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Macquarie Marshes come back to life after drought and fire

By Lucy Thackray, Saturday October 17, 2020 - 10:23 EDT
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An incredible sight as thousands of birds return and start nesting at the Macquarie Marshes. - ABC

A year ago the internationally renowned Macquarie Marshes were burning after the drought left the wetlands extremely dry.

Now the vital wetlands are brimming with life again, as rain and flowing rivers help the precious ecosystem recover.

But experts are warning the marshes will take years and much more water to recover.

Their comments come as the Government confirms environmental water will be released from Burrendong Dam in October and November.

The flow of up to 107 gigalitres will be sent down the Macquarie River system, which will deliver water to the marshes and help with native fish recovery.

Back from the brink

The Macquarie Marshes, between Warren and Quambone, are a haven for animals and birds in western New South Wales.

Spanning about 200,000 hectares, the marshes comprise one of the largest remaining semi-permanent wetland systems in inland Australia.

Fourth-generation graziers Garry and Leanne Hall said they watched in dismay as the environment deteriorated through the most recent drought.

"Over the last three years it's been really tough in the marshes, particularly last year, with no rain and no flows in the river," Mrs Hall said.

"To see the landscape dry and no sign of birdlife was depressing and distressing."

Seeing the positive, rejuvenating impacts of water on the marshes was an enormous relief for the couple.

"It's one of the things that keeps us in the bush — the ability of the environment to change so quickly," Mr Hall said.

"It's hard for us, but then the excitement of the change is what we all cherish.

"In late January, there was hot weather, the landscape on its feet, the ecosystem collapsing around you, it was hard.

"But by May, things were sparked up and going again, soils were starting to function."

Waiting for the birds

The wetland system is one of the most important nesting sites for waterbirds in Australia.

It is populated by more than 200 known species, including the threatened brolga, magpie goose, Australasian bittern and painted snipe.

But Mr and Mrs Hall said they were yet to see the return of certain bird species.

"We are waiting, in the marshes, for colonial nesting birds," Mrs Hall said.

"The marshes are known for the straw-necked ibis.

"It would be fantastic to see enough flows in the river to get the level up for the straw-necked ibis to start nesting.

"In past years, they've nested here in the thousands."

More water needed

Experts will be closely monitoring bird, animal and vegetation activity in the marshes.

"The marshes are actually quite a tough, dynamic ecosystem," Office of Environment and Heritage conservation officer Tim Hosking said.

"Wetlands are designed to take a few hits, whether it's dry times or big floods."

Water is critical for the environment's revival, particularly after the last frost in September and before December, when summer and irrigating begin.

"A lot of the plants and animals out here don't breed or function without the river flows," Mr Hosking said.

"Whenever those river flows are reduced, things do take a toll.

"In a year like this, when we've seen great flows from February onwards and we've got water in the dam, including water available for the environment, we really do see things respond."

Mr Hosking said the long-term impact of the drought on the marshes would not be known for another three to five years.

"It's very difficult to say what the permanent damage has been," he said.

"If we get the good rains and we're able to use environmental water to its fullest, we can get from back most, if not all, of the damage of the last three years.

"Maybe I'm being optimistic — only time will really tell."


© ABC 2020

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