Almost There + Book Giveaway

These Saddles Will Soon Get A Workout

These Saddles Will Soon Get A Workout!

I’m putting the finishing touches on my new manuscript, which is due at Penguin on Thursday. This has been the hardest, but also the most satisfying book that I’ve written so far, with a broader focus than my previous novels. From Afghanistan’s last wilderness, to Australia’s great eastern escarpment, an epic tale of love, loss and redemption.Writing it has been an emotional roller coaster, and more than once I’ve found myself in tears.

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Waratahs

So, you can imagine how pleased I’ll be to send it off, and turn my attention to things closer to home – like the beauty unfolding all around me. Spring is my favourite time of year, and I’ll finally have a chance to enjoy it! This post is dedicated to Pilyara, the beautiful property where I live, and the animals and plants that I share it with.

DSCF0626Pilyara has many forested areas, with spectacular grey gums, mountain ash, and messmate stringy bark trees towering overhead. Below grows a dense layer of smaller plants including correa, heath, dusty miller, and golden bush pea. Delicate ground orchids abound, and ferns fringe the creek, including tall tree ferns. An astounding range of birds are found here: honey-eaters, bower-birds, parrots, cockatoos, kookaburras, currawongs, whip-birds, willy-wagtails, magpies, herons, swallows, swifts, ducks, eagles and owls, just to name a few. We’ve even spotted a lyrebird once or twice.Native animals include wombats, wallabies, koalas, echidnas, kangaroos, possums, gliders,bush rats, antechinus,bats and platypus in the creek. We also have the odd goanna and snake.

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Native Mint Bush

We received a grant from Victoria’s Healthy Waterways program, to finish fencing off the gullies and creek, and the work is almost complete. This will further enhance Pilyara as a habitat for native flora and fauna. Just talking about it makes me want to head off down to the creek! But no, first things first. Only a few more days work on the manuscript, and then the farrier comes to shoe the horses. (My present to myself for finishing!) Pilyara is only a few minutes ride from the Bunyip state forest, with its stunning scenery and heritage horse trails. Here are some photos taken today. Roll on Thursday!

I’m giving away a two-pack of my books. Leave a comment telling me your favourite native bird, or your favourite first line of a novel, to go in the draw. Let me know which two books you’d like. Closing date next Sunday 4th October. (Aust & NZ only) 

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Crabapple

Rex

Rex

Kitchen Garden

Kitchen Garden

Grevillia

Grevillia

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Sheba and Star

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The Phantom Herd

 

( … orWhy I Changed My Mind About Alpine Grazing’)

Bessie CreekA beautiful little creek runs along the northern boundary of our family property, Pilyara. Beyond it lies Bunyip State Park, a forest in the southern foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Land either side of our creek is virgin country, too steep to bother with when the area was originally cleared for timber and grazing. It has always been a shady haven for ancient tree ferns and delicate ground orchids, all flourishing beneath a soaring canopy of messmate and mountain ash.

swamp wallabyPilyara’s bottom paddocks run down to this creek. There’s never been a fence. Steep, thickly timbered slopes have generally acted as a safe barrier for stock, although for years we regularly lost our colossal pet bullock, Toro, to the neighbours. My son often walked the friendly beast home with just a rope around his neck. Many times I’d toyed with the idea of fencing along the creek, but there was a problem. What about the black-tailed wallabies? What about the forester kangaroos? What about the fat wombats, that emerged from their gully warrens and  lumbered uphill each night to graze the moonlit paddocks? Fencing Toro in, would mean fencing them out – and after all, they were here first.

CattleOne rainy winter morning, I fed out hay to the cattle as usual, and got a big surprise. Our mob had been joined by another mob.  Dozens of big steers had appeared from nowhere overnight. Where had they come from? I rang around the neighbours and heard a fascinating story. Pilyara was apparently playing host to the phantom herd, a mob belonging to an old man upstream. He no longer maintained his boundaries, and his cattle had been roaming along the creek for months, randomly popping up to graze properties along the waterway, and disappearing just as quickly. I rang the ranger, complained to neighbours and begrudgingly fed hay to the blow-ins. Within a few days they were gone, just as mysteriously as they’d come

Braving the weather, I walked down the hill and tried to track the vanished herd. Sure enough, they’d moved out along the creek. What a mess! The banks were broken, caved into the water, taking great swathes of vegetation with them. A once pristine environment was little more than a wallow, flowing sluggish and muddy past trampled reeds and pugged up pools. Pity the poor platypus. The damage was plain as the nose on your face.

Until then I’d been a cautious supporter of alpine grazing. It reduced bush fires, didn’t it? In 2009 my family had spent days watching a monster fire lurk in the forest to our north. On Black Saturday, a capricious wind change saved us, but doomed many others. If grazing really reduced fires, I’d still be for it. A ton of research later, and I got my answer.  Both the extensive Esplin Report (following the 2003 alpine bushfires) and the recent combined CSIRO, LaTrobe University and NSW Department of Environment and Conservation study found that cattle grazing had no influence on the spread of fire.

