Care for the environment – like charity – must begin at home

Pheasant coucals are one of Australia’s most splendid birds.

They are quirky characters with disproportionally long tails, a habit of engaging in disorganised, ungainly dances in bare spaces that include roads, and a hauntingly memorable call.

I heard a pheasant coucal long before I ever saw one, several decades ago, in the thick vegetation lining the magnificent Mitchell River in an isolated part of Far North Queensland.  A series of rising then falling melodic hoots, echoing mysteriously over the vast sandy expanse of the dry-season riverbed.  Once heard, never forgotten.

It has taken 14 years of chopping out introduced plants and replacing with thickets of natives to attract a pheasant coucal into our backyard.  Locally native Alexander palms feed a myriad of birds – including Fig birds, Torres pigeons, Channel-billed cuckoos, Satin bower birds and Koels (storm birds). Many native ‘dutchman’s pipe’ vines (ristolochia tagala) support Australia’s largest butterfly, the Cairns Birdwing; and Evodia trees (Melicope elleryana) are grown for the spectacular Ulysses butterfly.  Clumps of spider lillies provide food for native bees.  Plus Buddha’s Belly bamboo (non-native) – excellent small-bird protection from whistling kites and sea eagles.  Although I also have cyclone-proof Leichardt trees for owls and other birds of prey to roost in.  A resident carpet python helps keep the rat and booming possum population in check.  I live inbetween the Ross River and the largest botanic garden in town and many native birds fly between these two havens, but it still took years to entice a young pheasant coucal needing new territory, into the safety of our (largish) backyard.

Queensland Ulysses butterfly

Ulysses butterfly wing on a Licuala palm frond (mobile phone photo).

Living in town has been an eye opener. From decades of living across 3 eastern states of Australia, I know that the vast majority of people involved in farming – especially livestock owners – have the welfare of the environment (including native animals and birds) uppermost in their minds.  It’s fundamental. For many, it’s really why they have chosen to live in the bush. Yet in town, it’s clear the reverse is true. Acres of lawns are obsessively fertilised, over-watered and regularly scalped – squandering a cumulatively large amount of resources and contributing to urban runoff that is deleterious to the Great Barrier Reef.  (If the owners were grain growers, they’d not remain profitable for long, due to the squandering on unnecessary inputs and rapidly declining soil health).  Native trees and shrubs that self-germinate are ripped out with zeal, in preference for barren imports such as golden cane palms.  Untouched bush is clear-felled for ever-expanding brick & tile suburban deserts encased by 6 foot high treated pine fences, on blocks cemented and paved over where a wildlife-supporting tree or two might otherwise squeeze in. In older suburbs with larger blocks, established shade trees are chopped down willy-nilly with no or only feeble excuses, and nobody bats an eyelid.  Imported flowering plants are grown that have zero benefit for native fauna, when native species could not only have fulfilled the same role in the beauty or scent department, but require less coddling to survive.  Domestic cats roam unfettered and feral cats proliferate, ignored by most.  Interestingly – sparrows never venture into my backyard, and Indian mynahs, rarely. But a nearby house with 100% exotic plants has thriving colonies of both.

North Queensland curlews

North Queensland curlews are extremely well camouflaged. Virtually extinct in parts of southern Australia, but flourishing in the north – presumably due to the absence of foxes. (Mobile phone photo.)

Despite the relative scarcity of native-species friendly gardens, there’s a surprisingly high number of so-called environmentalists. Eschewing animal products in favour of petrochemicals. Helping fund organisations that buy up vast tracts of productive pastoral land where livestock and native animals have been co-existing for more than a century.  Cat owners who let their animals roam and prey on native animals and birds, who are calling for the banning of the ‘cruel’ live export trade because they ‘love’ animals (yet they don’t grow their own food and are clueless about the unavoidable realities involved in growing monoculture crops).

