Reflections on the journey – 25 years with the Deanei Reserve Bushcare Group

By Mike Purtell, a founder member of the bushcare group

Banding together….Mike in the early bush band days

At the 2019 Blue Mountains Bushcare Picnic the Deanei Reserve Bushcare Group received its well-deserved 25 Year Certificate for bushcare in Springwood’s Deanei Reserve.

What an achievement! Congratulations to the many people involved at different times in different involvements throughout this quarter-century.  Also, a huge thank you to the Blue Mountains City Council for excellent management of the reserves and parklands over such a long and stable period of time.

The Beginning…

Way back in 1993 Virginia Bear was the sole Bushland Manager for the whole local government area of the Blue Mountains. Virginia was keen to make her mark and immediately embarked on applying for an $80,000 Environmental Trust Grant for the Deanei Reserve and Else Mitchell Park. The Deanei Reserve was recognised as an important ecological community for many years, while Else Mitchell Park was a smaller area with similar ecology.

The Grant was approved and so began the first major Environment Grant to be served in the Mountains: $20,000 to be allocated for Management Plans for the reserves and a $60,000 Bush Regeneration Contract. Rob Agars and myself were asked to become involved in the application of the grant as community representatives. This eventually led to the formation of a Deanei Reserve Bushcare Group in 1994.

The contract for Management Plans was awarded to Roger Lembit and the Bush Regeneration Contract was awarded to the National Trust over a period of five years. Unbeknown to us, this created pressure on Council to employ staff to service the grant.

At the same time, bush regeneration groups were starting up throughout the Mountains, and the Deanei Reserve Bushcare Group and Else Mitchell Park Bushcare Group were formed. Both celebrate 25 years in continual existence.

The Genesis of Regen

The awarding of the Environmental Trust Grant was an important catalyst in the creation of a whole new bush regeneration industry in the Blue Mountains. To service this need, Blue Mountains TAFE initiated a Bush Regeneration course, now called Land Management.

With the formation of Bushcare Groups in the Mountains, Council needed to employ more staff to manage these groups. The Environment section in Council went from the employment of a sole manager to a team of Environment Land Managers.

None of us at the time could have envisaged such a wonderful development. At the same time, the Blue Mountains Bushcare Network was formed to lobby Council and community on the importance of continued weed management in the Local Government area.

Thousands of Years of History

The Deanei Reserve has an interesting history. We know that the Darug aboriginal tribes managed this area so well and co-existed with these beautiful forests for many thousands of years. Indeed, evidence has been found of occupation in one of the large overhangs within the Reserve. The aboriginal certainly used Fitzgeralds Creek as an access route and probably what is now Hawkesbury Road. It is thought that these Blue Gum forests would have been utilised as hunting grounds because of the high mammal populations that existed at the time. Sadly, in the 1880s shooting parties coming up from Sydney wiped out many of these native mammal populations.

It is thought that the Reserve’s location of Shalecap and Shale Sandstone Forest gave native mammals a large variety of food in which they were able to support large populations.

In April 1815, John William Lewin recorded Governor Macquarie’s expedition over the Blue Mountains in 21 watercolour drawings including one of Spring Wood as it was then known. (State Library of NSW

Lawson’s Land

It seems that the land was part of the original land grant handed out to the explorer Lawson. This large land grant was then divided up and it seems the land was used for farming, but also, apparently, a portable saw mill was set up to saw up the gums.

The saw mill doesn’t seem to have been a success, and the land then seems to have become vacant and weeds gradually took hold. Among the many weeds were Small and Large Leaved Privet, Lantana and African Boxthorn. These had become so dominant that it was difficult to see the landform in the Reserve.  

Saving the Land

By 1978 the land was privately owned (freehold title) and plans were drawn up to place apartments on the land. However, the locals along Hawkesbury Rd were up in arms that such wonderful large gums were to be trashed for apartments.

The locals must have had powerful contacts for requests were made to the then NSW Labour Government that the land be saved from development. The NSW Attorney General Mr Paul Landa flew up by helicopter and declared the land to be a Reserve and thus the development was stopped – developers must surely have been compensated.            

This is truly amazing as we could not imagine it happening today. Yet nothing was done with the land and it quickly became overgrown with weeds.

In the 1960s sewer mains were laid through the Reserve and this was most disruptive to the forest, with drilling and blasting into rock to create the sewer lines with regular manholes. Many trees have been lost along this sewer route due to dieback or alteration to their roots from trenching. These sewer lines are now very old and a new aerial sewer pipe was installed in the lower portion of the Reserve to shorten distance of the sewer. However, the old manholes still need to be gas proofed as sewer gases still exist at certain times.

