How a nature refuge was created at Spicers Peak

It’s one of the most ecologically diverse places in Australia – and Ben O’Hara is determined to make sure it stays that way. As general manager of land and environment for The Turner Family Foundation, one of Ben’s key roles is overseeing the Spicers Peak Nature Refuge in south-east Queensland.

Stretching across 2000ha, the bush paradise is home to native animals such as wallabies, kangaroos and koalas, as well as rare and endangered species, including glossy black cockatoos. “It’s a diverse series of eco-systems, from grassy woodlands through to temperate rainforest, fringing the Main Range National Park and the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage area,” Ben says.

A nature refuge is a class of protected area under the Nature Conservation Act 1992 and the process starts with an application to the State Government. In essence it’s a framework for sustainably managing a parcel of land and protecting its significant natural values. There are 10 regional eco systems represented in the Spicers Peak Nature refuge including the gumbarks, ironbarks, stringybarks, bloodwood barks and box barks. Eucalyptus tereticornis (Forest Red Gum) or the ‘koala tree’, which is one of the dominant species. These unique ecosystems were deemed worth protecting and therefore received approval for Nature Refuge status.

Koala in Spicers Peak Nature Refuge

An elusive Koala in Spicers Peak Nature Refuge

Established in 2006 on the 3000ha working cattle farm Spicers Peak Station, which also includes the luxury Spicers Peak Lodge and Spicers Canopy Luxury Tents base for the 2-day Scenic Rim Trail.

The conservation agreement between the owners and the State Government means the land is protected in perpetuity. All future owners and anyone with an interest in the land is obligated to conserve its significant natural and cultural resources, and ensure their controlled use when it comes to livestock, eco-tourism and adventure activities.

Ben, who worked in banking and finance for 20 years before making a career change after the global financial crisis, was asked to come on board in 2016. The former head of not-for-profit environmental organisation Queensland Trust for Nature was excited by the chance to work with passionate conservationists Jude Turner, founder of Spicers Retreats and her husband Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner, founder and CEO of Flight Centre. Both grew up in the country and have a strong belief in environmental sustainability. “It’s a very unique opportunity to assist people with passion who have the resources to deliver,” Ben says.

Green Tree Frog in Spicers Peak Nature RefugeRebuilding the habitats for the survival of even the small fauna is vital

Looking after such a large tract of land, as well as the 4500ha nature refuge at Hidden Vale and 680ha refuge at Thornton View, is no easy task. “The scale of these properties is the biggest challenge – you can’t rest for a moment,” Ben says. “It’s not a five-year project, it’s a 15 to 20-year project to bring these properties under control.”

Colonised by European settlers in the mid 1800s, the habitat has been impacted by land clearing and farming, as well as events such as bush fires. “Humans have altered the management regime of the land,” Ben says. “Now it’s up to us to work as hard as we can to rehabilitate it. We use cattle as a management tool to help maintain the grass, so if we do get a bush fire it’s not a catastrophic event.”

Ben says the cattle and native fauna can exist harmoniously. “They seem to all be able to live together,” he says. “You have issues when you overstock densities of any one animal. It’s important to control numbers and keep everything in balance.”

Brush Tailed Rock Wallaby in Spicers Peak Nature Refuge

Endangered species the Brush Tailed Rock Wallaby is found on the Thornton Reserve

One of the biggest ecological challenges is pests, including wild dogs, foxes, feral cats, wild pigs and red deer. “Introduced species are very destructive to the environment, all the way through to the weeds,” Ben says. “Lantana seems to thrive in this area.”

One of Ben’s main objectives is working with other members of the community on a coordinated approach. “You can only manage within your own boundaries so if a dog or pig goes over to your neighbour’s property we’re not allowed to do any management activities,” he says. “Whilst we can be very proactive, if our neighbours aren’t equally pro-active, they can provide refuge for pests to be right on your doorstep.”

The Turner Family Foundation also collaborated with The University of Queensland to build the Hidden Vale Wildlife Centre, which opened in 2017, for research, teaching and breeding purposes. Ben hopes that animals that are rehabilitated there, including bandicoots and potoroos, can be released into the wild. “The Spicers Peak habitat is outstanding for the future release of animals that we have at the centre,” he says.

Recently, the organisation purchased a property adjoining Spicers Peak Station which includes up to five kilometres of creek, which is a potential habitat for platypus. “The platypus is like the yowie,” Ben says. “Some locals say they have seen them in this water system. You can take out samples from the source system to find platypus DNA. When we did that it came back negative, but they may have been hiding somewhere else because of the drought. They do move. Over time, hopefully we can encourage a pair to find a home in the system and start breeding. They like soft banks so they can burrow, so we have fenced off the area because cattle compact the soil.” Another option, he says, is to release platypus into the area.

Caring for the creeks to encourage fauna to return

Ultimately, Spicers’ goal is to manage all land with sustainability & conservation being front of mind, to make sure the endangered, threatened and vulnerable species that inhabit the various areas have the greatest chance of survival. “We want to show people that you can still enjoy the land whilst protecting it,” he says. “It’s the best job going around.”

Find out more about Spicers Peak Lodge, the Scenic Rim Trail and Spicers Canopy.