There's something about the greenery of surrounding growth that makes these splendid Hunter Valley giants look a little less majestic when compared to River Red Gums adorning the sparcely grassed red-brown earth of inland Australia, but still a magnificent sight!
A regionally engangered species
The River Red Gum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis, is the most widespread eucalypt in Australia, found in all mainland states and territories. During my travels I have admired these impressive sprawling trees, most notably along the Murray and Macquarie Rivers and dry river banks of far south-western New South Wales.
Eucalyptus camaldulensis, however, has a unique status in the Hunter Valley - the Hunter being the only NSW coastal catchment where the River Red Gum occurs naturally.
It is estimated that numbers of the species have dropped an alarming 99.5 per cent in the region since European settlement.
Pea-sized River Red Gum seed pods
Grey-green foliage of the River Red Gum
Today, there are only 19 known stands, mostly occupying private land, with the total number of individuals estimated to be between 600 and 1000 mature or semi-mature trees.
Grazing and weed infestation are other major handicaps the Hunter's red gums have to cope with. Introduced Kykuyu grass, Pennisetum clandestinum, and the tough spreading ground cover Galenia, Galenia pubescens, are two main culprits. During my on-site investigations recently I also found Balloon Vine and Morning Glory to be rampant amongst the red gum understory, along with African Olive trees and the toxic shrub Green Cestrum.
A Red Gum on the banks of the Hunter River crowded by weeds including Pepper Trees, African Olives, Balloon Vine and Morning Glory, as well as native River Oaks.
Add a lack of local awareness to the woes of the red gum, and extinction looms. There are no known occurences of Eucalyptus camaldulensis in Hunter conservation reserves, but recognition of the rarity and bleak future of the Hunter's River Red Gum population has provided hope.
Under the Threatened Species Conservation Act, the Hunter catchment's River Red Gums have been listed as an Endangered Population. Scientific studies are currently being undertaken to determine whether they are a separate species to that of the Murray/Darling catchment, and also to determine whether previous plantings were established from locally collected seed.
More recently, in 2004, River Red Gum seedlings were planted amongst an existing stand by local environmental groups and community members. These seedlings were propergated by local high-school students from locally collected seed. It is thought that locally collected seed is important to preserve the genetic ingegrity of the Hunter red gum population.
Semi-mature and planted juvenile River Red Gums by the Hunter River
Recently initiated local government planning headed by keen staff hopes to inject renewed interest and enthusiasm into the community to take more responsibility for the future health of these endangered trees. The Hunter Catchment Authority is carrying out on-going work to reduce erosion, and LandCare and Tidy Towns groups provide manual assistance and funds to conservation efforts.
A recent meeting brought these bodies and community members together to discuss the planning of a project that will incorporate the conservation and regeneration of the River Red Gums into an extended vegetation corridor and recreation area. Although numbers were low, it was encouraging to see co-operation and input from all sectors.
The bark falls away from the River Red Gum trunk and branches to reveal a smooth and richly coloured surface
I have enjoyed wandering amongst the two accessible stands of local River Red Gums over the past few weeks, identifying weeds and familiarising myself with habitat and growth habits. I have done as much reading as I can find from reputable sources and spoken to local council and water catchment people. It has been an interesting learning experience.
River Red Gums by the Hunter River surrounded by weedy Balloon Vine.
I am going to take part in the revegetation and conservation program that my local council and community groups are undertaking and I might make a future blog entry to detail progress.
Education can provide awareness, and awareness can promote care and action. If there is an endangered species in your local area, you might find it interesting and rewarding to learn about it, or even become involved in a conservation project.