When the grass fades to yellow and the temperatures rise across the limestone paddocks at Mikkira Station, it’s time to close the gate to tourists. 

Mikkira Station, located south of Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula, is surrounded by fire fuel — dense, low scrub.

The station has already had one scare this spring, with a bushfire on a neighbouring property last week, and the fire danger season is still a month away.

Helen de la Perrelle is the fourth generation to own Mikkira Station.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Lincoln National Park, just 10 kilometres east, has been identified by Early Warning Network (EWN) meteorologists as one of the most at-risk areas of Australia for fire this year.

Station owner Helen de la Perelle knows the risk of a fire and what a blaze might do to her main tourist attraction — koalas.

She is the fourth generation of her family to run Mikkira Station, which was one of the first pastoral leases on lower Eyre Peninsula, settled in 1842.

Her family has managed the station for 100 years this year.

For the past 54 years, there have been koalas in a patch of manna gum trees near the house paddock after five koalas were introduced from Kangaroo Island in 1969 as a back-up in case the KI population was decimated in a wildfire.

Helen de le Perrelle says the manna gum is estimated to be about 300 years old.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

“They were thinking it might be a good idea to get some off the island and put them in an area where there was a good supply of their favourite tree, the manna gum, which there is here at Mikkira Station,” Ms de la Perrelle said.

The park hosts day visitors and campers who come to see the koalas, station ruins, and natural bush with the option to camp among the trees.

But over the summer the park is shut when the fire risk peaks. 

Now there are plenty of mothers and joeys around at Mikkira Station.(Supplied: Mikkira Station)

The fire of 2012

The koala numbers are still recovering from the devastating fire that tore through in November 2012.

“We had a fire that started by a lightning strike and … it burned down a lot of trees and killed a lot of the koalas here,” Ms de la Perrelle said.

“We discovered quite a few, 50 or so, unfortunately perished in the fire.

“It was really quite distressing for the poor little things.

“They can’t get away and even if they did survive they’ll climb up the trees that are still burning and their little paws get scorched and burned and then they get infected.

“We’re all a bit nervous about fires.”

Helen de la Perelle says the Mikkira population of koalas remains healthy.(ABC Eyre Peninsula: Jodie Hamilton)

Ms de la Perrelle evacuated two tourists camping at Mikkira during last week’s nearby fire and has closed the park a few days earlier than usual.

“It’s suddenly gone from winter to summer in a week,” she said.

The property is prepared for fire with a large tank filled with water from a natural permanent water hole with the Indigenous name Mikkira.

Ms de la Perrelle said the station was of significance to local Indigenous people.

She remembered her father telling her in the early years the family closed the park for joint ceremonies of the Nauo, Barngarla and Wirangu people.

Joeys everywhere

The region had enjoyed four good winters, which provided ample fuel for a wildfire but also plenty of feed for the koalas.

“That has really helped their most favourite tree that they like to eat — the manna gum tree, Viminalis cygnetensis, a lot of which were looking like they were about to die or were nearly dead,” Ms de la Perrelle said.

“This year almost every female koala that is here has got a little joey that is learning to come out of the pouch and climb about on the branches and they are pretty cute and adorable to have a look at.”

Ms de la Perrelle said in 2018 there were an estimated 192 koalas in the 7.22-hectare koala area.

Helen de la Perelle’s grandparents and her mother as a baby on Mikkira Station.(Supplied: Helen de la Perelle)

In previous project work by the Eyre Peninsula Landscape Board, the number of koalas was not known but distribution had been recorded across an area of 2000 square kilometres on the southern Eyre Peninsula in habitats featuring manna gum, river red gum and the nationally endangered Eyre Peninsula blue gum woodland communities.

The board runs a citizen scientist project to record sightings of koalas to help monitor their population.

The board states that rapid growth in the koala population on the Eyre Peninsula may result in large areas of eucalyptus trees dying as a result of over-browsing.

To date, there is no evidence to suggest that koalas can self-regulate their numbers as kangaroos do.

There were concerns koalas might eventually consume all the available food in an area, resulting in their own starvation.

Healthy population

Other populations of koalas in Australia had been impacted by disease but Ms de la Perrelle said the Mikkira population was healthy.

“We did have a genetic [study] done by Flinders University scientists of the koalas that were here in 1980 and they found them to be free of all genetic diseases or problems,” Ms de la Perrelle said.

“They were very healthy. They don’t have any chlamydia.

“Inbreeding seems to have suited them or they’ve just managed to survive and breed and make their own new colony here.”

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