Conservation at Work at Myrtle Bank

The Launceston Field Naturalists Club was formed in October 1949 and went along quietly and successfully for many years with regular meetings and outings, until 1966 when its Vice President and Life Member John Skemp died. John was the last of his family and so he bequeathed the family property at Myrtle Bank to the club. This meant that the club went from a group with around £100 in the bank to owner of a 52ha subalpine property with financial commitments far in excess of its normal income, and as it was not incorporated, the club could not legally hold the property in its name.

A small committee was formed to facilitate the takeover of the property, comply with the directions of the will and make recommendations for the future. One of the committee members was also on the board of the Tasmanian Permanent Executors and Trustees Association Limited and it was arranged that they take over and manage the property. The income from a grazing lease was enough to cover expenses.

This gave the club a breathing space in which to decide on the future and to become an incorporated body. In fact, everything was running so smoothly that the club did not become incorporated until 1991 and did not have the property transferred to its name until several years later.

Under the terms of the will the club had to have the house on the property destroyed by fire and in 1969 the Skemp Committee arranged this, having first contracted two local farmers with tractors to pull the house down. The house was very old having been originally constructed of split palings and pit-sawn floorboards then added to as needs dictated. Today only the garage and barn remain and they have not needed extensive work done to keep them from falling over. The barn is over 100 years old; all the studs are hand split whilst the exterior is clad with sawmill offcuts – two different periods of its life. It is now a very useful crib room for the workers when the main building is let.

The club then had to weigh up future options. Some wished to sell off the cleared portion of the property – about half – and retain the rest, as the will requested that we keep 50 acres ‘In its present state as a Sanctuary, both for flora and fauna and that it shall be named the Florence Skemp Sanctuary or Reserve in memory of my mother’

Others wanted to hold on to the entire property if at all possible. To enable this they proposed that the club write a book on Tasmanian plants and survive on the royalties.

When it came to the vote, the book group won.

After many weekends of diligent research, images were selected and a text written by seven people with, of course, seven different styles. One club member, Mary Cameron, a trained botanist rewrote all the descriptions, giving them commonality of language. A H &A W Reed agreed to publish our book and so A Guide to Flowers & Plants of Tasmania was born. That was in 1981 and, after more than 12 reprints, mostly with updates, it has recently been updated once again and published by Reed New Holland. This has given the club a steady ongoing income which has far exceeded anything we might have received from selling the land.

By 1985 with astute investments by the treasurer and after many garage sales and raffles, we were in a position to be able to consider erecting a club building on the property. Plans were drawn up by a member and officially sanctioned by the Launceston City Council. It was built mainly by members and officially opened by the Club Patron, Dr Winifred Curtis, in May 1989 as the John Skemp Field Study Centre. Later two extra bedrooms and a study were added, mainly because school groups had started to stay there and the bunkroom accommodation for 16 gave the teachers no privacy.

By this time several members had retired and were regularly able to spend time at the property, this evolved into an every-Tuesday routine which is still in place 21 years later. At one stage during this time Centrelink asked us if we could employ a local resident for two days a week. We could, and we did with some trepidation but it has turned out to be one of the best things we ever did. Since this employee retired he has become a valued volunteer.

At one point, the sheep that were being agisted on the property were attacked by dogs and either killed or widely dispersed. The farmer holding the grazing lease decided not to renew. It was about a year later that we discovered we had a huge weed problem that had been kept in check by the sheep. The spear thistles were attacked first and are still a problem. The property is almost totally surrounded by plantations which seem to propagate thistles as a second crop. At a certain time of the year ‘fairies’ float past like a fog. The biggest problem, however, was sycamore trees which came up in countless thousands and took seven years of ‘cut and paste’ to finally control. The first thing we had to do, of course, was remove the seed trees, which were about 100 years old and massive. The School of Fine Furniture appreciated the timber and made some wonderful pieces from it.

As with most properties, blackberries are a constant problem but are gradually being brought under control. Luckily one of our retired volunteers was an ex-grass specialist at DPIWE who recognised an infestation of reed sweet grass (Glyceria maxima) growing in the creek bed. As it was growing amongst ferns it required careful spraying over a couple of years to finally get rid of it.

