Saturday, 25 January 2020

Re-Wilding A Sydney Backyard

 When I first came to the Australia from the UK, I had a fondness for the environment but knew virtually nothing about Australian nature.  Years later, when I moved from inner city living into a suburban house with a backyard, something special happened. Fascinating visitors such as Blue Tongue Lizards, Leaf Tailed Geckos and Possums provided magical wildlife encounters and my conservation passion, long suppressed, became reignited. As a result, when fragile bushland was threatened by a development nearby, I joined an action group. And, when the local council began planting native plants along a degraded creekline, I started to sit up and take notice.

Discovering a baby 'southern leaf tailed gecko.

When the ‘windows of awareness’ gradually began to open up, I realised that I needed to acquire some knowledge of native plants and environmental weeds. I really wanted to plant some genuine natives...and not the hybrid ones with showy flowers that you find in Bunnings.

 Later I discovered that, in Sydney, each suburb has its own original suite of endemic native plants which are vital in supporting local biodiversity For example there are nearly 1,000 wattles (Acacias) native to this continent but only 7 were endemic to my area.
One of my 'local' wattles:- Acacia Linifolia

 It subsequently dawned on me that almost every garden in my street had no indigenous plants at all. What was worse, many of the plant species visible, such as Agapanthus, Cotoneaster and Privet. were invasive weeds which spread into bushland reserves and actually caused harm. The irony was, none of the local plant shops even sold species which belonged in the area. To find them you had to travel to obscure specialist outlets or wait for the occasional Council native plant ‘giveaway’. Something had gone horribly awry in this city of Sydney. I realised that the original rich biodiversity had largely been scraped off the face of the earth, just like the indigenous people who once occupied this unique place. Meanwhile the current population seemed overwhelmingly unaware and unconcerned.

 Amazingly the Sydney area has more native plant species than the whole of the UK, they have a subtle, fragile beauty and have evolved both to live on the nutrient poor “Hawkesbury Sandstone” soils and adapt to climatic extremes.  But try telling that to the gardening commentators in the media.  Unfortunately, growing local natives is not good business as it doesn’t profit multi-national fertiliser, pesticide or horticulture interests.

Local bushland:-genuine 'Hawkesbury Sandstone country.

 I realised that my new philosophy was to do the polar opposite of what the so called “Garden Gurus” were advocating.  My plan was to remove all “foreign specimens” that were not of habitat value for local wildlife.  I would plant species that were endemic to my area (trees, shrubs, groundcovers, grasses); identify any remnant natives and carefully retain them; remove weeds by hand and commit to never using commercial fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides. I might occasionally use a weed killer made up of 99% white vinegar and 1% detergent.

A fish pond was transformed into frog habitat featuring a self seeded. 'birds nest' fern.

 Interestingly, my neighbours remember when my standard “quarter acre” backyard contained only a solitary lemon tree (which was given a stay of execution) and little else. But past decades have seen various plantings and re-growth.  The house was built on remnant bushland in the 1920’s and since then suburbia has filled in most of the remaining undisturbed natural areas in the neighbourhood. I often think that what is now happening to the Amazon rainforest in terms of land clearing, happened in this very place, not so long ago.

 At this stage I should recommend an excellent book “Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney” By Les Robinson, which helped guide my progress. This amazing work contains invaluable information on our native flora including traditional Aboriginal uses for “bush tucker” and medicine.

 My garden contained a large lawn area of Buffalo grass, several Radiata Pines, a smattering of eclectic garden species and a few natives.  On the edge of the lawn there was actually some naturally occurring native grass Microlaena Stipoedes, some native Geranium (Geranium Homeanum) and some native Violets (Viola Hederacea) plus some naturally occurring Commelina Cyanea (which was eaten by early European pioneers to prevent Scurvy).

The native commelina..yes you can eat it !

A few years beforehand I had followed the current trend and planted a vegetable garden but I decided that even this had to go and it was ultimately replaced by natural vegetation. Luckily there is a fantastic organic food market nearby for delicious supplies and also a wonderful community garden if I get the urge to plant more veggies.