In 1996 the National Trust Bush Regeneration Team quickly established themselves. The Management Plan allowed for a strategic plan of weed removal to be put in place and weed clearance was carried out on a large scale. Large trees were drilled and poisoned but small privets were removed by hand. Possum dreys were common and bush regenerators worked around these trees, but sadly the many possum dreys disappeared and have not yet returned.

Unique Shalecap

Roger Lembit completed the Management Plan and a Native Plant List was compiled with a total of more than 140 native plant species. We quickly learnt that the Reserve was positioned on Blue Mountains Shalecap, essentially a clay-based ecology (10%), as opposed to the sandstone ecologies (90%) of most of the Blue Mountains. Clay-based communities are the first to degrade with weed invasion, but if they are worked then they will quickly rebound with the original ecology.

This was certainly true for the Deanei Reserve. The first rains saw a large area of native plant regrowth reestablish, and over the years of the contract the forest ecology firmly reestablished itself, with the weeds slowly disappearing.

The scale of the privet infestation was so large that locals living around the Reserve said that we would never get on top of the massive area of weeds. However, today it is largely back to pristine stable forest and only the edges pose a continual threat. Bush regeneration is indeed a worthy investment.

There have been some interesting incidents over the years. In the Lawson Road industrial precinct a plumber placed an eel down a stormwater drain only to unblock years of backed up old motor oil in a mechanic’s property in Lawson Rd. This released huge volumes of trapped motor oil which flowed straight into the creek within the Reserve.   

Luckily, a bush regen team saw the event happen and called the EPA who then employed this team to remove and clean up the incident.

Urban Runoff Programme

In the mid-1990s NSW Minister for the Environment Bob Debus announced the Urban Runoff Programme – a $5 million strategy to clean up the mountain’s catchment – to improve water quality and remove invasive weeds in priority catchments. The Deanei Reserve and Else Mitchell Bushcare Groups made applications to request that the Fitzgeralds Creek and Springwood Creek be nominated as priority catchments. We were successful to get both catchments nominated as priority catchments, which meant that further environment strategies and finance would be spent in both the Deanei Reserve and Else Mitchell Park.

This large state-based Urban Runoff Programme was overseen by the State Public Works. However, the Public Works had never initiated any bush regeneration contracts in the state and were reluctant to do so.

Eric Mahony from Council and Sue Morrison from National Parks were co-opted to compile bush regeneration contracts. This happened at lightning speed with the contracts served in a matter of weeks. These two people were just amazing at getting these bush regen contracts out so quickly. 

Large drainage works and bush regeneration contracts were written and committees established to implement these large-scale environmental works. The three-year electoral cycle is always a problem in pushing works too fast.

Silt Traps

Large silt traps were installed at Deanei and Else Mitchell, and a $1 million sediment basin implemented at Fairy Dell in Springwood, and bush regeneration contracts commenced. Again, Blue Mountain TAFE would need to train the large workforce required to service these works. The Council’s environment department expanded to service all these works.

These large silt traps have been quickly superseded by new sand/rock/vegetated channels to act as stormwater filter systems that are much more effective in cleansing stormwater before it enters into the catchment. At the time, however, the Public Works could only offer silt traps that don’t clean water.

Council has been pioneering in trying out water cleansing of stormwater and we now look forward to one of these effective  systems being placed to capture stormwater coming from the highway, rail line, and Springwood Town Centre ino the Reserve.

Defining the Shalecap Community

At the time the Local Environment Plan (LEP) was being revised so a review of native plant communities was required in around 1998. Ecologist Steve Douglas won the contract and immediately embarked on a radical revision of these native plant communities. Steve made contact with the Deanei Reserve Bushcare Group, stating that he believed a new plant community could be defined as Blue Mountains Shalecap. The Blue Mountains Conservation Society was involved and a successful submission was made to the NSW Scientific Committee to have the Blue Mountains Shalecap ecological community listed as threatened and endangered:

This listing was successful and a second community was nominated – the Sun Vally Cabbage Tree ecological community – which was also successful. This meant that the Deanei Reserve now contained a threatened and endangered ecological community, which made it one of the priority ecological communities to be protected in the LGA, which led to many more funding rounds. The Blue Mountains Council has shown excellent support for our efforts over many years.

