Ella Maesepp: Landcare in Katanning

Narrator:  Welcome to Heartland Journeys, and to Katanning, a prosperous agricultural community in the heart of WA’s southern wheatbelt.   

Ella Maesepp has been with Katanning Landcare since 2006, working with farmers to help improve the sustainable management of their land, as well as assisting people in town to develop more sustainable living practices.

Ella has a wealth of knowledge and experience about the natural landscape and the community of Katanning. We begin by talking about what makes this place particularly special.   

We’re really lucky – Katanning is really interesting from a botanical viewpoint, because our western side of Katanning actually falls into essentially the jarrah forest. And the eastern end of our Shire is wandoo woodland and heading through into mallee. So we have really distinct vegetation groups right across one Shire.

We’ve also got some really great species. We have Carnaby’s cockatoos, which are an endangered species. And they come back here inland to bush reserves here in our Shire for their breeding. And then they travel over to the coast for their feeding for half the year and then come back here. So that’s really special to have that. And it’s also really important, it doesn’t matter if they’re feeding grounds are great over at the coast, if we don’t look after their breeding grounds, you know, that’s going to impact the entire species, we’ve got this shared responsibility there.

Narrator: Another special species in this area is the red-tailed phascogale – a small, tree- dwelling mammal with a distinct long red tail; an animal often mistaken for a mouse or a pygmy possum.

And another animal that we’ve got is our red-tailed phascogales which we just love. They used to be found right across southern Australia, and they’re now really limited to an area sort of Narrogin, to Gnowangerup, to Lake Grace to Kojonup. So we have a really strong sense of responsibility that these are the only ones left on the planet, really, and we need to be looking after them.

Narrator: Like most of the Western Australian Wheatbelt, the vast majority of the vegetation in Katanning has been cleared.Just 9% of the original vegetation remains in this Shire.

There’s a lot of these Shires that sit between that sort of 8 and 12% of native vegetation remaining. So at 9% we’re not bottom of the class, but there’s a whole lot of us in the bottom of the class when you consider the land surface area of the agricultural zone. It’s a phenomenal amount of land that’s been cleared.

Narrator: Community landcare got underway inKatanning over three decades ago, when the community began to experience some of the impacts of this land clearing first-hand. One of the impacts Ella talks about is salinity, which is the build-up of salt in surface soils due to rising groundwater. This is caused by the clearing of deep-rooted native vegetation and replacement with shallow-rooted annual crops.

I think early on, erosion was a huge driver in getting landcare started in Katanning. People older than me talk about the dust storms that used to come in over town, from the farmland that was basically blowing away. So landcare really started to try and tackle that, so it was an issue that was facing everybody. And then, of course, that really evolved into salinity became that real major risk, and our town site’s getting impacted by salinity as well. So it was a very, very visible impact. And then as time has gone on, I think biodiversity has become more prevalent in people’s minds. And then even just in the last four or five years, issues like climate change so many more people are aware of its impacts, and that it’s not something in the future, it’s actually something we’re facing now. And that urgency, and that understanding of that, I think is further driving where landcare’s role in this community is and why it’s important to keep supporting landcare and why people are engaging with landcare.

We had a big fire in Katanning, in February, earlier this year in 2020. It was a really intense fire. And it took out a lot of vegetation, obviously it was a very scary weekend as well. And people really have been quite saddened by the loss of all these big trees along the roadways. But it’s really made people realise just how much we connect with and identify with those roadsides and those trees and, and that’s what our community looks like. And that’s what home looks like.

Narrator: Katanning Landcare is one of Western Australia’s longest running and most successful landcare groups.

We sort of have become one of the, almost, the big names in landcare groups, I suppose. And that comes from a lot of things. I mean, we’ve been here for 30 years. So longevity is one thing. We’ve had really good people, and not just amongst staff – we’ve got this incredible committee, and we’ve had some of our members on our committee are in decades of service on the committee, and their skills and knowledge and their passion and their ability to really lead a stable ship you can’t overstate that impact.

And then I think having a town that supports us so well, like we’re the only land conservation district committee in Western Australia that raises the Soil Conservation Service charge, which is levied to every ratepayer in Katanning actually pays a fee every year on their rates, which goes to help deliver the landcare service. And the community actually votes every three years as to whether they want to continue paying that levy. I think we’re up to 15 years straight, that they’ve continued to do that. So when you’ve got a community that supports you as well, it allows you not just capacity to deliver, but allows you a bit of a licence to be a little bit bold or try something else.

And I also think that landcare has become quite entrenched in Katanning. You know, we’ve been here so long, we’re quite visible, quite active, so many people have been involved. It’s sort of one of those organisations that are the fabric of the town, and it’s sort of normalised. That’s what we do, we do landcare around here.

The environment is a very, very interconnected thing. If you’re planting a tree, you are helping salinity, you’re helping climate change, you’re helping erosion, you’re helping biodiversity – everything with that one tree. We’ve had an evolution of the major environmental issues that concern the community and we at Landcare have been able to roll with that and adapt with that even though the core of what you do with the environment is the same sort of activities, the focus and how you angle it and how you respond to people’s concerns has been able to change.

We’ve got some amazing farmers here that really value bushland. We’ve got areas that we are seeing farmers, of the current generation who are saying, I remember dad or granddad clearing this, when they had to, or when attitudes towards clearing were quite different, that are now actually trying to revegetate those areas, they’re really putting them back. We’re seeing a lot of changes.  Farming machinery and farming techniques have changed over the years as to how and where vegetation is placed in the agricultural landscape.