 It’s been a gradually transition but over a few years a large area of lawn has been dug out and the native grass has gradually taken over. A smaller area of Buffalo Grass was replaced with a groundcover called Dichondra Repens.
A native ground-cover has replaced my lawn

 I no longer have use for a lawn mower! Endemic species of Grevillea, Hakea, Correa, Banksia, Persoonia, Angophora, Eucalptus, Bracken and Blady Grass etc are growing well and providing food and habitat for wildlife.  Additional accommodation has been provided in the form of various nesting boxes. 

A Hakea in flower

 Insects such as Blue Banded Bees, Mud Dauber wasps and Golden Orb spiders are proliferating.  A fish pond has been transformed into a frog habitat which has also spawned an abundance of Spectacular Dragon Flies.

A Golden Dragonfly.

 A ban on toxic substances means that butterflies and cicadas can fly around more safely. Caterpillars are allowed to chomp away to their heart’s content. This type of garden requires virtually no watering; falling leaves don’t have to be swept away (as they provide natural mulch) and the local possums kindly provide their own brand of proprietary fertilisers.

 I have also converted the “nature strip” of foreign grasses and weeds in the front of the house into a mini habitat area with Lomandras, Dianellas and trees. (again, this is now a mow free zone).
Now it really is a 'Nature Strip'

 American Gardener and Writer, Benjamin Vogt struck a chord with me when he wrote this: - “We need to stop gardening solely for ourselves and see the incredible, beautiful, soul-magnifying existence that happens when we open up our gardens to the rest of the local environment by using native plants. We believe in giving to the needy and poor of our own species, and to other causes near our hearts, why not the birds, insect pollinators and amphibians in the gardens we supposedly cherish so much?”

 As the years go by, the native garden becomes more and more established and only occasional hand weeding is needed.  Additional species are occasionally added from a recently established community native plant nursery where volunteers propagate tubestock with seed collected from nearby bushland reserves. I sometimes try this myself with mixed results!

The “re-wilded” suburban backyard has provided greater biodiversity, a better connection to nature and more enjoyment whilst it has removed the time, cost, and energy of mowing, fertilizing and “manicuring”.   It’s the ultimate “win win” gardening experience!

The re-wilded native garden.

Check out the story by Robin Powell in the Sydney Morning Herald Spectrum pages  siren-song-of-backyard-wilderness-in-Manly-Vale-   and have a look at her blog post on this garden"Wilding the backyard"


Bandicoots, anecdotally were very very common in my suburb of Manly Vale.  About 50 years ago they totally disapperared after residents persecuted them for digging up their manicured lawns in search of grubs, they were also heavily predated on by introduced foxes. Amazingly, all these years later they have reappeared (from God knows where) and are beginning to reestablish themselves. Below is one photographed in my "rewilded" Sydney backyard where they now forage and (I think) live.

Why have Aussies turned "chicken"?

  I reckon our society is really learning to embrace and own the word “pathetic” with energetic gusto. It's time to "man up" Australia.  I mean, how pitiful is it that people now buy specialised household insecticide for use outside their homes?  Isn’t that where all the useful bees, butterflies and beetles should be living unmolested?  Are we really so terrified of cockroaches and mosquitoes that we’re prepared to consider everything else (including possibly ourselves) as collateral damage?  And what have ants ever done to earn a reputation as public enemy number one? They’ve been efficiently helping human beings tidy up their biscuit crumbs for thousands of years, yet the amount of supermarket shelving devoted to seeking out and destroying this perceived threat to national security 
is staggering.

 Don’t even start me on spiders.  So they have a different number of legs to that just cause to turn tough, boofy, blokes into nervous, timorous, trembling fools at the mere sight of one?  The fact that arachnids are loyal allies in our chemical war against mosquitoes doesn’t seem to have won them any friends at all.  The truth is, that even the demonised mosquito has a role to fill in the finely balanced workings of this planet...they provide vital food to all the cute little frogs, birds and bats that David Attenborough recruits for star billing in his TV charm offensives .

