on a photoshoot with Deakin University
Dr. James Fitzsimons on a photoshoot with Deakin University © Craig Newell

James Fitzsimons

Is there a place for private property conservation?

James Fitzsimons is a busy man. As our Director of Conservation he’s involved in everything from tropical savanna burning to shellfish reef restoration. He’s also a widely published scientist on everything from burrowing crayfish to tax reform for conservation. On top of that, he’s an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University in Melbourne. And for good measure, his expertise in private land conservation led to him being part of the Privately Protected Areas and Nature Stewardship Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

So, what does James do with his free time? He manages his own nature reserve of course.

small furry animal surrounded by leaves
Sugar glider inside an artificial nest box © James Fitzsimons

“I was looking for a place where I could achieve conservation directly on my own and have a place to share with my kids,” he says. “I’ve always wanted a block of land that had native vegetation but might also have degraded areas that could do with some restoration.” In the early 2000s, he found what he was looking for in a 130-hectare block of threatened box-ironbark woodland in central Victoria, an area that at one point seemed destined for development. When that development fell through, he was able to buy the property and set about restoring it for nature.

To assist native wildlife recolonise the area, James installed nest boxes to provide homes for gliders and other hollow dwelling species. He left fallen timber and fence posts on the forest floor, creating habitat for geckos and other lizards to shelter and forage for food.

“My whole family has really benefitted from the experience”, James recalls.  “My wife Janelle conducted some of her Master’s research on reptiles and invertebrates on the site and we both love taking our two children there camping when we can. The kids love running around exploring the place and learning about the animals they find.” With two biologists for parents it’s no wonder.

It wasn’t always the perfect place to enjoy wildlife however. Fifty years ago, the area was intensively grazed and then strip-mined for gravel. Aerial photos show a place with little forest cover, suggesting a place that might never recover. With the effort James and his family have put in things are improving for the better. “There’s been an amazing regeneration of native trees,” says James. “Surprisingly, a lot of the understory is still there, including some large populations of nationally threatened plants such as the Euroa Guinea-flower. The amount of regeneration is amazing to watch.”

small owl with an open mouth
Australian owlet using an artificial nestbox © James Fitzsimons

Things get wild when the lights go out

When the sun goes down, the Australian bush comes alive with creatures unfamiliar, even to many Australians. James’s bush block is no exception. It supports Brush-tailed Phascogales, for instance, a small carnivorous marsupial with an impossibly fluffy black tail and a taste for spiders. There’s also Squirrel Gliders making good use of the nest boxes provided – when they’re not gliding from tree to tree through the canopy. Some birds too are nocturnal such as the wonderfully camouflaged Australian Owlet-nightjars.  Cataloging exactly what species used the property can still be a tricky business and James wanted a better way than just spotlighting with a torch so he worked with the Trust for Nature to set up camera traps. The resulting photographic evidence confirmed the presence of all the above species as well as Common Wombats, Swamp Wallabies and Common Ringtail Possums. “It’s been a revelation finding out what’s living there,” he says. “Some animals that you might never see just walking around are actually relatively abundant.”

a wallaby in the woods
Swamp Wallaby OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA © James Fitzsimons

At work James is often involved in massive landscape-scale conservation efforts but owning his own relatively small reserve has allowed him the chance to look at conservation from a new perspective. “Managing this land myself gives me a different view of conservation,” he says. “It makes me appreciate the challenges and opportunities of private land conservation from a landowner’s perspective. There’s something very powerful about ownership and protecting a property in perpetuity. And on top of that, it’s just a great escape for me and my family.”