About a year ago I went ‘round the bend’.
I moved into a conservation co-operative in the Bend of Islands, a unique residential community located on the Yarra river about 50 minutes northeast of Melbourne.
The idea came out of the blue, via an ad for a house that instantly answered my growing desire to connect with two undervalued - but to my mind essential - elements of life: community, and nature.
Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative owns 132 hectares of pristine bushland with 25 houses nestled in the landscape along three brick paved tracks. The land is characterised by Box-Ironbark forest that flows over a succession of dry ridges and wet gullies.
There are no fences, no dogs and no cats, so wombats, wallabies and kangaroos roam freely, and in the evenings Lesser Long-eared bats flit through the trees, occasionally huddling under the eaves of my house to catch their breath. I watch Sugar Gliders, Possums, and the endangered Brushtail Phascogale in the trees around the house, their eyes glowing like headlights in the beam of my torch.
The Co-op marries conservation with residential use - it’s been likened to ‘living in a national park’. It’s home to over 130 bird species, including the endangered Powerful Owl and White-throated Nightjar which chooses these slopes to breed after flying down from New Guinea each spring. Echidnas wander about and frogs, owls and grey flying foxes contribute to the night music.
If this all seems too bucolic it comes at a price. Bushfire is a real threat, shops are 20 minutes’ drive away and there is no public transport.
Members get together for work parties, management meetings and expert talks, but live otherwise independent lives. They represent a cross-section of society and stages of life, from families with children to retirees. But there is one unifying characteristic – a love of environment and a wish to conserve it.
Membership is a protracted process – and for very good reason. Time is needed for both parties to size each other up and see if they ‘fit’. I’ve been here a year and I’m content to still be in the 'fitting room.'
Encounters with nature here are not confined to the bush. Soon after arriving, I discovered my house has porous borders (and I don’t mean people who rent!). There are phascogales living in the roof and tiny scorpions venture inside and need to be escorted out again. I even discovered a baby Small-eyed Snake in the laundry! To me, these encounters – not so much nature at your door as through it – are a thrill.
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You can hear more of Richards story on the ABCs Science Show.
The article Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative: Alternative Strategies for Conservation and Housing" in Arena magazine, issue #158.
Our 132ha bush property is located 33km NE of Melbourne, in the Bend of Islands, Shire of Nillumbik – a green wedge shire.
Under the Nillumbik Planning Scheme, the Bend of Islands is zoned “Special Use Zone 2: Environmental Living - Bend of Islands”.
In 1991 the Co-op was registered under the Department of Natural Resources and Environment’s ‘Land for Wildlife’ Scheme in recognition of our commitment to integrate nature conservation with residential living. Our property is also a formally described site of flora and fauna significance.
We are part of an important network of remnant bushland blocks linking Warrandyte State Park with Kinglake National Park, called the Warrandyte-Kinglake Conservation Corridor.
Why “round the bend”?
We are part of the Bend of Islands community – hence “the Bend”.
The phrase is also ironic. In the early 70s when the Co-op was formed, the idea that people would live in the bush to protect it, rather than exploit it, was thought to be a bit crazy. We have proven the worth of our approach and the world has caught up with our ideals
Celebrating 50 years of residential conservation
In 2021 Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative will celebrate 50 years of our unique brand of residential conservation. Situated in the very special Bend of Islands, in the Green Wedge Shire of Nillumbik, the Co-op is a unique blend of conservation and affordable housing.
But this 50 year experiment nearly didn’t happen. In the early 70s, the Yarra Brae dam was proposed and were it not for the activism of local environmentalists a huge area along the Yarra would have been under water. A key section of the wildlife corridor that links the Kinglake National Park and the Warrandyte State Park would have been lost, including the Bend of Islands. Now the area is recognized as a Biodiversity Site of State Significance.
The name ‘Round the Bend’ Conservation Co-operative (yes, that what we’re called), might lead you to suspect it’s some kind of hippy commune. In fact, the early members were engineers, academics, teachers, builders, a town planner, an accountant and two chemists. They included the prolific house designer and builder Alistair Knox and Australia’s first ever Minister for the Environment in the Whitlam government, Moss Cass.
The initial Co-op land was purchased from former ALP leader Arthur Calwell, who was enthusiastic about the Co-op’s ideals, and our inaugural meeting was held at the home of artist and conservationist Neil Douglas (MBE), also an early member.
Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative was created to marry conservation with residential use – to prove that we could live in the bush without harming it.
For the sake of the flora and fauna that abound here, and for people with a love of nature and a desire to contribute, I hope that the ideals of this bold experiment will continue for another 50 years!
