Sylvia Leighton: A passion for ecologically-based farming

Narrator: Welcome to Heartland Journeys, and to Wilyun Pools, a farm near Wellstead on the south coast of Western Australia.

Sylvia Leighton grew up on this farm during a time when her family were clearing the bush to make way for growing sheep and grain. In 2013, when her parents retired, she returned to the farm with her partner Peter and their son Alex. Sylvia has come back with a wealth of scientific knowledge and experience in biology, ecology, community landcare and soil science, along with a passion for farming in a more ecologically-sensitive way.

In my childhood – I was brought here as a one year old baby – this was all native bush and my family, we were the working kids, were part of the chaining, the burning, the picking up of the stumps and the raking , for years and years. And maybe that sunk deeply into my subconscious, I’m not quite sure, but I’ve really spent the rest of my adult life from when I was about 20 years old, just working in conservation.

So, when the decision came to return to this farm with my partner, Peter, it was like it was a very right thing to do, I needed to come back to the piece of land which, as a child, I was part of its destruction. Took away all its biodiversity – I can’t imagine how many plants and animals we killed. We’re talking millions and millions on this 3000 acre block.

So it feels very rewarding deep, deep down inside, to return to the land that I was on as a child and try and stabilise it, so it doesn’t keep on degrading. And to build it back up in health, and in amongst all that, to come back in my fifties and bring some of that monitoring, some of the science which wasn’t here as a kid, and learn about how this landscape is functioning, and we’re never going to really understand it. But we can make a contribution of what kind of soils we have. What’s the hydrology doing? What farming practices are okay on this landscape, and which ones cause it more degradation.

Narrator: Sylvia’s parents resisted some of the pressure to clear their entire farm, and some important remnants of the original vegetation remain.

The bush down the back with Wilyun Creek running through it, we have set that aside as the core of the farm. And we try to operate the whole property to maintain the very good health of that core biodiversity zone on the farm.

From a non-Indigenous person, I’m saying this is the most sacred place on the property. If we do things wrong, it’s going to flow down through the landscape and it’s going to end up in this waterway. So keeping this waterway as fresh and healthy as possible is core to the long-term management of the farm, whilst we have that role and we hope that future people will also consider that this is really one of the most precious parts of the farm.

There were other remnants on the farm as well, some of them were a little bit degraded, some were in quite good health. So every single one of those bits of remnant vegetation, we have buffer-planted about a 20 metre perimeter planting, again of local native plants. And these just buffers those core biodiverse bits of remnant vegetation, which we know in this day and age, we cannot replant, or revegetate, we just don’t know how to germinate some of those species. So with all of our revegetation, we’re just putting in structures, we put about 30 species in there. And we just hope over 50 years, 100 years, other plant species will slowly move into those revegetated areas, but they may never ever go back to what they once were, what was there before. So those bits of rem veg are highly precious and in my lifetime I don’t want to degrade any bushland ever again.

Narrator: Through their revegetation and wildlife plantings, Sylvia and Peter are actively expanding the amount of bushland on Wilyun Pools.

We are standing on a place on the farm that we’re really quite excited about. So my parents cleared this of native bush land here about 45 years ago, and then they grazed it with sheep for 20 years. And then the last 20 years, this was changed across to blue gums. And they were harvested just two years ago, we came in behind that harvesting and we direct seeded a wildlife corridor that runs across the farm sitting on top of this sand dune.

And it was this deep sand where a lot of the banksias and hakeas and all the nectar rich plants in this landscape used to grow. So within this planting, we’ve got lots and lots of banksias and hakeas. And we’re just hoping over time that wildlife, which comes from the bushland down there near the creek, will move across the farm and end up in some bush down on the back boundary.

We’re already seeing it. The plants are only two years old and you can come in here and you’ll find birds nesting. And you can even watch the little birds fly out from the shrubs in the corridor into the paddock, grab some flies and other insects and fly back into the corridor. So we know, we’ve always known, that you can bring insects and other components of nature into your farming system, and they’re going to do so many things, helping do insect control, keep your landscape healthy, it’s just nobody sort of measured it and quantified it and put an economic value on it.

But we know that that’s what we’re going to get from putting this revegetation into the farm. And it brings amazing aesthetics, and pleasure. So when you’re out there, doing all the sheep work and times aren’t as fun, you’ve always got this to come and look at, and just enjoy, just sit here for five minutes, and you feel so much better.

And you know, I do feel quite proud of myself because I collected all the seed from the farm, I put my whole summer aside and didn’t go to the beach for a swim you have to be there on the day for wattles, they just pop their seed on a particular day, in particular heat. And you have to be there to collect it, you can’t go in two weeks early and collect the pods coz the seed won’t be quite ripe. So you just have to be patient and keeping an eye on all the native plants. And you’re there on the day that the seed matures. You collect it, spend quite a while getting that seed out of the pods or nuts. And then add it into your seed mix. And then to come back here six months later and just see the incredible results. we’re just so excited about it.

Narrator: Sylvia and Peter have welcomed the traditional custodians of this country back to the farm, and they now work together with these Noongar Elders as they bring health back to this special part of the region.

So the site we’re going to walk into is just in through there. And it’s just this unexplained clearing. There’s nowhere else across the farm in any of our bushed areas that just has this open cleared area. So we started asking questions. Well, what is this spot? And it was a really incredible experience to invite the Noongar Elders in and take them into this spot. And they just sat there. They felt the site and they have recognised it as a gathering site, a corroboree site.

