WALKING along a boardwalk that slithers like a snake through the mangroves on Ash Island, Peggy Svoboda flicks a mosquito off her arm before she looks around and declares, “Beautiful!”
More mosquitoes land on her, but they don’t bother Svoboda, a senior officer for the state government agency, Hunter Local Land Services.
“That’s part of the rich tapestry of a productive habitat.”
For more than 25 years, this lozenge of low-lying land in the Hunter River has been Svoboda’s workplace and a source of her passion for the environment.
As we stand amid the mangroves, light seeps between the tangle of branches, and the sound of the 21st century barges across the river’s southern arm and into the trees.
Traffic roars along Maitland Road, past the concrete bridge to the island, near the Hexham McDonald’s. For many of those motorists rushing by, Ash Island may be in sight, just 100 metres across the river, but it is out of mind. On the other side of that bridge is another world they have never visited.
“That’s probably one of the most common comments, ‘I’ve lived in Newcastle all my life and I’ve never known this was here’,” recounts Svoboda. “People discover it by chance.”
Ash Island is a jewel in the crown of the Hunter Wetlands National Park. Yet as the park’s ranger, Jo Erskine, says, it’s a hidden jewel to many.
“When they do drive over [the bridge], they’re pretty gobsmacked, I think. They go, ‘Oh, this is fantastic’.” Erskine says. “There’s this whole world in there of people creating habitat and a changing environment, with migratory shorebirds coming. It’s alive.”
Yet it’s a natural world that could have easily been lost, and it has been a long road towards restoration.
WHILE it barely rises above the river, Ash Island holds many layers of human experience.
When British explorers first stepped onto the island in 1801, they found blueberry ash trees. From those trees came the inspiration for the name for the island at the western end of a string of isles in the Hunter River estuary.
According to Peggy Svoboda, the island would have been a rich mix of tidal and non-tidal areas; saltmarsh meadows dissected with creeks, freshwater wetlands, woodlands, and mangroves around the fringe.
Long before it was called Ash Island, this place was like a larder for the Worimi and Awabakal peoples, supplying oysters and fish, wetlands plants and birds. It also provided the materials for medicines, tools and weapons.
By the 1820s, British settlers had also caught up with the potential of the island, with its rich soil deposited by floods.
In 1829, more than 1000 hectares, so basically the whole island, was granted to entrepreneur and entomologist Alexander Walker Scott (Newcastle’s Scott Street is named after him). After years of visiting the island, Scott and his family moved there in 1846, planting a renowned orange orchard.
Scott was not the only scientist to be beguiled by Ash Island. After the explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt visited in 1842, he wrote, “it is a remarkably fine place” with “luxuriant vegetation”.
The island’s greatest scientific legacy was created by Scott himself, and his two daughters, Harriet and Helena. The family turned this isolated place in the river into a hothouse of artistic inspiration and scientific observation.
Scott was the author of two books about butterflies and moths, and the title page of Volume 1, published in Britain, notes that he was from “Ash Island, Hunter River, New South Wales.”
Scott wrote about the natural riches to be found on Ash Island, “whether we take a walk in the more uncultivated spots which the Casuarina or the Melaleucae frequent, indicating a low and damp soil; or in the rich, dense brushes favorable to the growth of shrubs and climbers”.
The illustrations for the books, Australian Lepidoptera and their Transformations, were meticulously done by Harriet and Helena Scott, who are also acknowledged on the title page.
The Scott sisters would trudge around the island, through the bush and across wetlands, collecting specimens and returning to their homestead on the north-western point to sketch and paint in the finest detail.
More than record butterflies and moths, the sisters would collect all manner of flora and fauna for other scientists. Many of the insects they collected, for instance, ended up at the Australian Museum.
In 1866, Scott lost his wife and also suffered financial difficulties, so the family moved off the island. But the island’s influence continued to shape the Scott sisters.
They would go on to be acclaimed illustrators for a string of Australian wildlife books, and they also created the first Christmas cards to feature Australian native flora.
In turn, the Scott sisters’ influence continues to flutter around Ash Island.
More than a century and a half after Harriet and Helena sketched native wildlife on the island, Stroud-based artist and environmental volunteer Rosie Heritage created the illustrations for a book, Butterflies and Bushland.
As part of her preparation to draw the island’s butterflies, Heritage travelled to Sydney to see the Scott sisters’ work at the Australian Museum.
“The actual illustrations were like little jewels,” she recalls.
