Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Woe of the Wombat

Some of Australia's cutest and cuddliest mammals live in the soil: the Wombat. Our burrowing friend is suffering from a cruel disease and it has the potential to wipe out the population. 

Australia has 3 species of Wombat. The mammals are known colloquially as 'bulldozers of the bush'. They are sedentary animals that create large burrows for nesting. Wombats are the mascot of Australia's animal protection agency, RSPCA. Wombats come out at night, and it is rare to see one during the day. If you do see one, it is probably suffering from mange. 

Wombats, young, old, healthy or sick are being inflicted with mange. Mange is caused by scabies, or sarcoptes scabiei, a small mite. The mite originally comes from domestic animals, such as dogs, and can also cause scabies in humans. In Wombats, mange causes fly-blown sores, blindness and weakens the animal, making them more susceptible to secondary infection, starvation and eventually a slow and painful death. Whilst it is easily treatable in dogs and humans, mange is much more difficult to manage in the Wombat population. This is partially due to being 'wild animals', but also because their burrows are infected and also need to be treated.  Without treatment, mange will continue to spread throughout the population with the potential of extinction of our soil-burrowing friend. 

A young wombat I saw with mange in Deua National Park. Note the large sore.

How are we dealing with the problem? 

I have heard and read different personal accounts of the issue. WombatEchidna say that it is only a problem in certain categories of wombat, and they have a set of rules they follow to determine if they will treat a wombat.  Wombat Protection Society (WPS) also discuss issues regarding treatment of mange. They have groups working on mange eradication programs throughout Australia. The Wombat Awareness Organisation has also received its first government sponsored grant for mange eradication programs. Landholders are also known to shoot or euthanize wombats with mange in the hope of limiting the spread of the disease, and to free the wombat of its suffering. 

A blind friend

Research has also been undertaken by various universities.  The WPS discusses a large amount of research undertaken regarding mange treatment, spotting mange and mange spread. They have also held symposiums regarding mange. Laura Ruykys has looked into mange in the southern-hairy nose wombat population. She determined the need to reduce culling quotas due to the decline of the population from mange infection. However, there has been little research done into the management of mange in the wild population. Skerratt et al found that there was limited spread of mange after a deliberate introduction into a community. However, this also does not explain why the disease is spreading into National Parks. Spread of mange into remote areas would be caused by other wombats or wild domestic animals (dogs etc). Further research is required to look at the behaviour of wombats, transmission of the disease and effectiveness of different treatments in the wild population.

Where to from here? 

Awareness and community action is potentially the only way to save our bulldozers. Interlinked with research, a program like ClimateWatch or DustWatch could be brought in for Wombats: WombatWatch. Volunteers would look out for infected wombats, report to a database, and they could then be treated. To promote and campaign for funding, a champion is needed. Perhaps the RSPCA, with its small-wombat mascot, will step up to the plate. Government backing of community programs would also be required for continuity in public lands, and the potential of economic support. Without more financial and community support, we risk loosing the last three species of our cuddly friend. 

What can you do? 

For more information on getting involved, talk to the Wombat Protection Society or Wombat Awareness Organisation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


This Saturday is the Canberra Harvest Festival and it got me thinking about how much I miss my garden now we have moved into a flat.

No space for a productive veggie garden is one problem for people in high-density residential spaces. Lynds talked about the problem with having compost in an apartment. Unless you have room for a small compost bin, can afford a small tumbler for the composting part of the process and have a few plants, you may still have to throw it out into the garbage. I am fortunate that we are on the ground floor and have a small bit of courtyard out the back. Just enough for a chilli plant, herbs, a couple of tomatoes, an eggplant and two capsicums. What about those without the space?

Community gardens are one option. In Canberra, COGS run community gardens all around town. They aim at providing space for people interested in growing their own organic food, but don't have space in their own backyard! This is perfect for the flat-living organic-veggie muncher, such as myself! Plus it is a great way to meet new people. COGS is continuing to grow, as organic fresh foods are becoming a more popular choice with increased awareness and environmental education. Montreal also has a spectacular community garden and composting facility right in the heart of the city.

 Montreal Community Compost (J. Drake)

Rooftop gardens have also 'sprung-up' in many cities. With dense populations, and little green space, community rooftop gardens are a way of finding space for food and environment within the city. Rooftops are transformed into vibrant, sunny gardens. Food produced on the rooftops reduces the amount required to be transported into the city, and make people more self-sufficient. The Rooftop Gardens Project looks at projects all around the world! They have partners in Senegal, Cuba, Mexico and Morocco. There are even a few projects popping up in Australia, including some in Melbourne. Rooftop gardens aren't always about food. It is also about making space for people to get away from he concrete sprawl, and enjoy nature.

