An environment becomes a landscape only when it is regarded so by people, and especially when they begin to shape it in accord with their taste and needs. Nature may offer the raw material of scenery unaided, but to transform it into landscape demands the powers of the seeing human eye and the loving human hand.
George Seddon in Landprints: Reflection on
Place and Landscape (1997)
By Linda Cuttriss
PHILLIP Island’s landscape is gently undulating farmland that rolls away to the sheltered bay to the north and open ocean to the south. Around the edges are cliffs and bluffs, high dunes and sandy beaches with salt marsh and mangrove-fringed mudflats on its sheltered shores.
Patches of bushland are clustered around the centre and northern parts of the Island while hardy shrubs, grasses and succulents drape the open ocean fringes. Eucalypts and swamp paperbark scrub stand in thin strips along roadsides and rows of cypress trees and indigenous plantings follow fence lines, ridge lines and down into the hollows.
Linda Cuttriss was highly commended in the Bass Coast Prize for Non-fiction for her essay Beyond the view: Phillip Island’s landscape of labour and love. Her essay traces the history of the various settlers’ attempts to shape the island to their own needs and looks to a future where islanders are working together to protect and restore what is most precious in their landscape.
Landscapes are the settings in which people live their lives. Landscapes are full of meaning and memories for the people who live there. Landscapes provide solace or inspiration, uplift the spirits and engender feelings of peace and harmony with nature. Landscapes provide livelihoods for people, birds and wildlife. Landscapes connect communities and give people a sense of belonging.
Early accounts of Phillip Island’s environment give us a glimpse of how it once was. George Seddon’s quote from his 1997 book Landprints provides a frame for reflecting on how the Island’s landscape was shaped by people’s “tastes and needs”. It shows how the “powers of the seeing human eye and the loving human hand” have helped restore some of what was lost and how people’s passion and vision can help tackle the challenges now and into the future.
Nature’s raw materials
Phillip Island is 126 kilometres from Melbourne at the entrance to Western Port. With an area of 10,000 hectares, it is skirted by a coastline 100 kilometres long, extends about 22 kilometres from end to end, is eight kilometres at its widest point and a mere two kilometres at its narrowest.
The raw materials of Phillip Island’s scenery consist of a low-lying, gently undulating plateau of volcanic lava and ash formed around 50 million years ago. The Summerland Peninsula is formed of the same volcanic rock and is connected to the western end of the Island by a great sandy isthmus. Cape Woolamai, a bold granite promontory around 380 million years old, is connected to the south-eastern tip of the Island by another sandy isthmus and at 110 metres is the highest point on Phillip Island.
Over the ages, Phillip Island has at times been submerged by the sea and at other times been part of the mainland, stranded far from the ocean. In the last phase of cold climate when sea level was over 100 metres below its present level, the land we now know as Phillip Island was a cold, dry and windy place, a treeless hilly country bounded by two ancient rivers that wound across sandy and marshy plains to the distant sea.
Around 18,000 years ago, when the climate began to warm, the sea slowly rose until around six thousand years ago it reached its current level, flooding the sunklands of Western Port and surrounding the higher plateaus to form Phillip Island, French Island and Churchill Island.
The rising sea brought sand from the sea floor and formed sandy beaches. Sand blew landwards from the beaches to form dunes. Soil washed down from the land across the bay to accumulate as mudflats on the Island’s sheltered eastern shores and ocean waves attacked the margins of the land to shape cliffs along the south coast.
By the time Phillip Island had become separated from the mainland the more temperate conditions enabled trees and shrublands to flourish. Tough grasses took hold. In time, the edges of the cliffs smoothed into gentle slopes that supported hardy shrubs and succulents, salt-tolerant plants sprung up in the salt marshes and mangroves occupied the mudflats.
The new coastal plant communities provided habitats for penguins and short-tailed shearwaters (mutton birds). Waterbirds moved into the wetlands and fish moved into the bay. Shellfish occupied niches in the rock platforms and thousands of seals made a home on Seal Rocks.
The first people and the sealers
The land now known as Phillip Island had been part of the traditional lands of the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung people long before it was an island. Over thousands of years, successive generations would have adapted to great environmental change. As the climate warmed and the sea rose to form Phillip Island new plant and animal foods and other resources became available there.
By the time George Bass and his six-man crew rowed into the Eastern Passage of the bay he named Western Port, on the evening of January 5, 1798, the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung would have been managing Phillip Island’s landscape for thousands of years.
It is understood that the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung came to the Island mainly during summer when there was an abundance of food. Large numbers of short-tailed shearwaters were laying their eggs and plump chicks were hatching, calmer waters during this season made shellfish easily accessible from the rock platforms and seals could be harvested from Seal Rocks.
Middens containing bones and the remains of shellfish meals are common on beaches adjacent to rock platforms, near high dunes where short-tailed shearwaters were breeding and around Swan Lake. There were campsites at Forrest Caves, Saltwater Creek and at Boat Creek where a freshwater spring was found with large stones at the bottom to create a well. It seems the main camping ground was at Cat Bay for its sheltered location close to short-tailed shearwater and penguin rookeries, accessible rock platforms and fresh water from a small creek and nearby lakes.
A midden at Point Grant which dates back 2,000 years contained the bones of wallaby, possum as well as penguin, seal and fish which suggests that the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung were hunting across the landscape and that while women were harvesting plants, shellfish and eggs, the men were hunting.
The fleshy leaves of pigface and bower spinach, the berries of coast beard heath, the roots of rushes, seed pods of coast wattle, flowers of coast banksia and the gum of black wattle were among the plant foods. Manna gum, she-oak and swamp paperbark were carved into digging sticks and layers of soft paperbark were used for babies’ shawls.