So we’re seeing a change in where people are putting it in and how they’re configuring it. But our farmers aren’t slowing down in terms of tree planting, you know, there is massive amounts of revegetation going into this area every single year, and we’re talking sort of 100 to 250,000 trees go into Katanning every year. And the vast majority of that is on private land, mainly by farmers. So, we have a legacy of a massive amount of vegetation loss. But I’m really positive about the actions that are being taken. It’s a large amount to fix and is never going to be done overnight. But steps are going in the right direction. And I really feel that farmers’ stewardship, and their want to be tree planting, it’s not forced. I’ve had people say to me, how do you get farmers to plant trees? And my response is usually, we’re just trying to keep up with their demands, like they’re actually wanting to do more than quite often we can support them to do. And I don’t think that story about farmers and agriculture gets out very well. I think there is this terrible public image that maybe farmers are some sort of environmental vandals, when the vast majority, and particularly those I work with around Katanning are actually the opposite. They’re wanting to do the right things by their land. We all have constraints in place of how much money you’ve got in a year, how much time, you know, the labour to actually make these changes. But the will is there and the action is happening. So I’m really hoping that one day, our figure is going to be a lot higher than only 9% of native vegetation in Katanning. And we’re in the right direction to do that.

One of the catchment groups I’ve been working with, they set a goal in 2016 to increase the amount of native vegetation in their particular catchment area by 5%. And by the end of this year, they will have achieved that. Four years it took them – they went hard. And when you’re seeing farmers setting goals like that, working to them and achieving them, like that’s just awesome.

Narrator: Landcare emerged in the 1980s and 90s to deal with threats like soil erosion and salinity. Now, two decades into the 21st century, there are new threats looming.

So looking forward, I think we have a mixed picture – a scary picture, but also a picture of hope. We’ll start with the scary first. Climate change is going to be a significant impact on Katanning. We already are seeing a drying trend. And the rain that we are getting is coming in different ways than what it used to. We’re not getting the steady soaking winter rains that we used to, we’re now getting a lot more intense episodic events, a lot more out of season. And this is going to have major impacts on the way we farm. It’s going to have major impacts on water security. And it’s going to have major impacts for animals that rely on water in the landscape, such as through our lakes and our waterways, if we’re not getting the regular filling of the annual lakes and what that means for migratory birds and, and species like that. So climate change is threatening Katanning. It is already threatening Katanning. And if it continues to march on the way that the models are looking to, it’s quite an uncertain and scary future.

And then of course, with the very large bushfire that we had in Katanning, in February 2020 there were many local volunteer firefighters who after that event said, I’ve never been in a fire like that before. That’s the scariest fire I’ve been in. I’ve never fought a fire that behaved like that before. It’s showing that things are changing, things are not what they used to be. And if we’re going to see more fires like that in the future, when our experienced firemen are saying this now, it is scary going forward.

In terms of salinity, salinity is still a major issue facing our agricultural land. Also our bush land, our native vegetation that is on the lower slopes and on the lower country is being impacted by salinity and we have so many dead, bare trees that have been killed through waterlogging and salinity. And that’s going to continue with the change in the water regime around climate change as well, that actually links directly to salinity. So a drying climate actually slows down salinity. But these big, major rainfall events, they are filling up the landscape rapidly and quickly in a way that our groundwater doesn’t cope with. And we’re seeing a lot more hillside breakouts of salinity, places where salinity has traditionally not been coming.

And with Katanning being located with really three main vegetation types, as the climate dries, that’s going to change the suitability for Katanning for those particular species of trees. So we might actually see the perimeter of where one vegetation type stops and the other one starts actually move as the climate dries. How do we prepare for that? How do we manage that? How do we make sure the animals that rely on those ecosystems are able to move with that? I don’t know. And it’s a really, really big question. So it’s something that we have to just be doing our best with, with the knowledge and the resources that we have.

But the other half of that story is the one of hope. And particularly living in a community like Katanning, that is so engaged in landcare and landcare is so entrenched in what we do. I am continually buoyed by the number of farmers that are tree planting, if not every year, they’re doing it every second year, they’re wanting to fence off their remnant vegetation that are actively increasing the amount of perennial pastures in their farm systems, that are talking about soil carbon, carbon sequestration into their soil, that are looking at renewable power options. People are not just sticking their heads in the ground and seeing these changes. Can we make these changes fast enough? On the scale we need to? I don’t know, but we’re doing the right things. We’re trying our best. And farmers and rural communities have always been really adaptive, innovative people, and we’re seeing that come through as well. We’ve been thrown all these challenges, but we’re responding. And we’re learning and we’re trying and having a group like landcare so established in the town that is positioned to try and help with these conversations and with these changes, is also I think very important going forward.

Because you know what choices we make and what we do is going to impact the future. And if we’re on the right path now, that fills me with hope for where we’re going to get to. I just hope we get there quick enough.

Narrator:  This has been a Gondwana Link production with story development by Nicole Hodgson, Margaret Robertson and Keith Bradby. Narration by Nicole Hodgson and music by Rod Vervest. Our warm thanks to Ella Maesepp and to audio editor and producer Kim Lofts of Blue Manna Studio.