During this period a start was made on making walking tracks through the wet sclerophyll forests, rainforests and fern gullies, work that has continued to the present. Green Corps and Conservation Volunteers Australia have been very helpful and have constructed a number of boardwalks and bridges over wet spots. Every track has its own pamphlet setting out details of terrain and flora that may be seen. Engraved labels are in place on many trees and shrubs along the way, giving both the common and scientific names and there are flora and avifauna lists that visitors can take away.

To date there are around 12 tracks covering a combined distance of over 10 km.

After years of enquiry we were finally able to place a covenant on the Skemp property. There were a number of forest types on the property that proved to be in need of conservation so we were compensated for this, which was an unexpected bonus.

One of the cleared paddocks sloped west to Myrtle Bank Road with patches of rainforest on each side. The need to connect them with a wildlife corridor was pretty obvious and an application to Tamar Natural Resource Management for funding was successful. Not only did they provide funding but also organised working bees to erect wallaby-proof fencing with an electric wire so that the 2ha plot was soon ready for planting. Plants were sourced from a nearby nursery and weekend working bees soon had them in the ground.

After a number of years the bottlebrushes, supposedly Callistemon pallidus (now Melaleuca pallida), flowered profusely a brilliant red. Unfortunately the nursery had been supplied with the wrong seed so the trees all had to come out, as we confine our plants to those species indigenous to the property.

At about this time Grade 5 at Scotch Oakburn College successfully applied for a federal government Adopt a Patch grant. One of the criteria was to have a landowner allot their school at least 2 ha to use and the club was happy to do this. We also constructed a prefab poly house for students to use at school to propagate plants from seed collected on our property. When plants were ready to go in they arranged for the area to be roughly ploughed and fenced. As the site was between two areas of bush, another wildlife corridor was created.

A great deal of planting has been done in recent times, especially along Skemps Creek. Seed is collected from plants on the property every year and taken to the Deloraine High School, where it is grown by the students. The club then purchases plants from them at an agreed price: a most successful arrangement.

Because of the high population of wallabies – neighbours tell us that the property is ‘teeming with game’ – every plant has to have a guard and, to date, one volunteer has made nearly 1000 cages.

The quality of Skemps Creek water is tested regularly by one of our members who is qualified to do so. As the creek flows into St Patricks River, it is a small part of the Launceston water supply. Results of the tests are fed into a local data bank.

Over the years three ponds have been constructed on Skemps Creek, the first by a member with pick and shovel, the others by excavator – the easy way. The intention was to attract waterfowl but, apart from sighting a lone duck twice in 10 years,  we only get occasional visits from native hens. However, platypus and the freshwater crayfish Astercopsis franklinii have found it to their liking.

In several places along the creek the Mount Arthur burrowing crayfish Engaeus orramakunna is to be found and the as-yet-unnamed Skemp snail inhabits the rainforest gullies. These are but two of about six rare and endangered species that occur on the property.

Apart from the large wallaby population we have recorded many common brush-tailed possums, the eastern pygmy possum, sugar glider, eastern-barred bandicoot, common wombat and the eastern quoll. We haven’t seen scats of devils for years. The list of birds and fungi is extensive.

During the summer months klugs xenica (Geitoneura klugii) butterflies can be seen in countless thousands flitting around the paddocks, mating and laying eggs on the grass.

Last year adjoining land came on the market and the club was able to purchase it, as we had been saving for this day for many years. This gives us a whole rainforest gully instead of about one-third and has enabled two walking tracks to merge into one. It also provides a boundary along Targa Hill Roadand adds 5ha to the property, which is now covered by a separate covenant.

Anyone interested in the early history of the Skemp property should read Memories of Myrtle Bank by John Skemp, which is usually available in the State Library or occasionally in antiquarian bookshops. Similarly his book My Birds, published posthumously, not only tells of the birds but describes the environment on the farm as it was at that time.

The club website is worth a visit.

John Simmons OAM

Skemp Property Manager.