Nothing Scrappy about these Remnants (apart from the Phascogale nest)

remnant
noun
1 they cleared up the remnants of the picnic: remains, remainder, leftovers, leavings, residue, rest; stub, butt, end, tail end; dregs, lees; technical residuum.
2 remnants of cloth: scrap, piece, bit, fragment, shred, offcut, oddment.

We try to create an environment on our farm where everyone and everything thrives – people, goats, flora & fauna, soil, microbes, cultures, cheese.

This is why we were so pleased at the results of our nest box monitoring last week. We have 25 boxes set up across the farm. They are located in our remnant patches of bush. The word remnant suggests a negative connotation. But the woodland remnants on the property are rich and vital, not just to our farm, but for the surrounding landscape and the broader region.

Our remnants are hugely beneficial to our farm; they work as shelter belts to protect the goats, pastures and people from the prevailing winds and weather, come summer and winter. The birds and creatures they harbour help keep our paddocks free of pests and diseases. Their deep leaf litter covers our soils and keeps them cool and moist.

Our goats would love to have access to our remnants, but they are and always will be goat-free-zones. Our Trust For Nature covenant ensures this and our NAASA organic certification requires it. But that’s not the only reason we take care of our remnants. The phascogales (and other birds and critters) need large nesting hollows. We put up the nest boxes so there is somewhere for them to stay, whilst we wait for the trees to get old and large enough to create their own hollows. And it’s not just all about the nest boxes. We let fallen trees lie and are not tempted to “clean up” branches and leaf litter, nor harvest for firewood.

We give the goats the run of the rest of the farm and plenty of good habitat, just for their needs, so although it would be a goat’s dream to get into one of our remnants, they are very happy in the paddock and don’t feel the need to go anywhere else.

Last week’s nest box monitoring was carried out by Asha Bannon and Jess Lawton as part of Connecting Country’s Brush-tailed Phascogale habitat restoration and monitoring project. From 2009 to 2011, clusters of three nest boxes were installed at approximately 150 sites across the Mount Alexander Shire. The boxes are a tool to monitor the distribution and health of the threatened Brush-tailed Phascogale (also known as the Tuan), as well as providing extra habitat for them.

“Connecting Country have 450 nest boxes across the Shire. Holy Goat has nine that were put up in 2010/2011, but Carla and Ann-Marie have also put up lots more themselves”, says Asha.

“Our boxes are tailor-made by Miles Geldard for the Brush-tailed Phasgogale, but sugar gliders also like them too. The phascogale’s presence is a good indicator of a healthy property. If the phascogales are there, then it’s more likely other less threatened species will be too,” says Asha.

On our farm, 23 of the 25 nest boxes (the first put up in 2005, then in 2010, 2011 and 2017) showed evidence that either sugar gliders or phascogales had been using them. And in two of those boxes, someone was home!

Jess has been studying the Phascogales for three and a bit years, with another 10 months left of her PhD at La Trobe University which is looking at the effects on their distribution across Victoria, specifically food sources and landscape ecology. Jess has worked in with Connecting Country’s monitoring project for the past two years.

The Brush-tailed Phascogale, photo by Trevor Pescott

“The Mount Alexander region is a quite special place for them. Even though we don’t have that many large tree hollows and that there is a lot of cleared land, our Shire does have some reasonable patches, compared with the rest of Victoria. Overall, our region is reasonably well connected and we suspect that’s why they use the smaller patches.” says Jess.

“We survey in Autumn because that’s when the populations disperse and there’s more activity, so it’s more likely we will detect them. It’s mating time and the males are travelling far to find their mates.They can travel long distances. Phascogales have large home ranges, at least 50 hectares. And they really eat a lot – insects, occasionally small vertebrates, as well as nectar – so they need large areas to forage in. Ann-Marie and Carla have provided them with excellent foraging material – lots of logs on the ground, lots of deep leaf litter and many box trees with rough bark.”

Jess says that because phascogales travel so widely, they often aren’t home at survey time and when they monitor, ecologists will rely on evidence that a nest box has been used.

And it’s pretty obvious. We can tell whether a sugar glider or a phascogale has been resident in ours. They are like chalk and cheese in their housekeeping habits (hmmm…). Phascogales are pretty scrappy. If you see feathers, piles of smelly scats and a mess of nesting material, that’s a Brush-tailed Phascogale. Sugar gliders are more neat freaks – no scats to be seen, fresh leaves carefully placed in a circular fashion, more clean leaves regularly added and the whole thing smells pretty nice really.

You can see what we mean below:

Interestingly, we have put up a mix of plastic and wooden nest boxes and the resident phascogale was found in the plastic one. Jess isn’t sure whether this is because it’s a slightly different shape, or whether the plastic has different insulating properties, but the trend at Holy Goat has been to find sugar gliders in the wooden boxes and phascogales in the plastic. Maybe they’re less choosy, or something, and it’s another PhD topic, surely!

Aside from the Connecting Country official nest boxes and surveying project, anyone can install nest boxes, says Asha.

“And you don’t need to get up a tall ladder to check for habitation – simply sit away from the box and watch, or put up motion sensitive cameras to see if anyone is visiting, and staying”.

“We love working with Holy Goat as they are so engaged with their farm’s environment and in sharing it with Connecting Country,” says Asha.

We love working with Connecting County, as we get to share the riches of our farm with others who appreciate it. We also get to understand where our place fits within the broader landscape and how we can connect more.

We’d like to improve and extend the quality of our covenanted areas, not just on our farm, but to link with neighbouring properties and roadsides that have good remnant patches. The phascogales need more than we can provide here.

We are inspired by the creatures that have chosen to make their home on our farm, and also by the thought that if we could connect up all these small scraps of precious remnants then what a magnificent cloth to cover the landscape that would be.

More info:

https://connectingcountry.org.au/monitoring/nestboxes/
http://www.wildlifenestboxes.com.au/
To see a summary of the 2016 Connecting Country surveys click here.
To see a summary example of one of our 2016 surveyed box clusters click here.

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