It was really great to get a story of this place, but also to have the Noongar Elders back here. Because since we’ve arrived here, and all the boundary fences got put up around the conditional purchase properties, the Noongar people, who are the custodians of this land, were shut out. And the government never told us that the land that we had arrived on, had actually belonged to people before us. And it wasn’t till I worked up in Kakadu National Park, and made many friends with Indigenous people up there and I was sitting up there one day, and I thought, I wonder who the Indigenous people are down here. I feel quite ashamed about that, it was probably in about 1985. It took me that long to start thinking about the peoples that had lived in this land before we came along. And so we’ve been getting more information. It’s just like it was the missing piece of the puzzle, a very important piece of this complex puzzle.

Remember how I was saying the crossover of species? So here we have an example of Eucalyptus cornuta – so that’s coming from the west, and you have Eucalyptus decipiens right there, and that’s coming from the wheatbelt, from the north. And this property just happens to sit on the joining of, I think we call it eco tones, where you have a mix of species from two major vegetation regions. And we have marri coming in from the west, we have all our jarrah trees are very stunted and mallee form here. So when we talk to some of the anthropologists they say that that makes these kind of sites richer in foods – that they often were quite favoured by Indigenous peoples because there was the joining of these vegetation communities and you have a double amount of food sources in this kind of landscape.

Narrator: Sylvia’s botanical knowledge and experience with revegetation is helping her to think through what the farm needs now and what it will be like in the future. Here she is explaining some of the species used in plantings on the farm.

So the plant we’re standing next to is called Acacia subcaerulea – the blue-barked wattle. And it’s one of our key species we use in our revegetation on the farm. One, because it’s quite easy to collect the seed and it’s one of our pioneer plants that we can put in the ground and we know it’ll do the nitrogen fixing and start changing the soil so that in plant succession the other species can come in afterwards. Behind us we’ve got really typical Eucalypt for here and we put it in all our revegetation – it’s jarrah. And this is the stunted, mallee jarrah. So not like the west coast jarrah, which is a single stem tall forest tree. This is about it’s maximum height of about 5 or 6 metres.

Right next to it, you’ve got Eucalyptus decipiens. So that’s one of those species that’s coming from the north-east, in from the drier landscape. So if we go into climate change, and they are predicting that this part of the landscape will get drier, and less rainfall, it’s possibly the north-eastern species we’ve got coming in, that will start to dominate. And species like the Yate, the Eucalyptus cornuta, and marri, which has slightly higher rainfall, they may disappear out of this landscape. And you know, it’s sad but this landscape has seen climate change in the past, and these plants have moved with change.

So I think we always underestimate how powerful nature is. And when we revegetate a site, it’s incredible – give nature a little bit of a chance, and it grabs hold of it, and comes back with such strength and power, it always leaves me in a little bit of awe.

Again, sometimes when we’re hearing about what’s happening worldwide to do with the environment, I still go by the strength of nature here and I think we are living in one of the most adapted landscapes in the world for climate change. I think these plants are opportunists, , there’s quite a few of the jarrah trees that are in flower, full bloom, nectar dripping of them, and there’s others that aren’t flowering at all. So you’ve got species here who are really used to being opportunists and we always used to think ‘Oh your plants need to flower at the same time of the year because they have very specific pollinators and they only come out at certain times of the year’, but I’m watching this bush and I’m seeing – we’ll use jarrah again – it takes chances and if it gets rainfall and sunlight conditions that are right for it to flower, it’ll do it. And there are pollinators, there’s lots of pollinators in this landscape – they’re not locked into one or two pollinators.

So I feel lucky we’re in a landscape which if you just give a bit of space, it can bounce back and come back in good health and have such vigour. I find that really exciting that it’s so strong. It’s an ancient, ancient landscape. It’s been through so much over the millions of years it’s existed here. And it’s really clever.

And it’s taken years, decades to start seeing how intricate and amazing and complex this landscape is. And it’s the complexity which makes it really exciting too, there’s so many unknown components to the way this landscape functions and its natural ecosystems. And in my lifetime, we’re not even going to get anywhere near understanding that functioning. But that makes it, the mystery of it, exciting.

Narrator: Sylvia appreciates how important it has been to come back to the farm with new ideas and new information and farm it in different ways – not by fighting nature but by listening more intently to the messages from nature.

The great advantage Peter and I have is that we both come from farming backgrounds. So we’ve gone away, done lots of things, learnt lots of great things which we can bring back into this new project. But we are commercial business people as well. And we’re very aware that this has to be commercial, we have to be able to make a living. You can sink thousands and thousands of dollars into a farm fixing it up, and redesigning it, but you’ve got to have cash flow, you’ve got to be making money, or it’s really just not affordable. You’ve got to pay your taxes, land taxes every year, so you’ve got to have some profits. So we’ve come back and we have gone back into something we’re both really familiar with, which is sheep. Peter was a shearer for many, many years. He knows sheep really well.

And we’re going to be using a grazing farming system, which is a little bit more intensive in that we are really looking at the pastures and growing the pastures so they’re strong and healthy, and you can rotate your sheep around. We’re not pushing for maximum production, get as much money as you can get out of it and, and leave, we’re here for the long term, we have a very long-term vision, we’re here to build up the health of this landscape, understand its functioning, and when we leave, hopefully we’ve balanced the farm so the landscape isn’t degrading anymore. And maybe the future generation can come through with all their clever ideas and their science and take it onwards into a really balanced, healthy food production system, but really integrated with nature.

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. Thanks also to Frank Rijavec and Margaret Robertson for the original recording. Our warm thanks to Sylvia Leighton, audio editor Teresa Ashton Graham and audio producer Kim Lofts of Blue Manna Studio.