 Regretfully David, few people seem to be getting the real gist of your message. We have become, not just estranged from the natural world, but unnaturally afraid of it. So, for example, instead of thinking of possums as miraculous wildlife survivors in our urbanised environment, they are demonised for the inexcusable crime of treading too heavily on our rooftops with their furry little feet! It’s this disconnection that has eroded the sense of stewardship that Australians once had for our richly diverse land. So now, big open-cut mining projects can destroy whole forests with barely a whimper, consideration for koala populations runs a poor second to development applications and the kangaroo, our national symbol, is turned into cat food, with little complaint.

 On a broader scale..iconic places such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Kimberley replete with endangered Aussie animals are being sacrificed to the resource industry before our very eyes.  So next time you go to squash an insect...maybe you should ask yourself...”is this all going to end in tears?”

Why have Aussies turned "chicken" ?

Come on guys..stand up for nature! At least try and help save the Great Barrier Reef!  Sign the petition.

PS: no animal was harmed in the production of this blog. I advocate kindness towards chickens.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

How To Revive A Mermaid.

The Compelling Story of The Mermaid Pool Restoration and How You Can Be Part of The Action!



Imagine a guy walking his dog through the back streets of Manly Vale. Every day he saw shopping trolleys dumped in the local creek and thought to himself angrily “someone should do something about that....”  He finally realised that he was the someone in question! I’m not sure if they’ve forgiven him yet, but he eventually convinced other local residents to join him! *

Andrew and Wol removing discarded graffiti spray cans from Manly Creek.


 Ah it seemed so easy then, just yank a few trolleys out of the water and we can all go back to football and beer. Trouble is, the closer you looked, the more garbage there was. The beautiful oasis that once was Mermaid Pool had literally become a rubbish dump over recent years and what should have been spectacular remnant bushland was now also clogged with invasive weeds such as morning glory and privet. What were we getting ourselves into?
Ken removes dumped rubbish from the bush


 Many things have since happened to help restore the tarnished jewel of Mermaid Pool, kicking off on ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ 2002, when 4 tonnes of rubbish were removed by 71 volunteers. Subsequently the Clean Up Australia organisation adopted the project as a ‘Fix Up’ Site. Two grants have been applied for and received from the Natural Heritage Trust, which has helped pay for rehabilitation contractors, whilst volunteers have stencilled storm water drains, produced brochures, planted trees and much more.

Weekend Detainees from Parramatta Gaol also spent a number of years physically removing pest species along the waterway. Sydney Morning Herald article by John Huxley

Clean Up Australia founder, Ian Kiernan, visits Mermaid Pool


The best way to get involved now is to come to the monthly bush regeneration volunteer workdays.  “Bush regeneration” basically means identifying and removing a range of noxious weeds that are impacting the natural environment by out-competing the native plants.  We are part of Northern Beaches Council’s "Friends of the Bush" program It’s a great opportunity to learn about the local environment  and help protect it whilst keeping fit and meeting (slightly crazy) new people.  Professional supervision is provided. We even have some amazing ‘masochist’ volunteers who wear waders to remove the introduced aquatic weeds (such as Ludwigia Peruviana from Peru!)  that are clogging up  the waterway. We are conscious of advocating hand removal of weeds and keep any herbicide use away from the water and to an absolute minimum.

Sue removes weeds with Landcare Ambassador-Beau Walker

Mermaid Pool Volunteers meet on the 4th Saturday of every month. Turn up anytime from 9am to 1pm.Where: Outside Manly Hyraulics Lab Gates, western corner of King St, Manly Vale. For more information email: Malcolm Fisher

(NB Volunteers are required to complete a short OH and S training session with Northern Beaches Council before working on site).

Keith, Dave and Kris "getting fit" by removing non-native and invasive water weeds


Mermaid Pool is at the western corner of King St, Manly Vale, Sydney. It boasts a lovely waterfall and is fed from Manly Dam by Manly Creek. The creek then winds its way down to the surfing beach at Queenscliff via Manly Lagoon. (As you can see it’s got a lot of Manly connections).

An aerial view of the pool surrounded by a small remnant of bushland

(The UNSW water lab is to the left)


If physical labour is not your thing we also need people with I.T, communications, research and admin skills plus individuals who are able to conduct ecological surveys).

