THE sun-kissed bank of the Macdonald River was the setting for researchers hoping to turn the tide in an ecological “crisis situation” this week.
Thirty-one Bell’s Turtle hatchlings, raised in captivity, were released into the river at Bendemeer in a bid to help the endangered species avoid a population crash.
The species is exclusively native to the Northern Tablelands rivers where populations have been hounded by foxes, and other predators, to the point where ecologists and land services have stepped in.
Ebullient youngsters from the Bendemeer and Kootingal public schools were given the task of releasing hatchlings into the river.
University of New England environmental science researcher Louise Streeting has been working on the project and hoped the kids would feel a sense “of ownership and an interest in conserving a species that is in trouble”.
“So, 95 per cent-plus of the Bell’s nests are raided by foxes within 24 to 48 hours of the eggs being laid,” Ms Streeting said.
“It’s devastating the juvenile numbers in the population.
“Because the turtles don’t reproduce until they are 20-years-old, it’s just a huge crisis situation basically.”
There were 132 hatchlings released around the region this week and Ms Streeting said they had a huge task ahead of them.
“They have to survive, females have to be 20-years-old before they reproduce,” she said.
“That’s a long period of time to survive.
“They’ve got to deal with native fish and introduced fish species, as well as birds, cormorants and pelicans.”
Northern Tablelands Local Land Services Bell’s Turtle project coordinator Martin Dillon said the region’s landholders had a crucial role to play to protecting the animals from their main predator.
“There are about 12 landholders this season, and more next season, to manage livestock access to riverbanks, because trampling is a risk as well,” Mr Dillon said.
“And also to manage fox populations.
“So each of those landholders are going to go above and beyond their routine fox management.”
The “Turtles Forever” program is a ten-year project focusing on four catchments across the Northern Tablelands and funded with $985,191 from the NSW Government’s Environmental Trust Saving Our Species Partnership grant program.