In 1845 the Mornington Peninsula was thick with wildlife: herds of kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, many echidnas and koalas and glorious birds, all unused to man and quite tame and inquisitive. ...wonderful trees, abundance of silver wattles, when in blossom, gilded the country and filled the air deliciously with their sweetness. Now population growth is turning the Peninsula into a desert. Research and graphs by Malcolm Legg and Hans Brunner.
Howitt in 1845 wrote:
“ The Peninsula was thick with wildlife, with herds of kangaroos, wombats, wallabies, many echidnas and koalas and glorious birds, all unused to man and quite tame and inquisitive. He described the wonderful trees and abundance of silver wattles which, when in blossom, made the whole country golden and the whole atmosphere filled deliciously with their sweetness.”
Henry Tuck and others also stated that Kangaroos were like herds of sheep and could never be shot out, and bandicoots and possums were in hundreds and that the native cat was one of the commonest animals.
Ms. Cavill, who lives next to the Moorooduc Quarry Reserve commented in her Masters Thesis:
“In the 1930’s we found bush around us, a whole wonderland of animals, wild flowers, birds, hollow trees, gullies and ground water ways.
Koalas grunted all night, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, possums, echidnas, bush- and water rats, flying foxes and bandicoots were abundant and tame. At night the frogs roared in the darkness . In the evening, swarms of birds arrived in v-shaped formations and landed on the swamp. Black – and tiger snakes were common around the huge Moorooduc swamp that lay below our property and brown snakes and copperhead were a nuisance around the house.
Our delight in exploring the swamp with its sheets of water, covered with swans and ducks, and its spongy islands of moss and tee-tree was always tempered by fear of these snakes.
On our horse rides their was a never failing source of interest in the discovering new wild flowers, gullies of maiden ferns, orchids, minute wild strawberries, egg and bacon bushes and swathes pink and white heath.
There were several other similar reports made by Wheelwright, Kenyon and Hobson, mentioning also many other species and all describing the Mornington Peninsula as teeming with wild life.
Based on historical and recent records there were at least 37 species of mammals on the Peninsula in those early days.
Much the same could have also been said about the many species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. Hobson in 1837 observed the gigantic crane or brolga and the native turkey ( Australian Bustard ). They are now listed as threatened fauna in Victoria.
The loss of native fauna
With the arrival of pioneers and settlers, timber cutters removed nearly all the mature trees on the Peninsula and shipped them to Melbourne or used them to build railway lines or as fuel to drive stone crushers etc. or to clear land for grazing.
Kangaroos were slaughtered in their thousands on single drives and some of the meat, together with koalas and possums was sent to Melbourne for food. Animals were also destroyed because of competition with sheep and cattle grazing.
Much of the land was then used for farming and for fruit orchards. The clearing of land caused subsequently massive soil erosion and mega-tons of good soil was washed into the sea especially along Balcomb Creek.
With the ever increasing number of people arriving on the Peninsula, the remaining natural bush was gradually destroyed and fragmented.
Chris Tzaros recently worked out that for every 100 hectares of woodland cleared, between 1000-2000 woodland dependent birds are lost. These figures could be even higher for mammals, reptiles and amphibians.
With this drastic decrease of suitable habitat for most native birds and mammals, many species have now become locally extinct. (See graph below).
Doug Robinson has estimated that about 50% of birds which originally existed on the Peninsula are now either locally extinct or are threatened. Ground nesting birds have suffered most, especially because of predation by foxes and cats.
A Mr. Woolley and others also used to shoot ducks in the 1880’s for a living until they were almost shot out.
Later, larrikins delighted in the shooting of wild life when the pubs were closed after 6 O’clock.
In the quarry area bandicoots and kangaroos lasted till about 1940 and wombats and the eastern quoll till about 1960. By 1970 koalas, sugar gliders and antechinuses were still present but have since declined drastically and have become extremely rare and the antechinuses are now extinct in the Frankston area.
There is also a growing concern over a serious decline of invertebrates. Subsequently, there are concerns for the future of many species of bird, mammals and amphibians that feed on them. Habitat loss and habitat fragmentation as well as the over use of pesticides has to be the main reason.
In summary, we have taken over all the prime land on the Mornington Peninsula . The rest of nature is forced to make do with what is left which amounts to less than 5 % of a much- reduced quality of habitat. Plainly, this is the major factor resulting in the ongoing, local species extinction and in an increase in ecosystem stress.
Loss of mammalian species on the Peninsula:
From 37 original species = locally extinct and endangered 25 species = 66%
Loss of mammalian species in the Frankston area:
From 37 original species = locally extinct and endangered 28 species = 76 %
To cap it all, we now have, in a large number of reserves, more introduced mammalian species such as the fox, cat, dog, rabbit, black rat, brown rat and house mouse, than native species. (This does not include all the farm animals such as horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, and deer etc. that take up land originally used by native animals.)
The graph (data from Malcolm Legg ) shows the loss of mammals on the Mornington Peninsula. Since then, two more species had to be shifted to the “extinct” section, namely, the Wombat and the Southern Brown Bandicoot.
The recent, local loss of the Southern Brown Bandicoot is one of the latest examples. In spite of all the lobbying and by-partisan political support, no sufficient efforts have been made to safe this species. This Bandicoot has been in great numbers all over the Peninsula and its disappearance during the last thirty years has been well recognised and documented. This is yet another frustrating, shameful, local extinction story of an iconic Australian species.
(Hans Brunner is a Peninsula Wildife Biologist and internationally recognised as a Forensic hair identification expert, through his work identifying dingo hairs in the Azaria Chamberlain appeal and later in identifying a possible new hominid species in Indonesia.)