I first became aware of troubles in our resident Eastern Long Neck Turtle populations a few years ago, when I realised I hadn’t seen any baby or juvenile ones in years.
Just old, ancient turtles.
Our farm is near Lismore, Victoria, in a very agricultural region – lots of grazing and cropping on grasslands. On our farm we have only dams, with no river close by and our closest volcanic lake is a 15 minute drive away. There is a creek line joining two important dams but there are a many others not connected to that which also have strong but aging populations, so the movement of our turtles through the seasons is still a mystery to us.
When I realised there were no juveniles I did some research, and then my own field investigations.
What I learned was that the nests these turtles laid were nearly all being eaten by foxes every single year, and had been for decades, creating ageing populations that were now verging on collapse. One fox can eat up to 15 nests in a night I’ve heard, and with something like 95% of nests being predated each year, there has been a 70% population decline for some studied areas in the Murray River.
In this case, there was something I could do – this was my own family property. So, in the nesting season of November 2017 during and after the first heavy rains, I surveyed and mapped any evidence of turtle nesting I could find. There were countless dug up nests, but I did find three intact ones. To witness the scale was a bit of a hellish moment – at one dam we found over 70 nests eaten in one night, before we stopped counting. We protected the three nests with some plastic mesh pegged over them, to stop foxes but allowing the hatchlings to dig out.
In May 2018 we opened up the nests to find 20 tiny hatchlings! Naturally, the hatchlings should have come out in April or so, but possibly due to a lack of rain at the preferred times, they couldn’t dig their way out – another increasing threat to survival. It was a bittersweet moment as winter was coming on and our dams didn’t have adequate vegetation protection for these babies that needed to stay in the shallows, and I admit to a few tears.
In late November 2018, we knew where and when to look, and what to look for. I was able to find the turtle tracks through the long grass, and this time found 26 nests to protect. We had done some fox control during their breeding season and this effort seems to have paid off.
I’m working on the dams to give the babies better habitat, and I worry about the ground being too hard for them to dig their way out after the season’s drought. The odds are stacked against these tiny, defenceless morsels in the first years, and nature would prefer a strength-in-numbers-approach. I’m anxious for the upcoming hatching months, as it’s so dependent on weather, moisture and temperature during hatchling development, and I wish I could be there to help them all to water – I even dream about it.
My hope now is to help raise awareness in the western district region of the issues for turtles, and hopefully increase the number of people able to protect nests on their own properties, before the current populations drop off.
This is an issue across all our 25 freshwater turtle species, leading to many being vulnerable or endangered. Despite being a ‘common’ species, there is scant information on the eastern long neck – we should feel confident however in assuming that foxes, habitat fragmentation, roads and climate change mean their population is more threatened than we think.
If you see any evidence of turtles and nesting, upload it to the citizen science platform TurtleSAT to help track them, and if you find a wild turtle, especially a baby, don’t keep it! Take it to a qualified carer or the nearest suitable water source.
Involving my family on the journey has actually had a huge impact on how we all view the rest of the nature of the farm, and i think its put us on a more sustainable, proactively bio-diverse direction in our land management much earlier than we would have otherwise been. There was something really poignant and deeply moving about realising this ‘ubiquitous’ creature that we were all fond of was suffering under our noses, and then having the literal capacity to enact change in our backyard.
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