As the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung used plant and animal resources of the Island’s woodlands, grasslands and scrublands as well as the coast, they most likely practised ‘firestick farming’ to shape the landscape according to their needs. Mosaic burning, as the traditional practice is also known, maintains open woodlands that favour browsing animals and provides accessible pathways for hunting and movement from place to place. The local clan used bark canoes to move between the islands of Western Port so could have come from the mainland in the cooler months when a gentle ‘cool burn’ meanders safely through the landscape.
George Bass returned to Sydney Cove with word that there were seals at Phillip Island and sealers soon arrived. Lieutenant Grant observed sealers at Point Grant in March 1801 and Western Port was soon on the trade route in seal skins. In 1802, Captain Hamelin aboard the Naturaliste (as part of Baudin’s French expedition) encountered the Harrington off Tasmania, on route from Port Jackson to Bengal with kangaroo and seal skins, with a stop to be made at Western Port.
By 1826, sealers were living year-round on the island. Louis de Sainson, the artist aboard Dumont D’Urville’s 1826 French expedition into Western Port, painted The Sealer’s Hut on the bluff at Lady Nelson Point where Rhyll Yacht Club now stands.
The sealers clashed with the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung commonly taking two or more women for wives and putting them to work cleaning skins. This caused immense upheaval and suffering for the Bunurong/Boon Wurrung and marked the start of the devastation of their traditional life. It is unclear when they stopped coming to Phillip Island and the extent to which the open woodlands and grasslands reverted to dense scrub when their management of the Island’s landscape ceased.
In 1842, John D. McHaffie and his brother William signed a pastoral lease for the whole of Phillip Island. William returned to England soon after but John set about establishing a homestead near freshwater lagoons on the north-west coast of the Island and went about clearing the land by repeatedly burning the bush. J.D. McHaffie was a keen member of the Acclimatisation Society which encouraged the introduction of plants and animals to make their surroundings more like home and introduced deer, hares and Californian quail for hunting.
Descriptions of the Island’s landscape prior to the arrival of the McHaffies are scarce. Bass wrote little about Phillip Island’s landscape in his narrative account of Western Port. He noted the mud flats on the eastern shores and the high cape at the point of the island that looked like a snapper’s head. He came ashore at Cat Bay in search of water but found the country in the grip of a bad drought. Bass described the Island as barren with starved shrubs growing on higher ground and dried brushes lower down but he didn’t venture inland.
Mrs. Anna D. Hardy, elder daughter of J.D. and Georgiana McHaffie wrote in her ‘Reminiscences’ held by the Phillip Island and District Historical Society that when her father and uncle took over the Island it was uninhabited except for sealers, but that evidence of Aboriginal occupation was found in discarded stone tomahawks and large deposits of stone chippings at Cat Bay and that Aboriginal skeletons were found.
Mrs. Hardy wrote that, “In the early days the whole island including the Nobbies was covered with dense scrub which was cleared to provide for pasturage and cultivation” and that the, “scrub forest which covered the Island was very thick and much Ti-Tree &c had to be burned and kept down by burning in order to obtain and retain its pasturage”.
In 1842, George Smythe surveyed the Western Port area and recorded a glimpse of the Woolamai isthmus before it was cleared by McHaffie describing it as, “open, heathy land devoid of grass” backed by “diverse scrub of gum and prickly tea-tree”.
Twenty years later, Dr. L. L. Smith M.L.A. travelled to Phillip Island by boat from Melbourne to visit the oyster beds near Rhyll. In an account of his expedition published in the Illustrated Melbourne Post on August 2, 1862 Dr. Smith wrote that Phillip Island, “is one of the most promising looking places I have ever beheld. Long valleys and gently sloping hills covered with luxuriant grass, here and there interspersed with a small cluster of trees more nearly resembling a park in the old country than a piece of Australian scenery”. By repeatedly burning the bush, McHaffie had transformed much of the landscape according to his needs and tastes, creating pasture for sheep and cattle and scenery that reminded him of home.
The early settlers
Dr. L. L. Smith M.L.A. was the key proponent for opening up Phillip Island to closer settlement and he achieved his goal when on November 3, 1868 around 7,300 hectares of land was sold by ballot in 132 lots. The first blocks of land in Cowes, Rhyll, Newhaven and Ventnor were auctioned soon after.
An article in The Argus on the day of the ballot reported that, “a considerable portion of the land which was available for selectors consists of undulating grassy plains, moderately timbered, some of it well watered, and nearly all of what may be called fair agricultural soil, whilst some of it is exceedingly good”. For 27 years, the whole island had been operated as a single pastoral run but with the break-up of the land into small farms and the establishment of townships the landscape was changing into a very different place.
Life was tough for the new settlers who set about building wattle and daub huts, making tea-tree fences to contain their few animals and digging shallow dams by hand. Many took to growing chicory, a root crop which was a popular coffee substitute before instant coffee. It took three tonnes of wood to dry one tonne of chicory so many of the mature trees that remained standing after the McHaffie years were felled to fuel the chicory kilns.
Transport was arduous, there were caterpillar plagues and fresh water was scarce. Rabbits were introduced and soon became a pest. Mrs. Anna Hardy recollected that, “The first attempt by the Government to effect settlement on the island was a failure. The homestead property contained almost all the water supply – the lagoons and the difficulties of transport were too hard for men with insufficient capital and with areas too small.” By 1882, many of the settlers had abandoned their farms and more than half of the rural land on Phillip Island was owned by either John Cleeland or William Harbison who ran sheep, horses and cattle.
