From seed to song: the revival of Wombat Flat by Claire Bowman

As the summer weather starts to fade in the mid-north, music floats out across hectares of young native bushland from an old, warmly lit stone barn. Only a decade ago, the 150-year-old Clydesdale barn was crumbling and the denuded farmland surrounding it was almost completely devoid of life. With a big vision and a little help from Trees For Life, property owners Dianna Bills and Mike Roberts have completely transformed their unique home, Wombat Flat, into an environmental and cultural haven.

The beautiful historic barn eight kilometres south-east of Eudunda has been converted into a character-filled live music venue and visual art space. Meanwhile, around the revived building, 16 hectares of barren farmland are being successfully returned to bush — since teaming up with TFL program managers Dennis Hayles and David Hein in 2008, Di and Mike have watched their ravaged land flourish.

In the past, before the land was cleared for farming, the creek beds of Wombat Flat would have been lined with mallee box (Eucalyptus porosa). The rest of the 160 hectare property would have once been mallee, melaleuca and acacia woodland, the abundant home of marsupials, birds and reptiles. These trees were among 20 local native species around the farm from which new seeds were gathered.

Now, a decade since the revegetation project started, the creek lines of Wombat Flat are once again thick with vegetation, echidnas rustle in the undergrowth, and the calls of native bird species ring across the property to the house. To Di and Mike’s delight, the marsupial namesake of Wombat Flat, the southern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), has begun to burrow on their land.

When the TFL Carbon program launched in 2007, Mike approached TFL with sketches of the vision he had for the rebirth of his property. He and Di hoped to revegetate some of their 160 hectares of cleared farmland as a carbon offset site.

Mike and Di had made previous attempts to establish native plants on their property, with little success. Even after beginning work with TFL, their first year of direct seeding was troublesome; these first seedlings faced a difficult season and struggled to flourish in the harsh conditions.

The following year, 2009, TFL successfully seeded 10 hectares. Then, in 2010 and 2013, remedial work focused on the initial six hectares that hadn’t established well. With time, their dedication to the project paid off and the new vegetation took hold. Mike says, “We could see that some areas took immediately and others had to be re-sown several times…growth seemed so slow at first.” Then, almost as if overnight, the bush began to bloom.

“It was as if on one day, three or four years after the exercise started, we were suddenly aware that something amazing had happened.”

The success of the project truly became apparent when they had the chance to see their newly abundant property from above. “The first time we actually saw footage of what we had all accomplished together was when Ron Kandelaars and his camera crew sent a drone up to film a piece on The Barn at Wombat Flat for SA Weekender. What a wonderful feeling, seeing all those trees from the air!” says Mike.

“We have always loved living here but now, when you look at that 60 hectare paddock across from the house – that used to have one tree in it and now has a veritable forest on all the creek lines – you just have to grin from ear to ear!”

As well as being an environmental success story, Mike and Di’s regenerated land now provides a picturesque backdrop for The Barn at Wombat Flat, which had a successful first season last year and is gearing up for a big second season of live music.

“The response has been amazing! People regularly drive from Adelaide and even from interstate to attend events. Many stay the night in their campers, tents or swags but it’s close enough for most to drive home. Those that do stay usually take a walk around the property after setting up, or early the next morning, and people often comment on the success of the tree planting.”

A singer-songwriter himself, Mike has tried hard to make The Barn a ‘listening’ venue. He says, “the natural sound of the room helps a lot in that regard.” The Barn’s excellent natural acoustics are enhanced by the expertise of sound engineer John Simpson, who takes a break from doing sound effects for Hollywood films to do sound for all the shows at The Barn.

Headliners during the 2018 season included The Hussy Hicks (direct from Byron Bay Bluesfest), The John Flanagan Trio, Brook McClymont and Adam Eckersley, Jen Lush with her band Cat Dog Bird, The Cherry Pickers and Kristy Cox from Nashville. South Australian acts were given center stage, opening most of the shows. The 2019 season will see Daniel Champagne and Laura Hill, Shane Nicholson and Kelly Menhennett, John Schumann, The Maes Band, Alana Jagt and many more take the stage.

Last year’s season attracted nearly 100 audience members on average per show and included four sell-out performances. The success of The Barn as a performance venue validates Mike and Di’s determination to preserve their historic property and to create a social hub outside of Adelaide.

“There were probably many reasons for taking on a project like this, but when you boil it down…we wanted to save this incredible old building, which was in danger of becoming a pile of stones, and at the same time create a regional venue for great music and visual arts.”

That goal has been more than accomplished; between The Barn and the newly lush bushland, Wombat Flat is becoming a destination for locals, Adelaide residents and visitors from further afield to enjoy the amazing history, art and nature of South Australia, all in one place.

As strong advocates for the arts, for community and for Trees For Life, Mike and Di encourage TFL members to make the trip out to The Barn at Wombat Flat. “We usually charge a $10/pp camping fee but are happy to waive this for Trees for Life Members attending our shows!” says Mike.