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Getting out on-Country the best way to inspire our next generation of freshwater ecologists

By Dr Will Higgisson and Dr Adam Kerezsy 

There is no better place to learn about the environment than being out on-Country. It’s even better when you get to jump into the river and have a swim when all the work is done. The University of Canberra staff have once again been out with the crew from Down the Track Youth Enterprises to teach the next generation of ecologists about the importance of water in keeping plants and animals healthy.

Down the Track Youth Enterprises works with disengaged and potentially at-risk youth at Lake Cargelligo, in the mid-Lachlan, in central-western NSW. The Program is run by Lana Masterson and Katy Quinn, and has become an important fixture within the local community. Participants engage in a range of activities, from farming and shearing, to training in hospitality, first-aid and driving. These activities aim to promote engagement and self-esteem, as well as providing participants with skills that give them a better chance of getting paid work. Most of the participants are Indigenous and are from Lake Cargelligo or nearby Murrin Bridge.

Will Higgisson and Alica Tschierschke from the Centre for Applied Water Science, University of Canberra, joined Down the Track Youth Enterprises participants in February 2022 for another weekend of learning about the environment, the importance of freshwater, plants and fish, and how and why we monitor, – there was also lots of swimming, fishing and camping.

Setting the nets on the edge of the Island; and taking a well-earned dip after knock-off. Footage: Will Higgisson

This weekend was the first in 12 months, as a result of restrictions related to COVID-19. The Lachlan Selected Area team have been involved in the planning and running of these environmental weekends since their inception in 2019, and it’s great to see the relationship between Flow MER and Down the Track Youth Enterprises grow and evolve. Central to the success of these weekends is fish biologist Adam Kerezsy, a local resident, who as well as being part of the Lachlan selected area Team, is a relief teacher at the local school and the owner of the property on which we set up camp.

As usual, once everyone arrived at Adam’s property, we jumped in the boats and headed for Robinson Crusoe Island – about three kilometres away in the centre of Lake Cargelligo. The sun was out, and it was a great day on the Lake.

Once we arrived on the Island, vegetation experts Will Higgisson and Alica Tschierschke talked about the local plants and the importance of freshwater and aquatic vegetation, highlighting some of the strategies that plants employ to survive, grow and reproduce. They then described how and why we measure vegetation diversity and condition, and stepped the participants through some monitoring techniques, including identifying and counting plants in a 1 X 1m quadrat. The participants measured tree condition of some river red gums by measuring tree height, canopy cover and extent, and counted the number of hollows. A highlight was flying the drone – a newer technique used to measure vegetation condition.

Will Higgisson and Alica Tschierschke explain how scientist count plants, Photo: Adam Kerezsy

Will Higgisson flying the drone with lots of interested helpers.  Photo: Adam Kerezy

We then headed back to the boats, and Adam – with some help – set up a series of fyke nets in order to detect any changes in the composition of the fish and turtle populations around the Island.

We finished the day by sitting around the fire, eating some dinner and playing some sing-along songs.

The nets were cleared in the morning and all fish and turtles were identified, counted and measured while Adam discussed the impacts of carp and role of the native fish species in the ecosystem.

Lots of Longneck turtles are captured, Adam Kerezsy explains how to hold them best, Photo: Alica Tschierschke

These weekends are a perfect way to engage these young adults as they involve practical experience within their local natural environment as well as an active demonstration of the importance of a functioning river ecosystem. The participants get a first-hand look at what ecologists do and why they do it, and realise why catchments need environmental water.

Down the Track Youth Enterprises weekends are also a great way for current scientists and academics to become actively involved in training the next generation of freshwater ecologists, and there is no better way to develop a more personal relationship with the Lachlan River than by getting to know the people that live along it.

Our previous work with Down the Track Youth Enterprises.

Down the Track Youth Enterprises at Lake Cargelligo is one of the most important and high-profile youth initiatives in the region.

The Lachlan Selected Area team has been working with Down the Track Youth Enterprises for several years now, with the crew previously sharing their experience and amazing photos on-Country in November 2020.

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Our work in the Lachlan River Selected Area

The Lachlan River flows through the lands of the Nari Nari, Ngiyampaa, Waradjuri and Yita Yita Nations, forming part of Songlines and Dreaming tracks. It has provided food, shelter and resources to Aboriginal people for between 40,000 and 65,000 years. Our work here is focusing on monitoring the outcomes of environmental water in the lower Lachlan river system, from Lake Brewster to the Great Cumbung Swamp.

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