An article in The Argus dated March 10, 1888 presents a mixed view of how the Island looked 20 years after it was opened to closer settlement. The writer, Telemachus opens with, “The free open breezy character of the place seems one of its chief delights. There is no forest; only a few stunted gums and honeysuckles, with the ti-tree in the hollows making pleasant cover for the rabbits and hares, and the deer, which they say still remain, but are not easily seen.” He then describes the, “tumble down fences and the thistle covered fields” abandoned by the selectors.
The naturalists’ observations
Excursions by members of the Field Naturalist’s Club of Victoria around the beginning of the twentieth century give a sense of the landscape at the time. These accounts include signs of the impacts of European settlement including weeds and rabbit infestations as well as dune erosion and the first revegetation projects on the Island.
In April 1899, Joseph Gabriel and Henry Tisdall recounted their journey from Cowes towards Rhyll over undulating country quite well covered with manna gums, box trees and clumps of tea-tree and noted a number of large banksias towards the sea. They continued south of Rhyll to Denne Bight where they found, “beautiful wooded banks” and mangrove bushes three to six feet high. The mudflats were completely covered with seagrass and the water covered with floating “grass weed” which they presumed had been pulled up by the black swans feeding at low tide.
Behind the mangroves was a margin of low saltbush, then an expanse of native grass and lastly thick bush of wattle, casuarinas and small manna gums. Some of the trees were thickly entwined with clematis. Further on there were areas of park-like land with small clumps of tea-tree and isolated manna gums.
Looking back across the water, Fisherman’s Point at Rhyll was seen as, “gently undulating grassy country with occasional trees, interspersed with isolated houses, which make up the village of Rhyll, all terminating in a spit of land and a long wooden jetty”.
Another naturalist, A. J. Campbell detailed his excursions in 1903 to Cape Wollomai (Cape Woolamai) to visit the mutton bird (short-tailed shearwater) rookeries and to The Nobbies off the western end of the Island. Mutton bird “egging” was popular around this time and Campbell and his party camped at the usual place in Cleeland Bight at the base of Cape Woolamai where fresh water “as clear as crystal issues from tiny springs”. Campbell’s camp was “sheltered by two stunted tea-trees with tops like umbrellas, which threw a grateful shade” and backed by a sand dune covered with scrub, tussock grass and bracken. Campbell observed that the mutton bird rookeries had burrows like rabbit warrens which, “extend over many acres of the Cape plateau” under a covering of pigface and tussock grass.
Campbell also noticed the introduced horehound plant among the mutton bird rookeries, a weed that is often associated with sheep grazing which had been happening on the Cape since 1870. Horehound is now listed as a noxious weed in the region.
Campbell describes the countryside on the way to The Nobbies as having rather low timber which thins out to “open, undulatory rises of coarsely grassed land, while the hollows hold tea-tree tracts, and an occasional swamp or lagoon”. This would be around the area of the original McHaffie homestead where there are several lagoons. He mentions passing chicory plantations and having to open and close numerous gates before reaching the point between Swan Lake and the sandhills of Cat Bay.
He observed that sand dunes were encroaching on the shore of Swan Lake and commented that, “the planting of marram grass, as has been done successfully in other places on the island, would stay the shifting sand from spoiling an ornamental sheet of water and a sure retreat for wild fowl”.
Upon reaching The Nobbies Campbell notes of the larger islet that, “its summit and southern slope are closely clothed with green succulent ice-plant and pig-face. The latter trailed in tresses over the cliff”. He may have mistaken the indigenous succulent bower spinach which grows there for the similar-looking ice plant, native to South Africa. Pig-face (rounded noon-flower/rounded pig-face) still grows there and has the trailing habit he described.
Returning from The Nobbies, a stop at “Flynns rookery” revealed a “small picturesque lagoon and the inner beach of Western Port” and mutton-bird burrows “well-protected by a natural covert of rushes, tussock-grass, bracken, and other coarse vegetation”.
In 1913, Joseph Gabriel visited Cape Woolamai and The Nobbies. He noted that, “along the neck of the Cape … the planting of marram grass to check the sand-drift had been eminently successful”. He also mentions that on the way back from The Nobbies, “countless rabbits were seen on the way. These rodents, in spite of trapping, poisoning, hawks, and other means of destruction, are fast getting the upper hand, and are becoming a menace to the residents”.
The artists and photographers
Artists and photographers have captured impressions of Phillip Island’s landscape since some of the earliest European visits. Louis de Sainson’s (1826) Sealer’s Hut shows Lady Nelson Point at Rhyll as a grassy bluff with several tall trees and low shrubs in the foreground. Large trees are also visible on the northern side of the bluff.
Eugene von Guerard’s (1869) Phillip Island St. Agnus Head depicts the high cliff at Helen Head on the south west coast of the Island completely devoid of trees. Parched cleared land rises gently from the beach with scrubby trees in the foreground. J. Williamson’s (1873?) wood engraving Crayfishing, Phillip Island shows crayfishers hauling cray pots at Wild Dog Bluff with grasses and shrubs on the adjacent cliff, several small clumps of trees on top of Redcliff Head and Pyramid Rock in the distance. These early scenes appear much as they do today and reveal people’s use of the landscape at the time. Von Guerard’s painting reflects rural activity that has been continuous for 150 years.
While Joseph Gabriel observed in 1913 that plantings of marram grass had successfully stabilised dunes on the Woolamai Isthmus, we know from the artist Jessie Trail that less than two decades later the sand dunes had yet again succumbed to erosion. In 1929, when Jessie Trail visited the Woolamai dunes she wrote, “We followed the shore, winding about the foot hills of pure sand as if it were a desert”.
