Why this ex-farmer now helps raise River Murray turtles at Riverglades

Graham Keller has been the driving force behind a community effort to protect threatened native animals in Murray Bridge.

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As a retired farmer, Graham Keller knows a thing or two about helping things grow.

He also has a certain stubbornness about introduced predators: “I don’t like the fox to win”.

He has put his instincts to good use in his retirement at Riverglades, monitoring turtle nests on his morning walk through the community wetland.

By his count, more than 105 eggs have successfully hatched during the past year.

About half as many have failed to mature, while around the same number of baby turtles have been found eaten or otherwise dead.

Given forecasts of a wetter summer, he hoped the upcoming hatching season – which will start in the coming weeks – would be more successful.

“This season just gone, 2019-20, personally I think because of the (hot) weather situation the turtles didn't bury their eggs properly,” he said.

Of the 50-odd nests he and other volunteers found around the wetland, about 30 had been raided either by foxes or – more often, he suspected – by moorhens.

Heat had also been a problem in each of the previous two summers, he said – eggs had effectively “cooked” in their nests when the temperature had stayed in the mid-40s for more than a day or two.

Mr Keller said he tried to protect any nests he found on his walks, but could not always get to them fast enough.

Among other measures, he and other locals had taken to covering them with mulch or small branches, or even sprinkling them with water, he said.

Doing so could reduce their temperature by up to 10 degrees compared with surrounding ground, and seemed to greatly increase the hatchlings' chances of survival.

This summer, thanks to a grant from Landscape SA Murraylands and Riverland, he and the other community wetland volunteers hope to buy a GPS unit so they can begin systematically tracking the location of turtle nests from one year to the next.

“The theory is they come back and lay very close to the same spot every year,” he said.

“What we want to do is get a hand-held GPS and see.”

The turtles native to the Murray-Darling Basin have been found to have numerous positive impacts on the environment, including by scavenging on dead carp that would otherwise rot in waterways.

Researcher Claudia Santori spent time at Riverglades working towards that conclusion in 2018, and returned last year to release 100 baby turtles she had hatched herself in a university lab.

Grassroots grants awarded to 26 organisations

Riverglades Community Wetland was one of several local applicants to receive grant funding from Landscape SA Murraylands and Riverland in 2020-21.

Others included:

  • Rotary Club of Mobilong, for remediating vegetation along Swanport Road, Murray Bridge

  • Goolwa to Wellington Local Action Planning Association, for protecting threatened flora and fauna at Monarto South

  • Coorong District Council, for awareness-raising within the Coorong community

  • Trees for Life, for its Stepping Stones Into Nature program

  • Dairy SA, for trailing raised furrows on maize crops on the river flats

  • Society of Precision Agriculture Australia, for a virtual bus tour of the Murraylands and Riverland

  • Nature Foundation SA, for student research into nocturnal basking turtles

  • Murray Mallee Local Action Planning Association, for increasing community capacity and participation in natural resource management

The grant program will forward more than $330,000, raised through NRM levies on property owners, to environmental and agricultural organisations across the region.

State Environment and Water Minister David Speirs said the program was all about giving communities a greater say in managing their local environment.

Photos: Peri Strathearn (top), Western Sydney University (middle), Landscape SA Murraylands and Riverland (bottom).

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