following article is taken from a presentation
given by Shirley Lack at National Wildlife
Rehabilitation Conference Proceedings 2007
entitled "Epping Forest National Park -
Caretaking the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats"
It is reproduced here with
Shirley’s permission and we thank her most
sincerely for allowing us to do so. All text
and pictures are copyright to Shirley Lack and
Environmental Protection Agency of the
Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.
Caretaking the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats
Earlier this year I lived a dream of helping the
world – in my little way – to save one of its
most endangered animals – the Northern
Epping Forest, a remote forest in outback
Queensland, is the only place on this earth
where Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats live and for
one hot, challenging and exhausting month I
lived an otherworldly life caring for wombats.
My job as Epping Forest Caretaker was to ensure
that these majestic and mystical animals were
fed and watered, that valuable video
surveillance was collected each day, and to help
build important “wombat infrastructure” in the
Among the hard work were moments I will always
treasure, like the laughs I shared with my dear
friend who accompanied me on the trip, the
evening sing-alongs with Dr Alan Horsup around
the camp fire, the new friends that I made – a
meeting with one particular “friend” has changed
my life forever – her name was Audrey. You too
can have this experience – and I’m going to tell
This story will illustrate the tenacity and
strength of our Australian native animals. You
will hear how hopelessness can turn to hope.
I'm a wildlife rehabilitator from the south
coast of NSW and have had a love affair with
Australian wildlife for the past 25 years.
fell in love with possums and gliders in the
early eighties. This love progressed to a
passion with macropods and has now developed
into a full blown obsession with the very
wonderful world of Bare-Nosed
Shirley and June embark on their
What has fed this obsession beyond all
comprehension was my recent mid-life crisis.
In February this year my friend June and I had
opportunity to be caretakers for the highly
endangered Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat at Epping
Forest National Park deep in central
would like to share this experience with you.
June and I have been the best of wildlife
friends for many years. When I first mentioned
the possibility of "doing time at Epping" we
were both very aware of the consequences of our
decisions. It could end a wonderful
friendship, or it could be the start of
something even stronger.
We are both married to wonderful husbands (June
for 35 years and me for 43) who do all the
"men's work". How could we ever live without
their help and protection?
After much soul-searching we decided that we
were both overdue for a well earned mid-life
crisis and started to plan our six week "great
escape" to the Deep North.
As the date got closer the anticipation grew to
fever pitch until finally Sunday 28th January
After fare-welling family and with the radio
blasting and feeling a bit like Thelma and
Louise, we hit the highway. Hopefully we were
NOT heading for a cliff! The trip to Epping
Forest too us 3 days with a few stops for some
We arrived at Epping on a wet 1st of February.
The previous caretakers showed us around
quickly as they were keen to leave before being
So there we were...
from the Air
Epping from the Air
Once widespread throughout Australia's eastern
states, the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat is now
restricted to a single small population of only
115 individuals in Epping Forest National Park
(scientific) in central Queensland.
Largest of the three wombat species, the
Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat is one of the
world's most endangered mammals. It may have
been uncommon even before European settlement,
but has declined rapidly as a result of loss of
habitat caused by unfriendly pastoral practices,
cattle and sheep grazing in particular,
especially during droughts.
The Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat lives in a
harsh, semi-arid environment where temperatures
can reach 45C. To survive in these conditions,
the heavy, short-limbed animals are almost
totally nocturnal, burrowing in isolated patches
of deep sandy soil where they sleep for up to 18
hours a day.
Recovery Program and Help from other Agencies
To help the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat, a team
of people from government agencies,
wildlife-friendly local graziers, universities,
zoos and conservation groups is overseeing a
recovery plan for the species by....
the population at Epping Forest National Park by
controlling dingoes and monitoring Eastern Grey
the quality of their feed by manipulation of
their behaviour, reproductive biology and
techniques by researching the closely related
Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat.
and researching captive animals.
a second wild population through translocation.
