nourished by a winding waterway on the Great Cumbung.
Reed swamps nourished by a winding waterway on the Great Cumbung. © Peter Stephen

Land and freshwater stories

Saving the Great Cumbung

Protecting the largest remaining reed swamp in the Murray-Darling Basin

Often referred to as the ‘food bowl of Australia’, the Murray-Darling Basin supports a staggering variety and extent of irrigated agriculture within its vast boundaries. The growing of food and fibre in the Basin is essential to our ongoing prosperity as a nation. And, this region of more than a million square kilometres is also rich in natural and indigenous cultural values. The water that’s needed for agriculture is also needed for the river and its wildlife, and for the wellbeing of its Traditional Owners: Aboriginal people have lived on and near its winding waterways, from southern Queensland to coastal South Australia, for tens of thousands of years. So can all these values simultaneously be protected and enhanced?

At The Nature Conservancy we believe they can. Indeed they must be for their mutual survival. To prove it, we’re demonstrating how in places like the Great Cumbung.

Today, more than ever, we need science-based, pragmatic solutions that deliver benefits for people and nature. 

If we are to save the Basin’s rivers and the communities that depend on them, conservationists, irrigators and governments must come together and act with courage, urgency and optimism.

TNC Australia, former Country Director

The Great Cumbung

On the banks of the Murrumbidgee Valley at the confluence of the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee rivers, not far from Balranald in western New South Wales, lie two adjoining cattle stations – Juanbung and Boyong – spanning 33,765 hectares. As well as supporting a livestock business, the properties also encompass 16,000 hectares of high conservation reed and river red gum wetlands – one of the largest remaining of their kind in the whole Murray-Darling Basin.  

Gayini (formerly Nimmie-Caira) and the Great Cumbung in relation to Yanga National Park
Location map Gayini (formerly Nimmie-Caira) and the Great Cumbung in relation to Yanga National Park © TNC

Up for grabs

When we learned that these properties were to go on the market, we wanted to act to ensure that the Great Cumbung would be protected from any possible conversion to irrigated cropping like so much of the surrounding landscape. So in a joint venture initiative with the Australian-owned and operated Tiverton Agriculture, we purchased both cattle stations, along with their water rights in January 2019. The deal is one of the most significant private land purchases for conservation in Australian history and will protect almost the entire extent of the Great Cumbung Swamp. 

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Supporting the Great Cumbung

To help us acquire the Great Cumbung, we enlisted the support of some of Australia’s most respected investors and philanthropists including The Ian Potter Foundation, the Besen family and the Baillieu Myer family’s The Yulgilbar Foundation. Funding was also provided by the US-based Wyss Foundation and the Wyss Campaign for Nature. Debt finance was provided by ANZ in line with the bank’s aim to support business practices that improve environmental sustainability.

However, the fight to protect the Great Cumbung is not over. We need to raise more funds to undertake further protection of this and other important Murray-Darling wetlands. 

Future management 

In addition to wetland conservation and water recovery, the Great Cumbung will continue to support economic development and jobs in the Riverina. Together with TNC, Tiverton Agriculture will manage the property for the dual objectives of conservation and sustainable agriculture. Other land use options will also be explored such as carbon, biodiversity offsets and stewardship, and ecotourism.

The Great Cumbung will be managed in conjunction with the adjacent property, Gayini, which was purchased by the NSW Government in 2012 and is now managed for conservation by TNC and Nari Nari Tribal Council. 

For the biology boffins

With the purchase of the Great Cumbung, a contiguous area has been created of more than 180,000 hectares of Country managed for conservation as follows:

The Great Cumbung contains one of the largest remaining reed swamps in the Murray-Darling Basin. The Common Reed (Phragmites australis) occurs throughout the Basin but rarely forms stands as large as those in the Great Cumbung. This treeless wetland type (and Great Cumbung in particular) provides important habitat for a range cryptic bird species including two that are listed nationally as endangered – the Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) and the Australian Painted-snipe (Rostratula australis).

an endangered species dependent on reedy swamps
Australasian Bittern an endangered species dependent on reedy swamps © Helen Cunningham

The Great Cumbung acts as an important refuge site for waterbirds when the surrounding landscape is dry. It’s home to 131 bird species and more than 200 plant species.

feeds mostly in grasslands
Straw-necked Ibis nests at Gayini Nimmie-Caira © Peter Day

Gayini, south of the Great Cumbung, contains the largest lignum wetland in the Murray-Darling Basin. Lignum (Muehlenbeckia florulenta) is a medium-sized shrub with thin tangled branches that thrive in seasonally inundated areas. These wetlands provide important breeding grounds for a number of waterbird species that nest in colonies, such as ibis and spoonbills which build their nest directly on top of the lignum when the wetlands flood.

Yanga National Park to the southwest of the Great Cumbung is one of the largest stands of River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) forests in NSW. These wetland types are seasonally inundated, usually when rivers break their banks. Yanga is an important site for a range of colonial-nesting waterbirds and declining woodland birds and important native fish breeding sites.