Mud and swampy water sloshes up the sides of my gumboots as we walk into the protected wetland area on a Bungawalbyn property owned by Graeme and Leslee Hawley. As cicadas call noisily from the surrounding tea trees, Nature Conservation Trust of NSW senior ecologist Georgia Beyer spots a tiny orchid pushing up through the sedge grass and says it's one she hasn't seen before - it could be a rare species. She takes a photo of it so she can identify it later and marks its location on her GPS. The last time she visited, she found a threatened plant species called Noah's false chickweed, which was then added to the list of 250 plant species already found in one area of the property.
"I've seen at least three different kinds of native bees here," Graeme says. "At night, I've also heard powerful owls and barking owls."
Graeme is passionate about the environment here, which is why he and his wife Leslee wanted to protect and conserve the diverse ecology on the property by signing a conservation land title covenant with the Nature Conservation Trust (NCT) of NSW. About three quarters of the 200-cre property is included in the voluntary conservation agreement, which gives Graeme and Leslee peace of mind knowing that the biodiversity of the area will remain preserved in perpetuity and protected under law, long after they have gone.
Graeme and Leslee are both WIRES wildlife carers and know how important it is to maintain habitat for the many species of animals found in Australia. They currently have possums, plovers and a flying fox in care that were rescued from nearby properties.
"In a country where natural ecosystems are dwindling and we are losing plant and animal species through destructive land clearing by humans, it's not enough to rely on national parks and public reserves to safeguard habitat for wildlife," Graeme says. "By creating more private nature reserves, we can give threatened species a chance at survival."
The couple moved to the property six years ago and combine their love of looking after wildlife, living in the bush and making a living through ecologically-appropriate farming. The property has an established organic tea tree plantation which Graeme and Leslee can work when the ground is dry enough. As landowners and tea tree farmers with a conservation agreement, they have a productive piece of land and can still preserve it for biodiversity.
"How much we conserved was up to us and as part of the agreement, we can still come in and harvest tea tree by hand from a small area within the conservation area," Graeme explains. "The agreement tightly constrains how it can be done - the big old tea trees that are sources of seeds are conserved and can't be cut down. We wouldn't have cleared this area, and we don't want anyone else too either."
As we squelch through swampy ground, and an avenue of banksias Georgia, Graeme and Leslee stop every now and then to look inside tufts of sedge grass to see if they can spot any new frog species to add to the growing list.
"There are lots of green-thighed frogs here and they are a threatened species," Graeme says. "We didn't realise we had them until we came on a walk with Georgia. Now we see them turn up in the vegetable garden."
As part of the conservation covenant, Graeme and Leslee can seek advice from NCT ecologists who come out to visit the property regularly. Not only are they constantly learning about their land through surveys conducted by NCT but they also have access to grant funding for fencing, weed and feral pest control and have become part of a network of other landowners who have conservation agreements with NCT.
When conservation covenants are made between landowners and NCT, it's only after close inspection of the land to see if it is of high quality for conservation.
"We use current planning priorities and look for rare vegetation or threatened species," Georgia tells me. "Location is important too, particularly if the land buffers national parks or is in wildlife corridors."
Not only is the Hawley property in good condition with few weeds and numerous types of habitat, it borders Doubleduke State Forest and has become a vital link in helping restore habitat connectivity by becoming part of a wildlife corridor. This private conservation reserve could mean the difference between life and death for species confronted with habitat loss and the effects of climate change.
"Putting these wetland and lowland floodplain forest types into reserve is really important," Georgia says. "In NSW, not many of these habitat types are reserved. Threatened species such as yellow-bellied gliders love this sort of country with its diversity of trees that flower at different times of year, providing food sources for animals all year round."
Conservation agreements may not be everyone's cup of tea, but Georgia welcomes enquiries from people interested in taking one on.
"These agreements are permanent, so you need to think about why you want to do it," Georgia said. "If you want to log it, then a conservation agreement is not appropriate. Landowners can maintain roads, fences and fire breaks - if the overall outcome is still conservation it can go under the agreement. A lot of farmers have an area they look after for conservation anyway -
they might decide to put just that area under the agreement. It can be a cheap option for landowners who want to look after and protect their land. NCT will do it with you, but it's still your place and you decide the terms of the agreement."
NCT has just signed its 50th conservation agreement with private landowners and according to Georgia, more people want to sign up than can be supported by NCT. Some land areas may not be appropriate for inclusion in conservation reserves if they need lots of work or are covered in weeds.
"If you walked away, could it look after itself?" Georgia said.
In some cases, landowners may need to spend time doing weed control and revegetating before their land might be of a quality suitable for protection under a conservation agreement. On the Hawley property not only do the flora and fauna benefit under the conservation agreement but keeping the ecosystems healthy means a better outcome for its human inhabitants too.
"With healthy biodiverse ecosystems, you are less likely to get soil degradation problems," Georgia said. "Protecting good bush from degradation is the first most important priority for biodiversity conservation, enhancing it by removing weeds is the second priority. A conservation agreement does both of those things. It also gives people a sense of wellbeing to know that there is good bush out there in a reserve system."
The Nature Conservation Trust of NSW is a non-profit organisation which was set up under an Act of Parliament in 2001 to expand and protect nature conservation on private land in NSW. As well as entering conservation agreements with private landowners, NCT also has a 'revolving' Conservation Property Fund that it uses to buy land with high natural values, and then protects it under a conservation trust agreement before selling it on and using the fund to buy more land. By educating landowners who care about their land and want to look after it with a conservation perspective, NCT is also able to widely document and map new landscapes in NSW with all of their diverse plant and animal species. Not only are the Hawleys learning and understanding more about their natural environment, but ecologist Georgia is continually learning as well, as she discovers and identifies new species of plants she knew nothing about before. When Noah's false chickweed was found on the Hawleys land, Georgia discovered it was found in only three locations in NSW.
"This was very significant," Georgia said. "The landowners get from that a better, more detailed understanding of what it is they are protecting. Hopefully, now more landowners are getting involved, we can get more sightings and recordings of endangered and threatened species because we're looking at private land in this way. We still need to create more wildlife corridors to link up properties by getting more farmers and landowners to create bigger areas that these species can thrive in."
Georgia's dream for the future is to look back on what NCT has achieved and know that areas of land protected under a covenant have been strategically placed in good locations with good natural values.
"I also love having happy landowners who are set up and given what they wanted," Georgia said. "Up here, so many tree changers want conservation and buy a property knowing that they want to save it."
For more information about NCT, visit the website http://nct.org.au or phone 6626 0333.