Wivenhoe Conservation Area leaves a legacy of ecological renewal

The Sisters of the Good Samaritan are withdrawing from the stewardship of their Wivenhoe landholding at Cobbitty in New South Wales, and in the process will ensure ongoing security for the Mater Dei School and gift 200 hectares of conservation land to the people of the state, as a national park.

The site has been owned by the Sisters since 1910 and is the largest privately owned tract of Cumberland Plain Woodland in the Sydney basin.

Good Samaritan Sister Catherine McCahill said while there was considerable sadness in handing over the historic property into the care of others, it was the right time.

“It’s the right time for us and it’s the right time in the cycle of the ecological work which has been going on at the site,” she said.

Catherine said one of the key drivers of the decision was the desire for the Mater Dei School to have its own piece of land, in line with other Good Samaritan Education schools since 2016.

“Because it’s located all together on this one large piece of land, we had to cut out a piece for Mater Dei, which required rezoning from Camden City Council,” she said.

“At the same time, we were coming to the sense that it was time to hand over the Wivenhoe land to others. But a lot of the property is ecologically sensitive land and we wanted it protected in perpetuity.”

Months of negotiations with National Parks has now resulted in a Memorandum of Agreement, which is soon to be signed to transfer.

“Under this arrangement, Mater Dei School will have the security of its own land and 200 hectares of ecologically important land will be given as a gift to the people of NSW for a national park.”

The Sisters are also seeking the rezoning of a smaller parcel of the land to allow for residential sale to help fund the broader initiative.

The Wivenhoe land, which runs along the banks of the Nepean River, has been a labour of love for the Sisters, who in 2009 began the process of setting aside some 164 hectares of land on their 260 hectare property, for ecological restoration.

The site has two BioBanks, of 84 hectares in total, where the NSW Government’s Office of Environment and Heritage, through the Biodiversity Conservation Trust, provides funds for the gradual restoration of the land.

Each year, agreed outcomes, including the removal of feral animals and weeds and regeneration of native species, must be achieved, so that money can be released for further work.

The Sisters also set aside a further 80 hectares under a Voluntary Conservation Agreement around the Kirkham Rise residential estate for the restoration and preservation of this endangered Cumberland Plain Woodland community.

The ecosystem had come under increased threat since colonial days when it was cleared for grazing. It has suffered from the relentless spread of urban development and the detrimental effects of introduced plant species.

Ten threatened species were found on the land in an official survey in 2016, with a number having returned following the conservation works, which has seen the clearing of introduced noxious weeds and the regrowth of thousands of native plants, trees and shrubs.

The survey identified the presence of the powerful owl, little lorikeet, speckled warbler, little eagle, dusky woodswallow and varied sitella, all of which are threatened bird species. Three microbats were identified and two snail species were seen, one of which was thought to be the threatened Cumberland land snail.

The old farm dams on the property also received a new burst of native fish life, thanks to a restocking program which aims to reduce the impact of introduced species on the local ecology.

“It’s a beautiful piece of land,” Catherine said. “And it’s wonderful what’s been done there in terms of regrowth and restoration.”

As well as transferring the Mater Dei School land to Good Samaritan Education for the use of the school, the nearby Aspect School for children with autism will also have the opportunity to acquire the land on which it stands.

Catherine said the Camden City Council had been “extremely helpful” in assisting with rezoning requirements, which have now proceeded to the NSW Government for planning determination.

“One of the lovely things in all this is how highly the Mater Dei School is regarded in the local community. Everyone wants to ensure its sustainability and ability to continue thriving,” she said.

“So, while there is certainly some sadness, overall, this is a great outcome for Mater Dei, for the Aspect School, for the land itself and for the people of NSW who will receive 200 hectares of restored land along the Nepean River. It’s a positive outcome all round.”

This article was published in the February 2023 edition of The Good Oil.