Thursday, July 16, 2009

Wombats and country gardens

As a gardener I like to think of myself as being as wildlife-friendly as I possibly can be. My two birdbaths do a brisk trade at all times, and the steady stream of flying visitors which pop in to our garden are always welcome. However, most of my visiting 'wildlife' is birdlife. I am learning all about my insect visitors and doing everything I can not to poison them, and I also got such a thrill last year when a big, fat, harmless native blue-tongue lizard wandered in. He was like a celebrity visitor!

Yesterday I encountered a completely other level of being wildlife-friendly when I visited my good friends Fraser and Rosey at their property in the beautiful old town of Taralga, in the New South Wales Southern Tablelands, about two and a half hours' drive south from Sydney. For several years now, Rosey has been a volunteer carer for WIRES – the wildlife rescue service. Since she moved from Sydney (where she was an expert nurse to countlesss injured birds and possums, mostly) Rosey still helps birds get back into the trees, where they belong, but she has also taken on a bigger and truly fascinating set of furry clients – baby wombats.

Here's Rosey with Bugs and Tick (not sure which is which). Wombats are marsupials. Mum has a pouch and that's where the little ones grow up. Unfortunately, wombats are often killed on the roads and the babies are found still inside the dead mum's pouch. That's where Rosey and numerous other WIRES carers come into the picture. They help to raise the wombats, always with the intention of releasing them back into the wild. Most Australians are already aware of the excellent work of people like Rosey and everyone else at WIRES, but you can read a lot more about them at

Tick and Bugs are less than a year old, but the third wombat in Rosey's care is several months older. Her name is Daisy. Wombats are nocturnal creatures which can dig quite enormous systems of burrows, a habit which doesn't always endear them to farmers (but as many people rightly point out, the wombats were here first!) As you can see in the picture here, Daisy is growing a very nice set of burrow-digging claws!

Daisy is a long way from being fully grown. She's not even half-way yet, and she's still being bottle-fed. She might be a lot bigger than little Bugs and Tick, but she's still a baby wombat, too. Adult wombats are a big, solid lump of an animal which can reach between 30-40 kg when fully grown. Most car drivers would love to avoid them on the road at night, as the damage done to the car in a collision is usually very expensive. Unfortunately, the damage done to the animal in the collision is almost invariably fatal. As I drove home to Sydney I counted six dead wombats and seven dead foxes, the other most common roadkill.

Bugs and Tick live in their own small cage that's tucked up against a shed, where it's sheltered from the prevailing, cool south-westerly winds. Rosey lets them out for a romp around – and they love a good romp, too – then they need no encouraging when it's feeding time, either. They're funny little creatures as they zoom around. They can run quite quickly, usually in sudden spurts of speed, and if you're unlucky to be standing in the wrong spot and not paying attention, they'd thud into your legs at speed, painfully!

While their behaviour at feeding time is of course impeccable, the simple truth is that wombats like to scratch and bite a bit. No wombat carer goes unbitten at some stage in the average year. However, the biting isn't that frequent, and they're generally nice little people to be around. And then occasionally, for no apparent reason, they just get that nibbly urge...

This photo is actually from last year, when Rosey had a really tiny baby wombat, one who was too small and fragile to live in a cage outside. Instead, the little baby slept away her days in a special cloth pouch designed to mimic a wombat mum's pouch. The cloth pouch was hung from a hook in a cupboard, and that dark, warm spot seemed to be perfect for this little wombat, who came out to be bottle-fed a few times each day. All the baby wombats are fed a special formula – not just any old milk.

Bugs and Tick seem to be in rude good health, thanks to Rosey's expertise.

This is the little cage where Bugs and Tick share digs. When Rosey opens the door at feeding time, the wombats happily wander in and out with a very 'home sweet home' kind of familiarity.

Later on, when they get a bit bigger (Daisy's size) they'll move down to this enclosure, where Daisy now lives. By that time Daisy might be back out in the bush somewhere, making a new home for herself. That depends on how she goes, and when she starts to show a desire to move on. Wombats tend to be quite solitary creatures once they reach maturity, and so the little ones, Bugs and Tick, will also eventually each go their separate ways, when they're big enough.

