Native browsing for Australia’s tree-dwelling wildlife - National Tree Day Blog

Native browsing for Australia’s tree-dwelling wildlife

Australia’s longest river, the Murray stretches over 2,500 kilometers and crosses through three states. It is home to hundreds of species of wildlife that depend on it for water, habitat and food. But adverse events like droughts, fox and dog attacks, fires and accidents often leave wildlife injured and in need of a helping hand.  

That’s where organisations like Dutch Thunder come in, a wildlife rehabilitation shelter on a mission to grow plants for its patients, and the reason for our visit to this peaceful patch of the Murray. The Seedling Bank grant recipients are based on the edge of Cobram Regional Park, a popular spot for hiking, waterfront cook-ups and, unfortunately, animal misadventure.   

The shelter was established by Kylee Donkers and her husband James over a decade ago. When we visited, animals in their care include eastern grey kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, sugar gliders, wombats, peacocks, sulphur-crested cockatoos, birds of prey, reptiles, dingoes and even a pelican who suffered a nasty bite wound from a fox. Many of the animals Kylee and James rescue rely on native foliage, grasses and dirt as staples in their diets. To meet these needs, Dutch Thunder volunteers regularly partake in an activity called ‘native browsing’ the process of collecting flora for animals by mimicking their natural behaviours and only taking small amounts rather than cutting down trees.  

To give you an idea of just how demanding this feeding technique is, let’s take a look at the dietary requirements of Australia’s most iconic mammal – the koala.   The koala’s name is said to come from the Dharug peoples word meaning ‘no water’. The tree-dwelling species relies on the moisture in eucalyptus leaves for most of its hydration needs, and they prefer new growth on the tips of branches, which is where they find the juiciest leaves. Their diets vary depending on location and the koalas from this area feed predominantly on river red gum.  

An adult koala eats around one kilogram of leaves each night. To keep enough supply of leaves for the fifty-plus koalas in their care, Dutch Thunder volunteers need to undertake native browsing two to three times per day. To make this meal even more enjoyable for their patients, they store collected leaves in a ‘foliagenator’ a solar powered refrigerator which mists the foliage to keep it cool, fresh and up to the koalas’ standards.  To make the native browsing process easier, the team has a dream to revegetate a section of the wildlife shelter’s property with native feed trees that will provide habitat and food sources for the animals in care. When they arrived at the property, they planted 1,000 seedlings, and this year, funding from The Seedling Bank will help expand this native browsing garden with a further 300 trees, 200 shrubs and 100 grasses. 

Flowering gums will be planted for the sugar gliders, bottlebrush for the possums, a range of eucalypts for the koalas, and grasses for the kangaroos, wallabies and wombats. Farmers surrounding the property have also planted a small selection of native trees so that animals in the care of Dutch Thunder can enjoy a ‘soft release’ back into the wild.  

During her 15 years of caring for wildlife Kylee has released hundreds of koalas back into the wild. She shared some of the lessons she’s learned in this time when the community gathered for the shelter’s National Tree Day event, including what they can plant in their own gardens to support native wildlife. In the future, she plans to give the local school access to the shelter’s garden for educational purposes including bush kindergarten and environmental science.   

As we drive through the land, Kylee recognises a familiar Gurburra (koala). “There’s Burnie!” she says, pointing out a grey-brown bump high up in a gum. Burnie suffered severe burns to both hind paws, front paws and her nose after walking through a campfire not properly extinguished by campers. “She was treated for burns and her dressings took up to four hours to change every day,” Kylee recalls. 

Burnie made a full recovery and was released two months ago. She and some of the other ex-patients often return to the area surrounding the refuge to munch on their favourite leaves. The Dutch Thunder team has high hopes that Burnie’s descendants will be enjoying the leaves of native trees planted on National Tree Day for many decades to come. 

This story was originally published in the 2022 edition of Tree Talk. Read the latest stories from The Seedling Bank here.

Jennifer McMillan

Jen worked as a vet nurse while studying environmental science and completing her master's degree in Journalism. She loves bushwalking, storytelling, caring for baby animals, Australian birds and river red gums. Jen works on the National Tree Day campaign and Planet Ark's Seedling Bank.