For thousands of years the various clans of the Worimi and Awabakal peoples thrived on the abundant fish, shellfish, water birds and other animals found around the many islands of the Hunter estuary. Coastal rainforest flourished in nontidal areas of the islands, providing fruit, nectar, seeds, and nuts, while shoots and tubers from wetland plants such as cumbungi provided the starch required for a traditional diet.
In his History of Newcastle and the Northern District, published in 1897, HWH Huntington gives an account of the exploration of the estuary by Ensign Barrallier and Lieutenant-Governor Paterson in 1801:
"One of the greatest pleasures of the surveying party was the examination of the channels of the cluster of islands at the mouth of the Hunter, where they constantly found something new to engage their attention.
...the species of indigenous Australian plants..., the varieties of animals,...the great variety of beautiful birds; the numerous reptiles...; the abundance of fish and aquatic animals,... proclaimed the Hunter to be a place of anomalies and the naturalist's paradise."
Further references of the environment in the estuary at this time, highlighted in Rediscovering the Coquun: Towards an Environmental History of the Hunter River, belong to James Grant who, also in 1801, recorded that several miles up from the mouth of the river he was able to cut cedar 'which was growing in abundance on the banks of that river, of a large size, and excellent quality' (Grant  1973:152-3). Grant also notes a tree 'the quality of whose timber resembles that of the ash' on one of the islands (Grant  1973:154). Ash Island, as the island was named, had examples of 'many large timber trees', including reference to a 'Nettle Tree' or Giant Stinging Tree.'
Within twenty years of European arrival in 1797, most of the valuable timber, including the red cedar and ash, had been removed from the Hunter estuary islands. (Ord, 1988)
In 1827 land on Ash Island was granted to Alexander Walker Scott, entrepreneur and keen naturalist, who grew oranges and established market gardens at Scotts Point. His daughters, Helena and Harriet, spent a great deal of time recording and painting the diverse flora and fauna of the island. A selection of their illustrations of native flowers of Ash Island have been published in two volumes by historian Marion Ord and can be viewed at the library at the Kooragang Wetlands Information Centre on Ash Island. Samples of their work can be viewed on the Mitchell Library website, where the original illustrations are kept.
Other visitors attracted to Ash Island in the 1800s were John and Elizabeth Gould, Sydney artist Conrad Martens and explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, who in a letter to a friend in 1842, described it as:
...a remarkably fine place, not only to enjoy the beauty of nature, a broad shining river, a luxuriant vegetation, a tasteful comfortable cottage with a plantation of orange trees, but to collect a great number of plants which I had never seen before.
(M. Aurousseau (ed. And translation) Letters of F.W. Leichhardt, Vol. 2, Cambridge 1968. To Lt. Robert Lynd, Military Barracks, Sydney 26 September 1842 as cited in Marion Ord, ed., Historical Drawings of Native Flowers, Roseville, NSW, 1988, p. 15)
Over 200 different species of plants were observed on Ash Island in the mid-1800s. Timber cutting and land clearing have left only isolated patches of forest, but these remnants - with species including tuckeroo, thorned cockspur, whalebone, plum pine, ash tree and the endangered vine, white cynanchum - are now being conserved and regenerated through the efforts of volunteers and staff of the Kooragang Wetlands Rehabilitation Project (KWRP).
In the 1860s Ash Island was subdivided and land was cleared and drained for agricultural use. From the early to mid 1900s there were 17 dairies with 55 families, and a school on Ash Island. However flooding made farming increasingly difficult and a two-metre deluge from the flood of 1955 was particularly destructive.
Port and industrial activities started in the south-east of the estuary in the late 1800s and by the 1960s most of the estuary islands had been reclaimed and filled in to form a single landmass (named Kooragang Island in 1968) for industrial purposes.
BHP opened its Newcastle Steelworks in 1915, lifting Newcastle to the position of Australia's heavy industry centre. Since that time, the steel industry has been through many changes, the most recent being to phase out steel production in Newcastle in 1999. Since the closure of BHP, industries such as aluminium, coal and more recently tourism, have become greater contributors to the local economy and the future of Newcastle and the Hunter Region (Newcastle Port Corporation).
A complete timeline of significant events in the history of the islands of the Hunter Estuary can be found on the website of the Kooragang Wetland Rehabilitation Project.
