Lake Connewarre was once a beautiful waterway, thronging with thousands of swans. Now locals are battling to bring the threatened wetland back to some of its former glory.

Story By Ian Kenins

In 1914, a prominent Geelong barrister and amateur ornithologist, Charles Belcher, self-published The Birds of the District of Geelong. In the book he eloquently describes his first sighting of Lake Connewarre, near Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, in 1886. “The lake would have been beautiful enough under that cloud-flecked sky of itself alone, but our boyish vision was closest held by the birdlife that thronged the broad expanse … I do not know how many thousand swans we saw, I only know that they dotted the water everywhere …”

Nearly 90 years later, the lake’s beauty was still attracting admirers. In 1968, Ron and Kay Scotland left Hamilton, in Victoria’s Western District, and moved to Leopold, on 90 hectares of lakeside farm property owned by Kay’s parents. After 12 months in a self-contained flat, they built a sandstone home with lake views just a few hundred metres from the Connewarre shoreline.

“Every morning I woke up and marvelled at the bird life,” Ron says. “There were hundreds and hundreds of pelicans and black swans on the lake.” There were also spoonbills, snipe, waterhen, ibis, ducks and migratory birds from Japan and China that rested or nested there during their cross-continental journeys. When fish was on the dinner menu, Ron would wander down to the shallows at night and look for the eyes of flounder, which he’d aim a spear at and hope for the best. If he used a rod, he might also have caught bream and mullet. In the late 1970s he built a yacht and became one of the first members of the Leopold Sail and Boat Club, which held races throughout summer.

Connewarre is a shallow estuarine lake located on the Barwon River, which flows into Bass Strait. It is one of 1755 sites recognised by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands. Right now, it needs all the help it can get. Nutrients from industry, agriculture and people upstream have been deposited on the delta downstream, preventing tidal flows from washing through. The past decade’s drought has reduced inflows to a trickle. Records from 1855 show a depth of 2.5 metres. Today it’s little more than one metre at its deepest point.

A few years after the sailing club was established, the receding waterline forced it to move to the coast, at nearby Clifton Springs. Ron says he hasn’t been fishing in “donkey’s years” and the few birds he spots on his northern side of the lake stay only a short while before taking flight. Last summer the 78-year-old began taking photos of an algal build-up more widespread than anything he’d previously seen. Ten prints were taped together to encapsulate the spread. By June 15 prints were needed. When a forceful southwesterly blows, it also emits an odour more pungent than anything Ron had smelt before. “Locals call it the Leopold Pong,” Ron says.

This story excerpt is from Issue #65

Outback Magazine: June/July 2009