Benedict von Bibra And The Story Of Bibra Lake

Looking at Bibra Lake so full and brimming as we approach the end of winter, it immediately fills us with a sense of peace and tranquillity. The splendid birdlife, the abundant wildlife, the gentle sway of the rushes and the lush bushland beyond it – everything is picturesque and endearing.

For a host of others, from the Aboriginals – the traditional custodians who consider it sacred, to the later-day inhabitants who enjoy its rich bounty, Bibra Lake has always held special significance.

The Beeliar Tribe used the surrounds as an important camping site and archaeological evidence demonstrates that the area had been under Aboriginal use going as far back as 5000 years ago. A site older than the Great Pyramids! Indeed, the mythology of the ‘Waugal’ – the rainbow serpent, and dreamtime tales of the ‘Spirit Children’ have long been associated with this beautiful land.

There is also a great geographical significance. The Beeliar wetlands formed the major links for the journey along the coast providing shelter, fresh water, food and safety from the elements.

Around the 1800s the European settlement was taking effect. This impacted the local Aboriginal population that receded drastically. Soon traditional lands became land grants to new settlers.

In 1830 George Robb received 2000 acres of land through a land grant. His area stretched from Cockburn Road up to North Lake. Alongside Robb’s land, Benedict von Bibra was granted 320 acres in what is now a part of the suburb of Bibra Lake.

In this article, we sketch a picture of life around Bibra Lake in those days. We knit you a yarn about Benedict von Bibra and how our beautiful lake got its name – from Walubup, Walliabup, Bibra’s Lake, to now simply Bibra Lake.

 

About Benedict von Bibra

Benedict von Bibra came from Van Diemen’s Land to settle in the Swan River Colony in the early 1830s. His first impression of Perth was not favourable as it was still a relatively raw and rustic settlement. And his hopes of farming and earning his living by working the land were soon dashed when he found sand instead of soil everywhere.

However, that was not the only skill he carried! During his early days at “Coburg” (the name of von Bibra’s childhood home and property in Van Diemen’s Land), he had helped build the house and several outbuildings and had found a natural ability and inclination for carpentry. This was handy indeed as carpentry was a skill very much in demand those days.

He used the money he had collected from the sale of Coburg to establish a business together with a partner. But the arrangement was unsuccessful and the partnership dissolved in 1834.

During this period of dejection and loneliness, Benedict met Matilda Sarah Flaherty. After a brief courtship, Benedict married Matilda in April 1836 and the couple settled down in Perth. They had their first child in 1837 and named him Louis Edward. In 1838, they had a daughter, named Matilda after her mother and lovingly called Tilly, and in 1839, another son, James.

Benedict had found that he was especially adept at making shingles, an art the other carpenters were not particularly good at. He took this as a sign, putting all his energy in this direction to build a successful business. He had hit the mark and the business expanded swiftly.

In 1841 Benedict opened a new branch of his carpentry business in Fremantle together with a partner. This was also the year when he and Matilda lost their 4th child, Edwin William, who died of dysentery when only five months old.

 

A Little Bit of History

Little was known about the lake’s existence by European settlers before A. C. Gregory who chanced upon it while conducting a survey of George Robb’s land in May 1842. Gregory noted the Aboriginal name of the lake as “Walubup”.

A year later, in the summer of 1843, Benedict von Bibra conducted a survey of his own land that lay towards the southern shore. Benedict had bought this land to use for camping and to shorten his trip between his two businesses in Perth and Fremantle. That same year, Matilda and Benedict had another daughter. They named her Helen Amelia.

As he surveyed, he noticed that there was a feature – a wide depression at the edge of his land. He assessed from the stringybark trees that this basin would transform into a lake during winter months and that rainwater would fill it to a depth of seven to eight feet. He was right of course and this account gives us the historical verification that Bibra Lake has been a seasonal wetland for at least a hundred years.

He used the Aboriginal name “Walliabup” (‘up’ means place) for the lake and this version was used extensively for more than half a century. Von Bibra’s association with “Walliabup” was fondly recalled by locals who referred to the feature as “Bibra’s Lake”. The alternative name “Bibra Lake” was eventually adopted in place of the original name.