NY city has a huge amount of options for the keen city-bound veggie grower. New York has several community gardens, particularly in the outer boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn. NYC has also been considering building skyscrapers for food production to reduce the reliance on imports. Daniel Libeskind has designed one particular garden-scraper for the NY environment. On top of all of this, they even have rooftop gardens! However, what is so special about NYC is the High Line project. It uses an old elevated train line, a few meters above the city's roads, as a community garden. It is the only of its kind in the world and in the heart of Manhattan.

If you are a keen gardener, but live in a city or confined space, there are always options to grow your own food or prune some roses! Contact your local garden society or ask at your local nursery.

None of these are options for you? If you still want to have a go at growing your own food, you could try:
* Herb pots in your kitchen or bathroom
* Mushroom kits
* Pots of peas or beans hanging over your porch. They have great flowers and will use metal railings to climb!
* Decorative pots with veggies. Try smaller varieties of tomatoes, eggplant, brocolli, capsicum, chillies, spinach, rocket and lettuce. 
* Have a shower and an unused bath? Try a bathtub garden!
* Try some indoor plants to brighten your house!

The Canberra Harvest Festival celebrates organic food growing in the community. For details of the festival, see Ecoaction Canberra.

See you all there!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Soil Myths 1: Turning the Soil

Spending time reading, working, researching vs spending time in various gardens can make me anxious. Watching the destruction of soil structure, loss of nutrients, and degradation of backyard soil is frustrating. Especially when you know it is all through a few misunderstood tips! To dispel some backyard soil myths, I will be undertaking special blogs on Backyard Soil Myths. The first Myth is brought to you by some ex-landlords.

Soil Myth 1: It is best to turn your soil regularly

Spending 4 hours in my garden turning every sod over was not my idea of fun. Not only was it 35 degrees C that day, but watching my careful soil restoration being destroyed with every fork-full was nearly making me cry.

I am a soil rehabilitation expert. That means, I fix soil for a living. Why? To get plants to grow in it for food, oxygen and other ecosystem services. How? I add organic mulches, fertilisers, gypsum, lime and dabble in other soil conditioning arts.

My yard was a mess when we first moved. The soil had poor structure, small water holding capacity and not very good for plants.  The whole area had been mistreated; hard soil from compaction + no water = no plants. So, I came to the rescue and did some soil rehabilitation work. I added all different types of mulches and got some great soil and plants!

Beautiful Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants

I felt so proud having achieved beautiful soil and plants from a bare earth. I was also able to try-out some of my own research ideas. However, when my landlords asked me to 'pull out the plants and turn the soil' when I moved out, my heart fell.

Why? Turning soil exposes soil structure, biology and nutrients to the environment, and causes soil degradation.

Disturbing the soil through turning, cultivation or other practices exposes it to the weather and causes degradation. Soil forms a surface to protect itself from the weather. This surface regulates water, nutrient losses and protects soil biology. Turning the soil destroys this layer, and exposes soil to the environment.

What can happen when it is exposed to the environment?

Soil that is exposed to the environment will erode, loose nutrients and biology, and be less suitable for plant growth. Exposure of soil to rain may cause poor soil structure and erosion. Instead of having nice friable soil that is crumbly and holds lots of water, you will end up with soil that is hard and has little water. Nutrients in the soil will become exposed, and will either be lost as gases into the atmosphere, run off with water or be eaten up by all the soil bugs. Soil biology will eventually die without more nutrients, and there will be no more soil animals regulating soil structure or nutrient cycling. With loss of structure, less soil water, nutrients and biology, the soil becomes less suitable for plants. It becomes degraded, like a dessert landscape.

I must turn my soil!

So, if you have healthy soil, do not turn it! If you do need to turn it for a new crop, make sure you plant immediately after and cover the surface with a mulch (hay, straw, shredded paper). This will limit exposure of soil to the environment and keep it healthy.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Soil Blogs

Just like to thank Phil Small for his recent advertisement of my blog!

He posted it both on his own blog, as well as in the NSCSS Newsletter.

Many thanks Phil.

I have also added some new Soil Blogs to my blog-roll. I am hoping to find some more Australian ones soon. I have been informed of a NSW Soil Savvy News Network.