History of Bushland Conservation Pty Ltd

The beginning

This is the story of a novel venture which commenced in 1975. The “seeds were sown” a few years earlier when Riverton artist Robert (Alf) Hannaford and his wife Kate returned from living in Melbourne to reside on a Riverton farm near the Hannaford family farm where Alf had grown up. Alf had always been interested in the natural environment, but the return to country living created a surge of interest in the diverse native birds and plants in the district. Alf’s brother Don, who was farming the Hannaford farm, was at that time President of the Riverton Lawn Tennis Club. One weekend Don asked Alf to help at a working bee at the tennis courts.

Meanwhile, John Smyth, a farmer on his family’s farm at Salter Springs 12 km west of Riverton, had also developed a love of nature, encouraged in childhood by his father and his older brother Michael who eventually became a Biologist at Adelaide University. John’s wife Meg had decided to join the Riverton Club and play on their grass courts. John was also playing tennis for Alma and decided to follow Meg to the Riverton Club, attending the same working bee as Alf!

Alf and John were previously only slightly acquainted, but while talking together at the working bee, Alf quickly discovered John’s greater knowledge of the local bird species and suggested a quick walk in the nearest scrub at the lunch break so that he could start learning the names of the birds there. Such was the enthusiasm of both young men for the scrub and its birds that they didn’t return to the working bee, but started a strong friendship based on their mutual love of nature and of art. Many memorable camping trips to the Flinders Ranges followed in the next few years, Alf painting the wonderful scenery and both men reveling in long walks and nature observation, including colonies of Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies in Wilkawillina Gorge.

In 1973 Alf learnt of a block of almost 1,000 hectares (2,450 acres) of beautiful coastal scrub on Kangaroo Island for sale near “False Cape” on Dudley Peninsula, close to where he and Kate were now living. This land was available for clearing for agriculture, as the planned introduction of clearance controls was not yet government policy. Being mostly dense scrub on coastal sand and limestone, the land was obviously more valuable as a conservation block than a future farm.

Alf contacted John and invited him to come to KI and see the land. During this trip, while driving on the delightful single access track, they saw several echidnas and goannas, and were delighted with the diversity and beauty of the land and its coastal frontage to the Southern Ocean. The asking price for the land was only $24.50 per hectare ($10 per acre), so they began to seriously plan to aquire it for conservation. (When seeing the title to the land after purchase, they discovered that the previous owners, local farmers Hartley and Bev Willson, had paid a mere 62 cents per hectare for it, only12 years earlier! However, they have never regretted paying the purchase price, and as we all know, coastal land prices have risen astronomically since 1975) The Willsons had only decided to sell this land after their second son, who was expected to clear and farm it, opted for a career off-farm. Small trial plots of pasture plants and fertilizers had already been set up in the scrub on soils deficient in nearly every trace element necessary for successful pasture growth, including iron. Strangely, the mallee and understory was thriving on these soils. These “hidden” plots, still fenced against the kangaroos and wallabies, were soon abandoned, only to be used later by persons un-known for growing marijuana!

 

coast ki

The company is formed:  Kangaroo Island

Alf discussed possible business structures for ownership of the land with his brother Ian, and John enlisted his brother Michael’s support for the project. The two pairs of brothers then decided to seek legal advice as to a suitable business model, it having been agreed that some type of joint ownership was desirable.

Neil Lowrie, an Adelaide lawyer sympathetic to the conservation ethic, suggested setting up a Private Company as the purchaser and holder of the land, with the four brothers to invest equally, sufficient money to buy the land. This structure was agreed to, so Neil offered to draft the necessary Memorandum and Articles of Association (our Constitution) required to establish a company under the then SA Companies Act, generously charging a very low fee of $50 for his legal services, as a contribution to “the conservation cause”.

It was decided to call the company “False Cape Conservation Pty Ltd” after the cape named by Mathew Flinders in 1802 and which was thought to be part of the land for sale. This incorrect assumption came about because False Cape was wrongly shown on the then current map of the area as the name of the prominent and dramatic coastal feature on the land, now known as Black Point, and which was mistakenly assumed to be the true False Cape, which is actually several km to the east! So we really bought false False Cape! Due to confusion among businesses and government agencies, created by our unusual company name, (eg “are you false conservationists” ?) the Company name was later changed to Bushland Conservation Pty Ltd.

Ian had some experience in Corporate matters as a practicing Adelaide architect. He also had Touche Ross and Co. as his accountants, and after incorporation, we used this firm to set up the Company books and prepare the first tax return. They also only charged a small fee, again for “the cause”.

