Local businesses unite to help Gippsland wombat orphanage

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 04 May 2020

How a sunny donation helped get Goongerah Wombat Orphanage back on its feet.

As fire bore down on the east Gippsland hamlet of Goongerah last year, wildlife carers Sharon Small and her daughter Emily carefully placed two orphaned baby wombats in their car and fled.

They left behind 30 adult wombats that they’d hand reared and released into the bush – the animals had pushed themselves deep inside their burrows for protection and the stress of moving them could have killed them. 

The animals survived and so did the family home that serves as the Goongerah Wombat Orphanage, but the bush that surrounds them was scorched bare and the pair now feed their “family” of wild wombats.

Wombats stole our hearts... They’re full of character and personality, they’re loving and so thankful and are definitely smart.

To future-proof the orphanage nestled in a once lush national park, they realised their antiquated solar system couldn’t cope and they put out a call for help. 

It touched a chord with Landon Moss of RACV Solar (formerly Gippsland Solar) who as a boy had hand-reared a baby wombat left orphaned when its mother was killed by a truck. 

“Roger [the wombat] was a character, he was lots of fun, he’d attack your socks and grunt a lot,” says Landon. “I am part of this [Gippsland] community and what Sharon and Emily do resonates with me.” 

He teamed RACV Solar up with several other businesses to supply and fit the orphanage, free of charge, with a 6.3kW ground-mounted off-grid solar system worth $50,000. Emily was so grateful she named a four-month-old wombat after Landon. 

“In the past five years it’s been incredibly hard. We’ve had to do without lights at night and use torches,” she says. “Wombats are temperature sensitive so we’ve had to use hot-water bottles for the babies and wake up several times a night to refill them. But now we have power for heat pads to maintain a constant temperature. 

“With a reliable power source, we’re looking at all the possible options of expanding our work to be able to provide an exceptional standard of care for wombats. We hope to be able to increase our orphanage’s capacity including treatment facilities, orphan care and education opportunities.” 

Sharon says power supply has been a constant struggle for the orphanage. 

“Until now, we were able to use the internet and lights only on sunny days because of our previous solar system,” she says. “We had to prioritise the daylight hours for internet and work use, washing and charging our head torches. Once the sun went down, that was it. But now thanks to Gippsland Solar we can enjoy the simple tasks of vacuuming, washing wombat pouches and switching on a light, any time of the day.”

Baby possum in hand
Girl feeding baby wombat with bottle
Baby wombat wrapped up in blankets

The Smalls have been hand-raising orphaned wombats for almost 20 years on their two-hectare property, then releasing them back into the wild when they’re about two-and-a-half years old.

“Wombats stole our hearts,” says Emily. “They’re full of character and personality, they’re loving and so thankful and are definitely smart.”

Returning home 10 days after they were forced to flee the fires on 28 December, they immediately poured an entire bag of feed onto the ground and waited to see what would happen. “Cautious, creeping footsteps and whiskery snuffles surrounded us. Our magical orphans were safe,” says Emily. “We fell into a pile with them. Tears, dirt, ash and all.”

Even now, four months later, the adult wombats return home every night from their burrows in the wild for a cuddle and a treat. Sharon, a registered nurse, and Emily, a Wildlife Victoria operations supervisor, know each by name and personality. 

When Nigel, a buck-toothed boy they hand-raised until his release, fell ill he knew to return to the Smalls who got him vet treatment. Emily then spent 10 days lying next to him on the floor to ensure his recovery. Not that she minded. “He’s a precious little boy and I have his paw prints tattooed on me,” she says. “I can’t explain it but wombats light my heart up.” 

RACV Solar chief executive officer Andy McCarthy says projects like this warm his soul. 

“Gippsland is my home, my family and friends are here; friends lost their homes in the fires,” he says. 

He says that since his business started its community fund in 2012, it has contributed $500,000 in kind to about 30 community initiatives including local sporting clubs, men’s sheds and bushfire-recovery projects such as the wombat orphanage.  

“It’s not just about business, this is our home and the least we can do is help,” he says, acknowledging the other companies that contributed to the wombat orphanage project: Sunpower, which supplied panels; Selectronic SP Pro (hybrid inverter); Fronius (inverter), PowerPlus Energy (battery) and Clenergy, which donated the ground frame.