Thursday 9 July 2015


Adult and juvenile bettong.             Photo: P Edwards

It is pitch dark outside. the big stars having little effect on the texture of the night. A stiff little breeze blows in from the west, carrying the edge of winter. I tread with care, flicking my torch over the grass, straining to listen above the sound of the wind in the she-oaks. I move the light across the lawn, then quickly away again. He is there, a small lump, motionless, paler than the grass. I move towards him quietly, needing to be closer, avoiding highlighting his position with the torch. A powerful owl is in the area, I heard it just last night, and it takes only a few swift seconds for its silent wings to bear down on a plump and tasty meal.

The tiny 700g bettong finishes his toilet and races a quick circuit of the lawn, moving from zero to lightning speed in a second. I can't see him now, but he is aware of where I am, staying close, and in time I pick up his almost soundless steps bounding back to my heels, then behind, then shadowing ahead again, playing, stretching his legs, gaining vital muscle, speed and strength.

It is a critical time for a baby bettong. He is rapidly nearing soft release, but at this age it is dangerous for him to be out alone in the night without his mother. If she is not with him, he is likely to stay tight in her nest, waiting for her return from her nightly foraging to feed him the milk he still needs to grow. If she fails to come back, he will pine, and die, starving in the nest.

But by now he should be following her on short sojourns, learning about the night sounds, what to fear and not to fear, how to feed himself, and importantly, to learn his territory and how to return to his nest. For this it is vital that he trusts his human carer, sees me as his security, and if something triggers his natural response he will always come back to where he knows I am waiting. It doesn't matter that I am human. As with all native animals he will soon revert to wild behaviour once independent and in his natural habitat

In the dark around the garden I can't walk the kilometer or two he needs to travel, but 4 circuits is a good run and he is moving further than me, racing in circles, bounding to and fro, exploring, stopping to dig, expending his pent-up energy, until finally he slows and stays at my heels, moving in unison with me. Then it is time to walk him back to his pen, to show him the partly open gate, and his nest, where grain and vegetables wait scattered in the soil for him to dig out in the night.

It might be cold outdoors but it is a magic time, enhanced by the silent arrival of a newly released older bettong. Bec has been out in the wild for a week. She has her own nest somewhere in the forest and knows her way around. But she likes to meet and greet the baby and play for a while, joining us on our walk in the garden. Then she is gone as suddenly as she appeared, and the baby is tired, glad to wriggle back into his warm nest and sleep again for a time
-          Pat Edwards

Bettong Pumpkin in care       Photo: P Edwards
So far Pat has released 13 bettongs into the Shannondale area, a known hot-spot for the species. Rufous bettongs are listed as Vulnerable under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act, but through cat and fox predation, clearing for development, under-scrubbing, and fire while the joey is in the nest, they could be disappearing even from where they were previously doing well.
Every hand-raised bettong must be soft-released, their nest kept readily available until they have built their own, and the old one is empty for several days. Some online information suggest they can be released at 500g. But a bettong alone at that age, with no nest, or understanding of how to build one, means certain death for the baby. At that weight they are extremely vulnerable to predators, especially larger forest owls that can easily carry an under 1kg animal, and a 500g baby is still dependent on its mother, will still be suckling for a further 7 weeks, and will rarely emerge from the maternal nest without her.
At least one bettong has come into care at only a little under this weight. Pumpkin, as he was called, was found dying, tick-ridden and severely dehydrated beside his mother's body, unable to survive alone.
He was safely reared and released. 

Pat Edwards is a wildlife carer with WIRES in the Clarence Valley.  This article is being published in the WIRES local newsletter.