One of the most memorable conversations I’ve had regarding conservation was a few years ago in the lively but grimy inner-Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy.  Standing out the front of a B & B, saying goodbye to the owner. She said ‘but aren’t livestock damaging the environment? When I was in the Northern Territory we passed a really dusty track made by cattle, running along the fence beside the road’. After recovering my equanimity, I explained that this track would have been a tiny percentage of a cattle station measuring tens of thousands of acres in size. Then I moved on to pointing out the innumerable examples of environmental degradation around us. I started with the wall-to-wall grubby pavement underfoot, which was so covered in globs of ageing chewing gum that it was difficult to see the bitumen underneath. I drew attention to the rubbish lying in the gutter and the oil and grease waiting on the road to be washed down the stormwater drain and into the Yarra River.  I mentioned the paucity of bare soil for native plants to grow in (not to mention soil biota). And explained my dismay that I had only seen one native bird over the preceding 3 days – a solitary magpie – but many blackbirds, starlings, sparrows etc. And I suggested that like charity, care of the environment must begin at home – every other approach is sheer hypocrisy; NIMBYism on speed. So perhaps she might consider ripping out the exotic species in her small garden, including the cactus garden in the courtyard, and replanting with local natives?

Urban residents become inured to the surrounding environmental degradation; only thinking about environmental health when in an almost-pristine location. For the sake of the planet – and farmers – this must be reversed.

It is heartening to see so many farmers in the UK openly talk on social media about their care for the environment – and what they’re actually doing.  They are ‘talking about the walking’ – mentioning the time, thought and money they are personally investing for the benefit of future generations.  I am encouraging Australian farmers do likewise.  Many are making daily and weekly decisions in favour of environmental protection (at considerable financial cost), yet take their care for granted – it’s so innate, it’s not even thought about. While other farmers may be aware of the positive conservation decisions they’re making but reluctant to risk being branded a ‘greenie’ (zealot) by other farmers; so they keep private their love of birds, lizards, native plants or other favourite aspects of the natural environment.

It is not reasonable to expect anyone unfamiliar with farming to understand primary production and the practical realities of land management unless they hear what farmers care about and what they’re actually doing.

Australian farmers can expect more detrimental policies to be imposed from upon high due to increasing urbanisation, NIMBYism and public pressure, if considerable effort isn’t invested into firsthand public explanations of the careful land and animal management decisions that are already being voluntarily made. In person, online and in conventional media (from radio to newspapers). Preferably the storytelling is undertaken by a large number of rural Australians, each spending a little bit of time explaining their positive choices and actions. A multitude telling their individual stories is far more effective and equitable than leaving a huge load to a relative few.  Continuing to presume people outside agriculture understand that farmers really care about the environment and animal welfare, or continuing to expect unquestioning trust, will be damaging not just to agriculture but probably conservation as well.

And it is vital that urban residents are educated so all understand that native species can thrive in cities if each and every resident makes an effort. Conservation isn’t ‘someone else’s job’ and landcare isn’t just for riverbanks – it’s everyone’s personal hands-on responsibility which starts right where we sleep. And ticking ‘yes’ to offset carbon credits when flying around the globe does not absolve anybody from any further action. Ideally, hands-on action education would start on the first day of primary school (if lacking, earlier).  How many teachers are lecturing their students about the urgent need for the protection of endangered species and the threat of global warming, yet not doing any hands-on work towards actively improving the natural environment, within the school grounds?  I could personally name many.

There appears to be an unspoken acceptance by Australian society that conservation is for ‘out there’ (waving vaguely in an inland direction). That care for the environment doesn’t have anything to do with cities – apart from keeping litter off prize-winning beaches. ‘We don’t want to have to do anything towards creating a better environment – of fund it – but ‘others’ (farmers) must.’  Ironically, by nature almost all cities form on the most fertile land in the most reliably watered regions, where biodiversity is greatest (or was greatest – and could be again). Yet these regions are the most polluted environments in Australia, where the most pro-conservation noise is emanating from, but where the least hands-on conservation activity is occuring.

In the meantime, here’s the pheasant coucal I found last week, near my house.  It was probably the one who’d taken up residence in our backyard, as I haven’t seen or heard it since.

Pheasant coucal, North Queensland

A man from the closest house saw me taking photos and asked what I was doing. Turns out he was from a Burdekin cane farm. When I’d finished taking photos he picked the bird up and carried it away carefully, saying he’d bury it in his garden.

Pheasant coucal, North Queensland

A lot of people travel along this road. I wonder how many self-described carers for the environment drove past this dead bird without giving it a second thought.

Fairly ironic that the only two people who did anything about it were two involved in an industry that so many choose to describe as environmental desecration.

There’s relatively few pheasant coucals in Townsville. It’s heartbreaking.

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