An aerial photograph taken in 1960 shows a completely denuded Woolamai isthmus, much as Jessie Trail had described 30 years earlier. In 1976, the Victorian Soil Conservation Department commenced a major revegetation project which with the help of local volunteers continued well into the 1990s. Marram grass and thousands upon thousands of indigenous shrubs such as coast daisy bush and coast everlasting, and trees including coast banksia, coast wattle and coast tea tree were planted. A 1979 aerial photograph shows half the dune area covered with a thin vegetation cover and by 1989 another aerial view shows the isthmus almost completely vegetated including patches of trees and shrubs, well on its way to the stable dunes now there.
Photographs from the Phillip Island and District Historical Society’s collection in Museum Victoria’s Victorian Collections recall images of Phillip Island’s changing landscape and life since the early 1900s. Early photos show the beaches east and west of Cowes lined with thick scrub and tall eucalypts. The dunes and bluffs east of Grossard Point are well-covered with coastal scrub and the ‘road to the back beach’ has tall stands of eucalypts with a thick shrubby understorey. The rise behind Cowes Beach looks much the same as now with large old moonah trees interspersed between tall radiata pines and Norfolk Island pines. Unlike now, Lovers Walk east of Erehwon Point is lined with tall eucalypts and thick stands of tall tea-tree forming a wide tunnel over the path. Included in the collection is the ‘Rose Series’ of postcards that gives a sense of the early streetscape and busy waterfront scenes at Cowes Jetty. Iconic buildings such as the old guest houses and the Isle of Wight Hotel are remembered. The Rose Series also reflects Phillip Island’s long history as a ‘natural attraction’ with photographs of penguins, koalas and seals as well as scenic coastal features at The Nobbies, Forrest Caves and Pyramid Rock.
European land-use practices and introduction of weeds, rabbits and hard-hoofed animals unsuitable in the Australian landscape and government policy that encouraged land clearing created a wind-swept landscape and caused land degradation problems for successive generations of farmers, some of which are still being managed today.
Serious erosion of the Woolamai dunes caused by trampling of the dune vegetation and grazing by rabbits, sheep and cattle was apparent as early as 1874. According to Harry Cleeland, his father J. B. Cleeland (son of John Cleeland) who farmed Cape Woolamai and the Woolamai isthmus was concerned that drifting sand was burying valuable grazing land so in 1910, he introduced marram grass, planting in criss-cross rows to intercept the wind-blown sand and stabilise the dunes. It was probably these plantings that Joseph Gabriel observed in 1913. Again, during the Great Depression of the early 1930s, J. B. Cleeland with a band of about 40 unemployed men planted more rows of marram grass on the higher slopes of Cape Woolamai. There are still remnants of marram grass on the Cape but the 1960 aerial photograph of an isthmus of bare sand suggests that grazing must have continued on the fragile dunes.
By 1940 half of Phillip Island was open farmland. Remnant areas of banksias remained around the fringes especially at Silverleaves and Cape Woolamai. Patches of eucalypt woodland stood their ground in the middle of the Island and around Cowes. Most of the remaining bush was impenetrable swamp paperbark scrub which had been left because it occupied poor soils and hollows.
In the early 1940s the Federal government, anxious to increase farm production was making loans available to farmers. In 1944 Phillip Island farmers formed a co-operative society and with a federal government loan bought a tractor, a heavy disc plough, a hay baler, a superphosphate spreader and equipment for excavating dams. Mechanisation rapidly accelerated the pace of change.
Clumps of scrub were left for shelter but as fencing was expensive cattle trampled around the edges, browsing on the foliage and bark, rubbing themselves against the spindly trunks until the trees became ringbarked and slowly died. Soon there were not enough trees in the landscape to utilise the groundwater. The water table rose bringing salt to the surface in low-lying areas, killing the pastures and impoverishing the soil. Salinity became a major threat to farm productivity and after all the years of hard work clearing the bush to increase farm production it was soon clear that trees must be quickly replaced.
The Island Farm Tree Group was formed to tackle shared problems of salinity, soil erosion and a lack of shelter for stock and in 1987 became the Phillip Island Landcare Group, one of the first Landcare Groups in Australia. Thousands of trees were planted as windbreaks and in recharge areas on hillsides and in gullies. Over 350,000 plants have been planted, 150 hectares of remnant bush has been protected by fencing and 400 hectares of salt affected land has been restored to production or wildlife habitat since Phillip Island Landcare Group began.
Many of the farmers on Phillip Island today are descendants of the early settler families and their relationship with the land runs deep. They run sheep and cattle, harvest silage and hay for stock feed, plant trees and manage the legacy of weeds such thistles, capeweed, gorse and boxthorn that date back to early settlement.
In recent years a new challenge has emerged for farmers. Phillip Island is a shared landscape of rural land, conservation reserves and residential areas but large numbers of Cape Barren geese are moving onto farmland, grazing pastures, devastating crops and causing farmers considerable financial loss. Phillip Island farmers are the custodians of the Island’s rural landscape and their livelihood is directly linked to its preservation.
Eucalypts such as swamp gum, coast manna gum, messmate and narrow-leaved peppermint are indigenous to Phillip Island and are commonly used in Landcare plantings. These trees sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and store it as they grow. By planting trees, farmers are helping to mitigate global warming and the effects of climate change.
One Phillip Island farm is at the cutting edge of efforts to adapt to climate change. Bimbadeen farm practices carbon farming methods whereby using rotational grazing, mulching, low tillage, diversity of pasture species and deep-rooted crops, CO2 is sequestered from the atmosphere and stored as carbon in the vegetation and soil. The method also improves soil moisture and fertility and thus farm productivity. Bimbadeen farm has been carbon neutral since 2016 through carbon farming, planting trees and installing solar panels. A number of other farms on Phillip Island are initiating steps to adopt carbon farming methods.