Camp at Epping
Base Camp at Epping
The camp site at Epping is very basic. Hopefully
electricity will be connected by the end of this
year. It is also hoped that new "dongers" will
be erected early next year. You know someone's
been to Queensland if they call a site shed a
At the moment electricity can only be obtained
by a generator and solar power.
While we were at Epping the large generator
stopped working and we had to wait until a
smaller one was purchased.
The worst part of having no power is there is no
pump to run the shower, so June and I opted to
shower outside under the tap on the tank. That
For the first few days it rained and
worked well until the level of the water in the
tank fell too low and then the tap did not work,
but we still managed. We stank, but we managed!
Because the roof area of the dongers is very
limited, water storage is a problem but one that
will also be solved when the new dongers are
built as the roof area of the new buildings will
be much larger.
not Five Star!
The facilities at Epping are very
Base camp is not "five star”: probably not even
1 star. Is there such a rating as No Star?
There is now!
It is very basic with a gas cook-top and a gas
fridge that only just keeps the food cool. The
small freezer on the fridge did work and kept
the dozens of water ice blocks frozen. These
ice blocks were a god-send and we used them as a
reward whenever we finished a hot, hard day.
Our first four days were very wet. However,
this turned out to work to our advantage as it
gave us enough time to find our feet and get to
learn the ropes before Alan and the crew
Arrival of Alan and the Team
The arrival of Alan and the team
Alan is second from left
Most caretakers at Epping are by themselves for
the whole month. The only contact with the
outside world is the phone. Families are
welcome to call and every Monday and Thursday
and we had to phone Queensland National Parks at
Emerald to report all was OK.
Caretakers may go to Clermont; a small town
about two and a half hours drive from Epping.
We did go once to purchase more supplies but it
is such a long drive on a dirt road, once was
enough for us. Also, if it rains, Mistake Creek
(which is a creek that you have to drive through
to get to Clermont) floods and we would be
unable to get back to Epping.
Epping is not for everybody!!
To have five extra people staying with us for a
week was something we looked at with mixed
feelings. Our routine would be interrupted but
we would have a variety of people to talk to and
to learn from. The team consisted of Alan,
undoubtedly the King of Epping (Alan's real
title is Senior Conservation Officer), Paul the
Translocation Project Manager, Andrea a vet with
passion for wildlife, Rinna a student and Terry
another volunteer. Terry also managers a
wildlife park in north Queensland. June
recognised Andrea as a vet that worked in our
area about 15 years ago. It just shows what a
small world it is.
Aims for the Week
aims within the week that Alan and the team were
there with us
Wombat footprints in the sand
Trap Audrey and Zena
and remove their tracking collars.
Remove old feeders
and replace with new ones.
Build a kangaroo
The fence was erected in 2002 after a pack of
dingoes invaded Epping and killed an unknown
number of wombats (at least 10). The fence is
about 20 kilometers long and encircles Epping
Trapping Audrey and Zena
Audrey - her tracking collar is
Two traps were set on Wednesday and on Wednesday
night, Zena was trapped and her tracking collar
removed. June and I were unable to go with the
team that night as other visitors from NPWS had
arrived during the day and there was no room.
Thursday was a hard, hot day as we removed a lot
of old feeders from the feeding stations and
were in the process of replacing them with the
With dinner over, we sat around on the small
verandah while Alan played the guitar and we
tried to sing (interrupted by much laughter).
It was after 11pm before we all went to bed; we
were just dozing when Alan called to say that
they had something in the trap.
Shirley with Audrey - "one of the
most emotional experiences of my
We loaded up two cars with all the necessary
gear and set off. Alan, Andrea and Paul walked
the one kilometre into the burrow area to make
sure it as a wombat in the trap and not a
wallaby or some other animal. We got a call on
the two-way that it was indeed Audrey and to
come in and bring the cage loaded with all the
gear (boy was it heavy!).
