Themes / Everyday people

Saving Species

Biodiversity Protection in Central Victoria

Kim Cornford

Manna Matters May 2022


I’m standing on a grassy hill slope in Central Victoria. Big old paddock trees dot the landscape, a mob of sheep graze in the distance, the sky is blue in every direction, and the summer sun is beginning to strengthen as the morning passes. It’s late November and I’m with a small team of people walking in lines up and down hills searching for Golden Sun Moths. It’s hot, the air is still, the ground is rocky, the slopes are steep, and barbed wire fences are in the way. We walk, with a few short breaks, for five hours in the hottest part of the day because this is when the moths are active. This is the essential groundwork involved in the conservation of critically endangered species.  

I work in landscape restoration and the protection of threatened ecosystems. My journey into conservation began with native grasslands in Footscray - an unlikely inner-city location to first learn about kangaroo grass, wallaby grass and spear grass! ‘Know your bio-region’ was the cry from friend and mentor, Greg Gow, later our pastor at Footscray Church of Christ. I learned that temperate grasslands and grassy woodlands originally extended from Footscray, across the volcanic plains from Western Melbourne, past Geelong, Camperdown, Warrnambool, and all the way to Portland. Before the arrival of Europeans and their sheep, grassy ecosystems flourished here and in a number of other locations across Victoria. 

Connection to land and place is a challenge for most of us living in urban spaces. Connection to land and place is central to many of the biblical stories which teach us how to care for each other and the earth. The temperate grasslands of south-eastern Australia are now recognised as a critically endangered vegetation community with less than 1% remaining. Europeans weren’t connected to their value and significance when they arrived, and we still struggle now. We are only just starting to learn what First Nations people have to teach us. 

More than fifteen years down the track, my path has consistently followed native grassland restoration and protection in Victoria. I wouldn’t say it’s a path I planned, but a path I have followed by opportunity and choice; a calling to connect with and understand God’s creation and my role in its stewardship. It’s a vocation we are all called to in one way or another.  

  The Golden Sun Moth is just one of many creatures reliant on native grassland.

When a vegetation community is critically endangered, so too are all the creatures and critters reliant on that system for their survival. There is a whole suite of insects, lizards, mammals and birds listed as critically endangered in Australia due to the loss of native grassland habitat. When species are listed as critically endangered in federal legislation, criteria such as population size, geographic distribution, and probability of extinction in the wild are assessed. Extinction in the wild means if nothing is done to protect and manage species and their ecosystems, they will become extinct within ten years. Ten years is not a long time. Extinction in ten years is not the story we want to tell our children. Fortunately, a lot can be done in ten years if we so choose. 

Enter stage right, the Golden Sun Moth, Synemon plana. This unassuming little creature is one of those threatened species reliant on native grasslands, and one I have had the great privilege and joy to learn about in the last couple of years. It’s a day-flying moth about the size of a fifty-cent coin. The male is a gorgeous chocolate brown with squiggly white markings, the female has similar markings with beautiful bright orange hind wings. It spends two to three years in the larval form eating the roots of native grasses, emerging as a moth for only one to four days to fly and mate, and then dies. It used to be known as the ‘mouthless moth’ having no functional mouthparts.  

Like many other vulnerable and threatened species, the Golden Sun Moth has particular requirements for its survival and success. The moth emerges in summer, once the temperature gets consistently warm. It flies on days with clear skies and gentler winds. And it tends not to emerge for at least two days after rain, when the ground and soil are dry. All this culminates in uncomfortable conditions for us to survey the moths! Predicting days for surveying the moths can be challenging, too, and the La Nina summers we have had for the last two years have not been as favourable for the Golden Sun Moth. Intermittent rains through spring and summer and inconsistent temperatures have made for unclear triggers for the moth to emerge. 


The property we are surveying is one of five working farms owned and managed by Cassinia Environmental, where I work. On these farms, agricultural production and biodiversity protection works are done hand-in-hand. Some areas are set aside for protection, while others are being restored with tree planting, native grass seeding, and erosion control work. Pest animals and weeds are controlled to protect native vegetation and animals. The sheep are grazed in rotations across paddocks to ensure native grasses thrive, and the habitat for the Golden Sun Moth is kept intact. The wool is sold as a ‘Protected Habitat’ brand.  

The farms are one part of Cassinia’s work, which also includes the protection of places with intact ecosystems, restoring degraded places to functioning ecosystems, and connecting precious remnants already protected in the landscape. Private land conservation is an essential part of our global need to protect and restore biodiversity. Cassinia Environmental is part of an emerging market which is rapidly recognising and responding to the great challenge of stewarding our amazing planet for future generations.  

It doesn’t take too much investigation to be drawn into the wonder, mystery and beauty of the created world. Each part of the created order has a role to support the other in an infinitely complex web of relationships, including ours. Humans have a unique vocation to choose care and good management of the resources on the earth. I am very grateful for the opportunities I have to be drawn into this wonder and the joy I am given in return. 

After being listed as Critically Endangered in 2009, the Golden Sun Moth was down-listed to Vulnerable on 7 December 2021. A conservation success.  

Kim works part-time as Landscape Operations Manager for Cassinia Environmental. If connecting to land and place in new ways interests you, you can read more about Cassinia’s work, volunteer with Cassinia and with A Rocha, a Christian conservation organisation and partner of Cassinia. You can also contribute to Cassinia’s work through the aTree program.

The team relaxes after a day of good, hard work.