Bushfires devastate Hawkesbury wildlife, conservation work begins

This season's bushfires will have a profound impact on the abundance and diversity of native insects, plants and animals in the Hawkesbury.

It has been estimated that well over 100,000 hectares of bushland - over 50 per cent of the Hawkesbury LGA - was burnt in the Gospers Mountain fire, killing over two million mammals.

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is working with numerous agencies - including Local Land Services (LLS); NSW Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service (WIRES); Science for Wildlife; Hawkesbury Council; Hawkesbury Environment Network; Local Landcare groups; Sydney Wildlife; International Fund for Animal Welfare; and individual land-owners - to enter the fire-affected areas.

Together, they will salvage what they can of Hawkesbury's wildlife and flora.

Interim findings

Peter Ridgeway, senior LLS officer for biodiversity, said the estimation of casualties, though frightening, was an "extremely conservative" figure.

"This is a very firm minimum. We have absolute certainty that there are above two million casualties," he told the Gazette.

The LLS estimation accounts for native mammals including wombats, koalas, quolls, echidnas, gliders and possums, that presumably wouldn't have been able to escape the fires. It does not account for wallabies - which could potentially hop away - nor birds, reptiles or insects.

Talking about native species is only part of the equation, though.

"Given the size of the bushfire catastrophe, we're acutely aware of the problems of what were otherwise known as 'common species', as well as ecosystem health in general," Mr Ridgeway said.

"We're currently almost as concerned about wombats and kangaroos making it through, as well as there being enough honey-eaters to pollinate flowers, and so on, as we are about taking steps to protect native species. It's an unprecedented situation we're in."

Vulnerable species

Conversations about decimation from the fires cannot happen without speaking of the drought.

One such species that suffered the effects of both is the greater glider, the largest gliding mammal in Australia, and one Mr Ridgeway is "extremely concerned" about, both immediately and long-term.

"These innocent and beautiful creatures have been particularly hard hit because they are impacted not only by fire but also by drought and heat," Mr Ridgeway said.

"Is it estimated that perhaps one-in-four in Australia have been directly killed by fire. In Hawkesbury the numbers may be as high as one-in-two directly killed by fire."

There had already been a local die-off of greater gliders this summer as temperatures consistently exceeded 35 degrees, causing heat stress for the woolly-furred animals.

Worse, a number had died of starvation outside the fire-impacted areas, as the prolonged drought caused trees to stop producing the nutritious young leaves they needed to survive.

"It is a devastating combination of three emergencies," Mr Ridgeway said.

"The species is listed as Vulnerable to extinction, one level below Endangered however recent catastrophes throughout its range may mean it now warrants listing as Endangered."

Other species which have been particularly hard hit in the Hawkesbury this season are platypus, flying foxes, koalas, ring-tailed possums, and wombats (the latter due to heat, not fire).

Helping the survivors

Sandra Connor, executive committee member for Hawkesbury WIRES, said the group had identified several locations that required support-feeding for wildlife displaced by the fires.

Local WIRES has 12 volunteers who have undertaken a fire ground awareness course, and are currently entering National Parks to manage and assist with food and water drops, and search for injured wildlife.

"We will be supplement-feeding animals for many months to come, and will monitor all the animals over that time for signs of injury or malnutrition," Ms Connor said.

"WIRES is also relying on people in fire-affected areas to let us know if they have seen wildlife on their properties since the fires, and if they have spotted injured wildlife, as that alerts us where possible survivors might be."

Several animals have been rescued so far.

"We have had a number of possums in with burns, and rescued four koalas from the fires, including a mother and joey we named Jeanette and Jarrod after their RFS rescuers," Ms Connor said.

"We have also rescued swamp wallabies and wallaby joeys - one named Lucky Mick after his RFS rescuer - but sadly this number also included a mother and joey too weak and burned to survive.

"Many of our members are treating animals with burns, while some of the koalas have gone to Port Macquarie Koala Hospital for specialist treatment.

"We would like to believe there will be more survivors, but the intense crown fires in some areas decimated large tracts of land, so I fear there were innumerable casualties."

Water and support feeding stations have been installed in the Colo, Bilpin and Bowen Mountain areas, and WIRES is working with the community to get more water and feed stations onto private properties.

They are particularly interested in hearing from residents who have seen wildlife - particularly koalas - on their properties since the fires.

"Ideal properties may adjoin national parks and have suitable feeding areas away from predators like domestic cats and dogs, and away from any main roads," Ms Connor said.

"Residents need to be able to commit to regularly filling the water stations, and to do that, they will need to be able to access the site by car, such as near a fire trail or track on their property (water tank on trailer/ute) and have water supply nearby."

What you can do to help

If you think you have a property suitable for water and feeding stations, email reportwildlife2020@gmail.com with your name, address, phone number and details of your property and the wildlife you have seen.

If you see a dead or starving greater glider, take a photo of it and submit it with the location to LLS at admin.greatersydney@lls.nsw.gov.au, to help LLS better understand the impact.

If you come across injured (live) wildlife, including greater gliders, call WIRES on 1300 094 737.

To donate to WIRES, go to wires.org.au/branch/hawkesbury.

For government advice on food and water for wildlife, visit bit.ly/37gu2XC.

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