We walked through "Harry Potter scale" spider
webs, were attacked by giant mosquitoes and
tripped over logs and branches, but arrived
about 15 minutes after the call.
When we arrived at the burrow, Audrey had
already been tranquilized and was ready for the
removal of her tracking collar. After all the
medical work was carried out on Audrey, Alan
asked if June and I would like to hold her.
Holding Audrey was one of the most emotional
experiences of our lives. Both June and I had
tears in our eyes as we each took our turn to
nurse this most majestic wombat. We were both
so nervous that we could hardly hold this
creature. One of only a handful of these
After Trapping Audrey
next day it was all hands on deck.
The girls check on Alan's work
We were all on a high after having such a
successful night but had to front up bright and
early for the next morning to start building the
kangaroo feed station.
The idea of this yard was to encourage Eastern
Grey Kangaroos in, and release them outside the
National Park; this hopefully would keep the
numbers down. Since erection of the dingo
fence, kangaroo and wallabies that are inside
the fenced area have bred to large numbers and
are now competing with wombats for food and
Working on the kangaroo yard
did think while building the yard that 'roos
would never go through the
way gate system, but within the first few days
of monitoring the finished compound, with the
Bushnell cameras we found that the kangaroos
were coming in to eat the feed that June and I
had left out for them.
Alan has since advised me that they have indeed
released 25 kangaroos out into surrounding
areas. Relocating kangaroos certainly worked
there and is definitely possible in other
"captive population" situations.
An update from Alan has informed me that the
trap yards have been so successful they are
building another one.
Keeps His Promise
Alan did promise that if the temperature got to
45C we would be able to go for a swim.
Cooling off in the 45C heat
He did not tell us that we would have to jump
the dingo fence and sneak into the dam next
door! After getting into the murkiest water I
have ever been in and getting bitten by lord
knows what, we all agreed that it had been worth
Terry and Paul had left Epping so it was us
girls (with a bit of help from Alan) to finish
the kangaroo feed station.
Then came the hard part; putting up the wire.
For people that have never been involved in
fencing, believe me, compound wire has a life of
its own!! It is also very heavy!
While building the compound our days started
around 5.30am. We tried to get back to camp
between 12.30-1pm to hopefully miss the hottest
part of the day, we then went back out about 4pm
and returned about 7pm.
One night after we returned to camp Alan went to
fill up the small generator with fuel so we
could all have a shower, he returned a few
minutes later to inform us that he had been
bitten on the finger by a Red Back Spider.
Andrea turned from being a vet into becoming a
doctor. After phoning Clermont hospital and
getting advice from the real doctor, we decided
that he would not die that night. Clermont is
too far and as Alan only got bitten because it
was his turn to cook dinner, he would just have
to suffer until the next day. (I must admit that
we did all fuss over him that night, cutting his
meal up and making sure he had plenty of nice
cold fluid). Alan and Andrea did go into
Clermont the next day to pick
Dr. Alan Horsup, the King of Epping
the rest of the new feeders and Andrea did take
him to the hospital where he got the all
clear. Alan did go back to work with us the
next day and we all put in another big 10
hours. I think we all had at least one dummy
spit while building the trap yard but all spits
were ignored and gotten over within a very short
Mission accomplished - we did get the compound
finished within the time frame we had hoped
(around five days).
We continued removing the old feeders and
replacing them with a new model. Still working
long hot days we had to replace 15 feed
The old feed cages were very heavy and had to be
loaded onto the trailer and taken back and
stored at base camp. The feeders were being
replaced because the Swamp Wallabies were
getting into them and eating the food left for
the wombats. As a matter of fact, every
evening when we went to do the feeds the
wallabies would be waiting and would get into
the feeders as soon as we left.
The new feeders were better designed and had
swinging trap doors. It was assumed that as
wombats are smarter than wallabies they would
learn to use the trap doors to access the
food. I was very apprehensive about this
working and did not see any evidence of wombats
using the feeders while we were at Epping.