Tiny native fish (the original "Mermaids") migrate up Manly


 The Sydney region has a much greater number of plant species than the whole of Great Britain combined and each of our suburbs have their own individual endemic varieties.  Sadly as the city has grown we’ve eradicated much of our bushland and planted our gardens with exotics from Europe, Asia or South America. Most natives available in the major nurseries are hybrids or out of area plants. Increasingly though, people are seeking out species indigenous to their area and finding them perfect for local weather conditions, soil types and for attracting wildlife. The New Northern Beaches Council can offer advice on what to plant and where to buy them. There is even a community native plant nursery now at Manly Dam (near the Rangers Office).

Dillwynia Retorta


Our waterways and natural bushland are under threat due to the invasion of environmental weeds. These introduced plants out-compete or smother native plants. The trouble is, many of these foreign pests begin life in someone’s backyard and are spread by birds eating their seeds or from people dumping garden clippings in the bush. Once these weeds take over, the natural character of the bush is lost and habitat for wildlife is reduced.
Identify weeds here. 

The invasive and pervasive Lantana


 The great thing about getting involved in environmental restoration is that you can discover fascinating insights into local biodiversity and help ensure that habitat for our native fauna is improved.  In the Mermaid Pool environs for example, Bandicoots have returned after a 40 year absence, Swamp Wallabies have recently been spotted nearby whilst  Dwarf Green Tree Frogs still survive in the reed beds. There are 10 types of native fish that call this waterway home. Some of them have migrated up Manly Creek from the ocean to spawn for millennia (the original “Mermaids”) but accumulated silt, exotic weeds and other obstructions have made this increasingly difficult.  Juvenile Cox’s Gudgeon were recently photographed (by local resident and native fish expert Andrew Lo) ascending Mermaid Pool waterfall using their fins to climb the sheer rock wall.

Juvenile "Cox's Gudgeon" climbing a sheer rockface


 Of course indigenous people occupied the Northern Beaches area for thousands of years and we are hauntingly reminded of their ancient presence through rock carvings and engravings in our locality. As more and more discoveries are made, the significance of the area to Aboriginal people is taking on a greater dimension and the environs of the Mermaid Pool are now being nominated as an Aboriginal site by the MLALC and others.

   In 1788 Governor Arthur Phillip traversed this creek-line when it was surrounded by dense forest and swamps. In the Depression years of the 1930’s there was a camp at Allambie for people who had lost their homes. Girls used to slip away to the pool to swim naked-hence the name-Mermaid Pool. In those days the water was crystal clear, the bird-life rich and varied and the bushland vibrant and colourful.  There is still a rare pocket of coastal rainforest beneath the rocky overhangs of Mermaid Pool which echoes a long distant era. A mere seventy years ago much of Manly Vale was unspoilt bushland, platypus still occupied some waterways and even quolls and koalas were ‘in residence’.

The home of the Douglas Family in the 1930's in what is now "Jenna Close"


 Land owners and occupiers between Manly Dam wall and Mermaid Pool have recently collaborated with The “Return of the Mermaids” project representatives on ways to restore the creekline in their specific areas. It’s an important step forward which means that Sydney Water, the Department of Services, Technology and Administration, Manly Hydraulics Laboratory, The University of New South Wales Water Research Laboratory and the community are working productively together. Further downstream Warringah Golf Club and Conservation Volunteers Australia are also doing very positive remedial work. There are also some grave threats to the bushland in the surrounding area (see blog article "This War Memorial Park is Under Siege)

A Water of the popular local residents.


 On Planet Ark National Tree Day 2005, volunteers planted a grove of endemic native shrubs along King St, Manly Vale to the approaches of Manly Warringah War Memorial Park. This was to commemorate 60 years since the end of World War 2 and to also highlight the importance of planting local native species.  A NSW Government  Community Partnership Program grant was subsequently applied for which helped us to finish the job using contractors from  Australian Bushland Restoration. The “avenue of honour” has since been dedicated to the sacrifice and service of merchant seamen in world wars 1 and 2. It is now a significant memorial and important educational feature of the area. NSW War Memorials Register            
    Ex Merchant Seamen, Don, Ray and Don at the "Avenue of Honour"  central monument. 