Life Around Bibra Lake

Between 1850 and 1870 development continued to occur all around Bibra Lake. Smaller lots of 10 to 40 acres became the norm towards the east of the lake and more substantial holdings occurred towards the south and north.

In 1848, Benedict’s household grew further to include another son whom they called Charles Frederick. Frances, nicknamed Fanny, was born sometime later and was their last child together. Matilda died in 1857 at only thirty-seven years of age.

Throughout the 1800s Bibra Lake came to be known as a local agricultural hub. Wheat, oats and maize crops were planted. The dairy industry was booming. Horse and cattle farming were fairly popular. Market gardeners, many of them Chinese, found lease opportunities from local landowners and thrived on the land allocated to them. Local vineyards and orchards also developed.

Considering the ever-growing popularity of the Bibra Lake foreshore, in 1898 the Fremantle District Roads Board declared Bibra Lake to be a reserve for recreational purposes only and actively opposed all applications to lease land.  Tearooms were erected and the Reserve became a popular venue for picnics and sports gatherings. With these changing conditions, several of the activities – enterprises as well as farms, gradually relocated to better suited and more accessible areas.

In the 1970s the EPA identified Bibra Lake as an important recreational and conservation area and it was eventually rezoned for Parks and Recreation in the Metropolitan Region Scheme.

Today, Bibra Lake is the centrepiece of the Beeliar Regional Park. It has a Regional Playground, the Wetlands Centre and Native ARC and an Aboriginal Cultural Centre is planned for the near future. It is an important conservation category wetland where nature and wildlife coexist in the midst of a rapidly developing urban landscape. For many people, Bibra Lake is a quiet escape from city life – a quick getaway, a place to reflect and reconnect with nature.

References

  1. Bibra Lake, Western Australia. (2019). En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 31 July 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibra_Lake,_Western_Australia
  2. (2019). Vonbibra.net. Retrieved 31 July 2019, from http://www.vonbibra.net/files/TVBSChapt40001.pdf

Our Wetlands In A Changing Climate

As ecosystems that thrive on so little, our wetlands are delicate. Yet they are abundant sources of water in this growingly water-starved world. They are carbon sinks, that remove and trap over 13% of the world’s carbon. They are biodiversity hot-spots where some of the most beautiful and unique species live and flourish.

While we are fortunate to still see wetlands around us, their survival is threatened. They are exhibiting what the scientists are calling a ‘distress syndrome’, wherein, their functional capacity has been radically impaired. Their plant and animal distributions have been drastically altered. And there are several disturbances, induced stresses and a range of pressures that are making their fragile ecosystems imbalanced.

Image of a starving polar bear on a melting ice sheet

Much of this has been the result of climate change. A topic that is heavily discussed but less understood in the context of wetland conservation and rehabilitation. It is only gradually becoming clear that climate change impacts each wetland in a specific and unpredictable way. And it is through constant monitoring, research, on-ground work and active participation that some of the impacts can be stalled or even reversed.

Our conservation efforts at Bibra Lake and North Lake, within the Beeliar Regional Park, have been remarkable. Through the course of our work, we are constantly learning about the nature of our wetlands, their many unseen facets and how they respond to a steadily shifting environment.

In this article, we draw a sketch of the strengths and weaknesses of our dynamic Beeliar Wetlands as they stand the test of a changing climate. And what it will take for them to survive this massive global event.

Understanding climate change

Climate change is perhaps the greatest issue confronting us today!  As greenhouse emissions continue to rise it is predicted that global temperatures could increase anywhere between 1-5 degrees in the 21st century.


This video from NASA’s Climate Change website, highlights global temperature anomalies. 2018 and 2017 were the fourth and second hottest years respectively since modern record-keeping began in 1880. NASA and NOAA work together to track the temperatures, part of ongoing research into our warming planet.

Major atmospheric changes drive hydrological changes. So, global warming at that scale can lead to prolonged droughts in some areas and pronounced precipitation in others. Hydrological changes further drive hydrogeological changes affecting groundwater recharge and water purity. These changes themselves are enough to degrade some wetlands considerably.