The Blue Mountains Shalecap forest has since been included as a subset of the nationally listed Turpentine Ironbark Forest of the Sydney Bioregion, which is critically endangered:

The 2001 Fire

In 2001 the Deanei Reserve was affected by a bushfire burning back against the wind. It eventually burnt out 90% of the Reserve with only the area above the top track not being burnt. The RFS were getting ready to carry out a back burn but were urgently called out to Winmalee to fight another serious fire. Locals took seven links of garden hose and put the fire out.  The fire effectively killed off the many potostrum undulatum which were becoming dominant in the mid storey, and many very old trees were also lost.  

Recently a proposal to provide a shorter road access from the Highway to Winmalee was proposed and approved by Council. This would have been devastating for the Reserve, as it would have been surrounded by busy roads and the Blue Mountains Shalecap community would have become isolated from the larger bushland area of the Lower Mountains. Luckily, it proved far too expensive ($15 million) and the state government wouldn’t support the initiative. The proposal was dropped which was great for the future of the Reserve as it would have become cut off from bushland further down the creek.

Still, the Reserve sadly is dominated by noise from the Great Western Highway and the peace and quiet of the forest occurs much further into the Reserve. The Fitzgeralds Creek has its origins in the Deanei Reserve.

Growing the Deanei

The Deanei Bushcare Group has a long history of collecting Eucalyptus deanei seeds and propagating for planting out. However, we lost many trees due to poor root development. Glenn Parry suggested potting up into larger pots so the trees could develop a much larger root base, and this has led to many more trees surviving in the wild.

However it seems that the swamp wallabies – there are many wallaby tracks visible within the Reserve – love to eat the fresh young leaves and will strip a sapling very quickly. We have had to place tree guards to help young trees grow to be mature.

We have also improved our watering regimes to help in the survival of these newly planted trees.

Nuns and Convicts?

The Deanei Reserve is an interesting site for many reasons. It seems the area was once part of an old convent (Sisters of St Joseph) that still exists in Railway Parade. The land extended into what is now the Deanei Reserve but when the rail and highway went in the land was cut in half.

Many of us have wondered why three dams have existed on the site, though only one now holds water. These dams are stone-lined around the edges, suggesting perhaps a pool for the locals. Megan Birmingham, the bush regen Site Foreperson now living in Nowra, once travelled to north Sydney and discovered that indeed this land was once owned by the nuns. So perhaps the nuns used the dams for swimming.

It is interesting to an observer today that not much water at all flows down this part of the Fitzgeralds Creek. So why place dams on the creek? Springwood was once known for its springs. It exists on shalecap which is made up of thin layers of shale and clay, and these clay bands act as seals that prevent groundwater from soaking in. When the water hits these clay bands it travels, so a few weeks of soaking rain can cause “springs” to flow. This could have meant that Fitzgeralds Creek may have had a continuous flow while the springs were running.

But the development of the railway and now the highway has meant that the shalecap formation has been cut through by excavating for rail and road, thus cutting through this shalecap and perhaps stopping the flow of springs into the creek. The bowling club today still has a bore into these underground water supplies.

There are numerous stone-lined tracks in the Reserve. What are the origins of these tracks and what were they used for? Were the roads made by convicts? When were the dams constructed? They are cut stone – were they made by our first convicts?

There are stone overhangs where Roger Lembit found stone chips, presumably from aboriginal tool-making in these overhangs.

The Bell Miners

There is a large population of Bell Miner birds in the Reserve. However, it is thought that these birds farm the lerps that grow in the Blue Gum forests. These are thought to cause the trees to become stressed and many trees have died due to dieback. We look forward to a possible study into the forest’s Bell Miner population; they create a wonderful and poetic ambience because of their high-pitched whistle.

Raising Awareness

The Deanei Reserve Bushcare Group has been involved with the Land Manager Blue Mountains City Council in numerous activities to raise awarenesss of the importance of the Reserve. This has included numerous Open Days, bird watching, fauna and flora surveys, school planting days, and a children’s map of the Reserve.

We have also taken part in the Bushcare Conference in which the Reserve hosted a bird survey. 37 bird species sighted in two hours. Just of late, a local preschool has been making use of the Reserve for bush kinder, where preschool children construct a Gunya bush shelter. This can be seen in the Reserve.

Over the 25 years we have achieved a lot and continue to improve the ecology of the Blue Mountains Shalecap/Turpentine Ironbark Forest.

Our Bushcare Group continues to go from strength to strength with new members joining the group.

By Mike Purtell, founding member of the Deanei Reserve Bushcare Group established in 1994

Happy after Schools Planting Day, July 2019