Plans to turn most of the North Curtin Horse Paddock into a diplomatic estate for new embassies would knock out an important corridor for migratory birds, according to a local birdwatcher and member of the Canberra Ornithologists Group.
Long-time Curtin resident Richard Allen, who trained as a chemical engineer and spent 32 years with the patent office but now works on environmental field studies here and interstate, says that over the years he has recorded 170 bird species in the paddock, some of which are considered vulnerable in the ACT.
”I think it’s a little gem of Canberra,” he says.
Richard bought into Curtin 26 years ago, and the 30 hectare agistment area was one reason why. But now after a controversial land swap with the ACT Government, the Commonwealth has acquired 70 per cent of the site and the National Capital Authority is preparing to develop an estate plan, although any actual work is at least two years away.
He says the area is a ”crossroads”, with Yarralumla Creek providing a natural corridor leading to Molonglo in the west and Red Hill to the east.
”One thing that struck me here is the diversity of birds that seem to come through,” Richard says.
“There’s something about the location, not just the habitat. This is a natural passage way, you probably don’t want to fill it in.”
Richard says there are lots of micro-habitats that attract smaller migratory birds that feed on insects and caterpillars coming out of the paddock, then move on into other suburbs.
”So even though it looks like just a horse paddock, it does provide shelter and passage,” he says.
He fears for the birds and other animals when an important part of the network is taken out, especially if the remaining area near the light rail route is given over to medium density housing, resulting in fewer species in other parts of Canberra.
Richard also supports the original National Capital Plan idea of green buffers between the suburbs, providing recreational space for horseriding, walking, running and cycling.
The paddock itself is part of a decades-old network of trails and agistment areas, and many are unaware of its potential, believing that they are not allowed in.
”Certainly there are ways that places like this could be exploited more,” Richard says.
He believes the paddocks are a good marriage between the environment and the urban lifestyle, with the rotation of grazing horses reducing fire hazard, something that NCA may not have thought through when it takes control of the land.
Many trees planted in the 1980s are likely to be lost as well. “It’s the wrong direction – they don’t have to develop the whole lot,” Richard says.
While Richard’s focus is on the birds, the critically endangered Golden Sun Moth is also a visitor and likely to prompt environmental objections to any development applications.
The usual way to deal with this is to offer an offset but Richard calls this approach a crime. “It doesn’t benefit those moving through the area if you put an offset 50 kilometres away,” he says.
Richard remains concerned that Canberrans won’t even benefit from the land swap.
”If it’s valuable real estate, the ACT Government has managed to give away something for virtually nothing,” he says.
Richard is being urged to post his extensive records on the Canberra Nature Map so the NCA can be directed to see for itself the bird activity in the paddocks.
If development cannot be avoided he hopes something can be salvaged to maintain the corridor.
The land swap blindsided the ACT Equestrian Association whose members use the paddock, and which is attempting to negotiate with the ACT Government on a new agistment.
The NCA’s consultation on a draft amendment to the National Capital Plan, which will pave the way for its plans for the paddock, is imminent and will run for 30 business days.