A QUESTION TO PONDER

Last week a Facebook friend of Highfield Farm and Woodland came for a visit. I showed her and her little boy around, visiting the sheep, the laying hens, and the meat chickens. We looked at eggs in the incubator and talked about eggshell colour. We met Sylvie and Orsa, two of our Guardian Dogs and talked about how they worked. I showed her our campsites in our conservation area. We even got down on our hands and knees and smelt the Chocolate Lillies which were proclaimed as smelling “exactly like Cadbury’s Dairy Milk!”

I talked about how we try to farm WITH the habitat, not just by having our conservation area,  but by what we do in the paddocks too. I showed them the paddock trees we have planted that will help small birds and microbats move across the paddock and into the conservation area. I showed them the area of fenced-off Carex in the bottom of the valley and how valuable that ecosystem is in slowing down the movement of water through the valley. I showed them the explosion in wildflowers we are seeing, even in a drought.

Our visitor asked if we had any wombats. My reply was, “Loads of them!”  “Do you mind them being here?” she asked carefully, not knowing what response she might get.  I replied that I loved them, and they were part of our landscape, and they belonged here. I did admit that they sometimes dug holes in very annoying spots and that as a result, our sheep and dogs didn’t stay where we wanted them too. But it was a minor concern.

She said that she knew of other farmers who didn’t like wombats at all. Sadly, I wasn’t surprised. But it was her next comment that really got me thinking… she said, “I wonder what function wombats have in the landscape?”

IS ALL THIS DIGGING GOOD OR BAD?

I love it when people ask questions that get me thinking, so I’ve done a little research! I found an article by a Western Australian researcher, Trish Fleming, in The Conversation. The researcher noted the dramatic decline in all of the digging mammals in Australia – particularly bettongs, potoroos, bilbies, bandicoots, and, less dramatically, echidnas and wombats. She referred to them all as important “ecosystem engineers”.

One of our resident wombats after a night of digging.

One of our resident wombats after a night of digging.

She noted that the disturbances they made to the soil through nose pokes, scratchings and deep digging improved soil health by turning over the soil and mixing organic material into it. The diggings also trapped organic matter facilitating nutrient cycling. Wombats – extremely powerful diggers – were capable of breaking through really hard soils that might otherwise be too hard for plants to penetrate.

Soil disturbance by these animals also increases the ability of water to penetrate the soil with echidna diggings, for example, allowing for twice the water penetration of undisturbed soils.

These digging animals are also thought to spread mycorrhizal fungi through the landscape. These are particularly beneficial fungi that assist plants in the absorption of nutrients – very important considering the nutrient-poor Australian soils.

It’s also thought that these digging animals help to reduce the amount of dry plant material on the forest floor, and so may act to reduce the severity of fires.

So aside from the intrinsic pleasure of seeing native animals such as wombats in our paddocks, they bring real benefits to our farm and our conservation area in helping these ecosystems work.

Not all farmers dislike wombats. Happy Wombats Hazelnuts in Batlow have branded their produce around the wombat and use the health of their resident wombats as an indicator of the health of their farm.

I love how visitors ask great questions that get me thinking. Keep asking questions, and I’ll keep thinking!

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