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Indigenous ecology in action workshop

Author: Luciana Bucater
Photo credits: SARDI

In an exciting addition to our Flow-MER work in the Lower Murray, a workshop was recently run by SARDI scientists, ecologists and rangers at Calperum Station called ‘Indigenous Ecology in Action’. The workshop brought indigenous students together to learn how to care for our land and water using traditional knowledge passed on by local Elders to indigenous rangers. It was an opportunity for the Lower Murray Team to join forces and share the research they have been undertaking to monitor animal and plant responses to water for the environment. The workshop was run on a significant RAMSAR wetland site and was designed for students interested in following science and ecology as a career.

Caption: Ral Ral Creek at Calperum Station provided a living classroom to bring together traditional knowledge with contemporary flow and ecology research. 

During pre-workshop meetings, it was clear everyone was committed to working together to restore and improve one of the most unique ecosystems in the Lower Murray River and incorporate cultural perspectives. We worked together to redesign the existing program and everyone was excited to see the workshop take place!

On the 23rd of June, around 2 o’clock, there was movement at the Calperum Station. Caitlin (the station ecologist) and Julie (the manager) welcomed us while they lined up the materials for the first activity. We waited with Jeremy (the aboriginal ranger) for the students from Renmark High School. It didn’t take too long for the bus to arrive and we could hear the excited students as they got off to get their luggage and choose their beds in the dormitories.

The students were full of energy, keen to be out in the bush, and ready to learn more about ecology and traditional knowledge. With no delay, we headed to the Ral Ral Creek, where Caitlin introduced the methods for ecological condition surveys. The students were split into groups to run animal scat and vegetation surveys. The students enjoyed putting on waders and setting fyke nets in the Ral Ral creek – we had our fingers crossed that they would catch some fish. There was one student in particular who wanted to eat his catch; we had to explain that fyke nets usually catch small-bodied fish species so he would not be getting much of a feed!

Caption: The students enjoyed running scat and vegetation surveys and putting on waders, learning how to use fyke nets for fish sampling!

All the activities in the afternoon made us very hungry, dinner was served, we cleaned our plates and then headed to a bonfire for scary stories and s’mores.

Everyone enjoyed dinner and smores after all the hard work.

The next morning, Caitlin and the Summer brothers (Indigenous rangers Jeremy and Andrew) took us on a five kilometre walk along Ral Ral Creek. Caitlin showed us original installations used by European drovers (livestock movers) and fishermen. In the meantime, Jeremy and Andrew showed us how their ancestors carved their canoes from river redgum, and used a ring tree as the front door of their “house”. Not far from there, they showed us an oven tree (a clay oven under a large gum tree), which was used for drying the reeds for weaving and cooking their meals. The oven had not been used recently. The reeds are no longer harvested from the adjacent creek for such activities and have begun to overtake sections of the creek leaving only a narrow section for boats to pass through. Old shells from freshwater muscles are also found in the area as they were used as blades for cutting the reeds.

We discovered the ring tree and weaving from the reeds of the creek.

Halfway through the walk, we got a boost of energy, Julie brought us some fruit and a warm saltbush damper with melted butter. We then continued our walk, with more ecological insights provided by Caitlin, showing sites where water for the environment is pumped to provide water for plants and animals. Our walk finished where the fyke nets were set up. It didn’t take long for the students to put the waders back on and get in the water to retrieve the nets. With an identification book in hand and some guidance from SARDI researchers, the students were able to identify most of the fish species they caught. An interesting species no one will forget is the Australian smelt, a fish that smelt like cucumber.

The students were excited to identify the fish they caught.

Fittingly, there was also cucumber in the salad we ate with the barbecue that the Summer brothers prepared for us while we were catching some fish. Our plates were soon cleaned again when we welcomed Uncle Barney (a local well-respected Elder), to teach us the theory of boomerang making and how to start shaping our own boomerangs. With the help of Uncle Barney and the Summer brothers, most of us got to paint our boomerangs and take them home.

By mid-afternoon, we had our luggage packed, boomerangs in hand, and many thoughts on how the traditional custodians lived on that land and how the environment was changed post-European settlement. We left feeling our work in environmental water is further enriched when western science is woven with cultural knowledge – a winning formulae for restoring the land and water ecosystems we care so much about.

A student with Flow-MER ecologist Qifeng Ye during the boomerang making workshop.
Photo of everyone on the final day.

Main photo: Students examining their catch as part of their survey work on the Ral Ral.
Photo credits for all images: SARDI

Our work in the Lower Murray River Selected Area

The Lower Murray River is at the end of the Murray Darling Basin (MDB) system and includes the only estuary of the MDB, which connects to the Southern Ocean. Annual flow is variable, being influenced by inputs from the southern and northern basin, and rainfall and water extraction experienced in these regions. The Lower Murray River is complex, and includes the main river channel, anabranches, floodplain / wetlands, billabongs and stream tributaries. Being towards the end of the system, the Lower Murray River is wide and deep relative to upstream reaches, and significant flow is required for floodplain inundation. Our study area covers four different zones: floodplain, gorge, swamplands and the Lower Lakes and Coorong.

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