For almost two decades Alwyn Ryan has acted like a Godmother to the Sale Common wetlands, working to rejuvenate its damaged terrain and educating its future users.
The 71-year-old has worked tirelessly to reverse the effects of extensive cattle grazing on the precious wetlands, which are fed by the Latrobe and Thomson Rivers. Having lived on a farm adjacent to Lake Reeve for 11 years, Alwyn moved to Sale in 1990 and immediately took up a job with the then Conservation and Natural Resources, quickly developing a schools program for the wetlands.
“I had a lot to learn because up until then Sale Common was just a place you drove past and it wasn’t used by the community,’’ Alwyn says. “It hadn’t been advertised as a place to go and it lacked any real facilities. The main thing most people knew about it was that when it flooded it often took a few caravans with it’’.
With a strong focus on community education and with the assistance of many enthusiastic volunteers in the Friends of Sale Wetlands, Alwyn (a former teacher) set about changing the landscape, but also public attitudes.
“We got down there and scrubbed out blackberries and planted trees. Those trees are now quite tall and look like they’ve been there forever. It’s a very positive change because if we don’t have a healthy environment, we’re not a healthy community.
“There are still a lot of weeds and there is always going to be a huge amount of work to do but there was a time when wetlands were viewed as swamps and wastelands, and they were drained for agriculture. People didn’t realise the role that wetlands played in mitigating floods and recycling nutrients and many other important features.
“It’s great to see how opinions have changed so much. Even the change of name from swamp to wetlands is a positive move’’.
The enthusiastic birdwatcher and field naturalist says watching other people enjoy the wetlands gives her the greatest thrill.
“I’ve always been a frustrated biologist so this is a way of being one I guess,’’ she laughs.
“Wetlands are magical places because of their tranquillity and it’s great to see people get out from behind the TV or computer, breathe some fresh air, see the lovely old red gums on the Latrobe and watch a sea eagle fly overhead or have a whistling kite call to you or a lovely kingfisher dive into the water and pick something up. That’s the reason I live here’’.
The next big project Alwyn is involved in is the rejuvenation of 2000 acres of the nearby Heart Morass, which is also fed by the Latrobe River. The $1.1 million land purchase and rehabilitation is being carried out by Field and Game Australia and Watermark (of which Alwyn is a member), through the sponsorship from the Hugh DT Williamson Foundation and the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority.
“That is another vital wetland that was a grazing property so we’re really excited about getting in there with school students, educating them and planting trees. I want to see an informed community which is passionate about its own local environment and really cares about what it’s got’’.