Roger Thomas, a nature writer for The Courier for almost 40 years, does not make wild, clarion calls to action.
An avid wildlife watcher all his life, he makes measured observations or none at all, carefully calibrating his words whether in his Nature Notes column or in person. This makes his thoughts on the region's species and the ecosystems they depend upon all the more devastating.
It is not a subject Roger turns to much. He admits he deliberately avoids it if he can. He abandoned writing about species with dwindling numbers about a decade ago, wary of being seen as an old-timer harking back to a better era.
However, he made an exception this week in response to my request to talk about ecosystem decline, an issue currently in the eyes of Spring Street where a wide-ranging parliamentary inquiry is being held.
His observations are upsetting but need to be known. Anyone in the region with even a passing interest in the natural world should pay attention to his softly spoken views. This is ecosystem and species decline in close-up, not as a distant phenomenon in far-off places like the Amazonian Basin, or the plains of the Serengeti. This is in our own backyard.
Asked if he has noticed many species fade away in his 50 years of making detailed nature notes, he names birds he used to see all the time and now sees less. It is a long list: speckled warbler, hooded robin, southern whiteface, restless flycatcher, satin flycatcher, jacky winter, white-tinger triller, cuckoos, chats, small lorikeets, sandpipers, swifts, blue-winged parrot, house sparrow and masked lapwings.
Talking about one of his favourite ecosystems in the area, Clarkesdale Bird Sanctuary in Linton where he used to work as a ranger, he said: "I've watched the extinction of speckled warbler, hooded robin, restless flycatcher and jacky winter at that spot.
"They've all become extinct there - different from extinct in the region - in my lifetime. They're all retreating north of the divide.
"It's very sad. The Sanctuary was set up to maintain or enhance the birdlife but it hasn't. It's protecting what's there but there's not much increase if any. "
"It makes me wonder if it's all too late. It really does. I don't think about it too often. But everytime I go to my favourite childhood places, I think: 'there's nothing here'."
Climate change is, he believes, a major factor in the changes. He has noticed the undergrowth fade in local woodland, which he believes is having a major impact on the small birds that used to rely upon it for food.
Another point about the shrubs is that wallabies and kangaroos are browsing them down to nothing because there is not enough other food for them - so that means there are not as many nesting sites for the little bird.
He believes the dry, recent years have caused the death of many manna gums - such as on the slopes of Mount Warrenheip. While he gives the caveat that he is not a koala expert, he believes it is a likely factor, along with disease, in the savage reduction in the marsupials' numbers in the area.
While some animals dwindle, others abound, with more kangaroos and wallabies consuming plants, and nibbling away at habitat for smaller animals, Mr Thomas believes, saying: "There are more than the environment can cope with."
It is a very sobering discussion, harrowing even. There are other species that have started coming to the Ballarat region when they were not here before - the crested pigeon, wood-ducks, corellas and galahs for example - but not enough to counterbalance the scarcer species.
I have been putting it at the back of my mind, hoping that it's not happening but it is. It clearly is. I am one of the few that has been at this for 50 years and can notice it, in my lifetime.Roger Thomas
But if anybody knows what is happening, he does. There is arguably nobody else with such a long-term view of the area's wildlife, someone who has watched it change so closely. He has now been making detailed observations at his beloved Lake Wendouree for half a century. If there is a David Attenborough of Ballarat, it is him.
He worries the decline has happened in increments people find hard to pick up on.
"People don't realise the seriousness of what's happening," he said. "They haven't been observing for as long as I have."
I ask if he fears, in his heart of hearts, whether the situation will not get better? "I do really, yes," he told me candidly. "I have been putting it at the back of my mind, hoping that it's not happening but it is. It clearly is. I don't want to sound vain or anything, but I am one of the few that has been at this for 50 years and can notice it, in my lifetime."
"I have been visiting the same places, [where] there's been no change in habitat, no wholesale clearing, there's still grazing alongside the good bush, it's nothing to do with the change in land use, it hasn't even changed from grazing to crop."
"The sheep are still there, the birds used to be in the sheep paddocks, but [now] they're not."
His words are backed up by the experience of the Field Naturalists of Ballarat, whose president Bill Elder tells me that animals that used to be commonplace are now treated as rare finds.
