Uniís Biggest Laboratory                        Leader Press  April  4th, 2007


BEFORE La Trobe University was born, its land was home to a psychiatric hospital farm. Psychiatric patients - mainly shell-shocked Diggers worked the land as part of their treatment. "They were all good country lads," La Trobe's George Paras says.

These days, the site east of Plenty Rd is sprawling with university buildings, laboratories and lecture theatres. But there is one place where the telltale signs of its past are unmistakable. At the university's Melbourne Wildlife Sanctuary, cattle tracks and tractor marks are ingrained in the ground among native plants. But you have to look closely.

The wildlife sanctuary has been there for almost 40 years and is now firmly established. It was developed in 1968 as a place for students and academics to conduct research, but these days it is buzzing with school children, visitors and conservation volunteers.

Set on 30ha, it is "La Trobe's biggest laboratory", Mr Paras, the sanctuary's head ranger, says. With humble beginnings as a 4ha reserve, the sanctuary was the brainchild of ranger Rod Foster - a part-time gardener and part-time botany student with ideas -"ahead of his time".

"This is Victoria's first environmental restoration project that we know of," Mr Paras said. "You could say the movement of revegetation and conservation in Victoria is owed to those early years at La Trobe."

Many of the students who helped develop the project -went on to become leaders in the conservation field, including Geoff Carr, Darcie Duggan, John Robin and Mark Adams.

Together, they laid the foundations of the sanctuary that exists today. They revegetated the land with wild plants and seeds collected from bushland areas near the Yarra River, Plenty Gorge, Yan Yean and the Gresswell Forest. Dedicated, rangers and volunteers continue to restore and maintain the grasslands, wetlands and ecosystems.

The sanctuary has more than 160 established native plant species, with stock of another 190 species growing in the nursery. Some are almost extinct in the wild. The indigenous species planted in the early days contribute to the enormous biodiversity of insects in the sanctuary today. "You wouldn't get the same biodiversity if they had planted any old plants from Australia and the rest of the world," Mr Paras said.

The huge range of insects makes the sanctuary a popular home for insectivorous bats and birds - falcons, owls, goshawks, magpies and kookaburras all call its tall trees home.

A night visit may offer a glimpse of one of the sanctuary's most popular inhabitants, the sugar glider "a shy little animal that wouldn't normally show itself to you'.', sanctuary education and information co-ordinator Andrew Stocker said. "So people always love it on the night tours when they see it flying between trees."

A number of rare ground mammals, including dunnarts, bandicoots and bush rats, were introduced to the sanctuary in the late 1970s, but were wiped out by foxes and feral cats.  "Only once the fence is entirely fox and cat proof can we reintroduce these small rare mammals - we can only do it under responsible conditions," Mr Paras said.

Last year, 650m of the sanctuary's 2.1km fence was upgraded with the help of individual donors, and the rest should be upgraded within 12 months. "Getting a fence that is cat and fox proof is the single biggest challenge we face," Mr Paras said.

The drought has not been a huge problem for the Melbourne Wildlife Sanctuary. 'It has been very extreme, but it's just a different phase of what goes on in Australian ecosystems," Mr Paras said. The drought has allowed sanctuary workers to undertake special projects around creeks and in wetlands. This means the areas will be alive with blooming aquatic plants when the rains return.

 Booked tours of the sanctuary are available to school groups and the public.

 Details: www.latrobe.edu.au/wildlife.



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