The first Directors were Ian and John, who each paid $1 for one of the two subscriber shares, the minimum required to launch a company. We could now hold the first Directors Meeting, attended by Alf, John, Ian, Neil, and Ian’s friend Dr Chris Laurie, on August 19th 1975, Michael having recently died. The Constitution was tabled by Neil and accepted; Alf and Chris were appointed as additional Directors; John was appointed Secretary and authorised to open a bank account in the Company’s name with The National Bank, Hamley Bridge, and it was agreed to purchase the KI land (2,429 acres at $10 per acre). Ian offered to deal with the Land Agent and the vendors and was authorised to sign the contract.

The vendors agreed to a 5 year mortgage at 5% for half the purchase price. The other half ($12,145) was to be raised by the issue of sufficient $1 shares with a premium of $9 , that is at $10 each. After the contract had been signed, a second Directors Meeting in November 1975 agreed to issue (sell) sufficient shares at $10 each to Alf, Ian, John and Meg as joint shareholders, and Michael’s widow Janet Smyth, to fund the payment for the land. Meanwhile, Alf had received an offer of adjoining scrub land from the Bates family. (They probably had heard of the “high” price we had paid for the Willson land!) Alf agreed to purchase 2 sections of this land in his own name, but suggested that the Company buy the third section and the Bates’s coastal leases which adjoined our other land. At the meeting in November 1975 the Directors agreed to this, the price being $12 per acre.

mossy-ki-track

 

 

 

 

 

Photo: Mossy KI track (J.Smyth)

 

The Company made 2 important policy decisions in its early days. The first was to link the value of its shares to the Adelaide Consumer Price Index. This link meant that, with inflation, the value of each share retained its “purchasing power” relative to a share purchased at any other time. The second decision was to have a minimum investment by any shareholder of $5,000 (joint shareholders qualifying as a “single” shareholder). This substantial minimum investment meant that a reasonable amount of capital would be invested in land purchases before the statutory limit for a Private Company of 50 shareholders was reached.    By 2013, this limit had been reached, so future expansion, if wanted, will not be able to be financed by recruiting additional members.

The government lends a hand…

In the mid 70’s the SA Government, concerned at the extent and rate of clearance of native vegetation in the State’s agricultural districts, set up an Interdepartmental Committee on Vegetation Clearance chaired by Colin Harris of the Department for the Environment. (now, many years later, Colin is a shareholder in our Company!) In 1976 the Committee recommended a voluntary Heritage Agreement Scheme to provide incentives to owners of good quality native vegetation to refrain from clearing it and to conserve it instead for its biodiversity and other values.

The Committee recommended the establishment of a Native Vegetation Advisory Committee to assist in the drafting and implementation of the Heritage Agreement Scheme, which was introduced in 1980 (as an amendment to the South Australian Heritage Act, 1978). John was appointed to the Advisory Committee as a farmer with a strong interest in nature conservation. Subsequently, all the land owned by Bushland Conservation Pty Ltd has been nominated and accepted as Heritage Agreement land, including the first KI land purchased, which was one of the State’s first Heritage Agreement properties. The financial benefits obtained under the Scheme, including relief from Council Rates and Land.

Tax, and fencing assistance, have greatly helped the Company financially over the years.

Tothill Range acquisition.

tothills-heath-vegetation

 

 

 

Photo : Tothills heathland (J. Smyth)

 

 

 

 

After 15 years with only the KI property and a small number of shareholders, Alf and John became aware in 1990 that outstanding scrubland  was for sale in the Tothill Range, 40 km north east of Riverton. They decided that the existing Company would also be the ideal vehicle for the acquisition of this property, if the asking price of $526 per hectare ($215 per acre) for 440 acres could be raised, so a search was on for more shareholders. This land was in the largely cleared Mid North of SA, and much more expensive than the Kangaroo Island land. However, by word of mouth only, (another statutory requirement for private companies) and probably aided by the prospect of being a part “owner” also of the beautiful KI land, the money was soon promised by  shareholders.  Bob Brown of Adelaide, Anne and Peter Reeves of Sydney (formerly of Adelaide), and Janet Smyth, who all strongly supported the Company at this time of expansion. The Directors agreed to purchase the land, so the Company and its shareholders acquired another wonderful property and many new shareholders!

One year later an adjoining Tothills Section was bought, and this time the first instance of allotting the seller some shares in lieu of full payment for the land was negotiated, a strategy used several times in later purchases.

