Central Queensland’s Shoalwater Bay may be better known as a military training ground for human conflict, but nearby graziers and conservationists are fighting for the survival of a unique species.
- Shoalwater Bay graziers’ work protects the critically endangered Capricorn yellow chat
- There are only about 250 birds left in the wild and conservationists are worried a bad weather event may send the species extinct
- Locals believe it’s an example of agriculture and the natural environment co-existing to benefit all
The Capricorn yellow chat is a critically endangered flycatcher unique to the region including near the bay better known for military training and war games involving soldiers from across the world.
Birdlife Capricornia secretary Allan Briggs said the endangered species survives in a flat environment which is also attractive for cattle grazing.
“Wherever we find them they are in what we call a marine plain environment which is basically a treeless environment, that’s right on the [coastal] edge and experiences some tidal inundation,” he said.
“That’s one of the reasons why people don’t see yellow chats, because they’re in very harsh environments and they’re difficult to access.”
Grazier Craig Mace lives at Toorilla Plains and has about 4,000 hectares of marine plains on his property.
Rather than seeing it as lost productivity he said preserving the yellow chat habitat as a healthy environment benefited his business.
“If you look after the environment it looks after you, and the birds, that’s the environment they love,” he said.
“It’s just an aviary for birds and waterbirds. There’s plenty of them out there at the moment.”
He said that his cattle and the natural ecosystem worked effectively side by side.
“The birds just fit in with the cattle,” he said.
“I think the cattle keep the grass down to a degree and you just have to make sure you don’t overgraze the country.”
Down the road, Lawson Geddes also has marine plains on his property Couti-Outi.
He said it was a simple question of healthy environment, healthy cattle.
“They’re all animals,” he said.
“I think it’s all part of the environment isn’t it? They’re all a part of the ecosystem and I think they seem to get along quite well.”
The habitat has been working so well that Mr Geddes was surprised to hear the bird was endangered at all.
“Until a few years ago I didn’t know they were endangered,” he said.
“An environmentalist came back very excited one day because he’d found a bird that, apparently, they thought was extinct elsewhere.
“He showed us a photo and it was this yellow chat and we just said ‘Oh, we see that all the time’.”
Bird on the brink
Mr Briggs said the population of yellow chats is on a knife edge and any loss of population or habitat could have a detrimental impact.
“There’s only 250 left in the wild,” he said.
“That means the bird is critically endangered and you can well imagine if we had a major environmental event, like a cyclone or a huge fire that went through, we could end up reducing the population to a level that is not viable and it would end up going extinct.”
Mr Briggs said it made the landowners’ management of marine plains critical to the survival of the species.
“These land managers do a really great job,” he said.
“There’s, for example, invasive weed species and ferals which affect the yellow chat’s habitat and the landowners, the graziers, are keeping these problems under control.
“The cattle as well, they graze the grass and weeds down to a manageable level so they are effectively controlling the fire risk.
“Without them there is no management, and I don’t think the habitat would last very long if it was just left to be in its wild condition.”
Mr Geddes said their work with the Capricorn yellow chat was an example of farmers working with the land, and that agriculture and the natural environment can co-exist.
“This bird has been here as long as I can remember, the cattle don’t worry about it at all,” he said.
“You can see the cows lying down and the bird on its back just going around doing its thing.”
Mr Mace agreed and said it was rewarding to challenge the negative perceptions of agriculture, but they needed to showcase more examples.
“I think the only thing you can do is to get people out and look at it,” he said.
“You can tell people all you like but they have to see it for themselves.
“That’s why we have a lot of environmental groups that come out and survey the place and count the birds”
Mr Briggs said that without the cooperation and management of the graziers it would be a very different story for the Capricorn yellow chat.
“I do want to congratulate the landowners that we’ve been working with,” he said.
“It’s a really delicate balance in these complex environmental scenarios and it really needs the cooperation of everybody — land managers, conservationists — all working together to maintain that population into the future.”