The industrialisation of the Hunter River estuary and infilling of Kooragang Island, combined with comprehensive flood mitigation works, including the installation of floodgates on Hexham Swamp have, over many years, had a major impact on the Hunter Estuary and its role as a nursery area for prawns, fish and crustaceans (CMA, 2006).
The Hunter River Estuary provides a dynamic transition from the river flats to the ocean and actually begins at the tidal limit 4 km upstream of Maitland at Oakhampton, 45 km from the sea.
Besides serving as important habitat for wildlife, the wetlands that fringe the estuary help to filter the water draining from the catchment, which carries sediments, nutrients, and other pollutants. As the water flows through the marshes, sediments and pollutants are filtered out, creating cleaner, clearer water.
Wetland plants and soils act as a natural buffer between the land and the ocean, absorbing flood waters and dissipating storm surges, while salt marsh grasses, mangroves and other estuarine plants help prevent erosion and stabilise the shoreline. (Department of Natural Resources, 2005).
The Hunter Estuary is home to the wetland areas of Kooragang Wetlands and Hexham Swamp, which include sites that have been recognised internationally under the Ramsar Convention.
The Kooragang Wetlands Rehabilitation Project began in 1993, when the then Hunter Catchment Management Trust (now the Hunter-Central Rivers CMA) initiated a plan of management in partnership with Newcastle and Port Stephens Councils to rehabilitate 1590 hectares of the Hunter River estuary, (including sites on Ash Island, Tomago, and Stockton Sand Spit) to recover productive habitat and breeding ground for fish, shorebirds and other native wildlife.
Kooragang Wetlands is a biodiversity hot spot with 27 threatened species and one threatened community, over 200 species of birds including 34 migratory species, 42 species of fish and crustaceans, 15 species of frog, 10 species of bat and over 300 species of indigenous plants.
The Hunter estuary is considered to be the most important site for shorebirds in NSW and the importance of Kooragang Reserve for migratory shorebirds was recognised in 1996 when it was listed as part of the East-Asian Australasian shorebird network.
Each year up to 38 different species of migratory shorebirds visit the Hunter estuary for their summer holiday, embarking on a flight of thousands of kilometres from their breeding grounds in the Northern hemisphere, to the coastal and inland wetlands of Australia and New Zealand.
Between October and April you'll find thousands of birds feeding on tiny crustaceans in the mudflats and saltmarsh at Kooragang Nature Reserve, building up their energy reserves for their long journey back to their breeding grounds in Siberia and northern Asia. Look out for the bar-tailed godwit, greenshank, terek sandpiper and eastern curlew - Ash Island Bird Routes and Photos.
Since the project began in 1993, staff and volunteers of the Kooragang Wetlands Rehabilitation Project and other members of the community have planted over 150,000 trees, helped with weeding and mowing, maintained the community gardens, monitored wildlife, and provided information to visitors.
One of these volunteers, Elisabeth Burton, has contributed her efforts to compiling a database of plants indigenous to Ash Island for use as a reference tool and guide for plantings.
Thanks to the commitment of the Koora Gang volunteers and the ongoing support of the project's funding bodies and sponsors including the Hunter-Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority, the NSW Government, Newcastle City Council, and Newcastle Port Corporation, today Kooragang Wetlands provides the community of Newcastle with a unique recreational space.
Visitors can learn about the history of the families who lived on the islands, take a walk along the boardwalk and trails, picnic, cycle, fish, bird watch and learn about the amazing ecological processes happening in the Hunter River estuary every day. For more information on happenings at Kooragang Wetlands drop in to the Information Centre on Ash Island.
Vera Deacon is one of the Kooragang volunteers and she can be found out on Ash Island on the third Sunday of every month, digging and planting with the rest of the Koora Gang volunteers. Vera has a strong personal connection with the Hunter estuary, having grown up on Moscheto (or Mosquito) Island and she is passionate about the history and environmental health of the Hunter River. She has commentated on the KWRP history tours and is always willing to do what she can to support the project.
As an author and historian, Vera has made an enormous contribution to the acquisition, preservation and study of valuable regional historical archival resources in the Hunter region. In February 2008 the Vera Deacon Regional History Fund was officially launched in Newcastle by Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO Governor of New South Wales.
You can hear Vera's story of living on Moscheto Island, recorded as part of the ABC Newcastle's River Stories series produced in 2003. (interview)