The continuing rise in temperatures also threatens species who depend on the wetlands for survival. Waterfowl are susceptible to changes in temperature and precipitation. For migratory birds, the climate affects their habitats as well as the migration corridors. For other species whose breeding cycles are tied closely to the climatic conditions, the rise in temperatures makes the situation unfavourable.

Climate change has a range of other impacts on the wetlands themselves, their ability to recycle and process nutrients, how they absorb and trap carbon and process sediments to generate soil. These activities further impact the distribution of flora and fauna, favouring some over the other. Invasive species thrive and change wetland ecology, damaging habitat and food source.

The stresses of climate change are only heightened by human activity – urbanization and pollution.

Climate change and Beeliar Wetlands

The Beeliar Wetlands is the name given to the two chains of wetlands that run parallel to the west coast of Western Australia. While one chain of lakes is saline, the other is freshwater. The wetlands are located towards the southwest portion of metropolitan Perth within the larger Beeliar Regional Park.

The wetlands on the Swan Coastal Plain and in particular the Beeliar Wetlands are a surface expression of the underlying groundwater.  There is still much to be learnt about the effects of climate change on our wetlands.  What the data shows us is that for about the last 40 years we have been receiving less rain.

Groundwater levels have never been static, decreasing during summer and increasing when recharged with winter rain as water makes its way through the soil to groundwater.  With decreasing rainfall, the groundwater recharge has decreased and levels have dropped. Together with the decreasing recharge, there has also been incessant removal of groundwater to supplement our supply of drinking water.

In most cases, this has led to our wetlands drying out more often or for prolonged periods each year. But, bear in mind, a drying wetland is natural and it is during the drying times that those intrepid birds fly in from Siberia to eat the bugs out of our mud.  It’s tricky business and honestly, none of us have the whole story.

The unpredictable changes in the lakes drying and filling have also complicated our revegetation efforts.  While in general we are allowing for increased dry conditions and adjusting the zones in which we plant, on several occasions we have been caught with heavy summer and spring rain events inundating some of our plantings.  These conditions highlight the need for Adaptive Management.

It is not only the wetland and wetland vegetation that is affected by this lowering of the water table.  Many of our bushland species also depend on groundwater for survival.  This became very evident during the particularly low rainfall season of 2010-11 when many banksias higher in the landscape of our bushland died.

Changes in global climate may well be a contributing factor on groundwater levels, but healthy well-maintained wetlands can also be a key tool in our efforts to lessen the impact of climate change on other systems.

Here’s taking a closer look at the Beeliar Wetlands and how climate change has impacted some of the wetland functions.

1. Changing Hydrology:

The Beeliar Wetlands depend on seasonal rain to recharge. Over the years there have been fluctuations in the amount of precipitation. These fluctuations have caused alterations in wetland zonation, impacting the distribution of native plant species within the wetlands.

2. Loss of biodiversity:

With changing zonation, wading species and waterfowl are impacted.  Constant encroachment has led to a serious habitat loss, loss of fringing vegetation and bushland. This has further impacted species such as turtles, frogs, snakes and lizards many of which are endangered.

3. Carbon loss:

With many of the wetlands now experiencing a dry spell and terrestrialisation, the carbon trapped within the soils is released back into the atmosphere. And there is a further loss in capacity to capture and trap carbon from the atmosphere due to the growing number of dysfunctional and degraded wetlands.

Read our blog post on ‘Saving Bibra Lake’ for an in-depth examination into our conservation and rehabilitation efforts on Bibra Lake and North Lake.

Preventative measures

The wetlands are facing an incredible amount of stress from climate change alone, and we have to realize the importance of reducing additional pressures. This will give our wetlands a fighting chance to cope and replenish.

While most of us have come to accept the reality of human-caused changes in our global climate, we must also step up to the task of addressing the impacts of these changes.  There are many actions we can take locally to help our wetlands through this period.

Here are a few ways in which we as individuals and community can help:

  1. Reduce waste. Don’t litter.
  2. Conserve water. Be judicious. Click this link to check out Watercorp’s tips for saving water.
  3. Recycle and reuse to the maximum extent.
  4. Reduce your carbon footprint.
  5. Walk or cycle wherever you can. Or use public transport.
  6. Grow native plants in your garden. Go organic. Be fertilisewise!
  7. Participate in wetland activities. Volunteer with The Wetlands Centre.

