The phone rang early one morning with an excited David Kernke on the line. He wanted to report that the welcome swallows had arrived back at Shene, the historic property he is restoring with his wife, Anne, at Pontville.
I had heard earlier in the year that amid all the restoration work at what is considered one of the most significant homes in Tasmania, if not Australia, a family of swallows had also been left in peace to claim their own piece of heritage.
The craftsmen and stonemasons, together with the Kernke family themselves, had been careful not to disturb the swallows who had constructed their mud-cup nest in a stone stairwell of the Shene stables block, later successfully rearing young there.
At the time I was too busy to take a trip out to Pontville to see the swallows in their historic setting but I asked Mr Kernke to alert me later in the year if the swallows returned. Hence the phone call in the last week of August, three days before I had seen the first of the swallows myself at the Waterworks Reserve in Hobart.
Birds are our living link with history, often travelling the same path as mankind through the ages. Birds in time and place, to say nothing of other, less obvious wildlife, are as important to heritage as bricks and mortar, as the Kernkes recognise.
Watching the swallows glide over the grasslands surrounding Shene, and dodging the scattered English oaks and elms, I was less interested in the swallows on this occasion than all the other people from the past who had welcomed their return in the spring.
The Mumirimina people, members of the Oyster Bay Tribe, would have rejoiced in their arrival, of course, for more than 40,000 years before the settlers from Europe arrived and quite possibly put a difference slant on the swallows’ arrival, one that went beyond merely seeing them as heralding the new season. Many of the settlers believed the swallows actually migrated from Britain, confusing them with a very similar species, the European swallow which spends the northern winter in Africa.
Whatever the swallows’ far-flung destination – the swallows reared in Tasmania travel to New South Wales and Queensland for the winter – the joy of the swallows’ arrival in spring might have been tempered by the longing among the convicts assigned to Shene to be back home in the mother country.
A tour of Shene by Mr Kernke revealed a tough environment for the convicts, both male and female. With the swallows’ departure, and the onset of the cruel winter, no doubt the convicts had wished to fly with them. In the beautiful stable block which is the estate’s most notable building the small rooms for convict grooms did not have fires.
The swallows’ nest, which when I visited was in the process of being renovated, was in a tight, enclosed spiral staircase that leads up to a tower overlooking the whole estate, from which staff kept a watchout for bushrangers. The tower to this day provides a good vantage point on a spring day to observe swallows flitting around a building built in the style of gothic architecture found in the Cotswolds of western England. The buildings retain many original features, like the heavy wooden stalls for working horses.
As with the homestead and stables, the cultural heritage of the landscape at Shene is one of the most important in Australia and the natural values of the estate fuse a European style of gardening – using deciduous trees and conifers in open lawns – with a backdrop of the Australian bush, framed by blue gums on nearby hills.
There’s a similar contrast to the birds found at Shene, too, with a mixing of species from different ends of the planet. An Australian swamp harrier quarters the paddocks looking for plover young, while above it a skylark imported from Britain – clearly the Butler family who developed Shene wanted the sound of the Cotswolds to ring out across their estate – flies in circles high in the sky above it.
And a magpie singing a flute-like tune forms a duet with the chime of the European goldfinch.