 We are currently positioning  nesting boxes for native wildlife in the area (from pygmy possums and micro bats to king parrots) which will provide homes for wildlife (acting as surrogate tree hollows). We are hoping to retrofit tiny cameras inside the boxes to help give the community knowledge of (and empathy with) their local species by being able to observe them. Vision from inside the boxes would be transmitted live via the internet.  Our beautiful remnant of bushland has no power or communications, so we will provide our own – wirelessly, to bring images from the site. Each nesting box in addition to it’s Raspberry Pi computer will be connected to a Mesh wireless network which connects to the internet. Additionally each box would be powered by a dry-cell battery that is charged via photo voltaic solar collectors. As many of the residents are nocturnal, we will illuminated their nesting boxes with infra Red which our cameras pick will up as monochrome images.

King Parrot nesting box


 Our parent organisation, the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee has also helped fund important restoration work at Orara Reserve at Allambie, in conjunction with the Beach School.  This work involved contracting a team from Bushlink ( a bush regeneration organisation which employs people with a disability).  Collaborating with students,  they are gradually removing the invasive weeds from this beautiful area of remnant bushland. We hope to contribute more funding to this important project in the future.

Bushlink website 

The "Return of The Mermaids" restoration project won the Inaugural KNSWB Blue Star Sustainability Award in 2015 in the Habitat and Wildlife Guardianship Category.


In 2017 (on World Environment Day). The NSW Department of Education proceeded to bulldoze several hectares of rare bushland at nearby McComb Hill for the Manly Vale Public School expansion. The community pleaded with them to "build up not out" to save the habitat of the threatened Eastern Pygmy Possum. They also warned that removing all the trees and shrubs from the northern slope would mean that silt and sediment would be washed into Mermaid Pool. They ignored all protests. After heavy rain in June 2018..this was the devastating result...


On October 8th, 2018 The Greater Sydney Landcare Network  sent a letter to The Minister For Lands (Paul Toole), Local MP (James Griffin) and Northern Beaches Mayor (Michael Regan). The letter supported the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee’s initiative of establishing a “small bird corridor” at Mermaid Pools. This would mean that four unallocated crown land parcels of bushland between Manly Dam and District Park (alongside Manly Creek) would be formally protected and zoned for conservation. If this eventuated it would help offset the loss of bushland adjoining nearby Manly Vale Public School, where the dense bushland habitat of the following recorded birds was bulldozed as part of a redevelopment. (Black Faced Cuckoo Shrike, Brown Thornbill, Eastern Spinebill, Little Wattle Bird, New Holland Honey Eater, Red Browed Finch, Scarlet Honey Eater, Silvereye, Spotted Pardalote, Superb Fairy Wren, White Browed Scrub Wren, Azure Kingfisher).

Scarlet Honeyeater


 Are you a local business that can appreciate the need to restore our waterways and conserve our bushland ? Every industry from tourism, surf products and fishing to manufacturing and administration benefits from looking after the environment.  The “Return of the Mermaids” project needs your support now to help fund future important conservation work along Manly Creek and to ensure momentum continues.  If you’re interested in partnering the community please email

Mermaids Sapphire and Skye (courtesy Manly Sea-life Sanctuary)

 Special thanks to all the wonderful volunteers who have worked so hard to ‘Return the Mermaids”* (Many of the first volunteers had spent the previous decade campaigning to save the headwaters of Manly Dam  from the infamous ‘Ardel’ housing development which ultimately destroyed the creekline upstream. This restoration project initiated by The Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee was seen as a way to compensate for some of the environmental damage).

Join the Facebook Group: Mermaid Pool Restoration project

Check out these video links:-

Segment with Costa on Gardening Australia 2014

Mermaid Pool Sydney Metro CMA Award winners 2012

World Water Day 2012. 10th Anniversary of "Return of the Mermaids"

 Jess Amos Film

And here's article on the Mermaid Pool by Peter Fitzsimons that was featured in the Sydney Magazine