The newcomers, weekenders and tourists
Almost a century after the McHaffies arrived, Phillip Island’s residents and visitors were still at the mercy of weather and ferry timetables for transport to and from the mainland. In 1940, a suspension bridge was built across The Narrows from San Remo to Newhaven connecting Phillip Island to the mainland.
People could now come and go as they pleased. It was a pleasant drive across the gently rolling landscape, set against the glistening backdrop of Western Port and deep blue ocean. By day people could see koalas sleeping in the manna gums and by night watch penguins waddle up the beach. They could swim or stroll or laze upon the beach or fish the bountiful waters of Western Port.
With increased accessibility and post-war prosperity, more families had motor cars and families packed up the kids and drove off to Phillip Island for the holidays, for the weekend or even just for the day. Some could even afford a simple holiday house.
Through the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s housing estates spread from Cape Woolamai to Surf Beach, Sunderland Bay and Smith Beach and at the other end of the Island Summerland Estate was expanding. Holiday houses were often cheaply built and making the most of the weekend or summer getaway took priority over planting trees or establishing a garden. In the 1960s, sheep could be seen grazing in open spaces between houses in the new estates along Phillip Island Road but barely a tree could be seen.
The townships of Cowes, Rhyll, Ventnor and Newhaven kept growing, more trees were felled to make way for houses and farmland was being replaced by suburban backyards. Many people came to live, older people to retire in the tranquil setting and younger people opted for the casual outdoor lifestyle.
The original bridge had opened up the Island for housing development but its five-tonne weight limit meant that goods and livestock had to be unloaded from trucks on one side and taken across in smaller vehicles. Passengers on buses had to walk across the bridge and be picked up on the other side. In 1969 the present bridge was built, increasing opportunities for tourism on Phillip Island.
Phillip Island has been a holiday destination since members of Melbourne’s social elite travelled by horse and buggy then boat across Western Port to visit the McHaffies and go hunting on their pastoral estate. In 1868, the Isle of Wight Hotel (originally known as Bauer’s Hotel) opened its doors and people came to stay and go boating on Green Lake.
In the 1920s a guest house and 9-hole golf course was opened up near the present-day Penguin Parade, Charles Grayden and others operated tours to The Nobbies, Bert West took tourists to view the penguins by torchlight and car and motor bikes were ferried onto Phillip Island to race on a circuit around the Island’s roads.
Since large coaches have been able to transport people directly across the bridge, tourism has flourished and become a mainstay of the Phillip Island economy. The Island’s tourism is firmly based on its scenic coastal landscape and unique wildlife experiences but this comes with risks. Inappropriate tourism development can detract from the quality of the tourism experience and conflict with the landscape and environmental values upon which the industry depends. Heavy traffic, especially in holiday times and around major events, changes the ambience of the otherwise peaceful rural and coastal setting. Wildlife falls victim to coaches and cars.
In the 1960s, people were becoming unhappy with how the landscape was changing. In her 2008 history of the Phillip Island Conservation Society, An Island Worth Conserving, Christine Grayden describes the Island in 1968: “Scattered, remnant trees on gentle hills and along dirt roads; patches of tea-tree amidst gorse and boxthorn; fibro shacks, caravans on chocks and outside ‘dunnies’ on bare blocks in windswept subdivisions. Burning of farmland and rookeries. Coastal erosion. Grazing of sheep and cattle right down to the beach. Uncontrolled shooting. Barely controlled housing subdivision development. A developing exploitative tourism industry”.
In March 1968, news of a proposal for a marina in Rhyll Inlet hit the local media. Locals who understood the value of Rhyll Inlet’s saltmarsh, sand spits, mangroves, mudflats and woodlands as important habitat for migratory wading birds were shocked and appalled. They rallied into action and by May the Phillip Island Conservation Society (PICS) was formed to campaign against the proposal. PICS won the battle and Rhyll Inlet has since been declared part of the Western Port RAMSAR site, a wetland of international importance.
Since then, PICS has been actively campaigning against over-development of Phillip Island and there have been victories and losses. Among the successes was a scheme to purchase farmland that is now Conservation Hill. But the proposal for a major tourism development by a private company on public land at The Nobbies in 1996 went ahead despite a hard-fought campaign. Thousands of people came forward to oppose the massive building and related infrastructure that would destroy the experience of this much-loved, magnificent, wild location. After years of controversy and dwindling visitor numbers the building was eventually returned to the State Government and is now operated as part of Phillip Island Nature Parks.
Habitat restoration has been a big part of PICS activities from the outset. The first project began with removal of gorse and planting of trees at Swan Lake in 1969 and by the early 1980s a run-down paddock had been transformed into a haven for wallabies, echidnas and reptiles. A rare Galaxia fish species, the rare growling grass frog and 98 bird species have since been recorded there.
Since then PICS volunteers have planted thousands of trees on reserves across the Island, established ‘The Barb Martin Bushbank’, an indigenous plant nursery (now operated by Phillip Island Nature Parks) and worked with Landcare to create the ‘Wildlife Corridor’ of hundreds of thousands of trees that links public and farm land across the Island.
Over the past 50 years locals, weekenders and other volunteers have spent countless hours repairing and restoring the Island’s landscape and its habitats. Residents in townships have joined Urban Landcare. Landholders with a few hectares are restoring habitat on their properties. Coastcare groups and ‘Friends Of’ groups from Newhaven to Cape Woolamai, Surf Beach and Sunderland Bay, Smith Beach to Ventnor, Red Rocks to Cowes and from Rhyll to Scenic Estate regularly give their time and energy, planting trees and removing weeds in all sorts of weather.
