The complex relationship between culture, history, and nature is never far away in our conversations on Flinders island. In this post, we talk with Island resident, Gerry Willis, about all things mutton birding, island life, and the deep sense of stewardship and care he and the other founders of the Flinders Island Protection Network feel for the Island.
We meet with Gerry Willis, the President of the Furneaux Islands Protection Network Inc. (FIPNI) at the Interstate Hotel, a landmark building in the main street of Whitemark, the largest town on Flinders Island. Gerry is a proud, 6th generation Islander and although we are here to talk about the FIPNI, we begin with Gerry sharing some of his earlier memories of Island life. This place is different, and its stories are fascinating to people like us – or as the Islanders say, ‘people from away’.
Photo: Settlement Point Conservation Area, mutton-bird rookery, Flinders Island
During the course of our conversation, we talk about mutton-birding; an activity that is synonymous with the Furneaux islands. It involves catching the short-tailed shearwaters, whose annual migration brings them all the way from the Arctic Circle, to breed in this often inhospitable environment. Some consider mutton birds quite a delicacy, and they have also been prized for their feathers and oil. Aboriginal people have a more poetic name for the shearwater. They call it the ‘moonbird’, (or sometimes ‘yolla’).
Gerry explains how life on the islands was once divided into ‘before birding’ and ‘after birding’ and that even the local primary school used to close for the mutton-birding season, which traditionally runs from 27th March to the end of April.
Birding has always included the outer islands, and ahead of each season, trails had to be cut, and provisions organised for the six week stay. There were approximately 45 working sheds, across four of the islands. They were like small factories, with more than half of them on Babel Island. The sheds were run by families (parents and their school-age children), with a few additional people to help with catching and processing the birds.
A seasonal catch could be up to 25,000 birds per shed. Gerry’s father once captured 10,000 birds in one season, which was an unusually high number for one ‘birder’ on his own. Gerry also used to go birding but adds that ‘there are not many birders left these days’. It’s hard work.
Source: Youtube CSIRO historical footage provides a fascinating historical account of mutton bird research activity from 1956 with glimpses of Island life at the time.
Flinders Island Protection Network
As we listen to Gerry’s stories, it is unsurprising that he is a founding member of the FIPNI. Like many Islanders, he is embedded in its landscape and the natural rhythms of life, some of which have changed very little over the years. ‘Flinders Island is driven by the sea and the weather’, he says.
The Network was formed approximately 12 months ago and currently has 55 members. Its principal objectives are noted in the Constitution:
The Furneaux Islands Protection Network Inc is committed to fostering Furneaux Islands’ communities that demonstrate strong social inclusion, positive health and well-being, environmental stewardship and protection, and sustainable economic development that respects the irreplaceable social, cultural, environmental and economic characteristics of the Furneaux Group.
Gerry is keen to point out that while some people believe that the Network is a response to a particular development proposal for one of the outer islands, this is not the case. He goes on to say that in fact, there are proposed developments right across the Furneaux group that ‘do not comply with the unofficial objectives of most residents’. He also notes that there have been buildings on the outer islands in the past – there were 12 houses on Vansittart Island at one stage, but they were there for a different purpose, with people just trying to 'eke' out a living.
We talk about tourism. Gerry says that he is not anti-tourism and neither is the FIPNI. He refers back to his family story:
My parents were born here; my father at Kenneth Point. Not a lot of people know where it is. Fewer have been there. Both were reared and educated here. However, they knew the benefits that tourists brought to the islands…for example, the range of goods provided by the retail outlets. But, they also knew the costs that tourists brought to the islands; the costs to clean up rubbish; the inflationary effect on land prices. But in general, multigenerational residents are not vehemently anti-tourist…
So what of the future of the fledgling Furneaux Islands Protection Network? It will continue to keep a watching brief on development applications and liaise with the Flinders Council. It will put in submissions regarding developments where necessary. It will also continue current conversations with people in other areas of Tasmania who are facing similar issues. Gerry’s final word is about the islands in Franklin Sound, home to the hardy mutton bird. He observes that ‘these birds have an aura about them’. And he adds, ‘FIPNI would be happy for tourists to engage in organised tours, but it does not want uncontrolled commercial accommodation on those islands’.
Photo: Settlement Point Mutton Bird conservation area, Emita, Flinders Island.
Environmental stewardship is an important part of Island life and yet it is rarely referred to as such. Environmental stewardship refers to the responsible use and protection of the natural environment through active participation in conservation efforts and sustainable practices. Usually, environmental stewardship refers to the actions taken by individuals, small groups, nonprofit organizations, federal agencies, and other networks . On Flinders Island, residents often speak of their strong sense of place, and a love for its unique geology, landscapes, and habitats. The FIPNI is a great example of this commitment.