its bill open and wheezing incessantly.  When the adult regurgitates seeds and other plant matter into its mouth in a pumping motion, the baby makes a series of gurgling notes known as a “food swallowing vocalisation’.

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The carefully chewed remains of gum nuts beneath a large emergent Messmate next to our house. Both the Gang gang family and a couple of cockies were responsible.

 

According to HANZAB, Gang gangs usually breed in Oct-Jan, but may also breed in late August, or early Sept/March with feeding young in late April or August.  In 2012, it was June when I noticed the first family, and feeding of the baby continued until early August.  Gang gangs nest in hollows in tall, living Eucalypts, and the nest is usually very high up – up to 40 metres have been recorded! The female selects the nest hollow, and two or sometimes three eggs are laid. Both sexes incubate the eggs. In captivity, the young are in the nest hollow until 7 or 8 weeks of age, then after they fledge, fed by the parents for 4-6 weeks after.

All up then the care period lasts for approximately three months – which suggests that the baby I am observing now was born two months ago in May. I took detailed notes on the gang gang families in 2012 and I will do so again, and perhaps write up my observations in the Australian Field Ornithology journal. I would love to hear if you have any breeding observations – especially if you have an active nest hollow!

Wombats arrive on my street!

Coming home from work a week or two ago, I was just a couple of kilometres from my house, on Scotts Lane. The car in front of me slowed to a stop. A medium sized mammal with a distinctly square bum ambled in front of Ted’s car and disappeared into the dark forest.
A wombat! A Common or Bare-nosed Wombat – in Porcupine Ridge! There are plenty of Wombats around Trentham, Glenlyon, and throughout the Wombat Forest, but in 15 years of living in Porcupine Ridge I had accepted the fact that while we have koalas, the wombats didn’t occur this far north. However, it seems the fortunes of wombats in western Victoria are changing!

In early 2016, a wombat was caused quite a stir as it was photographed in the Gunbower forest, literally hundreds of kilometres from the nearest population. Peter Menkhorst, from the Arthur Rylah Institute was contacted to comment and he stated “The most westerly population of wombats on the Great Dividing Range is around Trentham and Daylesford, where the Campaspe begins”. He believed the wombat may have been an orphan pouch young that was released far from where it was rescued. See here for the story.

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A healthy wombat captured on camera by Connecting Country in Sutton Grange

After seeing my Porky Ridge wombat, I searched online and found a fantastic website called WomSAT. This website is an initiative of the University of Western Sydney, and encourages people Australia-wide to record their wombat sightings. The map is really is easy to use, and enables you to note down whether the wombat was dead or alive, and if it suffered from mange. You can also record burrows.

On this map, there were at least eight sightings of living wombats between Bendigo and Daylesford from 2015- 2016, in Harcourt, south of Bendigo in Sedgwick and a big concentration in the Baynton area to the east.

I had a chat with my Connecting Country work colleagues Bonnie and Jarrod who have been documenting an increase in wombat sightings all through the Harcourt and especially Sutton Grange area – one property had a network of burrows with 50-60 entrances!

So what is going on?! My Mammals of Victoria book, also by Peter Menkhorst, states that wombat distribution on a local level is ‘probably most dependent on the availability of suitable burrow sites in association with food supply’.  The wombats do not like very dense forest, but any open habitat seems to do – with habitats ranging from alpine heathland, to wet forests, dry forests and coastal scrub and tea tree heath. Most of the burrows noted by Bonnie and Jarrod have been on creeklines which are tributaries of the Coliban River, and surrounded by open forest or woodland.

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The same wombat having a cute little scritch 🙂

Wombats destroy fences,  dig in dam walls and other mischief when going about their daily activities. These habits meant that wombats were declared vermin in 1906, and there was a bounty on them from 1925 – 1966. This put the already diminishing western Victorian populations on an even deeper downward spiral and they disappeared from the volcanic plains and indeed, anywhere north of the Great Dividing Range.

Anecdotally, the recent increase in wombat numbers has been noticed after the Redesdale fires, part of the devastating Black Saturday fires. The fires may have caused a dispersal of the wombats into previously unoccupied territory.

Although the days of wombat bounties are over, according to the Dept of Environment Land Water and Planning ( DELWP) anyone can still apply for a permit to scare, remove or kill wildlife that is deemed to be causing economic hardship. In 2016, 270 applications were made, and a maximum number of 3,975 wombats killed. They helpfully point out that the actual number killed may be less. One can only hope these new populations are regarded as harmless and benign, and even as charming and beneficial ecosystem engineers!

Cars and dogs also take their toll on wombats. Those wombats that manage to avoid these threats may find themselves afflicted by sarcoptic mange – a hideous parasite that they catch from foxes. The mites cause the most severe mange affected skin and swelling around the eyes – and the wombat gets very sick indeed, and eventually dies. Happily,  wombat lovers and advocates have discovered that they can add a pesticide ointment to a flap on an affected wombat’s burrow and this treatment saves the wombat without it having to be captured and taken to a shelter.

If you are in open forest along a creekline north of Daylesford, keep an eye out, a wombat family could be your new neighbours!