Interview with Damien Cook – Part 1

Damien has been working in bushland restoration for 30 years and is a keen naturalist. I first met Damien about 8 years ago when I worked at Merri Creek Management Committee. He gave us a tour of Waterways, which is a 40 ha urban wetland that he helped design and revegetate. Waterways is spectacular –  chock-full of uncommon and threatened indigenous species. Damien has extensive knowledge and experience in terrestrial and wetland restoration and management.

We met at Waterways for a chat.

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Damien Cook at Waterways – a restored wetland that was previously a paddock of phalaris and gorse.

Hi Damien, thanks for catching up. Let’s start with how you got interested in nature?

I grew up in Springvale when there was still quite a bit of bush around. Our house was probably the first house on the street and we had echidnas that used to come in. You’d hear the chooks going crazy and you’d go down and there would be an echidna. So Springvale was pretty different then – this was in the early 70s.

Back then with a mate of mine, we got a copy of a book called Wild Food of Australia by a husband and wife team called the Cribbs. That was one of the first wild food books that came out. I remember getting a hold of that in about grade 6 and trying to find plants we could eat in the bush.

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There was quite a bit of bush where now there’s the Dingley bypass and all those other roads – that was all still bush with bandicoots all through it. My grandpa used to rent a little land off Heatherton road – they had a market garden and I used to spend a lot of time there, just hanging out in the bush, chasing bandicoots.

How did you move from being interested in nature to a career in restoration and environmental management?

I initially started to think I’d go more into zoology – I was always going around chasing lizards, snakes, frogs and bandicoots. But I failed maths in HSC so I couldn’t get into science. I ended up getting into a course called Environmental Assessment and Land Use Policy.

I pretended to do that for a while – I wasn’t that interested in the academic stuff and I got into blockading. At the time there was quite a lot of logging of old growth forest going on at Brown Mountain in East Gippsland and in south-eastern NSW. And so in the late 80s I got into the activism side of things a bit. Since I was always at protests and not going to lectures, I dropped out of uni.

I then got a job as a Bush Regenerator with the National Trust. They had this Save the Bush program, so I started pulling out weeds. One day my boss, Jenny Francis, said to me: “You’re pretty good at plant identification – we should start going for survey work and writing management plans to use some of your knowledge.”

And I said: “Nah, I’m not good enough to do all of that sort of stuff.”

But she insisted and really encouraged me and so I started doing botanical survey work and writing management plans for bits of bush, as well as restoration plans.

How did you build up your plant identification skills?

I used to take plant specimens into the National Herbarium of Victoria in Melbourne. Dave Albrecht was one of the botanists there at the time and I think he got sick of me taking in plants for him to identify. So he pulled out a couple of the old Handbooks to Plants in Victoria by Jim Willis. They looked like little bibles and they just had the plant keys, no pictures.

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This was pre- Flora of Victoria and the handbooks were quite challenging to use. But Dave taught me how to key plants out. I then started to hang out with the Field Naturalist Club of Victoria. In particular there was this old guy, Tom Sault, a classic old naturalist. You could take him anything and he’d identify it – like a piece of seaweed or a plant or an insect or whatever. So I hung out with him a fair bit and learnt a lot.

I think with learning plants you can get people to point stuff out to you, but the way you really learn is to key them out and work it out yourself. Yes, it’s a hard slog.

What did you do after the National Trust?

I worked at the National Trust for a while and after that I started my own little consultancy. It was called Holistic Ecology and I did a bit of work for Melbourne Water and a few other clients. I didn’t even have a car – I used to ride my pushy out to sites and do surveys.

I did that for a couple of years and then a mate of mine, Mark Adams, said he was going away for a year and wanted me to look after his indigenous nursery. I’d already been fiddling around growing indigenous plants in my backyard, but that got me into growing aquatic plants on a large scale. At that time Brendan Condon and I ran Mark and Lynette’s nursery for a while.

Then Mark said to us: “You know, there is going to be so much work in this field. I’m not going to be able to grow all the plants – you guys should start your own nursery.” And that’s when we started the nursery at the South-eastern Treatment Plant. That was the birth of Wetland Ecosystems, now called Australian Ecosystems.

Have you always been interested in wetlands?

I’ve always liked mud, even as a kid. I think wetlands are a really interesting ecosystem – they’re so changeable. If you have expectations when you go to a wetland they will be dashed and destroyed, because a wetland is different every time you go there. I love the adaptations of wetland plants – it’s a really harsh environment going from being bone dry to fully inundated, and the plants have got all these really cool little tricks to help them survive.

Were you thinking about the need for large-scale wetland restoration when you started Wetland Ecosystems?

At the time Melbourne Water had this Healthy Bays initiative, following on from a CSIRO study where they identified the need to reduce the amount of nitrogen going into the Port Phillip Bay. They wanted to cut down the amount of nitrogen entering the Bay by 1000 tonnes a year. If this didn’t happen, then we’d have ended up with really bad red algal blooms – the bay would have been toxic and you wouldn’t have been able to swim or fish in it.

