‘Lasting environment legacy’: SA island’s owners swap farming for conservation

A remote farming island in the Great Australian Bight is being converted to a safe haven to protect existing birdlife and reintroduce priority mammal species.

Flinders Island is 30 kilometres off the coast from Elliston, South Australia and is privately owned by the Woolford family.

The island, which is the equivalent of 6000 football ovals, has been used for farming purposes by previous families in the past. Whaling and sealing stations were also based on the island, dating back to the 1820s.

Jonas Woolford was very young when his parents bought the island more than forty years ago.

“It’s a merino sheep station, we have run sheep out there, and we also have a house on the island that we rent out for tourism purposes,” Mr Woolford said.

An island with hundreds of sheep grazing during sunset with the ocean in the background.
The island has traditionally been used for sheep grazing and grain growing.(Supplied: Woolford family)

“The number of sheep out there is quite low at the moment, there may be a handful there that we keep so the grass is under control to help maintain fire breaks.”

Mr Wooldford said historically, a lot of unwanted pests like mice, rats and cats were brought to the island.

“We’re not sure how cats got onto the island, but we believe mice have been here more recently, unfortunately.”

Mr Woolford said over the years many different families had worked on the island, taking a lot of gear and infrastructure.

An old photograph of men unloading wool on a barge with a tractor on the beach receiving the stock.
Flinders Island barge unloading wool on the beach at Elliston in the late 1960s.(Supplied: John Lewis)

“[But] that’s going to be one of the big things going forward,” he said.

“To ensure that biosecurity measures are adhered to.”

‘Lasting environment legacy’

The Woolford family recently agreed to place a conservation agreement over 3,400 hectares — the majority of the island — with the State Government.

Both parties will establish the project, which has received a combined $2.67 million from the State and Federal Government.

Starting immediately, it will restore native habitats and reintroduce species like bandicoots and threatened native rodents.

A baiting program to eradicate pests will be underway by 2021.

South Australian Minister for Environment David Speirs said the project would also have a huge impact on the sustainability and population of native birdlife.

“Birdlife is probably one of the most impressive parts of the natural world when it comes to offshore islands,” Mr Speirs said.

A seal swimming in crystal blue water.
In the early 1820s, the island had whaling and sealing stations.(Supplied: Woolford family)

From farming to ecotourism

The conservation project is also expected to open up nature-based tourism opportunities on the island.

“Families before us used to crop and grow grain on the island which is hard to believe — it was quite a farming location.

Mr Woolford said it was much easier to move farmed produce off the island historically, when the coast was serviced by many ships and vessels.

Photo of the edge of an island that drops off to a large blue ocean on a clear day.
Mr Woolford says priority mammal species like bandicoots will be reintroduced to the island.(Supplied: Woolford family)

“Now [the island’s location] makes it very difficult to farm out there because of those extra costs to get stock back to land. So that’s why going down this way,” he said.

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