Ecological burn on Cape Otway.

Victoria’s Otway Ranges provide refuge to native wildlife and rare vegetation but feral animals, wildfires, and a changing climate pose a constant threat to the diverse landscape.

Over 200 land managers, custodians, and researchers met in Colac on Wednesday, a small town on the doorstep of the Great Otway National Park, to ensure the safety and future of the Otways.

This year’s Otways Ecological Research Forum included a presentation on restoring ecology to the Dreeite from the Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation, whose people were recently returned rights to a stretch of land encompassing much of the Great Ocean Road and Great Otway national park.

“Eastern Maar” is a name adopted by the people who identify as Maar, Eastern Gunditjmara, Djab Wurrung, Peek Whurrong, Kirrae Whurrung, Kuurn Kopan Noot and/or Yarro waetch (Tooram Tribe).

Other topics discussed at the forum included feral pig management, how planned burns affect small animals, the density of invasive predators, protecting plant and animal diversity, and how biocultural knowledge can be used as the basis for managing Country, as well as much more.

Yuin man Dr Jack Pascoe has helped convene the forum with the Conservation Ecology Centre for the eighth year running and says it’s a great opportunity for researchers to directly influence land management.

“I don’t know of another region in Victoria or Australia where researchers meet annually with the local land managers, and where the knowledge that scientists are generating is directly being put into practice on the ground.

“It takes usually years for data to be published, and even then, it’s in scientific journals which very few land managers have access to. The forum acts as a bridge between science and practice.”

Dr Pascoe, a wildlife ecologist by trade, grew up on Gadabanut Country in Cape Otway and has dedicated much of his professional career to restoring productive systems throughout the Otways, and he says that’s exactly why the forum is a success, because everyone that attends has a divested interest in the region.

“That means the scientists, all of their work is relevant to the region, the land managers are the land managers for the region, the Traditional Custodians that are there are also working in the region and responsible culturally for that land.

“We get more and more delegates every year because basically people are talking about the stuff they care about and building connections to work on country and get this right.”

The Otway Ranges were mostly spared from the ravages of the Black Summer bushfires in 2019 and 2020 thanks to its wet rainforest and cool temperate climate, but Dr Pascoe warns it’s just a matter of time.

“It takes a special set of circumstances for them to burn, they will burn, we know that, and I guess every year there’s a chance that it’s the year.

“We’re coming off three really good years of rainfall, whilst we’re expecting a hot or drier year this year, we’ve still got really good residual moisture in the soil, which is important for those big fires that generate their own weather, so there’s a little bit of protection in that, but as we know, it only takes one or two bad seasons to turn that around.”

He says if we want better outcomes for Country and people there needs to be a shift in the way society exists, back to the principles and priorities of our old people.

“I don’t think we can continue in this extractive way with country, we have to place ourselves back in Country, whether that’s physically or spiritually, so that we can connect ourselves to it and acknowledge our responsibility to care for the world.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do that, and I think we’re in desperate trouble if we can’t do that, so we have to learn from the connected way that our old people move through the world.”