FRED Weight, a resident of Jay Road in Foster, has not always lived in South Gippsland.
“We’re climate refugees from the Shepparton region,” he said.
Born in 1941 during World War II, Fred said: “The first time I remember seeing my father was in 1946, when he returned from serving in the War. Nevertheless, my childhood was scintillating.”
Though money was in short supply, life was good.
“My grandmother had hundreds of chooks and sold the eggs. She also had a cow for milk and butter, as well as a huge veggie garden. And, of course, there were fish from the river.”
His family had a house in the Kialla Village Settlement, an area of bushland subdivided into 90 workmen’s blocks averaging around 2ha (five acres). It was 4km from Shepparton and 2km from Mooroopna, where he and his siblings went to school, across the old wooden bridge.
His mother, Kitty M Weight, wrote a history book of its development: ‘History of Kialla Village Settlement (Honeysuckle Park) 1893-1993’.
The settlement was bounded by the Broken River to the north, 11km of the Goulburn River to the west and Seven Creeks to the east.
“It was paradise,” Fred said.
With cinematic clarity, Fred recalls an idyllic childhood of abundant wildlife; the Goulburn River stretching 50m across, edged with majestic red gums; swamps teeming with life; stable sand dunes covered with beautiful native trees and orchards.
“Walking along the bank, looking 40ft down to the water, you could count up to seven platypuses at a time. You could spot water rats lying on their backs on logs eating mussels, or sugar gliders volplaning across the Goulburn.”
“We were also fascinated by the abundant wildflowers: Early Nancy appeared first… lots of orchids: green hoods, spider orchids; cowslips and billy buttons.”
Fred remembers watching hundreds of Rainbow Bee-eaters returning from the north (New Guinea and Indonesia) to nest high up in burrows in the sand dunes each year.
“When I was 16, the sand dunes disappeared seemingly overnight, mined for their pure building sand for housing. I cried as I watched the bee-eaters fluttering perplexed in the air at the height of their old nests in the dunes.”
Swamps were drained, probably to “manage” flood risk or for development, so many aquatic birds did not return.
A blackwater event in 1967 saw the river run black for six weeks.
“Before that, I could collect a sugar bag full of mussels.”
The huge leeches that had been a swimming hazard disappeared.
“The Murray River crays my dad and uncle used to catch were also gone.”
Carp were introduced into the river in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. They undermined the riverbanks and sand ledges.
“This caused the disappearance of the seven sandbars we had used before when swimming upstream.”
Insecticide use resulted in huge reductions in insect life: “I can remember my grandmother deciding to ‘try this new DDT’, in the late 1940s, when I was six or seven. The next day, there were dead insects piled half an inch deep all over the vegetable garden.”
Referring to his paradise, Fred said: “It was lost. I’ve lived long enough to see the losses we’ve caused inadvertently and their consequences.”
A retired primary school principal, Fred first came to Meeniyan, then settled in Foster, about seven years ago.
“Wherever I’ve lived and taught, I’ve planted native plants, but I did it alone.”
Since becoming an original member of the Gippsland group of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Prom Area Climate Action (PACA), Fred has felt newly empowered. He has regained hope through working with others trying to arouse awareness of ways of improving our environment.
Fred is one of the leaders of PACA’s sub-group, Nature for Neighbourhoods, believing passionately that “we must restore, create and protect habitat”.
He has a dream of putting Foster on the map as “a koala town”. This would entail providing continuous corridors of coastal gum plantations (eucalyptus viminalis, subsp pryoriana) on private and public land.
In his neighbourhood of Jay Road, the watercourse that runs behind his land is a straight channel that rages when it rains. It could be restored to make the meandering creek that existed before, slowing the water and providing waterholes suitable for platypus, such as in Stockyard Creek.
If you would like to join Fred in promoting the restoration of native habitat, you can register your interest via the PACA website at promareaclimateaction.org. Look up Our Projects: Nature For Neighbourhoods. If you would like to join Prom Area Climate Action, email firstname.lastname@example.org.