On a still morning on a hill at the back of Prosser River Reserve you can watch the mist settle on undisturbed native forest in the valley below while taking in a backdrop of mountains and the Tasman Sea.
You can listen as the gums overhead broadcast 20 varieties of birdsong – and, if you’re skilled or lucky, maybe catch sight of a rare bird in the canopy. Then you can walk down the ridge to Back River, where the giant old trees and threatened native flora lining the banks are like a throwback to pre-European times, with barely an invasive species in sight.
These were some of the scenes that captured the hearts of Melbourne-based Bruce and Ann McGregor when they toured Tasmania in late 2019 looking for a place to spend a $1.6m bequest left by Bruce’s late father, David.
“We thought ‘here’s a chance to protect something that goes from the top of these stunning hills down to the valley floor’,” Bruce said on a trip back to the reserve last week. “You’ve really got it all here.”
The trip ended with the McGregors committing to use David’s estate to conserve the 1,534-hectare reserve by buying it for the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, a not-for-profit that protects and manages high-value nature sites.
Among pieces of land bought privately for protection, Prosser River Reserve stands out. Just over an hour’s drive from Hobart, and near the beachside holiday spot of Orford, it is unusually large, and unusually diverse in the range of species and ecosystems it supports.
Since the mid-19th century, the property had been held as part of Brockley Estate, which was established on land taken from the Paredarerme traditional owners. Archaeological evidence suggests they had lived on the Prosser Plains for up to 40,000 years. The land conservancy plans to re-name it after consulting with local elders.
While much of the surrounding country has been cleared for farming since then, the reserve has been left relatively untouched. Its mixed geography has 14 types of vegetation community, six of which are considered threatened in Tasmania.
It is also home to at least 11 at-risk plant and animal species. In some breeding seasons, they include the swift parrot, a critically endangered bird that has been reduced to fewer than 1,000 breeding pairs as its habitat has been steadily eroded by forestry and development. The parrots come to the area in part due to the presence of critically endangered black gum woodland, which they use for food.
Other endangered and vulnerable species found on the reserve include the Tasmanian devil, eastern quoll and eastern-barred bandicoot. Wedge-tailed eagles nest in the old-growth forests on its slopes and gullies.
On the day Guardian Australia visited, former Tasmanian Land Conservancy head of science, Sally Bryant, was waxing over whether it could become a refuge for the 40-spotted pardalote, a tiny endangered bird that lives on Maria Island, less than 20km away, and only a couple of other places in Tasmania’s south-east. It would be well-suited to life in the reserve’s white gum forest.
Some of the property has been selectively logged and some parts have been used to run sheep, but the land conservancy’s assessment is that both have been carried out with a relatively light touch and have not detracted from the area’s natural beauty. More than half of it was judged to be of high or very high environmental value.
The McGregors have dedicated much of their life to environmental protection – Ann is an environmental planner, Bruce a research scientist with an interest in sustainable agriculture, and both are life members of the Friends of Merri Creek conservation group – and the reserve appealed to them for its diversity and beauty. The appeal only grew when they considered it through Bruce’s parents’ eyes.
David was a pharmacist, first in western Victoria and then in Melbourne’s southern suburbs. He and Bruce’s mother, Jean, had wanted to retire with a view of both mountains and the water. They ended up near a river in Mansfield, beneath the Victorian alps. After Jean died in 1988, David spent years working on the property to remove invasive species. It was a continuation of a lifelong love of being in and experiencing nature, particularly plants and birds, that was passed on to their children, including Bruce’s older brother Don and young sister Margaret.
“He was interested in nature conservancy, and he felt the government should lift its game and we all should do more,” Bruce said.
“When he died, his will was clear that he wanted to dedicate the bulk of his estate to wildlife and nature protection. It was an enabling will to get on with creating something bigger.”
Most of David’s estate was tied up in the Mansfield property. Bruce and Ann considered using the proceeds of the sale to conserve land in their home state but turned to Tasmania for two main reasons: nearly three-quarters of Victoria had already been cleared, leaving fewer options, and the money was likely to go further on the island, where land values were lower.
Ann said the scale of the purchase showed what could be achieved for roughly the price of a house in a sought-after suburb in Melbourne or Sydney. “They were not multi-millionaires, by any means,” she said. “Anyone who owns a Melbourne property could do it, really, or if not give a donation.”
For the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, the bequest and purchase meant a more than 10% expansion of the land it manages across the state.
Its chief executive, James Hattam, said the organisation had been eyeing off the property for more than a decade. Chance meant it landed on the market as the McGregors were considering their bequest. Other potential buyers had hoped to use it for agriculture.
Hattam said the way the timing and scale of the opportunity coalesced had been “really exciting”. “My first reaction was ‘oh, wow’. There is this whole valley system up into the hills and ridges and into the next catchment,” he said.
“Bigger is always better. It gives us the best chance to protect the diversity of habitats found there and, in a changing climate, it gives animal and plant species a chance to move on a connected property. In terms of threatened plant and animal species, this is really up there, on a national scale.”
With polls suggesting concern about the environment in the community is on the rise and skyrocketing house prices leaving older generations sitting on greater wealth than ever before, Hattam said he hoped the McGregor’s path may prove an increasingly popular model.
“What we decide to do with that wealth will have a huge impact – socially, culturally and environmentally,” he said. “The outcome that David and Jean will achieve by leaving this in their will is immense.”