The public land managers and decision makers
Phillip Island Nature Parks is responsible for conservation and management of most of the Island’s coastal reserves and all the conservation reserves which in total, comprises 20 percent of the Island. Since 1996, the Nature Parks has managed and enhanced habitat for penguins, short-tailed shearwaters, vulnerable hooded plovers and koalas as well as seals on Seal Rocks. Revegetation and weed control are a regular part of operations. The Nature Parks 2018-19 annual report outlines its long-term vision for, “a place where conservation and ecotourism excellence inspire people to actively protect the environment”.
The Nature Parks’ ecotourism operations, including the world-famous Penguin Parade, the Koala Reserve and the Antarctic Journey at The Nobbies, attracted 1.4 million visitors in 2019. The paid attractions fund the organisation’s research, environment and education programs and make it the largest employer on Phillip Island. The Nature Parks has a Reconciliation Plan and an MoU with the Bunurong Land Council, engages hundreds of volunteers each year and collaborates with Landcare, Bass Coast Shire Council and other organisations and local groups to achieve shared conservation goals for the Island.
In what is thought to be a ‘world-first’ nature conservation program of its type, in 2010, the Nature Parks completed a 25-year plan to gradually remove all the houses from Summerland Estate (adjacent to the Penguin Parade) and restore the area to penguin habitat. The program began in 1985 with a State Government funded buy-back scheme as it was becoming increasingly clear that a housing estate was incompatible with a penguin colony. Penguins living among the houses fell victim to vehicles, were prey to foxes, dogs and cats and their burrows were being choked by kiyuku grass spreading from lawns. Removal of the houses has greatly improved the scenic values of this stretch of Phillip Island’s wild south coast.
Bass Coast Shire Council manages the remainder of Phillip Island’s coastal reserves. Council has responsibility for planning of Phillip Island’s environment, landscape and scenery by regulating land use, development and protection of vegetation. Council is also responsible for waste management. There was once a landfill dump above Rhyll Inlet but as toxins were leaching into the sensitive wetland environment it was discontinued some years ago and the site has since been revegetated and rehabilitated. Council recently introduced a three-bin system which has significantly reduced the amount of rubbish going to landfill at nearby Grantville.
Old and new knowledge
The degradation of Phillip Island’s natural environment by land clearance, weeds, rabbits and grazing in sensitive coastal areas was not an act of malice. It was a result of people shaping the landscape according to their taste and needs. While it could be said that people were slow to learn from their mistakes, they were following old practices in the absence of new knowledge.
When farmers started replanting trees and conservationists began restoring habitat and enhancing the landscape there was little information to guide them. At first, native Australian trees were planted, often in single rows. Then research showed that trees indigenous to an area grew better. Later it was learned that plants with local provenance, grown from local seed were adapted to local conditions and more likely to thrive. Over time it was understood that trees belonged in plant communities and revegetation projects needed the relevant mix of trees, shrubs, grasses and herbs planted in large clumps or wide rows.
Information about the soil and drainage conditions required by different plant species was available quite early, but an understanding of the lie of the land was needed to help select the right plants for a specific site. Recollections of the ‘old timers’ and a certain amount of ‘educated guesswork’ would have guided the early planting projects.
In 1975, Australian landscape academic George Seddon and his colleagues from the Centre for Environmental Studies at the University of Melbourne prepared a report to the Western Port Regional Planning Authority. Phillip Island: Capability, Conflict and Compromise was the first comprehensive study of Phillip Island’s environment, land use and land capability. The Report informed conservation and land-use planning on Phillip Island for years to come and included the first reconstruction of Phillip Island’s vegetation prior to European settlement.
Seddon identified nine different plant communities. His map of pre-settlement vegetation showed most of the central, north and eastern parts of the island occupied by ‘Manna Gum/Swamp Gum Open Forest to Woodland’ and ‘Blue Gum/Swamp Open Forest to Woodland’. The western half of the Island was dominated by ‘She-Oak Woodland to Open Woodland with Grassy Floor’ and the intervening low-lying areas had large swathes of ‘Swamp Paper-Bark Closed Scrub’. ‘Moonah Woodland’ hugged the thin strip of coast west of the current township of Cowes and along the southern edge of Swan Bay. ‘Coastal Heath/Coast Tea-Tree Scrub Coast Banksia’ grew on the sandy isthmuses at Cape Woolamai and the Summerland Peninsula, along much of the west and north coast of the Island and behind Woolamai Beach. ‘Dwarfed Cliff Communities’ grew on the coastal cliffs of the south and west coasts and ‘Salt Marsh’ and ‘Mangrove’ areas were nestled on the sheltered eastern shores from Rhyll Inlet to Newhaven.
In 1994, the Victorian Government developed a classification system that organised all of Victoria’s vegetation types into Ecological Vegetation Classes (EVCs) with a list of the typical species and the proportion of each plant type (tree, shrub, grass or herb). EVCs are mapped to every location in Victoria and are used to plan revegetation projects and develop landscape plans for development applications to local councils.
The five main EVCs used for Phillip Island Landcare projects are ‘Swamp Scrub’, ‘Plains Grassy Woodland’, ‘Coast Banksia Woodland’, Moonah Woodland and Sheoak Woodland’. When the Nature Parks is restoring penguin and short-tailed shearwater habitat, ‘Bird Colony Succulent Herbland’ plants are selected. Marram grass that was planted across the Island for stabilisation of dunes was introduced from Europe and is slowly being replaced by indigenous plants from the EVC specific to the site.