Don’t forget to quack, quack, quack…  That is wetland speak for talk, talk, talk…  Pass on the message to friends and family.  Tell them about waterwise, fertilisewise and of course, volunteering.

Join The Wetlands Centre Cockburn

At ‘The Wetlands Centre Cockburn’, we are located a hop, skip and jump away from the glorious Bibra Lake, within the Beeliar Regional Park. Our proximity stirs and inspires us to work with the community to safeguard and protect this amazing yet fragile asset.

Community Planting Event at Horse Paddock Swamp in the Beeliar Wetlands

We have seen remarkable progress over the 25 years we have been around and are always looking for new helpers.  If you are not into getting down and dirty, we have education programs that need helpers too!

Combating climate change will take all our effort. Come join our forces today. Together let us maintain and improve the resilience of our wetlands so that they can continue to provide important services to us and the coming generations, even under changed climatic conditions.

Saving Bibra Lake

An aerial view of Bibra Lake on a sunny day

Cradled in the swales of the ancient dunes of the Swan Coastal Plain, and spanning over 384 hectares are the Beeliar Wetlands! They are bustling with stunning biodiversity, that include some of the most unique and fragile lifeforms on earth. Here, the calm, placid Bibra Lake stands as a timeless testament to our heritage and cultural values.

Historically, North Lake – Coolbellup and Bibra Lake – Walliabup, have served as important locations for the Aboriginal Nyoongar people. They are associated with the mythology of the ‘Waugal‘– the rainbow serpent, and Dreamtime tales of the ‘Spirit Children’.  Numerous Aboriginal campsites have been documented adjacent to the lakes. The Beeliar mob had semi-permanent camps on the land, caring for the boodja (country), precisely where the controversial Roe 8 tollway was proposed.

While we closely evaded that disaster, there are still a number of factors that continue to impact our precious wetlands. Over 90% of Perth’s once ample and abundant wetlands have been lost to agricultural pursuits, urbanisation, and development & infill. Bibra Lake and the surrounds are a reminder of what we’ve lost and what we stand to lose unless we take strong action. Together.

 

Changing wetlands in a changing climate

Our wetlands are dynamic in nature and they transform with changing seasons. Water levels in the wetlands, such as Bibra Lake, rise and fall with rainfall and the seasonal movement of groundwater. Bibra Lake experiences this seasonal flooding and drying, and oftentimes, this leads to alterations in the depth and area of the body of the lake. The transient wetlands are designed to cope, redistributing their animal and plant life in accordance with these changes.

However, with a decrease in rainfall and an increase in human activity surrounding our wetlands, the natural variations are becoming exaggerated. Causing alarming fluctuations in the wetland zonation. Introducing irreversible expansions and contractions of the wetland area.

 

Comparisson of flooded zones of Bibra Lake from 1995 to 2005
Figures depicting altered wetland zonation for Bibra Lake

Looking back, we remember the water levels of Bibra Lake during the 1980’s and 1990’s to be much higher than they are now. Many of us believe that those water levels were “proper”. However, the higher water levels of Bibra Lake at the time were actually an aberration caused by the removal of vegetative cover for the development of surrounding suburbs.

On the other hand, we also see prolonged drying of the wetlands in some years. The reduced rainfall has impacted the recharging of groundwater. And since the groundwater is also our source of drinking water for the Perth metropolitan area, this has caused a further shrinkage of the precious resource.

Bibra Lake has suffered adverse impacts. Usually, maximum water levels were seen around October and minimum levels during April. However, Bibra Lake and North Lake are now breaching these standards. This has significant implications for planting and weed control.

 

Two pictures comparing seasonal water levels of Bibra Lake
Snapshots comparing maximum and minimum seasonal water levels in Bibra Lake

A thorough understanding of these circumstances is essential towards developing a successful restoration program for Bibra Lake. We need to take the variations and on-ground conditions into account, adjusting when and where we weed and plant as we maintain and restore the lake and its surrounds.  The focus as we move forward must be on adaptive management.

