Interview with Damien Cook – Part 2

Part 1 of this interview introduced us to Damien Cook who has been working in bushland restoration for the past 30 years. Today, we continue our chat and learn more about Damien’s work.

What are you currently working on?

I worked at Australian Ecosystems for about 15 years and about three years ago I had some family matters in Castlemaine I had to deal with. I was going back and forth from Melbourne to Castlemaine and I couldn’t do the travel any more. So I started to base myself more in Castlemaine and became a silent partner in Australian Ecosystems. I then started a new business, Rakali Consulting, with my wife Elaine Bayes, which has focused on working in remnant wetlands in northern Victoria.

From doing this work we realised that a lot of the Ramsar wetlands up around Kerang are in really bad condition. There has been a lot of tree death because of the way that water has been managed in the past. So now we are working on a wetland revival project looking at trying to reinstate correct wetting and drying cycles in those wetlands, and also replanting species that have been lost out of those systems.

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Tree death in north-western Victoria

What caused the tree death?

Up in north-western Victoria there’s a lot of red gum swamps. The red gums can grow in the swamps because of the natural wetting and drying cycle. When irrigation farmers came along they would use the wetlands to dump water they didn’t need, and so the swamps would hold water for longer than they naturally would. The swamps would also be filled for duck season in March – a time of year when they would often naturally be dry.

So you had these trees standing in water for prolonged periods of time. And at the same time you had quite a lot of irrigation going on around those wetlands – bringing up the salt water table. I did a rough calculation – in the North Central Catchment Management Authority area alone there’s about 13,000 ha of dead red gum swamps. Some of them would be quite hard to restore because they’re so salty. But there’s at least 7,000 ha that are pretty straightforward to restore.

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Avoca Marshes in the 1940s (left) and 2009 (right), note the extensive tree death that occurred over this period. This is one of many swamps that had tree death caused by prolonged flooding, water-logging and salinity.

How did they change from keeping the wetlands full all the time to environmental flows?

Part of the shift was brought about by the millennium drought which dropped water tables down, and resulted in water becoming much more expensive. We also had a shift in how we viewed wetlands. Instead of just seeing them as places we filled with water because you might be able to shoot ducks there, there was more of a focus on wetland restoration and environmental watering. Now it’s illegal to dump water in them.

The North Central Catchment Management Authority does a lot of environmental watering. They have also been engaging the local Indigenous groups, including the Barapa Barapa, to be involved in land management and planning watering for cultural purposes. This includes things like being able to grow indigenous plants for harvesting for medicine, and watering wetlands that are important hunting grounds.

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River Red Gum wetland in north-western Victoria

What are you working on to restore the wetlands?

I’m planning to write a blueprint for restoring wetlands in north-western Victoria. I’m also working with the local Indigenous groups, and landholders up there, doing some plantings in the wetlands. Over the last couple of months we’ve planted about 2000 red gums in one of the wetlands – that’s about 100 hectares. We’ve done a lot planting of understorey species too.

I’ve been able to plan the plantings around the environmental watering. It’s great knowing that when we do a planting that in a couple of weeks time there’s going to be water going in there – it takes a bit of the chance out of it all.

Something that I’ll focus on over the next few years is the idea of complementary actions around the watering. Environmental watering has been happening as a concept for the past 10 or 15 years, but more needs to be done than just putting water in to some of these wetlands.

A lot of the wetlands up there have very little indigenous seed bank, because they’ve been drowned out or gone through periods of salinization. If you’ve got a depleted seed bank and you’ve got pest plants and animals, you’ve got to tackle those issues as well.

If you’ve got carp coming in when you are doing environmental watering, you can put a carp fence in at the inlet and only let in the small carp, which will often be eaten by the cormorants and pelicans. Other complementary actions include controlling pest plants and animals, as well as putting some plants in to kick start seed banks and regeneration. Water is a precious resource and we want to make the best available use of it in restoring these wetlands.

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Birds roosting in dead trees at Hird Swamp near Kerang

Do you have any suggestions for people who want to get into wetland restoration?

I suppose the most important thing is just to look at stuff. Observing wetlands is the best way to learn about them. At Rakali Consulting, we run two courses a year. One’s a 5-day residential wetland ecology course at Kilcunda. We cover geomorphology, hydrology, and basic plant and animal ecology of wetlands. It’s to give people managing wetlands an understanding of basic ecology. We also run a 3-day wetland plant identification course that’s spaced out over 6 months.  We visit the same wetland in spring, summer and autumn to see the changes.

I think there will be more opportunities for people to get involved in wetland restoration. Bush regeneration has taken off. Twenty years ago if you’d said there were going to be hundreds of bush regenerators employed, people would have just laughed. Twenty years ago there was no profession – it was just a couple of people tinkering around. Now it’s quite a big industry.

Wetland restoration will take off more, particularly with the concept of blue carbon.  We now realise that wetlands are really important carbon sinks – a lot of wetlands actually store more carbon than tropical rain forests. If we’re going to be serious about tackling climate change, and arresting the loss of biodiversity, we need to be restoring wetlands and managing wetlands better. The more bush regenerators who can start learning about wetlands – the more opportunities they’ll find to do that kind of work.

Thank you for your time Damien

If you would like to learn more about Damien and Elaine’s work and the wetland courses they provide, you can check out their website at http://rakali.com.au/

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