Erosion of beaches east and west of Cowes has been a concern to the community for decades. The Phillip Island Conservation Society’s position paper, The Problem of Beach Erosion on the North Shore of Phillip Island, prepared in consultation with Dr. Eric Bird in 1987, explained sand movement by longshore drift along the coast from west to east, a process fundamental to understanding the cause and still relevant to managing this increasing problem.
Threats and challenges to the Island landscape
Phillip Island’s beaches, rural and coastal views, clifftop, wetland and bushland walks, as well as its birdlife and wildlife experiences are highly valued by locals and visitors alike. Yet, despite the value of the natural environment to the local tourism economy and the efforts of many individuals, groups and organisations to restore and enhance habitat and scenery, the Island’s landscape faces ongoing threats and challenges.
Increased tourist numbers often coincide with more rubbish on beaches and in the sea. This spoils people’s enjoyment of walking, swimming and surfing at the beach and seabirds and marine animals can mistake floating plastic bags and broken-down plastic materials for food which can lead to starvation and death.
Proximity to Melbourne places significant pressure on Phillip Island for more housing development and to cater for greater tourism and recreation demand. Phillip Island is relatively small and with continued housing and tourism development its rural and coastal landscape could easily be transformed into a semi-suburban setting.
In addition to trees being removed for housing or tourism developments, individual large trees, including mature eucalypts and banksias and small patches of bush are regularly succumbing to the chain saw on private and public land. One or two large trees are regularly removed to make way for a renovation or new home in town. Since restrictions on vegetation removal were relaxed for bushfire safety there has been an increase in tree removal on residential blocks. Some property owners adjacent to foreshore areas illegally remove vegetation from public land in front of their homes to open up their view. Sections of roadside vegetation keep disappearing for road improvements, bike paths and improved storm water management.
This ‘death by a thousand cuts’ is incrementally chipping away at the Island’s vegetation and landscape character. Replacement plantings take a long time to grow. Removal of large trees from backyards changes the microclimate of neighbourhoods, thinning of roadside vegetation makes remaining trees more vulnerable to harsh winds and drought and removal of trees and other vegetation from foreshore areas makes them more vulnerable to coastal erosion, especially in the face of extreme storm events and sea level rise.
Threats to Phillip Island’s landscape is not confined to residential and tourism development pressures. Abundance of wildlife is causing problems for farmers and undermining revegetation efforts on public and private land.
Rabbits have been a pest on Phillip Island since they were introduced by the early settlers but small tree guards have been effective in excluding them from revegetation plantings. Over the past several years, populations of wallabies and possums have dramatically increased making revegetation difficult. Fencing is expensive, tall wallaby tree guards are often ineffective and it is difficult to prevent possums from climbing into trees and shrubs. Wallabies and possums are also moving into residential areas such as Ventnor and Smith Beach, wreaking havoc on fruit trees and native trees and shrubs. There is also concern that the combination of wallabies and rabbits browsing on seedlings is undermining natural regrowth in bushland.
As well as the challenges of revegetation and incremental tree removal from roadsides, foreshores and residential blocks a mysterious new threat to the Island’s eucalypt woodlands has emerged over recent years. Die-back of mature eucalypts is occurring in a number of places across Phillip Island and the cause is still unknown. Phillip Island Landcare is coordinating investigations to determine why it is happening and what can be done. An initial soil study commissioned by the Nature Parks has ruled out the pathogen Phytophthora as the cause.
The loss of the dominant trees species from eucalypt woodlands would destroy the nature of these plant communities and understorey shrubs may not survive the changed conditions. Mature eucalypts provide critical habitat for birds and animals, provide shade and shelter, sequester CO2 from the atmosphere and store large amounts of carbon. The loss of eucalypt woodlands from Phillip Island’s landscape would be devastating.
Eucalypt die-back is not confined to Phillip Island. Widespread die-back of ribbon gum/manna gum is occurring in the Monaro region of the Snowy Mountains. Snow gums are dying in Kosciuszko National Park. Grey box and yellow box woodlands are dying in Central Victoria. Scientists believe that the die-back could be due to stress from rising temperatures and drought caused by climate change.
Phillip Island is not immune from the threats posed by climate change. Bass Coast Shire has warned that Bass Coast and Phillip Island will experience hotter days and more heatwaves, drier days and more frequent and severe droughts, increased bushfire risk, foreshore erosion from coastal storm surges and inundation of low-lying land by rising sea levels.
Without urgent global and local action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, these impacts will eventually change the shape of the Island’s coastline, reduce birdlife and wildlife habitats and possibly transform woodlands into grasslands. Higher temperatures and more prolonged droughts could reduce the productivity and viability of farms making rural land more vulnerable to pressure for residential development.
While the threats facing Phillip Island’s landscape are not insignificant, there is no shortage of passionate and inspired people of all ages on the Island who are doing what they can to rise to the challenge. The Nature Parks, Council and the State Government are also pulling their weight by developing partnerships and programs and providing support and expertise.
‘Plastic Free Phillip Island and San Remo’ and the local ‘Boomerang Bags’ community is tackling plastic pollution locally by educating and empowering the community to choose reusable alternatives to single-use plastics and assisting local businesses to make positive changes. Through their advocacy and advice 38 businesses have become plastic-bag free, another three businesses use no plastic items at all (cups, straws, bottles, containers) and over 8,500 Boomerang Bags have been made.
Inappropriate development, especially in sensitive coastal locations, can be avoided though planning instruments such as ‘Significant Landscape Overlays’, ‘Heritage Overlays’ and restrictions on vegetation removal enshrined in the ‘Bass Coast Shire Planning Scheme’. But, these are not always effective. In October 2019, in recognition of Bass Coast and Phillip Island’s significant landscape values, the State Government declared Bass Coast a ‘Distinctive Area and Landscape’ under the Planning and Environment Act 1987 with the aim of better protecting the unique features of the area and most importantly, designating long-term town boundaries. Moving forward, the community will be engaged in developing the planning policy for a 50-year vision for the future.