Formally incorporated in 1971, the Co-operative continues to operate successfully today. Each member has an entitlement to a 200-year lease consisting of a 1500m2 area to construct a house and ancillary facilities, such as a small kitchen garden and storage shed. The rest of the 132 hectares is common land managed by the Co-operative in accordance with conservation principles. Thus far, 24 houses have been constructed providing a unique living environment and community.
During the 50 years of our custodianship we have protected the habitat and biodiversity of this bushland through a variety of projects and land management practices. We have eradicated significant invasive weeds and re-introduced a variety of rare and threatened flora. Many species of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects and amphibians make their home here, including ones that are endangered or vulnerable.
August to November is our “wildflower season” when the dry bush is transformed with the colourful displays of a variety of Wattles, Heaths, Bush Peas, Pink Bells, Guinea Flowers, Purple Coral-pea, Blue Pin-cushions, Chocolate Lilies, Grass Trigger Plants, Austral Bears Ears and Small Grass Trees.
Over 50 species of orchids have been recorded on the property and many of these also reach their peak during this time, including Wax-lips, Green Comb Spider Orchids, Pink Fingers, Tall and Nodding Greenhoods and Leopard Orchids.
Members enjoy these sights and much more on a daily basis. We may not have dogs or cats, but we become familiar with the local wallaby, the sugar-gliders, echidnas and tuans, the sounds of microbats, owls and nightjars.
Over the 50 years of our existence many people have contributed to the success of the Co-op, but every community, if it’s to flourish, needs renewal. People get old, or disengaged, or simply need to move on. And so it is with the Round the Bend Conservation Co-operative. For us to succeed for another 50 years we need new members with new enthusiasms. People who are keen to live in a community that cares for the environment. A certain commitment is needed but though the leases are for 200 years we don’t expect you to stay that long.
Why residential conservation is vital
Around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.
The IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services
More than 80 per cent of our mammals and 90 per cent of our trees, ferns and shrubs occur nowhere else on earth. But since European settlement, in just over 200 years, over 130 of Australia’s known species have become extinct, lost to us and to the world forever. The list of those threatened with extinction continues to grow.
Experience shows that when efforts to protect threatened species are supported by active, local community groups, they are much more likely to succeed.
Threatened Species Strategy, Commonwealth Department of the Environment
…threatening processes [that] contribute…to the decline of native species, or cause major changes to ecological communities…include the loss, change and fragmentation of habitat; the effects of invasive plants, animals and diseases; and direct effects of human activities.
Rare and threatened flora protected or re-introduced:
Wine-lipped Spider Orchid, Caladenia oenochila
Christmas Guinea-flower, Hibbertia porcata
Sweet Bursaria, Bursaria spinosa
Bush Needlewood, Hakea Decurrans
Grey Everlasting, Ozothamnus obcordatus
Large-leaf Bush-pea, Pultenaea daphnoides
Clustered Everlasting, Chrysocephalum semipapposum
Hoary Sunray, Leucochrysum albicans.
Above: Wine-lipped Spider Orchid, Caladenia oenochila
Above: Large-leaf Bush-pea, Pultenaea daphnoides
Endangered, vulnerable or threatened species recorded on the Co-op:
Grey-headed Flying Fox
Above: Brush-tailed Phascogale
Above: Powerful Owl with Ringtail possum meal
Invasive weeds eradicated:
A new sport hits the Co-op– nest boxing!
There are a number of nest boxes on the Round the Bend Conservation Co-op. I say ‘a number’ because none of us were exactly sure what that number was. They had been erected at different times over the years and though as it turns out they were by no means dormant, any monitoring of them had long since gone into hibernation. So back in May this year (’20) a few of us decided to institute a bit of good old scientific rigour, go visiting and see if anyone was at home.
Armed with a lot of enthusiasm, (and a sneaky camera on a pole that we could poke into each nest box door) we set off to do an inventory.
As word spread, more nest boxes came out of the woodwork (s’cuse the pun) and were added to the spreadsheet so that, at time of writing, there are 24. These are spread along the ridges off the three tracks and some close to houses.
We were armed with a map and satellite coordinates but still the first expedition required a bit guesswork and keen eyes to spot them.
I don’t know that any of us had a clue what we would find so we were delighted when the first nest box displayed the beautifully crafted leaf nest and stripy fur (and mildly annoyed faces) of a pair of Sugar Gliders.
So far we have logged: a Tuan, lots of Sugar Gliders, a bees nest, and much evidence of occupation if not actual inhabitants.
To minimize the intrusions for the occupants a schedule has been devised with monthly observations and a spreadsheet from which we can draw data on seasonal variation, frequency of use and any change or additions to occupants.
We will also be adding to the number of nest boxes as new ones become available.
We may have expected more Tuans but they have a large range, with multiple nests and besides their ideal habitation – at least around here, seems to be house roof cavities!