We must also accept that we are moving into a period of some uncertainty, with climate change and global/local weather events becoming unpredictable. We may not get this 100% right 100% of the time. But every failure is a learning and a step forward.

 

Weeds and invasive species

Weeds are one of the most pressing problems we face at Bibra Lake, and weed control is an ongoing initiative. Often, the removal of one weed creates space for another. In some cases, it even allows the overgrowth of opportunistic native plants which can pose additional challenges. We see this most starkly in the constant balancing act of Typha control on our lakes. But that is a story for another day…

A combination of manual and chemical control along with mulching and saturation planting has been the most effective method in combating weeds. (Saturation planting is when native vegetation is planted densely and in large numbers so as to saturate and give little scope for invasive species to spread.)

At Bibra Lake, the following have been our findings:

  • Weeds must be actively growing before initiating weed control.
  • The revegetation plan should be in place prior to weed management to make the best use of the weed control efforts.
  • A monthly weed control commitment is required with a plan for the whole year.
  • At The Wetlands Centre, we have developed Seed Production Areas (SPAs) and refined propagation techniques to grow plants in our nursery.
  • The weed biomass in the seasonal zone degrades during one flooding and receding event. Slashing is sometimes required to make the area suitable for planting.
  • Mulching of the lower damp to upper seasonal zone (the weediest zone) with Typha mulch reduced the frequency of weed control.

 

Satelite images of Bibra Lake from 1953 to 2018 showing vegetation cover
Satellite images showing revegetation of Bibra Lake by The Wetlands Centre Cockburn over the years

Invasive species such as feral bees, foxes and cats are also detrimental to our wetlands. The feral cats and foxes prey on vulnerable native animals. Foxes are an introduced species and our lizards, turtles and quenda are especially susceptible since they have not developed any specific defences to stay protected.

 

Runoff and Algal Blooms

Human activity is primarily responsible for the degradation of our wetlands. Our urban developments are placed closer and closer to the wetlands, with little or no buffer. Roads and tracks crisscross the perimeter. And our wetlands are losing their lush cover, that helps protect wildlife from noise, light and other forms of pollution. All this further challenges their survival, exposing our species to danger and disease, and putting them at a risk of endangerment.

This also means that there is a greater impact on how nutrients, sediments and pollutants are naturally filtered by the wetland. The degraded quality of some of the fringing and upland vegetation around Bibra Lake is causing alterations in the water-quality of the catchment. However, Bibra Lake still fairs better than other heavily impacted lakes within the Beeliar Wetlands.

Runoff, whether it is the chemical runoff from roads or the phosphorus, potassium and nitrogen from fertilizers that we use in our gardens, leads to a nutrient explosion, and subsequently, algal blooms. The algae reduce temperature and light penetration in the catchments, suffocating and dominating over aquatic life. The algae also spread rapidly and give off an unpleasant odour as they break down. There is a direct link between the excessive use of garden and horticulture fertilizers and algal blooms in our waterways.

Reducing the use of chemicals in our gardens, keeping our storm drains clear of unwanted litter, conserving water and using it judiciously, and using landscaping practices that benefit wildlife and their habitats – every little step you take can lead to positive outcomes for our lake.

 

Join The Wetlands Centre Cockburn

At ‘The Wetlands Centre Cockburn’, we are fortunate to be located adjacent to the resplendent Bibra Lake, within the Beeliar Regional Park. This places us in an ideal position to lead by example in the care of our natural surroundings. We recognize that we bear a great responsibility to inspire, reinforce and connect, and to work with the community to safeguard and protect this amazing area.

The issues we have highlighted in this article are very real. They are threatening the health of our wonderful lake and its bountiful surrounds. We are working hard to understand and combat these issues while spreading awareness of core problems. Our team of volunteers and staff are dedicated and ever-vigilant.

In working with the land and connecting with its nurturing ways, we have come to cherish it deeply. And we want to share this connection with the greater community. Come, get involved with us. Learn. Plant. Protect. Conserve. And spread the joy.

 

This article is adapted from and based on notes and insights shared by Denise Crosbie, Wetlands Officer, The Wetlands Centre Cockburn.