EFNI’ve since joined the Environmental Farmers Network. It supports rural ecological programs, and acknowledges farmers as front-line stewards of the land.  Our farmers fence off creeks. They replant and reseed with locally indigenous trees and restore degraded river banks. They build wombat gates, preserve stag trees and put fish ladders in dammed streams. They work hard to give nature a helping hand.

We’ve just received a Healthy Waterways grant to build a wildlife-friendly fence along our creek frontage (Yay!). Healthy rivers, creeks and wetlands are the arteries of our landscape … the life blood of the bush. State and Federal Governments encourage such programs as best practice. Why should management of our precious alpine regions be any different? Look at the Bunyip State Park management plan and you find the seven Alpine grazinggrazing licences in the southern section of the park are not transferable, and no new licences will be granted. This is because cattle spread weeds, and damage native plants, wetlands and waterways. It’s true for the Bunyip forest and it’s true for the alps as well.

Our magnificent high country is celebrated in Australian art and literature (Including in my own 2012 novel Brumby’s Run).The mythical beauty of Man From Snowy River territory forms part of our national psyche. Romantic images of red and white cattle, stringing between the snow gums, feed into this notion. But the unfortunate truth is, cattle damage fragile landscapes, and there are plenty of forward-thinking farmers who understand this.

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Echidna Dreaming

echidna 038Millie, a friendly echidna, has recently arrived at Pilyara. (I really don’t know what gender, but with such a pretty face, I’m guessing a girl!)  She loves feasting on the meat ants that live in our old brick pile. So in honour of our new resident, here are some fascinating echidna facts.

1. Echidnas are the most widely distributed mammal in Australia and are listed as common. (Yes – I know they’re monotremes too.) But because they live for forty-five years or more, we may have an ageing population. Nobody knows the current survival rate for young. In a Kangaroo Island study, more than a quarter of all puggles (the cute name for baby echidnas) were killed in their burrows by cats each year.

echidna 0502. The prefrontal cortex of an echidna’s brain is larger compared to the rest of its body than any other mammal, including man! Usually the greater the volume of this part of the brain, the more intelligent the animal is. So, Millie’s a smart cookie!

3. It was once thought that echidnas were the only mammals that didn’t dream, because they didn’t seem to experience REM sleep. It’s now been discovered that echidnas do experience REM sleep, so long as they’re at the right temperature. At 25°C they experience REM sleep, but at 28°C or 15°C it decreased or disappeared. Wonder what they dream about?

Echidna Love Train

Echidna Love Train

4. Echidnas breed in winter, so if Millie sticks around until then, I might be lucky enough to see some fascinating courtship behaviour – an echidna love train. These processions are led by the female, with up to ten lovelorn males trailing behind. It can take six weeks before Miss Popularity chooses a mate from the strongest and most determined suitors.

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Kermit, the Superb Parrot

I finished my edits for Currawong Creek (June release) this week, and was too busy for my usual Sunday post. So here it is, better late than never!

Kermit 002We have a wide variety of beautiful parrots here at Pilyara: Rainbow Lorikeets, Eastern Rosellas, Crimson Rosellas, King Parrots, Galahs, Little Corellas, Sulphur Crested Cockatoos, Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos, Gang-Gang Cockatoos and even the occasional Long-Billed Corella. These are the usual suspects. So I was very surprised at the arrival of a green parrot which I’d never seen here before.

kermit 2I identified her as a Superb Parrot hen. After a bit of research, I discovered this parrot lives in New South Wales and northern Victoria, on the inland slopes of the Great Divide and along adjacent river systems. In other words, she does not belong in the southern Victorian ranges. The parrot (who we promptly dubbed Kermit), was quite tame and on closer inspection, a band could be seen on her leg. Kermit was an escapee from captivity. I wish she could tell me her story!

After much ringing around, I got onto a lady from the Bayles Fauna Park. She convinced me that I should catch Kermit and take her to the park, as a domesticated bird would not last long in the wild. I managed this without too much trouble, and Kermit now lives in a spacious aviary with others of her kind.

prc_bannerWhile researching what to do about our unusual visitor, I came across a remarkable organisation called the Parrot Rescue Centre.

It is prc adoption 2dedicated to improving the lives of suffering, abused and unwanted pet parrots by providing an appropriate environment for their individual needs. Its main aim is to educate people about the correct diet, housing, enrichment and training of these highly intelligent and long-lived birds. It also runs a rescue and adoption program, as well as a lost and found service. It is fascinating to browse their website, and see the gorgeous birds available for rehoming, such as this lorikeet. Why don’t you go and like their Facebook page, or even give them a donation? They are an inspiration!

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Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

Well, Christmas is over for another year. I’m always surprised by how enthusiastic I get about the day. We are fortunate here at Pilyara that we don’t have to go anywhere. The family comes to us. It means I prepare most of the food, but the trade-off is that we don’t have to pack up the car and drive for miles.

Xmas 2012 008My daughter H made a stunning assortment of Christmas cookies – real works of art. Here’s the very simple recipe for Christmas Truffles. They really are to die for!

