The River Red Gum, or Eucalyptus camaldulensis is a common and widespread tree along watercourses over much of mainland Australia particularly in grassy woodland on rich alluvial soils next to permanent water bodies (Botanic Gardens Trust, 1991).
The Hunter is the only coastal catchment in New South Wales where the River Red Gum occurs naturally, however its numbers have diminished to such a great extent that it is now listed as an endangered ecological population in the Hunter.
River Red Gums require periodic flooding to regenerate and achieve optimal health, but changes to the hydrology of the Hunter River, including the construction of dams for flood mitigation mean the Red Gums no longer receive water as often as they need it.
Two of the most significant stands of River Red Gums remaining in the Hunter Valley are located at Dartbrook and on the Hunter River at Plashett. Both are on buffer land owned by coal mining company Anglo Coal and both are currently receiving significant investment to help bring the Hunter population of the majestic River Red Gum back from the brink.
Narelle Caslick, Property Co-ordinator at Anglo Coal has been the champion of a number of important environmental initiatives at Plashett. Raised on a property at Jerry's Plains, she admired the Plashett as a girl and always thought it would be a great place to manage. Since taking on her role at Anglo Coal in 2001, Narelle has been doing her bit to make sure the Plashett property and its Hunter River frontage are properly cared for.
The rehabilitation of the stand of River Red Gums along the Hunter River at Plashett is just one project Narelle is currently managing, with assistance and funding from the CMA. Since March 2006, a nine hectare area along the river (about one kilometre long) has been fenced off and planted with over 5000 native trees, including 300 River Red Gum seedlings.
"Many of the trees were cleared from the riverbanks in the last hundred odd years so it's amazing really that these are still here. They really are beautiful trees, hopefully we can take the pressure off them and get rid of all the weeds and rubbish growing underneath them, they might have a chance of survival"," said Narelle.
The other project Narelle has been involved with at the Plashett property is an innovative trial using compost material to treat an eroded gully at Saltwater Creek. The gully had been eroded over time from an overflowing dam and had become up to 13 metres deep in some places.
In 2006, with Australian Government funding through the CMA, and an equal contribution from Anglo Coal, the gully was filled by collapsing the sides and raising the floor to allow ground cover and vegetation to be re-established.
Unfortunately drought conditions led to poor survival rates of the new groundcover and native plants, however an opportunity in 2007 to collaborate with the CMA and the Department of Environment and Climate Change helped turn things around. The site at Saltwater Creek was nominated for a trial project using green waste compost, brought from off-site, to top-dress the area and improve the fertility of the soils. Throw in a special mix of grass seeds and some plantings of native species, and the area has been transformed!
"It's amazing to see how this area is looking now, considering what it once was. The erosion here was just the worst and nothing was ever going to grow in this area. Now with all of this vegetation taking off and the dam water being diverted away from the area, the erosion issues should be a thing of the past," said Narelle.
Narelle believes she has the best job in the world and is positive about the future of the Hunter River and the region. Being a local, she takes the community liaison part of her role at Anglo Coal very personally. She knows many people in the community and if ever there's a problem, she's always keen to resolve it face to face.
With a strong passion for agriculture, she believes the coal mines can learn much from traditional farmers in the Valley; and conversely there are many innovative land management practices coming out of large-scale environmental projects the coal mines are investing in that can benefit local landholders.
"I know there are farmers in the Valley who remember the bad old days when the mining companies first came to town, but things have improved a lot since then and these companies now have incredibly strict conditions they have to meet in order to continue operating."
"I've always wanted to make sure that Anglo Coal is on the front foot and taking the initiative to go beyond what we're required to do by law and give back something to the community."
One of the ways Narelle is hoping to help Anglo Coal achieve this goal is by getting support to restore the historic homestead at Plashett. Built from local sandstone and timber in the mid-1850s using convict labour, the homestead was listed in 2008, on both the New South Wales and Australian National Heritage Lists.
Narelle has excellent memories of the Hunter River, from witnessing floods, to swimming and fishing there as a child.
"The Hunter River is why Jerry's Plains exists. Initial settlers relied on the river for agricultural and farming purposes which hasn't changed with modern farming and industry of today," said Narelle.