A Community That Refuses To Buckle.

By Malcolm320 posted 16-12-2019 18:49


Sydney, Australia, is a global city, blessed to still have areas of remnant natural bushland scattered throughout its suburbs. When Captain Cook first sailed into Botany Bay in 1770, the biodiversity would have been spectacular and even to this day there is a far greater diversity of plant species within the city boundaries than exist in the entire United Kingdom. Some incredible wildlife still occurs here too. The problem is that bushland areas are extremely sensitive to invasive weeds and can be completely overwhelmed by introduced species brought here from around the globe and planted by gardeners (oblivious of their harmful impact). Natural areas are also fast disappearing under the bulldozers as the thirst for “endless growth” seems unquenchable. Sadly some residents often don’t value or understand the importance of this natural heritage.

In the hinterland behind Manly’s famous Surfing beaches there is a beautiful nature reserve (comprising 930 acres).  A small creek was dammed here in 1892 to create a water supply for the growing settlement and the catchment was thus subsequently protected to preserve water quality. In later years it became Australia’s only war memorial created by conserving natural bushland –hence its formal name “Manly Warringah War Memorial Park” (otherwise known as Manly Dam)

At the turn of the century a large chunk of this rare paradise was threatened by the British motorway construction company WIMPEY- which, despite intense community protests, ultimately helped transform a significant corner of the wild ecosystem into a housing estate (excavating and despoiling the main feeder creek of Manly Dam in the process). This creek was home to a rare climbing fish thought to have existed here for 60 million years (before the separation of the super continent, Gondwanaland).

Members of the community which had held rallies, vigils, protest marches and even the world’s first environmental golf tournament (The “Save Manly Dam Golf Classic”) were devastated. But they were passionate about the environment, well organised and refused to be bowed. Eventually an idea emerged…why not try and restore an area of bushland along the same creekline that was closer to suburbia and which had sadly become a weed infested dump site over the last few decades.  That place was called Mermaid Pools, on Manly Creek at Manly Vale.

 Of course indigenous people occupied Sydney’s Northern Beaches area for thousands of years and we are hauntingly reminded of their ancient presence through rock carvings and engravings in our locality. As more and more discoveries are made, the significance of the area to Aboriginal people is taking on a greater dimension..

   In 1788 (New South Wales’s first Governor, Arthur Phillip, traversed this creek when it was surrounded by dense forest and swamps. In the Depression years of the 1930’s there was a camp at nearby Allambie for people who had lost their homes. Girls used to slip away to the pool to swim naked-hence the name-Mermaid Pool. In those days the water was crystal clear, the bird-life rich and varied and the bushland vibrant and colourful.  There is still a rare pocket of coastal rainforest beneath the rocky overhangs of Mermaid Pool which echoes a long distant era. A mere eighty years ago, much of Manly Vale was unspoilt bushland, platypus still occupied some waterways and even quolls and koalas were ‘in residence’.


 Many things have since happened to help restore the tarnished jewel of Mermaid Pool, kicking off on ‘Clean Up Australia Day’ 2002, when 4 tonnes of rubbish were removed by 71 volunteers. Subsequently the Clean Up Australia organisation adopted the project as a ‘Fix Up’ Site. Volunteers then recognised the fact that introduced weeds from around the globe were out competing the vulnerable native plant species and grants were applied for and gained to employ contractors to carefully remove them. But the weeds such as Privet, Asparagus Fern, Lantana, Morning Glory and a host of others, are unusually the community then had to learn how to identify and extricate them.  A hardy bunch of locals have since been involved in “Bush Regeneration” on the site ever since and volunteer through the Northern Beaches Council Bushcare program. They have also created educational brochures, produced nesting boxes for the local wildlife (such as birds and possums) and stencilled messages on drains to encourage people not to drop litter in the streets (which is carried via stormwater drains to the beach).


The great thing about getting involved in environmental restoration is that you can discover fascinating insights into local biodiversity and help ensure that habitat for native fauna is improved.  In the Mermaid Pool environs for example, Bandicoots have returned after a 40 year absence, Swamp Wallabies have recently been spotted nearby whilst  Dwarf Green Tree Frogs still survive in the reed beds. There are 10 types of native fish that call this waterway home. Some of them have migrated up Manly Creek from the ocean to spawn for millennia (the original “Mermaids”) but accumulated silt, exotic weeds and other obstructions have made this increasingly difficult.  


The rewards and advantages of being an environmental volunteer are many and varied..but there continues to be setbacks too.  In 2017 (on World Environment Day). The NSW Department of Education proceeded to bulldoze several hectares of rare bushland at nearby McComb Hill for the expansion of Manly Vale Public School. The community pleaded with them to "build up not out" to save the habitat of the threatened Eastern Pygmy Possum. They also warned that removing all the trees and shrubs from the northern slope would result in silt and sediment being washed into Mermaid Pool. All protests were ignored. After heavy rain in June 2018, huge volumes of muddy silt flowed into the pool. What made it even sadder was that the school had previously been recognised as a global pioneer in environmental education and their very own irreplaceable outdoor learning area (replete with rare endemic native species) was also cleared.


The Return of the Mermaids project continues unabated despite all setbacks and the parent organisation Save Manly Dam Bushland remains in campaign mode to fight ongoing damaging development proposals.


Several awards have been won including the Inaugural KNSWB Blue Star Sustainability Award in 2015 in the Habitat and Wildlife Guardianship Category and the "People's Choice" Award for the most popular Landcare site in 2011.

Council has been lobbied over many years to rezone the land adjoining Mermaid Pool from “residential” to something more appropriate and there are finally plans underway to nominate several bushland parcels as a small bird habitat corridor. Amazingly a recent biodiversity survey, carried out in conjunction with this work, revealed the presence of the critically endangered Swift Parrot as well as a host of other unusual species.

.Our community group is now equipped to advocate for environmental conservation far more widely than just our own backyard. We are battle hardened, informed and resourced to make our voices heard on a broader level. And groups such as ours are finally getting traction as an extinction crisis is revealed and climate change begins to bite.  Even some of our politicians are beginning to take note and local Independent Federal MP, Zali Steggall, was a welcome visitor to our monthly restoration session in October 2019.

The moral of the story is to  never, ever, ever give up.


[Malcolm Fisher is a British born, Australian conservationist and writer. He is Vice Chairman of the Save Manly Dam Catchment Committee and Convenor of the Mermaid Pools Restoration Project].