Without the sisters’ illustrations, Heritage says of her own work, “there’s absolutely no way I could have worked up these butterflies to that degree”.
Heritage’s partner and fellow artist, Bob Seal, is working on a series of illustrations and animated works, inspired by the Scotts and Ash Island, and designed to highlight the sisters’ art.
Both Heritage and Seal are in awe of what the sisters created, and the environment in which they worked and lived.
“I think about that all the time,” Heritage says. “What they went through, the sort of lives they had to live to create these amazing pictures.”
After the Scotts left in the 1860s, the island was sliced into small farms, and a new community sprouted. A school was established, and generations of farmers made their living from cattle, crops and dairying.
However, bushland was cleared and turned into paddocks.
While the river gave the farmers rich soil, it also threatened to wash livelihoods away occasionally, so when big floods came, families and livestock had to evacuate.
In the devastating flood of 1955, the entire island was covered. Inside the old schoolmaster’s house is a plaque showing where the water reached; it is more than a metre up the door frame.
“It’s been remarkable we’ve got from 1955 to now without a proper flood on this island,” says Don Wilson, who has just written a book, Driven Out, recording his memories of the Lower Hunter River islands.
“From the war to ’55, we had a flood on here once a year, twice a year.”
Wilson’s family had a boatshed “made of bits and pieces” just a little upstream from the island.
During floods, Wilson and his father helped dairy farmers on Ash Island by transporting their cans of milk in a little open boat across the swollen river.
He may not be an Ash Islander, but Don Wilson spent a lot of time here as a boy.
“This is where I learnt to fish,” the 83-year-old exclaims, striding through the grass to a spot along the river’s southern arm. “Bream, flathead …”
How did he keep the mosquitoes off him while fishing? After all, the local mozzies are so notorious, A.B. “Banjo” Paterson even featured them in a poem, How The Favourite Beat Us. The poet wrote of the Hexham Grey mosquito, “They suck a man dry at a sitting, no doubt”.
Don Wilson had a simple solution: “We used to get dried cow manure, light that, and the smoke would keep them away.”
He gestures to his left, explaining how gypsies would camp here along the river bank, and so would miners during Christmas holidays - “they’d prawn and fish and shoot a few ducks”.
“Where they camped, it was such good earth, people would take it away to make gardens,” he says.
“All around this island, there were huts where people holidayed or kept boats. They’re all gone now.”
Wilson also remembers when the RAAF had a radar station on the island during the Second World War. The concrete igloo buildings continue to squat in a paddock on the island’s northern side.
They are among the few buildings from the past still on Ash Island.
Wilson wanders back to the road, known as Scotts Point Way, which leads to where that pioneering family had its homestead. The house is long gone, replaced by weeds and a stand of trees. It is the same for other farmhouses on the island. All that remain are ruins and memories.
“See that silo?,” says Wilson, pointing across the paddock. “There was a farm there.”
Don Wilson prefers the Ash Island of his younger years. After all, the subtitle of his memoir is A Paradise Lost.
But he concedes the place has fared a lot better than it could have: “This is better than chemical companies spewing stuff out all over the place.”
ASH Island was fortunate to not be engulfed in the 1950s and the decades following, as a massive industrial vision washed up the river like a tsunami.
The Island Reclamation Scheme was implemented to create a platform for the Hunter’s post-war growth. Islands in the estuary began disappearing as one was joined to the next. As a result, Kooragang Island grew like Frankenstein’s monster.
Ash Island was part of the plan and lost some of its character. The state resumed land on the island, leasing properties back to farmers. The eastern edges of the island were stitched onto Kooragang. Creeks that Don Wilson used to fish in were drained and filled. Ash Island was no longer a territory unto itself.
By the early 1970s, concern about pollution from Kooragang Island led to an inquiry, which highlighted the need for retaining an ecological belt in the estuary along Newcastle’s western edge. That brought Ash Island into notice. In 1983, it was gazetted as part of the Kooragang Nature Reserve.
But Peggy Svoboda reckons Mother Nature would have ensured any plans to turn all of Ash Island into a home for industry were economically unviable.
“It comes at a place in the Hunter estuary [the river splits into the north and south arms] that has flooding and access issues,” she says, explaining a fortune would have had to be spent to build up the island.
“High ground is about two metres . . . and that’s probably a residual dredge pile from the north arm of the river, so it’s very low-lying.”
It was industry that first brought Peggy Svoboda to Ash Island. She was an environmental officer for the Tomago aluminium smelter and was gathering samples in a 20-kilometre radius around the facility. One of the sites was Ash Island.