The galvanised iron walls are buried about a metre deep into the soil here, and Daisy has already started to burrow down a foot or so.

Being an animal lover, Rosey has various other residents here on her acreage, of course. This is the enclosure for her horse, to help the animal stop eating itself to death when the pasture gets too lush. Right now, in the middle of winter, the pasture isn't too long, but later on in spring it can grow very rapidly, and that's when the horse's diet needs to be carefully managed.

Fraser and Rosey have two dogs, a black Kelpie called Rex and this guy, Walter, the Dog in Charge of Everything. Walter is fine with the baby wombats and doesn't bother them, but he is jealous and just can't figure out what Rosey sees in them, with all that bottle-fed special treatment. As the self-appointed Senior Animal on the property, Wally's nose is out of joint!

Keeping the grass trim for the meantime, this chap and his two brothers are, unfortunately for them, destined to play an important though brief role in the restaurant business, as they say.

As this is meant to be a gardening blog, and not Animal Farm, the least I can do is finish off not only with a quick whip around Rosey and Fraser's lovely property, but I might as well show you a little bit of the charming town where they have settled in so happily. Their house is typical of many other houses in this historic town. Built from local volcanic stone in the second half of the 19th century, it's definitely 'historic' by the standards of this very young country, Australia.

It's the middle of winter here in Taralga, and this is a notably cool-climate part of the country, too, so their pretty little front garden, which got underway last year, is going through its frost-filled winter snooze right now. Rosey has planted a good mix of cool-climate bulbs (tulips, freesias etc), perennials (foxgloves, acanthus, lavender etc) and shrubs (camellias, buxus, roses etc) here. It's all progressing really well, but with savage frosts likely at any time, it's too early to cut anything back yet, so it's winter snooze time here.

Last night was not especially chilly, but a light frost carpeted the ground this morning. The birdbath froze over sufficiently that I could sit my little camera case on the sheet of ice that had formed overnight. (By the way, for this blog I'm roadtesting a new little Canon 'tourist's' camera, leaving the clunky big Nikon SLR that I usually use at home. It's actually more fun using a simple point and shoot camera – I love it!)

In the middle of winter all the deciduous trees are totally bare, but that just reveals the gorgous lichens in all their colourful hues. Lichens are not harmful for trees, and the only thing they reliably indicate is that the air quality is superb. You need clean air for lichens to form, and Taralga has plenty of that!

Many of the street trees are a brilliant yellow colour, thanks to the lichens. (By the way, lichens are quite fascinating once you learn a bit about them. They're not a single organism. In fact they are two separate things, living in symbiosis. One component is a fungus and the other is an alga, and they grow together as a team. Like any other native plant, they're a protected species and should never be damaged or removed, as they really are completely harmless, even when they cover a tree like this.)

I know this has turned in my marathon all-time-longest-ever blog posting, but what the hell! Let's finish off with a quick lap of Taralga itself. Taralga's heyday was the last few decades of the 19th century, when many churches were built, as well as lots of long-lasting stone houses. So it's regarded as an historic village by Aussie standards.

Seen from a rise in the road on its outskirts, Taralga looks like a typical small country town of NSW. Population 400. If you want to read a bit more about it, this is the Wikipedia entry for Taralga.

The main street itself contains plenty of example of Taralga's distinctive stone houses.

In its heyday Taralga had several fine churches, all built from the local volcanic stone. This one, the former Methodist Church, is now the local museum.

Shabby chic charm and a level of originality that probably needs a bit of maintenance, though they've got their priorities right – there's lots of firewood to keep out the biting chill winds.

And along the road leading from Taralga up to Oberon in the Blue Mountains, a very Australian scene of paddocks, sheep and gum trees.

Phew! What a marathon post. So, if anyone is still with me, after the 24th photo, thank you very much for your forebearance! I'll get back to blogging about gardening here in Amateur Land with my next posting, probably.


LC said...

Love the wombats! We have also had a blue tongue lizard. We have been keeping Dudley the labradoodle out of the front yard and the result is that birds and just the other day, a blue tongue lizard, have visited. THere is also a down side - rats and cats.

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