Hird Swamp water debacle

THE members of the Bendigo Branch of Field and Game Australia agree with many of the points raised in Simon Starr's (conservation officer, Birdlife, Echuca and District) letter relating to Hird Swamp, however wish to comment upon certain related issues.

FGA acknowledge the valuable role Birdlife Echuca, who alongside FGA and other individuals and groups who care about our wetland environments, take in being members of EWAG. FGA takes particular pride in the practical, volunteer efforts of their members who have undertaken wetland restoration work in the Kerang area, especially Hird Swamp which was purchased with money raised by hunter's licence fees, destroyed by wildfire and fully restored by FGA members into the magnificent wetland it is (when holding water).

Hird Swamp is a significant RAMSAR listed wetland, classified as a deep Box-Lignum Marsh. The rapid draining of this wetland to encourage the growth of Redgum, which is not native to Hird Swamp, is considered by many as totally inappropriate and inconsistent with the RAMSAR objectives.

The recommendation of FGA that the watering regime, as approved for allocation to Hird Swamp by the Environmental Water Holder (and documented in NCCMA's own Management Plan) would now be impractical as the damage has already been done. The original plan would have ensured the swamp was partially filled until winter, inhibiting the spread of cumbungi and phragmites, providing water for nesting chicks, and providing quality edges for Sandpipers, Brolgas and other shorebirds. Most importantly, all waterbirds would have access to prime feeding and resting habitat in a year when so many wetlands are dry.

FGA agree that regular wet and dry cycles are in the best interests of wetland environments, however dispute the timing of the recent decision by NCCMA to rapidly dry Hird Swamp for the following reasons:

EWAG members were not consulted when the decision was made to rapidly drain Hird's Swamp.

The Environmental Water Holder did not have the opportunity to assess and endorse the plan before NCCMA made their decision.

Where has the unused 1566ML(954ML delivered against an allocation of 2500ML) of environmental water allocated to the NCCMA gone? Surely in such a dry year the 'banking' of environmental water allocations could be considered irresponsible. Maybe putting this water into Johnston's Swamp immediately would assist in overcoming the lack of wetland environments in the area.

Scientists consulted by FGA concur that the current drying of Hird Swamp will most likely encourage the growth of Cumbungi and Phragmites, that water levels should have remained reasonably high over the warmer months and that the drying phase should not commence until the weather is cooler. The current situation of wet ground plus warm sun can only promote the rapid growth of these plants which threaten the open areas needed by waterbirds. So far from reducing the spread of cumbungi and reed beds by draining/drying the actual conditions experienced over January/February have allowed for conditions to help them explode when the swamp next receives water.

The economic benefits to the local community have been ignored given the estimated $3.3 million spent annually by hunters in the Gannawarra Shire alone. As pointed out by Mr Starr, the financial benefits to the community by naturalists and nature lovers in general should significantly add to this figure, however who will visit a dry wetland?

Members of the Bendigo Branch of FGA dispute Mr Starr's statement that the North Central Catchment Management Authority is doing an exceptional job in managing our waterways. Poor decision-making, wetland neglect, dubious science and a lack of accountability by NCCMA can be evidenced by the number of dry wetlands and the inability to meet the expectations of so many stakeholders.

Hopefully, the NCCMA has learned from this year's Hird Swamp debacle and will work much more collaboratively in future years with significant stakeholders (including Birdlife Echuca and FGA), to ensure that the Kerang Wetlands are managed in a manner which meet environmental, community and stakeholder needs. FGA is happy to continue to be involved in any activities which promote quality habitat for waterbirds and have a potential volunteer workforce of about 17,000 members to assist NCCMA and Parks Victoria with mutually beneficial projects.

Danny Ryan,

Publicity officer,

FGA Bendigo Branch.