“It hadn’t been looked after, at least for its native flora and fauna,” she recalls.
In 1993, Svoboda was about to spend a lot more time on the island.
Svoboda was employed as a coordinator for the Kooragang Island Wetland Compensation Project - “It was compensation for what had been lost in the previous 200 years of draining and filling and clearing.”
The name was soon changed to the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project. The island was in many places a blank canvas, but it was pocked and littered with degradation.
“When we first started out, it was a bit of a mess,” she recalls.
Early on, Svoboda and her team had to remove about 50 dumped cars, and they negotiated with the farmers to contain their cattle, so that areas of the island could be rehabilitated. Creeks have been opened up again, tidal flows and saltmarsh meadows have been restored, and old paddocks have been planted out.
“It’s a mosaic of habitats,” she explains, adding one piece of that is the island is a floodplain, playing a vital role: “It gives floods somewhere to go, other than into people’s houses and businesses.”
Since 2010, most of the island has been part of the Hunter Wetlands National Park, administered by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Ranger Jo Erskine says rehabilitating the island has been an enormous task - “we all recognise it’s a highly modified environment” - but the projects and efforts by government agencies and local groups to restore it has added to the place’s high conservation value.
“We’re always looking for new areas to create habitat, to tweak, I guess.”
Back in the early 1990s, when the rehabilitation project began, Peggy Svoboda told the Herald she was hoping to restore the island’s “original feeling”, as described by visiting scientists such as Leichhardt.
When asked how close she has got to that goal, Svoboda replies, “It’s a bit like housework. It’s hard to see what’s been done. But you can see what’s left to be done.”
Svoboda cites combatting weeds as a priority on the “To Do” list, but she also says these days she “sees a lot less that needs to be done”.
On a tour of her favourite places, Svoboda leads me to a freshwater wetland, lush and cradling ducks, egrets and a family of swans - ‘It’s almost Kakaduish back here”.
She takes me to a grove called Sue’s Garden, in memory of one of the island’s champions, Sue Rostas. Svoboda gently brushes the leaves of a tree.
“This is the ash tree of Ash Island, she says. “All of these trees have been planted. There were only about three trees around here.”
More than repair damage from the past, the project has been receiving guidance from the past in planting the trees. A botany list of about 240 species on the island, drawn up by Harriet Scott in 1862, was discovered and has been used to determine what should be planted.
“It helps us to, with some confidence, select species and know what to look for, and to look at the landscape a little bit through 1860s eyes,” Svoboda says.
A key to the regeneration of Ash Island has been the army of volunteers. They’ve helped plant and nurture about 200,000 trees. One of those volunteers even has an area named after him.
NEVILLE McNaughton sits amid a thick patch of trees, not far from the old radar station. He’s been out here since early morning, just as he’s done a couple of times a week for more than a decade.
The shelter he sits in wears the sign, “Nev’s Nook”, an honour that embarrasses the quietly spoken McNaughton. Yet a photo from the mid-1990s shows why Peggy Svoboda named this area after him. This was an almost bare paddock.
“All that was here was a big old ash tree and a big paperbark,” McNaughton says.
In regenerating this part of the island with native plants, Neville McNaughton regenerated himself. After his wife had died in 2002, he “was getting sick of sitting around the house”. Then he heard about a tour of the wetlands.
As a kid, McNaughton would ride to Ash Island from New Lambton to fish. So he decided to do the tour and return to the scene of his childhood adventures. In no time at all, the retired linesman was a volunteer, removing weeds and kikuyu grass and planting “whatever I could get my hands on”.
“It’s kept me off the streets, and it might have stopped a lot of depression [after his wife died], ” McNaughton says, as he looks around at what he’s created. “It means a lot to me now.”
ALAN Stuart must have thick skin. He is defying the mosquitoes, dressed in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. But when he puts a pair of binoculars to his eyes, Stuart feels nothing but joy at seeing the diversity of birds, some of them endangered species, on Ash Island.
“These are two interesting visitors, two sharp-tailed sandpipers,” Stuart says, explaining these birds have flown all the way from Siberia or North Asia. “They come down here to escape the northern winter. There are about 4500 in the estuary at the moment.”
The international importance of the Hunter estuary to both migratory and resident birds has been officially recognised for decades. Under the Ramsar convention on wetlands of international importance, this site has been listed since 1984.
