Less than a decade ago this place was dying. Bad seasons, bad management and bad luck had turned a spectacular mix of land and water into a barren, featureless plain where salty soil blew away with every breeze.
Only the strongest river red gums battled through those years. Clear waterways, tangled with debris from storms, deteriorated to swamp, then acrid puddles, then dust bowls. Mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish – other than the dreaded European carp – could not find enough to live on.
That was 2006, when a management plan for the 1800-hectare Heart Morass, once a grazing property near Sale, was set in place. Today, thanks to skilled management and large donations of cash, ochre has turned to green and the wetland is a waterscape dotted with ancient trees and populated by big green frogs, black swans, eagles, pelicans, ibis and ducks.
Ducks vital to transformation
Those ducks – every species known in Victoria has been spotted here – are at the core of this exciting best-practice transformation. And it couldn’t happen without them. Many of them are hunted by licensed shooters for 12 weeks a year.
People introduced to the enterprise that has brought about this transformation of a doomed ecosystem often share a thought: “What strange bedfellows”.
Those bedfellows are the Hugh Williamson Foundation – a philanthropic institution that gives away $2 million to selected charities each year – and Field and Game Australia’s (FGA) Wetlands Environmental Taskforce (WET) whose charter is to protect wetlands and increase populations of game birds.
This might seem like putting a fox in charge of the chook pen but a more accurate comparison is that it’s an exact parallel to stocking fish in rivers and lakes. Rod Drew, FGA director of policy said: “We can’t shoot ducks where there aren’t any. And that was almost the case here.”
Martin Carlson, chairman of the Williamson Foundation, said his organisation gave careful thought before agreeing to provide conservation funding in tandem with the FGA.
Protect the wetland
“At first it seemed a bit odd, a bit contrary, to be involved with people whose main sport was shooting and killing animals. But when you think about it, it makes total sense. The overriding mission of both parties is to protect the wetland and all its native flora and fauna. I’m pleased to say it is working.”
The Morass is recognised as Australia’s most successful reclamation of a dying, virtually useless swamp.
Wetlands across Victoria were first nurtured under state government protection in 1959 when it became clear that native game bird populations were dwindling. FGA had been founded a year earlier in nearby Sale to protect wetland habitat, and over the years as government funding declined, it and other community organisations took over.
Make resource sustainable
Rod Drew explains: “Game bird hunting is a cultural activity enjoyed by hunters around the world. Hunters enjoy the challenge of the hunt and the opportunity to provide true free-range food for their families and friends. It might seem cynical to some, but hunters know that if they use a natural resource, they must ensure it is sustainable.
“Actively preserving wetlands contributes to the conservation of not only the species they hunt, but a whole diverse range of wetland-dependent, non-game species. It also ensures that their children can enjoy hunting in the future. It is no different to a farmer who manages his property for maximum sustainable production, to ensure he can survive and pass his farm on to his children.”
The exercise is working. With a long-term vision of showcasing the project as an example of what a ‘public-private’ partnership can do and with community open days planned, the one-time eyesore site may become a tourist destination.
It has certainly become a hunter destination – from a low of just over 100 visits in 2008, the Morass is now attracting more than 400 hunters each season.
Most of the rehabilitation has been handled by local FGA volunteers under a plan developed by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, including revegetation, water quality management, fencing and pest control.
Some of the work was done by schoolchildren who visit the Morass to conduct field studies through the Bug Blitz education program. They learn that, come March each year, many of the native ducks they see will be shot.
John Caldow, of the Bug Blitz Trust, which helps primary and secondary students study biodiversity, says the group is neutral on hunting. Bug Blitz is a partner in the Heart Morass project.
Discussion starting point
“We explain the tremendous work done by FGA to transform this ecosystem for all types of birds – not just game birds ... we encourage schools to discuss the issues of hunting as they relate to the environment and, if they choose, to research wetland hunting and make their own informed decisions.”
The RSPCA said it wasn’t appropriate for it to comment on what appears to be a conservation issue.
Anti duck shooting
Laurie Levy, campaign director for the Coalition Against Duck Shooting, said: “The number of duck shooters today make up only 0.4% of Victoria’s population, they are desperate to attract positive publicity. But they’re still shooting and maiming birds indiscriminately as well as threatened and endangered species – wholesale massacres have happened in Victoria over the past few years.
"It’s true the Heart Morass has been improved. We applaud the use being made of Heart Morass as an environmental field study site for students and others. But it is totally unacceptable to the majority of Victorians that it is used to attract Australia’s native waterbirds for Field and Game members to shoot.
"Once duck shooting is banned in Victoria a thriving nature based wetlands industry could be established that would see country towns thriving. International visitors to Victoria exceeded 2.42 million in 2015, and spent a record $6.5 billion. The potential for nature-based wetlands tourism is astronomical."
RACV does not advocate about duck hunting.
This story was modified on 4 March 2016, removing a reference to how the area got its name.
The comments from RSPCA and the Coalition Against Duck Shooting were added on 24 March 2016.