“This,” said the Old Man of the Swamp, “was once a massive area of wetlands that could almost rival Kakadu.”
He was talking about the large area of parkland that is now known as the Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands.
Kakadu, a UNESCO world heritage site, covers over 2 million hectares of floodplains, tidal flats mangroves and lowlands in the remote north of Australia.
The Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands of Victoria stretch over 300 hectares, but are just 35km from Melbourne, Australia’s second most populous city.
The Victorian wetlands are the remnant of the huge Karrum Karrum swamp which used to span 3000 hectares and measured approximately 15km from north to south, and about 5km across from east to west.
The swampland with its dense growth of swamp tea-tree and other vegetation was covered for the most part by the waters from the Dandenong, Eumemmerring and other smaller creeks. Les Williams grew up in this area and because of his ongoing involvement with “Friends of the Wetlands” he is affectionately known as the “Old Man of the Swamp”.
The Karrum Karrum swamp once teemed with wildlife and supported large numbers of the Bunurong Aboriginal people, who lived sustainably in the region for tens of thousands of years, he said. The diverse and abundant flora and fauna included brolga and magpie goose, both of which are now locally extinct.
“The Aboriginal people once lived here with great luxury because there was such abundance of fish and birds and things to eat, and of course kangaroos and wallabies,” explained Les.
Then came the white man and the swamp was drained, and the greater part of it reclaimed for cow paddocks and farming. However, 300 hectares remained and a small group of volunteers in 1988 formed the Friends of the Wetlands and took on the monumental task of planting thousands of trees and constructing viewing platforms.
The area has now become an educational bird watching centre for visitors as well as locals.
The Value of Wetlands
Science now recognises that wetlands are the most productive and the most threatened ecosystems in the world.
An expert on wetlands, Les said that their real value, apart from being a wonderful habitat for bird life, is that they are considered to be the kidneys of the earth. If we irreparably damage our wetlands they can no longer fulfil their role as cleaning systems.
“We know that if our kidneys fail we die; and if the wetlands are destroyed, the earth will die,” he said.
Les explained that wetlands provide an ecological cleaning system for all the “poisons” and “nasties” that come into the area from the mountains and urban areas. All the poisons are taken up by the vegetation in the wetlands. “It is really to keep us healthy,” he said.
Les said Melbourne Water, the state government department responsible for sewage, rivers and major drainage systems in the region, was now putting in wetlands “everywhere”.
The people that live near them are delighted because it is nice to look out of their windows at a lake and the birds love them as well.
”But,” he added with a grin, “the real reason is that they are little mini sewer farms cleaning the place up.”
Gone are the days when wetlands were considered useless swamps, too difficult to develop.
The word “swamp” often conjured up visions of mud and slime, mosquitoes and nasty things like bunyips living in the murky water. However, today wetlands are recognised as precious community assets.
The Edithvale and Seaford Wetlands have been registered by the Ramsar Convention as wetlands of international importance and people come from all over the world to view the bird life there.