9 October 2023

Festival fans earn tickets for clearing out Puckeys Reserve 'rubbish trap'

| Eileen Mulligan
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Greg Fikkers and Patrick Draper at Puckeys Reserve.

Greg Fikkers and Patrick Draper with their trophy piles of dead bitou bush. Photo: Eileen Mulligan.

Bushcarers love nothing more than murdering invasive weeds and taking out rubbish from natural areas. But they love it even more when can they recruit other people to do the dirty work.

So, when 32 keen music lovers rocked up to work in the bush in exchange for tickets to the Yours and Owls festival, Bushcare boss Greg Fikkers rubbed his hands in glee.

Wollongong City Council’s natural areas coordinator put the volunteers to work clearing rubbish from the salt marsh in the centre of Puckeys Estate Nature Reserve in North Wollongong.

The salt marsh is an endangered ecological community where soft plastics wash up after heavy rain, he explained.

“It’s almost like a rubbish trap,” Greg said. “It’s one of those sites that, on Clean Up Australia Day, you don’t get too many people going out there because it’s a bit rough and tumble.”

Unfortunately for the new volunteers, the scheduled work day, Saturday 16 September, was unseasonably hot.

“We were ankle-deep in water and mud and it was hot and sweaty,” Greg said. “But I made it quite clear at the start that if they were getting a ticket from this, I was going to make them work, which they all had a chuckle about.

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“Actually, we called it quits about 45 minutes early because there were some pretty flushed, red faces by the end of it,” he said.

“So, they earned their tickets.

“That was one of the jobs I’d been wanting to do in the salt marsh since the flooding events last year and 18 months ago, but it’s in one of those hard to get to locations so I had a young demographic that I found willing and able, and I put them to work.”

Yours and Owls initiated the partnership with the council in 2018.

“They are really wanting to give back to the community and they involve sustainability as one of their principles,” Greg said.

The first group of Yours and Owls volunteers planted Eucalyptus botryoides trees (bangalays) five years ago and they have grown rapidly.

“What was once a monoculture of bitou is now restored back to a beautiful native structure,” Greg said.

Most of the Yours and Owls volunteers have been University of Wollongong (UOW) students, including Patrick Draper.

Patrick, who is in his third year of conservation studies, joined Bushcare when he moved in 2020 from Leeton in the Riverina.

“I did a couple of events back in Leeton, tree-planting days and things like that,” he said.

He is now a rusted-on member of the Bushcare group that works in Puckeys Reserve every Thursday, killing invasive weeds such as bitou bush, turkey rhubarb and asparagus fern.

His volunteering paid off and led to some paid bush-regeneration work with a private company, which worked in well with his studies.

Patrick has found it immensely satisfying to remove lantana and bitou and see them replaced by native plants such as coastal wattle, wild geranium and pigface, which all help stabilise the coastal dunes.

“It’s enjoyable to get rid of lantana. That’s the fun one,” Patrick said.

Greg added with an evil laugh: “I love pulling out bitou, heading out in your emu parade and you look back at what you’ve pulled out and you can see your hard work wilting in the sun.”

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So, do they consider themselves botanical serial killers?

“We are saviours of biodiversity,” Greg said.

“A lot of people ask, ‘Why are you pulling out plants while climate change is the issue?’ But it’s more about biodiversity.”

As for climate change, Greg said he encountered a lot of pessimism in the community.

But he and Patrick agree that getting out and doing something positive for the environment, while enjoying fresh air and sunshine and the company of other people, is a tonic.

“If it’s as small as being involved in a Bushcare group, National Tree Day, Clean Up Australia Day, the opportunities are out there and it doesn’t take much.” Greg said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s one day every six months or one day a year.”

Patrick said: “The combination of Yours and Owls and Bushcare is a great idea, really. It’s linking a lot of young people into it who might not know about it. It’s good to see there are a lot of people our age getting involved and it’s good for the future really.”

Greg encouraged the Yours and Owls volunteers to enjoy the festival and to feel proud of the work they have done.

Find a Bushcare group near you by visiting the Wollongong City Council website.

Yours and Owls’ motto is “Party with a purpose”. The festival will be held on October 14 and 15 at the University of Wollongong.

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