Ingredients

  • 500g      light fruitcake, coarsely chopped
  • 100g      dark chocolate melts, melted
  • 60ml      (1/4 cup) brandy
  • 2 tbs      apricot jam
  • 250g      dark chocolate melts, extra
  • 60g      copha, chopped
  • 150g      white chocolate melts, melted
  • Red and      green glace cherries, finely chopped, to decorate (I used sprinkles in      holly leaf & berry shapes)
  1. Step 1

Place the cake in the bowl of a food processor and process until finely chopped. Transfer to a large bowl. Stir in the dark chocolate, brandy and jam. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes or until slightly firm.

  1. Step 2

Line 2 large baking trays with non-stick baking paper. Stir the cake mixture. Roll 2-teaspoonful quantities of cake mixture into balls and place on the lined trays. Place in the fridge for 1 hour or until firm.

  1. Step 3

Place the extra dark chocolate and copha in a medium microwave-safe bowl. Cook on High/800watts/100% for 30 seconds. Stir. Repeat until chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth.

  1. Step 4

Line 2 baking trays with non-stick baking paper. Use a truffle dipper or fork to dip 1 truffle in the chocolate mixture to coat. Remove truffle, tapping the dipper or fork on the side of the bowl to shake off excess chocolate. Place on 1 lined tray. Repeat with remaining truffles and chocolate mixture. Set aside to set.

  1. Step 5

Spoon the white chocolate into a small sealable plastic bag. Cut 1 corner from the bag to make a small hole. Drizzle a little white chocolate over each truffle. Top with glace cherry (or, in my case, sprinkles) to decorate. Set aside until set.

Xmas 2012 007My son M on the other hand, was in charge of the cheese platter. Not to be outdone, he made a fortress of cheese cubes with turrets of crackers, mortared together with hummous. An interesting creation!

The day was one of fun and family; a fantastic conclusion to an exciting year. Thank you to everyone who has supported me and my writing in 2012. I couldn’t have done it without you, and look forward to the continuing journey. Wishing you all a very happy, peaceful and productive New Year!

Orchids at Pilyara

Eastern Bronze Caledenia

One of the joys of living surrounded by bushland is the never ending variety of life that passes by, season by season. In spring, the wildflowers and birds provide spectacular flashes of colour. Here at Pilyara the soil lacks some of the richness found elsewhere, and this is the situation favoured by many ground orchids, or rather they have adapted well to such soils.  Under the canopy of Messmate, small colonies of orchids can be found.  Several species have begun to flower, and more will follow in the weeks to come.

Tall Sun Orchid

Many Australian orchids depend on mimicry to attract pollinators, using pheromones similar to those given off by female wasps. These orchids generally have unspectacular flowers, although in an attempt to appear wasplike their forms can be remarkable.Those that attempt to attract pollinators using colour and perfume are more spectacular.  The most showy varieties at Pilyara are the sun-orchids, so called because their flowers only open on warm sunny days.

Large Bird Orchid

The profusion of orchids found at Pilyara is not rare, or even uncommon. I’m still waiting to find something really unusual hiding away.  But as more and more bushland disappears, the rare vanishes, the uncommon becomes rare, and the ordinary takes its place as vulnerable. What a responsibility we have as stewards of this earth!

(Photos courtesy of my brother, Rod Scoullar)

Bring Back Wattle Day

Today is Wattle Day, the first of September. Wattles have long had special meanings for Australians. I remember bringing wattle sprigs to school on this day, to celebrate the coming spring. In 1988 the Golden Wattle (Acacia pycnantha)  was officially gazetted as Australia’s national floral emblem, and in 1992, the first day of September was officially declared ‘National Wattle Day’, a day first celebrated way back in 1910.

 

Golden Wattle, Australia’s floral emblem, is in full bloom here at Pilyara, lending the bush a sun-kissed appearance on even the darkest day. Although winter still stands in firm command of the southern Victorian ranges, wattle blossom promises warmer days to come. The Golden Wattle grows as a shrub or small tree, and has foliage that is long, arched and bright green. It flowers from July to September, with fragrant golden orbs of blossom. Its gum is eaten by sugar gliders during winter. Its leaves are food for caterpillars of the Common Imperial Blue Butterfly, and its flowers attract native bees.

There are more than 900 species of Acacia in Australia, making it our largest floral genus. I know of nine other wattles indigenous to this area, besides the Golden: the Silver Wattle (Acacia dealbata), the Black Wattle (Acacia mearnsii), the Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon), the Myrtle Wattle (Acacia myrtifolia), the Spike Wattle (Acacia oxycedrus), the Hedge Wattle (Acacia paradoxa), the Hop Wattle (Acacia stricta), the Sweet Wattle (Acacia suaveolens) and Prickly Moses (Acacia verticillata), whose sharp foliage forms star-shaped rings around its stems, with spikes that can rip through clothing.

The common names of many of Australian Acacia’s are especially evocative: Brigalow, Coojong, Cootamundra, Dagger Wattle, Dead-finish Wattle, Kurara, Gundabluey, Myall, Mulga, Old Man Wodjil, Stinking Gidgee, Yarran and Wait-a-While. I love these names! And I love knowing that spring is just around the corner. I wish you all a happy Wattle Day for September 1st and will raise a glass of bubbly! Does anybody else celebrate Wattle Day?