The main sources of nitrogen were runoff from urban areas and the Western Treatment Plant. The Western Treatment Plant got upgraded and they managed to remove about 500 tonnes and the other 500 tonnes they had to get out of storm water. So Melbourne Water started to retrofit the storm water systems coming out of old suburbs with wetlands to suck out nitrogen and phosphorous. With a storm water treatment wetland you can get about 90% of the nitrogen out of the water.

So all of a sudden, almost overnight, there was a huge demand for indigenous wetland plants. Before that, growing wetland plants was a niche thing where someone might buy a couple of hundred plants to stick in their pond. They were pretty heady kind of days – we were growing two or three million plants every year and we had planting crews of 50 people.

What have you learnt from your wetland plantings?

There were a few years where we were doing a lot of wetland plantings. I realised after a while that there’s only so much you can do in a storm water treatment wetland, in terms of ecological restoration. They are very often fundamentally artificial systems which are designed by engineers to treat water. Natural wetlands in this part of the world pretty much always have a wetting and drying cycle, where they draw down or completely dry out over summer and fill back up over winter or spring, and the plants are adapted to that cycle.

Engineers often design wetlands so that they are full most of the time and they don’t really allow for any draw down. This means you end up with monocultures of large, robust plant species such as River Club-rush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani) or Tall Spike-rush (Eleocharis sphacelata), because the conditions are so stable. These wetlands do provide some habitat, but they’re not as good as wetlands with a natural wetting and drying cycle.

And so this Waterways project, where we are, was really good because we put in these little habitat wetlands. In addition to storm water wetlands, we had these little rain-filled, wetting and drying wetlands where we were able to plant 14 rare and threatened species. They have all done well and survived, whereas if you had put them in a storm water wetland they just wouldn’t survive because of the lack of that wetting and drying cycle.

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Rain-filled habitat wetland at Waterways

Can you tell me about the restoration project at Waterways?

Sure. Waterways is a 40 ha restoration project located on Mordialloc Creek in Melbourne’s south- eastern suburbs. This project came about with the development of the housing estate called Waterways. This housing estate needed wetlands for storm water treatment, as well as large areas of open space for the abundant wildlife in the region. Waterways is located between two large conservation reserves: Braeside Park and Edithvale-Seaford Wetlands.

We (Australian Ecosystems) designed planted the wetland. This project was funded by the developer and Melbourne Water. The combination of our extensive experience in wetland restoration, with the generosity and willingness of the developer to try something different meant that we could be a bit more ambitious in our restoration works.

How many species did you put back here?

It was probably the most diverse revegetation project I’ve ever been involved in. We grew and planted 223 species, and at least 95% of them established really well.  I’ve seen seedling regeneration in most of those species.

Prior to European settlement, the Waterways estate area was part of the Carrum Carrum Swamp, which was a vast wetland complex. We used local reference ecosystems as benchmarks for restoration, in terms of species diversity and cover.

The main habitats we restored at Waterways are:

  • Open water bodies supporting submerged aquatic herb fields
  • Marshes
  • Swamp Paperbark shrub-lands
  • Seasonal rail-filled wetlands
  • River Red Gum grassy woodlands
  • Tussock grasslands
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Abundant Billy-buttons (Craspedia paludicola and C. canens) in restored tussock grassland at Waterways

Why do you think the revegetation here has been so successful?

The first few years of weed control were very critical. It was a high density planting, mostly about four to six plants per square metre. With the high diversity of species, we were able to fill in all the different niches so the wetland would fill itself in over time.

We even put in so called native “weeds”, like Senecio and Epilobium species. Some people say it’s a waste of time planting these, but if you get them established, they take off and instead of weeds coming up on any bare patch of ground, they come up. They might proliferate in the first couple of years but they will eventually go back to a more background level.

Another thing we did here was intentionally introduce native mosses and lichens to try and get some cryptogamic crust happening.

How did you do that?

We gathered moss and put it in a blender – you can grow moss just from a cluster of cells. We then mixed this with water, put it in a fire fighting backpack and sprayed it around. I’m really impressed at how well it has gone.

So how does it feel coming back to a place like this? To a revegetated wetland that you’ve had a major role in creating?

I think it’s the best job satisfaction you could ever have. I’ve always liked the practical side of things. I still feel now that you can write a management plan and it just sits on someone’s desk. Maybe they will read it, and maybe they won’t.  But if you’re out there working in the bush, you’ll see the results of what you’ve done. You can plant a tree and come back in 10 or 15 years and it’s got birds living in it. We planted all the wetlands here, and now there are frogs and birds living in them.

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Magpie Geese at Waterways

Waterways was a paddock of gorse and phalaris 18 years ago. I can’t see any gorse, there’s a little bit of phalaris – not much. I can’t see many weeds. I can see there’s a really good native plant diversity – a whole bunch of different native sedges and grasses. You can hear that the frogs are happy and I’m happy!

Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where I learn about some of the projects Damien is currently working on.

If you would like to learn more about Damien’s work you can check out his website at http://rakali.com.au/

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Damien Cook – Part 1

  1. Pingback: Interview with Damien Cook – Part 2 – The Bushlander

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