Is there a better way to manage Country in the Murray-Darling Basin – a way that provides food and water for people while protecting natural habitats for wildlife, and while respecting the rights of its Traditional Custodians? Can a food bowl also be a habitat haven? At The Nature Conservancy we believe the answers are ‘yes’ and at Gayini, in southwest New South Wales, we and our partners are demonstrating how.
Gayini is a vast 87,816 hectare property owned and managed by its Traditional Custodians – the Nari Nari Tribal Council – for the conservation of its precious wildlife, the development of sustainable agriculture and the protection of significant cultural heritage.
A chequered history
This part of Australia has been the homeland of the Nari Nari people for 50,000 years. As was the case in many parts of Australia, following European settlement the land was simply taken from Indigenous people and developed for agriculture. Channels and other infrastructure were installed across the region to harvest and distribute flood waters from the rivers for crops and livestock.
In 2013, as part of the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, the New South Wales and Australian Governments purchased 19 separate properties and their water extraction rights in the Lower Murrumbidgee Valley. The conglomerated super property became known as Nimmie-Caira (now referred to as Gayini – the Nari Nari word for water).
In 2017, the NSW government called on interested parties to submit proposals for the ongoing management of Gayini, now without its former water extraction rights. Those rights were transferred to the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder as part of water recovery targets set in the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.
In May 2018, a consortium led by The Nature Conservancy was announced as the successful proponent and took over management of Gayini. The other members of the consortium were the Nari Nari Tribal Council, the Murray Darling Wetlands Working Group and the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of NSW.
In late 2019, The Nature Conservancy facilitated the legal transfer of ownership of Gayini to the Nari Nari Tribal Council thanks to funding from the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and the Wyss Campaign for Nature.
Gayini back in Nari Nari hands
After 150 years of dispossession, today the Nari Nari people legally own Gayini, as they have spiritually for 50,000 years.
An abundance of Australian birds
Gayini is part of the Lowbidgee floodplain – the largest remaining area of wetlands in the Murrumbidgee Valley, within the southern Murray-Darling Basin. It’s an area of national and international conservation significance.
Native Australian birds are particularly abundant here ranging in size from the tiny Spotted Pardalote to big, impressive Emus in large numbers.
Of highest significance, the wetlands provide feeding and breeding habitat for many different species of freshwater birds which can amass in large nesting colonies when conditions are right – species like the Straw-necked Ibis, Royal Spoonbill, Little Pied Cormorant and Australian Pelican.
This is one of Australia’s most magnificent wetlands. When boom times come, the system overflows with water and life. Spectacular colonies of tens of thousands of ibises and spoonbills are very special.
Birds of Gayini
Nationally listed threatened species are also protected at Gayini including one of Australia’s largest frogs – the Southern Bell Frog – and two endangered bird species – the Australasian Bittern and Australian Painted-snipe. In November 2019, the critically endangered Plains-wanderer was seen and photographed – a first for Gayini. This unique species relies on native grasslands that are well managed with not too much grazing but not too little.
While around half of the property was previously used for cropping and grazing over the last 150 years, the majority of it remains covered with significant native vegetation in good or recovering condition.
Gayini’s management plan permanently protects these habitats for the wealth of species that rely on them for their survival.
Aboriginal people reconnecting to Country
The entire Gayini area is a rich cultural landscape that has supported Aboriginal people for 50,000 years. The property is home to a wealth of Indigenous cultural features from sacred canoe scar trees to ancient burial mounds and camp sites.
For thousands of years the First Australians in this area made interventions to boost the productivity of their Country – enhancing fish and bird stocks, and vegetation growth. Once more in possession of their land, Nari Nari people are caring for it using a combination of traditional and modern techniques to improve its productivity and enhance its values.
“Our people managed this area for 50,000 years and left their footprints on the Country. Now it’s our turn to protect, maintain and enhance our culture and Country and leave our footprints once again.”
Since back managing this Country, Nari Nari have assessed and maintained roads and infrastructure, protected culture and heritage sites, and removed large numbers of feral pests. They have also importantly reinstated a more natural flooding regime across the property and laid almost 400 kilometres of pipes delivering water to parts of the property where it is needed by livestock.
Feral animals (non-native, introduced animals) present a serious threat to both the conservation of native species (either through predation, competition for limited resources or destruction of habitat) and the ongoing productivity of agriculture on Gayini and neighbouring properties. In the second half of 2018 more than 2,500 feral pests were removed including almost 1,500 pigs, more than 1,000 deer and many foxes and cats.
The Nature Conservancy is also conducting Healthy Country Planning with the Hay and Balranald Aboriginal Communities.
Managing a property for conservation as vast as Gayini after many decades of agricultural use, is an expensive business. To fund this work the Nari Nari owners are demonstrating exemplary food production in balance with nature, through responsible low-impact grazing and, when appropriate, opportunistic cropping.
Responsible low-impact grazing is likely to be the primary driver of income to maintain the property while it transitions over time to a more balanced nature- and culture-based business model.
Gayini Gallery - People and Country
Over time, the Nari Nari Tribal Council plans to introduce other sustainable land uses at the property including:
- Carbon farming – like we’ve done before in northern Australia, we hope to develop a new carbon sequestration methodology to generate verified Australian Carbon Credit Units able to be traded through the Australian Government’s Emissions Reduction Fund.
- Education – we’ll establish the Gayini Centre for Two-Way Learning in partnership with a leading university to share traditional ecological knowledge and western science, bridge Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures and generate income from course participation and visitation.
- Ecotourism – we plan to build a world-class environmental and cultural visitor experience catering for private guests as well as volunteers and education groups.
Strong support for Gayini
We’ve already received outstanding support for the new management regime at Gayini including a foundational gift from John B. Fairfax AO to establish the John B. Fairfax Conservation Fellowship.
The transfer of ownership of Gayini to the Nari Nari Tribal Council in late 2019, was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Wyss Campaign for Nature and the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation.
I was so inspired by its ambitious vision, including enhanced Aboriginal cultural heritage, sustainable agriculture, management of environmental water and conservation of waterbird breeding habitat, that I wanted to support it.