In 1991, direct seeding of some open weedy areas on the edge of the Tothills land was started, using seed collected from the property. Greening Australia provided initial assistance to demonstrate the technique; in later years we used a seeding machine built by the Tothills Landcare Group. Over the next 6 seasons we seeded a total of about 20 hectares with excellent results, luckily aided by a succession of favourable years with sufficient summer rain to get the tiny seedlings through the critical first year. Growth was initially dominated by the Acacias in the mix of species sown. These are now senescing and the Eucalypts are becoming dominant. It has been interesting to watch this change. These plantings later earned several thousand dollars in carbon credits for the Company through Landcare Australia Ltd’s innovative CarbonSMART scheme. It was our luck again that this national scheme included plantings dating back to 1991, the very year we started!

ped-dddlar-family5Early days in the Tothills

In 1993 another Tothills section was advertised for auction. This block included one third excellent scrub on the ridge, close to but not adjoining our other land, and two thirds arable and grazing land, with no dividing fence between. The Directors instructed John, as Secretary, to attend the auction and to bid to $40,000, with the intention of eventually sub-dividing off and re-selling the farming land, should we be the successful bidder.  Our last bid of $40,000 was successful and with the approval of the Directors, John negotiated to lease the farming land to the Allchurch family after fencing off the scrub portion which we placed under Heritage Agreement. Two years later, in 1995, again John negotiated on behalf of the Company a complicated but very successful deal with Barry Allchurch whereby we “swapped” this leased land for some of his scrub land further along the ridge, thus linking all of our scrub sections. This deal involved the sub-division and fencing of the land and its use according to land class. The fact that a peregrine falcon chick was occupying a nest on a cliff on the “swap” land was added incentive for us to acquire it in exchange for our leased section.

tothills-meg-spinning

1992 AGM. John Smyth chairing the meeting and Meg spinning!

As we were getting much more land than they were in the swap, we agreed to allocate sufficient shares to the Allchurchs to balance the values, they being happy to join the Company and thus retain an interest in “their” scrub! (Although technically the shareholders don’t own the land, only shares in the Company which does, I’m sure this makes little difference to the feeling of ownership)

A further small block of adjoining Tothills scrub was purchased in 1994 and again a sub-division and fencing was required. We agreed to pay the survey costs for this sub-division, a practice we continued for some later purchases. This block was suffering significant grazing damage by the owner’s sheep, which initially was a worry, but it was anticipated that it would recover with grazing removed. This has proved to be the case.

1997 saw the purchase of another scrub block in the Tothill Range, 4 km north of our other land there. To get Council consent for the required sub-division on the land class boundary, namely the edge of the scrub, we needed to “plead the case”, as the remaining arable land which we were not purchasing was slightly less in area than the Council’s Land-use Plan officially allowed. We were successful, Council recognising that we had a strong case and a history of successful land management in the Range.

pedlar-family3

Direct seed planting in the Tothills

Our latest land purchase in the Tothills (as at 2018) occurred in 2008 after local graziers Geoff and Elizabeth Mosey offered us first option on their approximately 325 hectares (800 acres) of good scrubland adjoining our northern block, at $375 per acre. We were unable to finance the purchase of the whole block, but with generous support from many existing shareholders and the allocation of some shares to the Moseys in lieu of full payment, we purchased over half (189 hectares or 466 acres). The remainder was bought in their own names by Tom and Alison Bullock, already “Bushland” shareholders, who have put nearly all of their section under Heritage Agreement. There is no fence between the Bullocks land and ours. We sourced Natural Resources Management Board and Heritage Fencing Scheme grants totaling $25,000 for materials and labour for the necessary replacement of most of the boundary fencing which was in poor condition. Again, the benefit of being a Landcare Group and having a Heritage Agreement on the land is obvious. (A previous NHT grant of $15,500 in the year 2000, organised by shareholder Andrew Wurst, was used to replace old Tothills fences).

This purchase increased our total holding in the Tothills to 661 hectares (1,635 acres). Together with the Bullocks land, a stretch along the Range of 11 km with some of the best of the Tothills scrub is now fully protected, including 2 plant species (Tothills Bush-pea and Bendigo Wax-flower) of high conservation significance in SA.

