Doing Something for Eastern Pygmy Possums

eastern pygmy possum in habitat tube

An Eastern Pygmy Possum in an installed possum tube (Photo: Andrew Lothian)

Story by Tracie McMahon

The Black Summer bushfires were devastating in Lithgow. Where once there was birdsong and rustling eucalypts there was silence and sticks. Many asked, “What can we do to help?” Lithgow Environment Group was listening, and together with Lithgow Area Women’s Shed, they did something: they created habitat for endangered Eastern Pygmy Possums.

Key Points:

  • The Black Summer bushfire devastated nesting habitat in Lithgow and surrounds, impacting the future survival of species such as the endangered Eastern Pygmy Possum.
  • The destruction also left a shadow with many in the community feeling helpless and overwhelmed.
  • Community action which began in response to a desire to ‘do something’ has created other benefits:  fostering connections, healing locals, providing homes for Eastern Pygmy Possums and educating the wider community.

In the summer of 2019/20, Leanne Hopkins and her family watched in horror as the mountains surrounding Lithgow were engulfed in flames. When the ground cooled, they surveyed the damage. All that remained on the once-forested mountains were thin sticks and charcoal. The chatter and shuffle of wildlife was replaced with absolute silence.

Leanne says, “It was overwhelming. I understood what people meant when they said, ‘climate anxiety’. There was no life: I felt like I was in Z for Zachariah,” a novel and film in which a woman believes she is the last known survivor of a nuclear apocalypse.

She felt she had to ‘do something’. She and her daughters, Catherine and Nikita, began taking food and water for native animals to the outskirts of Lithgow.

Leanne and her family were not alone. Julie Favell, Project Officer with Lithgow Environment Group, says they were fielding calls from everywhere. Everyone was asking what they could do.

Eastern Pygmy Possums (Photos: Andrew Lothian)

Julie contacted Hugh Evans from Local Land Services, who suggested creating artificial tree hollows. The fires had devastated the forest surrounding Lithgow and with it, the natural tree hollows vital for nesting marsupials and birds.  Julie was aware of Andrew Lothian’s work monitoring native fauna on the Newnes Plateau and gave him a call. 

Andrew and his company Biodiversity Monitoring Services had installed artificial nesting hollows or ‘possum tubes’ prior to the 2013 State Mine Gully fire to support the endangered Eastern Pygmy Possum. The tubes were destroyed by the 2013 fire, replaced and had been wiped out again.

Andrew’s surveys immediately after the 2019/20 fire had found two live Pygmy Possums, as well as evidence of Sugar and Greater Gliders in the area, providing a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately, house mice had also begun invading the bushland and were now competing for scarce resources. There was a desperate need for replacement habitat to provide a safe place for the marsupials to nest. If Julie could find someone with the time to make the tubes, he would donate his own time to teaching them how.

Making Connections

Aware that many of the phone calls she had taken were from women, Julie approached Lithgow Area Women’s Shed to see if they could help. Leanne and her daughters are members of the Shed. They, and their fellow members, were delighted to get involved. In March 2020, a training and education program began as Julie and Andrew explained the importance of the project and how to make effective possum tubes to entice and protect this beautiful little marsupial for the future.

Andrew Lothian demonstrating how to manufacture a possum tube at the Lithgow Area Women’s Shed as Allyn Jory and Leanne Hopkins look on. (Photo: Lithgow Environment Group Inc.)

Like everything that began in 2020, the possum tube manufacturing plan was disrupted by COVID lockdowns. But the women of the Shed were not deterred. Leanne’s house became one part of a manufacturing base for Eastern Pygmy Possum tubes.

Over the next three months she and her daughters made over fifty tubes, and the production line didn’t stop with them. Local artist and fellow ‘women’s shedder’, Allyn Jory, designed a camouflage stencil to ensure the tubes would not be discovered by predators. The women of the shed organised a manufacturing process involving cutting, assembling, and disguising the tubes. While others binged Netflix, together this small group of women built 100 tiny possum houses : COVID safe and connected to each other.

Left: Leanne showing the materials used to create a snug home inside the tube. Right:  A finished tube sits alongside a bee hotel on the shelves at Lithgow Area Women’s Shed (Photo: Tracie McMahon)

In June 2020 Leanne accompanied Andrew and Julie to install fifteen of the tubes on the Newnes Plateau. Leanne says, “it was the best day of the whole COVID lockdown.” The remainder of the tubes were given to Andrew for later installation.

Has it worked?

Eastern Pygmy Possums have two nesting seasons in Autumn and Spring, and it can take several seasons for a population to breed post-fire. Andrew Lothian’s surveys in September and December of 2021 found two young possums, and the 2022-2023 survey sighted ten mostly male young possums.  

The gorgeous little pygmy possums are not the only ones who have benefited from this project. Leanne, her daughters, and all those involved felt they were not alone, and could do something.

She says she doesn’t feel so despondent about the future.

“There are things you can do, and things people are doing. Just because you don’t see it on TV, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” – Leanne Hopkins

Catherine Emblen and Leanne Hopkins outside the Women’s Shed proudly displaying a finished possum tube in May 2023. They were already planning their next project. (Photo: Tracie McMahon)

Spreading the word

As Lithgow Environment Group began publicising the project, Julie began fielding calls from others keen to find out more or get involved. The possum tube project inspired Lawson Public School for their entry in the Gamechangers competition, and was also successful in a funding application under the NSW Department of Environment and Heritage Save our Species program.

In November 2022, the funding allowed for a new group of possum tube manufacturers to install fifteen tubes on the eastern edge of the Gardens of Stone National Park, learning about Lithgow’s diverse and unique environs in the process.

The new tubes were inspected as part of a Lithgow Environment Group nature journalling event in January 2023, and while they did not find pygmy possums, Andrew Lothian indicated the tubes had been used by a yellow-footed antechinus, another tiny native marsupial.

In November 2023, 25 students studying Environmental Science at the Canberra Institute of Technology also came to inspect. The possum tube project is being used as a case study in their course, demonstrating the impacts of bushfire, and potential actions to help and heal.

Students from Canberra Institute of Technology inspecting the Possum Tubes as part of an environmental science field trip led by Lithgow Environment Group Inc. (Photo: Blake Canackle, CIT)

What began as locals connecting to ‘do something’ has created a ripple that benefits not only the Eastern Pygmy Possum, but all those involved. The tubes are inspected regularly by Andrew Lothian and Lithgow Environment Group Inc., and we look forward to hearing more about their inhabitants in the seasons to come.

Take Action:

  • Plant habitat to assist native species recovery. Banksia, eucalypts and bottlebrush provide nectar which is a key food source for the Eastern Pygmy Possum as well as honeyeaters and Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. Lithgow & District Community Nursery can provide advice on native planting for fauna in the local area.
  • Join a Lithgow Environment Group or Lithgow and Oberon Landcare Event, to plant habitat or learn more about the local environment. Both groups use Facebook to advertise their events.
  • Join the Lithgow Area Women’s Shed. The group meet on Thursdays 10-1 pm at the Lithgow Greyhound Track. They offer construction skills and tool-based workshops, connection and community for women. Contact Leanne 0438766891 or Pam 0428633953 or e:

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Tracie McMahon

Tracie lives, writes and walks on the unceded lands of the Dharug, Gundungurra and Wiradjuri people. Born in Lithgow, she and her family have spent most of their lives living and working with the people and places of the Lithgow area. Her passions are nature and community, which she pursues through story, art, and volunteering in Lithgow and the Blue Mountains.

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