"I have noticed the field reports are getting fewer and they seem to be focusing on more common species too," he said. "We're seeing both a gradual subtle decline in both species and numbers."
While he recognises that is anecdotal, he says their increasing use of citizen science apps and websites such as https://inaturalist.ala.org.au will give more back-up to the sense that something is badly awry.
Mr Thomas in the meantime knows it is going to take huge coordinated government intervention to make any sort of difference, and hopes the inquiry will bring more funding to Parks Victoria to look after biodiversity.
He says he feels downhearted and powerless personally if he thinks about things for too long, but says that sharing his observations could help by making the issue more widely known.
"I don't know what to do about it. That's the sad part," he said. "If I could go out there and plant trees every weekend all around the district, I probably would. But it needs more than just trees planted in 2021."
He checked himself every now and then, worrying that he might be too gloomy - which is something he tries to avoid when writing his column.
The very fact the parliamentary inquiry is happening is something he said. "Someone's been concerned about it enough to instigate it so that's great. You've got to have a go."
THE ECOSYSTEM DECLINE INQUIRY
The ecosystem decline inquiry was announced in 2019, looking at ecosystem decline, and its the likely impact on people, particularly First Peoples. The inquiry has attracted hundreds of submissions from a wide variety of scientific groups, advocacy organisations and individuals. Hearings are ongoing, with a full report due to be tabled to parliament this September. Here are a few of the contributions either from organisations and people connected to Ballarat, or submissions relating to the city.
Urban sprawl (private individual)
"Governments must stop the urban sprawl and stop developers from clearing land around Melbourne and big rural towns like Geelong and Ballarat to build houses. We need denser housing, not mass clearing that destroys valuable habitats and destroys the very reason we love Victoria so much."
Geelong Environment Council
This makes the point one of main waterways in the region. The Moorabool River continues to suffer from water diversion for Geelong and Ballarat. This is reputed to be the most distressed river in Victoria.
Push for darker skies
Judith Bailey of the Ballarat Observatory posted a submission proposing legislation to reduce light pollution, saying the issue had a role in the severe decline of insect species in the state - and a knock on effect on wildlife such as the mountain pygmy possum. She highlighted a Dark Sky initiative she hoped would one day come into force and be accredited.
Dr Linda Zibell
Local university lecturer Dr Linda Zibell also contributed: "I have watched my local area south of Ballarat change over the 30 years we have lived here: early on we had koalas visiting us regularly, we had platypus 30 minutes from us, feather-tail and sugargliders, wallabies and kangaroos, microbats every summer, ring-tailed possums, blue-tongue lizards, echidnas." She reflected on a wildlife newsletter she previously wrote, the amount of species identified, and widespread community engagement. "Since 2010, all of this changed for the worse in every aspect," she wrote.
ALSO IN THE NEWS
Field Naturalists of Ballarat
In their submission, the group highlights what it describes as poor fire prevention technique on public lands, as well as wetland loss, the continued logging of forests - they call for a transition to plantation forestry timber before the current 2030 plan; the protection of the critically endangered grasslands west of Melbourne; and the fast-tracking of proposed new national parks in Wombat, Mount Cole and the Pyrenees as well as the shoring up the status of Creswick Regional Park.
Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation
The submission read: "After European settlement, the health of Country declined dramatically due to a variety of reasons, such as... the gold rush, introduction of invasive plants and animals, grazing of sheep and cattle that destroyed the crops of Wadawurrung ancestors, introduction of diseases, diversion of waterways, destruction, hunting and removal of habitat of rare native plants and animals, and of course, the forced removal, land dispossession and the massacring of Wadawurrung People, severely damaging the spirit, connections and traditional practices that carefully nurtured and managed ecosystems for tens of thousands of years."
"This is not a Labor or Liberal thing and not a time for [grandstanding], it's a time to be human. It's a time to reinvent the forest industry and retrain them in skills to build wind and solar farms so we can sell power to other countries. The time is nearly too late. I want a habitable earth left for my children."
- See www.parliament.vic.gov.au/epc-lc/inquiry/995 to keep track of the inquiry.
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