Concern about the loss of mature trees appears regularly in the local media. Public responses highlight the intrinsic value of trees in people’s lives, including the opportunity they provide for children to engage with nature, as well as the character and amenity they give to local towns, rural roadsides and coastal views and their importance as wildlife habitat.
In March 2019, a huge southern blue gum, estimated to be at least 150 years old, was chopped down to make way for a new transit centre and car park on Council land in Cowes. Many were angry that while Council administers strict controls on vegetation removal, decision-makers had not incorporated this significant tree into the transit centre design. A large group rallied in the Town Square to show their distress at the loss of the magnificent tree. Phillip Island Conservation Society and the Bass Coast Branch of the National Trust have used this event as a trigger to develop a register of significant trees on Phillip Island and Churchill Island and it is hoped that Council will adopt local laws to protect the listed trees.
Since removal of the old blue gum in March, Council appears to be taking steps to give more attention to protecting roadside vegetation in their works programs. In the road safety upgrade of Cowes/Rhyll Road in October/November 2019 tree protection works were implemented to avoid removal and damage to roadside trees and scrub.
Some local councillors have been frustrated that it is difficult to prosecute landowners who illegally remove foreshore vegetation. A public education and awareness campaign could be successful in reinforcing the importance of maintaining vegetation, especially deep-rooted trees, as a buffer between the land and sea, protecting houses from coastal erosion and potential intrusion by a rising sea.
Abundance of wildlife is causing frustration and distress to farmers and other Phillip Islanders who spend time, energy and often money on revegetation. Wallaby, possum and Cape Barren geese populations had been slowly growing with the increased habitat created by revegetation efforts but it is apparent that the recent over-abundance of these species coincided with the eradication of foxes on Phillip Island leaving no apex predator to maintain a balance. The Nature Parks declared Phillip Island fox-free in 2017.
If the cause of the problem is found to be that a species-based approach to wildlife management that focusses on protecting iconic species such as penguins, short-tailed shearwaters (and the recently introduced eastern barred bandicoots) by removing predators then a change of approach may be required. An ecosystems-based approach to wildlife management where the natural resource base is viewed in its entirety could potentially restore balance to wildlife populations. The viability and possible impacts of introduction of another predator such as the powerful owl could also be investigated.
The Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), has ultimate responsibility for legislation and management of wallabies, possums and Cape Barren geese and has acknowledged the problem. The Department has begun working with the Nature Parks and Bass Coast Shire Council to develop a Phillip Island Wildlife Management Strategy that will include consultation with the local community. A group of farmers is also working with the Nature Parks to find a solution. The Nature Parks is conducting a research project on one of the farmer’s properties to gather data on the grazing effects of the geese.
Eucalypt die-back is a concern to Phillip Island farmers as well as those involved in conservation. As with eucalypt die-back in other parts of Southern Australia, it may be a result of climate-change. A method of planting seedlings from warmer parts of the country is being trialed in Victoria and Tasmania in the hope they will cross-pollinate with local species to create a hybrid that is adapted to the warmer and drier conditions. Future revegetation programs on Phillip Island may need to adapt to changing conditions and select similar eucalypt species from warmer regions instead of species from the existing EVC for a site.
Climate change is a huge challenge for the future but there is a groundswell of action at the local level. In August 2019, in response to a community petition, Bass Coast Shire Council declared a ‘climate emergency’ to acknowledge the need for urgent action on climate change and will work with the community to develop a ‘Climate Action Plan 2020-30’.
The Nature Parks planted 43,779 plants in 2018-19. The estimated carbon sequestration of these plantings at maturity is almost 7,000 tonnes of CO2, approximately twice the Nature Parks’ total carbon emissions for the year. The new Penguin Parade Visitor Centre is single-use plastic free and all of its buildings have rooftop solar panels.
Totally Renewable Phillip Island is a collaboration of local community groups and has the support of Bass Coast Shire Council, the Nature Parks and Westernport Water, the three largest organisations on Phillip Island. The aim is for Phillip Island to be carbon neutral by 2030 through emission reductions and carbon sequestration. Since its inception at a public meeting in June 2018, a baseline of community emissions has been estimated, a carbon insetting program has been launched, a carbon insets auction has taken place, a partnership with Landcare has been established, community renewable energy programs are in the planning and food and waste and electric vehicle options are being investigated.
Each year, thousands of trees, shrubs and grasses are planted on Phillip Island and it is now known that mangroves, salt marsh and seagrass habitats are even more effective at carbon sequestration and storage. Phillip Island’s sheltered eastern shores have low-lying areas vulnerable to sea level rise. A large-scale ‘blue carbon’ program of planting mangroves, salt marsh and seagrass in suitable areas on the fringes of Western Port could transform a vulnerability into a strength by helping to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The traditional Bunurong/Boon Wurrung, the pastoralist McHaffie, the early European settlers and farmers that followed, the city folk who came to live, the conservationists; all those who have worked and loved and cared for the Island have transformed its environment into the landscape we see today.
People will always have differing views about conservation and development, about what should go where, what should and should not be done, but the one thing that binds all Phillip Islanders is the landscape they share. Phillip Island’s gentle rural landscape, its stunning coastal views, its beaches, woodlands and wetlands are all greatly loved and valued.
Phillip Island’s story of land degradation, spreading housing estates and tourism development has become a tale of restoration and protection. It seems as the threats and challenges to the landscape get greater, more people come together and a fresh sense of hope emerges for the future.
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