Meanwhile on Kangaroo Island

In 1991, a develechidnaoper from Sydney obtained approval from the Dudley Council (KI) to build a “Resort” style development, including a helipad and horse stables, on his coastal scrubland block which was surrounded by our KI sections.  There was such an uproar from KI and Adelaide conservationists and planners over Dudley Council’s unwise decision that after a  conference between the proponant, many opponents, and the State Government, the developer realised he had a big fight on his hands, withdrew his proposal, and sold the land. The huge real estate value of coastal blocks by this time realistically prohibited our Company from then purchasing this block. The new owner had no such bizarre ideas for use of this block, but unwise development by future owners is a possibility.

ki-clifftop-walkClifftop walk on KI

 

In 1995 another Section adjoining our existing KI land was purchased, bringing the total area of our land there in one large block to 1,379 hectares (3,407 acres).

Landcare trophy                               Landcare Award

In1995, shareholder and Director Bill Matheson proposed we set up the Bushland Conservation Landcare Group, the membership of the group being all of our shareholders. This enabled us to access grants from The Natural Heritage Trust and other organisations, for management costs and on ground work. Bill later nominated the Company in the Nature Conservation category of the 1998 National Landcare Awards.

Having first won the SA award in this category, (and $1,000) we were then successful against all States and took out the National Award (and a handsome small ceramic stone-mounted trophy in the form of the brilliant Landcare Logo.) Bill travelled to Canberra to receive the trophy on behalf of the Company from Prime Minister John Howard. The win created a lot of publicity for our Company, including a TV report on the ABC’s “Landline” program, filmed on the Tothills and KI properties.

1996 saw the production of a large folder of Management Plans for the properties, with maps, photographs and species lists. Shareholders involved with this publication were Bill Matheson, John Smyth, Janet Pedler and David Edgecombe, with lovely cover artwork by Janet. Denzel Murfet produced the comprehensive native plant lists. Each shareholder received a copy of the folder; a fine document and reference for our land.

Our strategy of corporate land purchase for conservation was followed when a “sister” company, Habitat Conservation Pty Ltd, was formed, based on our model, and with some of its members also being members of our company. Later, Worlds End Conservation Pty Ltd followed along similar lines. Legislation governing Companies had changed since we formed in 1975, so we drew up a document (Company Charter) to cover our changed legal responsibilities. This Charter is adopted each year at the AGM.

Rockleigh Acquisition

A new 124 hectare (304 acre) property in the eastern Mount Lofty Ranges at Rockleigh was purchased in 1999. This property, in a district where very little of the original native vegetation remained, was botanically rich, with 220 native species, and very rich in bird species, but a substantial part of it was degraded land.

Part funding for this land purchase was successfully sought from the Natural Heritage Trust’s National Reserves System Scheme, a Federal Government initiative . The land qualified for the Government’s contribution, under the Scheme, of two thirds of the purchase cost ($62,000), tied to a legal requirement of a binding Management Agreement and covenant (Heritage Agreement) ensuring conservation outcomes. We undertook to do certain approved re-vegetation work on the degraded sites. Bill Matheson and Brendan Lay worked hard to organise and implement this work. Direct seeding, so successful in the Tothill Range, proved much less so in the deep sandy soil and hot dry summers at Rockleigh. Tube stock planting worked well, and we later received some carbon credits for these plantings. A fire burnt 60% of the property in 2013, including most of the plantings, but early indications are that many of the plants will recover.

Kangaroo culls have been implemented when necessary, with permits, both on the Tothills land and at Rockleigh. We have freeholded the KI Sections which were previously leasehold (except for the narrow coastal leases). Alf generously donated an oil painting to be raffled amongst the members to raise the required freeholding fees. We have erected signs on the narrow tracks on our KI land warning of driving hazards.

It is usual to hold Annual General Meetings on the properties in rotation, together with weekend campouts. Our Constitution specifies a maximum of 7 Directors and we have a policy of rotation of directors whereby 2 retire each year, although they can immediately re-nominate. After 38 years as founding Secretary, ie since the Company was formed in 1975, John retired from the position in 2013. Graham White is the new Secretary, having previously been Chair of the Board of Directors.

Bushland Conservation Pty Ltd was an early leader in corporate nature conservation in SA. There are now 2 very large organisations in Australia doing similar work on a huge scale, namely Australian Wildlife Conservancy, and The Australian Bush Heritage Trust (Bush Heritage Australia). Although Bushland Conservation Pty Ltd is tiny in comparison, the shareholders are pleased to have been able to conserve and enjoy some of SA’s remaining natural bushland, using the corporate model to allow our shareholders to jointly achieve what individuals may have found impossible. John’s farming background has probably helped in his dealings with other farmers who have sold us most of our land.

Our thanks are due to Alf for his initial vision, and to all those individuals who have followed his lead, investing their money, time and ideas in Bushland Conservation Pty Ltd.

John Smyth.