However upon our return Alan sent me two photos
showing the wombats using the feeders.
Alan Horsup shows how big the wombat
Buffel grass was introduced into Australia in
1860 from South Africa. Graziers in central
Queensland embraced the grass as it adapted well
to sandy soil, and survived well during
drought. In Epping Forest the amount of
Buffel grass has increased from 17% in the early
1970's to 54% today.
Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats feed on at least 12
species of grass but since the introduction of
Buffel a lot of their natural diet has
Buffel is also very prone to wildfires.
Supplement feeding has been introduced to give
the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats a choice of
food in case wildfires do happen.
Duties – Caretaking and New Skills
well as doing all the building June and I still
had to do all of the caretaking duties.
Filling the feeders and checking the water
every day, slashing the buffel and riding the
quad around the perimeter of the dingo fence
checking for holes.
We did have some light moments. Hair colouring
for June to keep up appearances and singing with
Alan. June and I had to learn lots of new
skills; driving quad bikes and learning to drive
slashers are just two examples. Even a simple
thing like filling machinery with fuel can
become very involved and time consuming.
After the crew left, June and I had so many jobs
lined up, we found that we never had enough
hours in the day. While doing a big clean up
around the camp site we encountered a snake just
near the tool shed. We then decided that it's
probably not a good idea to go looking under too
Epping was something that June and I wondered at
every day; birds we had never seen before, the
day we stumbled upon a bower birds bower, the
day I was slashing along the dingo fence and
disturbed some Fat Tailed Dunnarts. Brolgas,
Emus, masses of butterflies, unbelievable
variety of little wrens, reptiles.... Epping has
We felt like Alice in Wonderland discovering
something new every day. Epping has a large
reference library that we took advantage of.
Never a day went past that did not find us
with our noses in a book.
The 15 Bushnell cameras were the bane of my
life. Some cameras were fitted with D cell
batteries and some were fitted with rechargeable
batteries. Neither system seemed to work too
Shirley sets up the Bushnells
Every evening I would try to set a least one
camera on every feed station or burrow. I
seemed to be for ever charging and replacing the
batteries and replacing the memory chips in the
cameras. Every morning I left camp at about
7am to remove the chips from the cameras, come
back to base camp, download the pictures to the
antiquated computer and see what exciting events
had happened overnight. All photos then had to
be saved to a file. This very important work
is time-consuming and frustrating to the max....
but it must be done as it is the only way you
get to see what's really happening at Epping.
It is a vital aspect of the science of the
whole project to maintain faultless records.
Little Epping Adventure
During our last week at Epping we had a little
We were on our way to the kangaroo trap yard, we
had the trailer attached to the quad bike and
the trailer was full of water and feed.
June and I decided to take a different road,
What we found on this little journey was a very
wet boggy area. We had become quite confident
on the "quaddy" by this time... perhaps a little
too confident and game. Cocky even! Now, who
can guess the outcome?
Yes, we tried to drive through that area. It
was just on dusk and we were about 9 kilometers
from base camp and, yes, we got the bike and
trailer bogged. After unhooking the trailer
from the bike and with June pushing and me
driving and peals of laughter we got the bike
out, left the trailer in the bog and managed a
muddy return to the base camp that night.
Do you think we learned out lesson??? The next
day we brought my four wheel drive and the bike
back to try to retrieve the trailer. After we
managed to get the car bogged... June, once
again, had to push but this time it was the
After being bitten by the biggest ants I have
ever seen, being covered in mud, laughing so
hard we could hardly stand, we did manage (after
many hours of hard work) to get the care, the
bike and the trailer all to dry ground. Shh
shh shh shh shh (secret wombat business - don't
It seemed no time at all and our month was over
and we were packing up and showing the new
caretakers the ropes.
