United effort to save rare gliding possum, photos

A large corporate organisation has engaged two local Landcare groups in an effort to save a rare gliding possum in the Cowra and Young Shires.

John Holland Rail, who manage the Country Regional Network on behalf of Transport for NSW, have contracted the Mid Lachlan and Young District Landcare groups to deliver a Squirrel Glider Conservation Project along the non-operational Blayney to Demondrille rail line.

The project will complement and enhance a Squirrel Glider Project initiated by the former Lachlan Catchment Management Authority (now Local Land Services) in the nearby Crowther district in 2010.

The Squirrel Glider is a nocturnal gliding marsupial that lives in family groups, sheltering and nesting in hollows in trees. Feeding on both plant and animal foods, it glides from tree to tree in search of nectar, pollen, manna, gum and sap from wattles and eucalypt trees, as well as insects (mainly caterpillars, beetles and stick insects) and eggs.

It is very similar in appearance to its smaller and more common cousin the Sugar Glider, but has a much bushier, black tail which is longer than the head and body combined. Large light sensitive eyes allow for increased night vision. The Squirrel Glider is grey in colour with a black midline extending from between the eyes to the middle of the back. A distinctive membrane of skin stretching between their front and hind legs is extended outwards when gliding.

Listed as Vulnerable under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995, the Squirrel Glider faces threats from the fragmentation of its habitat, the loss of trees with suitable hollows for nesting and the loss of food sources contained in the flowering mid-storey shrubs, such as wattles (Acacia species). Barbed wire fences and attacks by feral and domestic cats have also contributed to its demise.

Under cover of darkness, Vanessa Cain from Mid Lachlan Landcare based in Cowra, and Mikla Lewis from Young District Landcare, have recently been searching for the elusive Squirrel Glider. Using spotlights, they searched the trees along the rail corridor between Cowra and Young for the eyeshine that reveals the glider's position high in the tree canopy.

After a number of nights spent surveying the rail corridor, the Landcare Officers struck gold when two Squirrel Gliders were identified at a location near the small town of Bendick Murrell. The gliders were readily identified with their large, black bushy tails and distinctive markings. They were observed leaping from branches and tilting their heads inquisitively, presumably listening to the strange humans below.

Important remnants of Box Gum Grassy Woodland remain in a number of pockets along the rail easement between Cowra and Young. Listed as an Endangered Ecological Community, Box Gum Grassy Woodland communities face a high risk of extinction, with many species of native birds and other animals, including Squirrel Gliders relying on it for their continued survival.

The John Holland Rail Squirrel Glider Conservation Project aims to improve Squirrel Glider habitat by installing nest boxes which will help support the local population by increasing the amount of denning and nesting sites. Sixty nest boxes have recently been installed along the rail corridor near Bendick Murrell and Monteagle.

The project will also improve foraging habitat by protecting Silver Wattles regenerating naturally on the site and by planting a mixture of wattles and other shrubs that will provide a critical food resource when flowering in winter. The shrubs are currently being grown in local nurseries from seed collected in and around the rail corridor.

John Holland Rail has been extremely enthusiastic about making a tangible difference to threatened species in the area.

Environmental Coordinator with John Holland Rail, Chris Weston, stated: "At JHR we are excited to partner with Mid Lachlan and Young District Landcare Groups to conserve and improve habitat for the Squirrel Glider. As custodians of the country rail networks we have inherited rail corridors of high biodiversity value and we are fortunate that we can partner with local expertise to enhance conservation efforts in the community."