Yet Alan Stuart, a life member of the Hunter Bird Observers Club, doesn’t need a convention to tell him what’s special about this place.
“A natural estuary is a very dynamic beast, it chops and changes, but European settlement constrains what can happen,” he explains.
Stuart and fellow club member Ross Zimmerman drive along the Bell Frog Track, with water on either side, across a patchwork of swales and ponds, mudflats and saltmarsh.
Thousands of birds are resting on what’s called Swan Pond. They are both migratory and resident species.
“This is one of the reasons I keep coming to Ash Island, because you get things like this,” says Stuart.
“The Hunter estuary is hosting this massive number of visitors,” adds Zimmerman.
But Stuart says where we’re standing is not in the national park, and the club has appealed for the government to better protect this part of the island: “It’s the most important part for birds.”
Just beyond the teeming vision of nature on Swan Pond is the imposing presence of industry.
Heavily laden trains trundle along a track on the other side of the pond, bound for the coal loaders that can be seen in the distance.
A 2017 NSW Office of Environment and Heritage report about monitoring the health of the Lower Hunter River noted, “It is an unfortunate irony that large expanses of Ramsar-listed wetlands lie adjacent to the most heavily industrialised port in Australia.”
Ross Zimmerman believes the birds have grown used to the neighbours: “They’re very adaptable. It’s not this or that, it’s this AND that. As long as we keep their habitat.”
The industrial neighbours have to help maintain the habitat. As part of its environmental offset, the Newcastle Coal Infrastructure Group has helped re-establish saltmarsh by removing some mangroves. Resources giant BHP has been involved in establishing frog ponds.
To track the numbers of birds, and provide evidence of the importance of this place, the observers club has been doing regular surveys for 20 years. Alan Stuart has been part of the survey team for all that time; Zimmerman since the start of the year.
Scientific and anecdotal evidence has suggested the numbers of birds, particularly migratory species, have plummeted over the years. Tapping into memories of his own childhood here, Don Wilson says, “It’s a meagre number of wader birds, it’s a disgrace. It’s nothing like what it was.”
Alan Stuart believes during his time bird-watching, the decline would be about 70 per cent, with the numbers of some species, such as the curlew sandpiper, dropping by more than 90 per cent.
That drop is due not just to development in the estuary but loss of habitats internationally.
“But some birds have come back with the revegetation programs,” he says. “As long as there’s no further development, it will be ok, maybe better than ok, as new habitats have been created.”
AS the island has been rehabilitated, more visitors have crossed the bridge to walk the trails and boardwalks, to cycle, or to watch the wildlife in a national park on the edge of town.
Yet a few go to Ash Island and cause damage, vandalising property, driving off the roads and onto fragile habitats, or to burn cars.
In its draft plan of management, the National Parks and Wildlife Service has proposed installing a gate at the bridge to block the island at night, but ranger Jo Erskine is aware that would annoy legitimate user groups, such as fishers.
The anti-social behaviour, Erskine says, is “an enormous problem, and it takes a lot of resources”.
For those key government groups on the island, sufficient resources to even maintain what is there is an issue. The city demonstration farm run by Hunter Local Land Services has been shut, and the community garden is now run by a volunteer organisation.
Another group of volunteers has recently formed the Friends of the Schoolmaster’s House, moving into that late 19th-century building to not only provide a local history resource and a shopfront for visitors, but to help keep an eye on the place. However, the volunteers are unsure how long they will have use of the old house.
The island also faces a long-term threat, according to Peggy Svoboda.
“It’s a low-lying deltaic island, and it’s vulnerable to sea level rise and climate change,” she says. “There are portions of it that will [be underwater]. So it will shift to that tidal end of the spectrum.”
Those who have worked to rehabilitate Ash Island hope to share the love of the place, and spread the desire among Novocastrians to protect what it is right in their backyard.
“It should be an icon for Newcastle, along with the beaches and lovely historic buildings,” Svoboda says. “And I must admit it’s not quite like going to the beach. It’s a little bit of an acquired taste . . . You come out to Ash Island, and it surprises. If you like surprises, it can do that.”
Ranger Jo Erskine believes a healthy Ash Island can only create an even healthier life for all who call the Hunter home.
“It’s an easily accessible recreational area,” Erskine says.
“The community should embrace the fact we’ve actually got a world-class, internationally recognised Ramsar wetland, and we’ve got this amazing phenomenon every year where migratory shorebirds travel up to 12,000 kilometres to get here.
“And having these areas around Newcastle, they’re the lungs of the city.”