Leaving was so very difficult. We both wanted
to go and both wanted to stay; words like "torn"
just don't quite sum up how we felt - in fact I
don't think there are any words which describe
it. Perhaps it is enough to say that it was
very, very hard to do.
So, we reminded each other that we could always
come back. Having been outside the square
there was other important work for us to do back
inside the square. We made a difference at
Epping and we can continue to make a difference
back home, caring for our orphaned Bare-Nosed
So off we went.
Off at Rockhampton
We had arranged to meet Alan and Rinna at the
Rockhampton Zoo to look at the breeding program
set up for the Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombats.
Alan introduced us to Tina and Peter who work at
the zoo. They also have a lot to do with the
breeding program. We were also introduced to
Wiggles, a Southern hairy-Nosed Wombat raised by
Tina and, again, were given the opportunity to
cuddle a great big lovely wombie, this time a
Southern. We are blessed to be among a handful
of people who have cuddled a Northern and a
Southern and a Bare-Nosed Wombat all in
the same month.
It is well known that breeding wombats in
captivity is extremely difficult. A breeding
program was set up at Rockhampton Zoo in 2001 to
try and breed Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombats.
So far seven babies have been born at the zoo
and if the same technique is applied to the
Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats it is hoped that
they may also one day breed in captivity.
to See Flashjacks
We had a great day and were invited to go back
to Tina and Peter's place (just up the road) to
spend the night with them. We had a wonderful
time, learning about how they are starting a
breeding program for Flashjacks, or the
endangered Bridled Nailtail Wallabies.
"Just up the road" in Queensland of course
means: after traveling for well over an hour we
finally arrived. This extremely hard-working,
dedicated couple made us feel so welcome and
showed us all their plans and dreams for the
Flashjacks... but that's another story for
They are Doing at Epping Forest Working?
In a word, yes. The number of individuals is
increasing slowly but surely, however there is a
very long way to go. Habitat needs to be
expanded - the whole "safe area" needs to be
expanded, the research program needs to be
expanded, more funding needs to be applied to
the whole program.
Just recently Alan and many others were featured
on "Animal Planet" documentary on American pay
television titled "War of the Wombats" which
explored his work and the work of some others
around the country who are trying to save our
wombats, Hairy and Bare-Nosed alike. While
there is still widespread apathy and even some
hostility in some parts of our own country
towards our native species, perhaps some
international funding might be forthcoming from
documentaries such as that one. Let's hope
Conclusion: Would We do it Again?
In an instant! Our Epping Forest experience
has changed our lives forever. We stepped
outside the square for just four weeks and
stepped back into our old squares more
self-confident and totally different people.
We feel that no challenge will ever be too big,
no mountain too high, no political fight too
hard - we won't ever give in again. We learnt
a raft of new skills and so did our dear
Mind you, Epping is not for everyone. Not
everyone enjoys the experience of Epping, not
everyone finds or understands the joy of a close
encounter with a Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats.
Not everyone finds the "Epping Magic" that
June and I were so very lucky to find. As
sure as God made little green apples, I will
return to Epping Forest National Park.
Thank you to all those out there who “care”-
keep up the great work and keep on making a
difference! Thanks to Linda and Bill for
helping me prepare this presentation.
name is Shirley Lack & I have been a wildlife
carer since 1982. My love for wildlife started
when my cat arrived home with a baby sugar
glider. My love for possum & gliders turned
into a passion for macropods when in 1987 we
sold our seaside house & moved out of town to 15
acres of bush land. The move started an
obsession with wombats that has lasted many
years. I was actively involved in my local
wildlife group for over 10 years holding the
position of treasurer along with many other
roles. I was the treasurer on the organizing
committee for the NSW wildlife conference in
2004, I was also the treasurer of the steering
committee for the formation of the NSW Wildlife
have seen lots of changes over the years, some
great & some not so great. During the last few
years I have been actively involved with trying
to ensure better rights for wildlife carers.