After more than six decades farming South Australia’s Boston Island, Peter Davis is leaving the legacy of a greener place.
- Former Port Lincoln mayor Peter Davis is retiring after almost 65 years farming on Boston Island
- Hundreds of thousands of native plants have been direct seeded and planted to revegetate the island during his tenure
- The island now stores 1.5 million litres of water above ground and there are plans for residential blocks and a push to return to tourism
The former Port Lincoln mayor is set to retire from farming his island in two weeks when he turns 80.
And he’s delivered his final load of 350 sheep from the island to the Port Lincoln wharf.
At times a controversial community leader, Mr Davis has become an unlikely environmental warrior.
He’s destocked its rolling hills, developed water harvesting systems to harness what little rain falls, reversed salinity and reined in sand drift.
More than 40 species of birds have returned, and Mr Davis believes the island’s future lies with tourism.
Buying the island in 1954
Boston Island lies across Port Lincoln’s expansive harbour, a protective seafaring gatekeeper for the city’s 16,000 residents.
It was surveyed and farmed from 1839.
Peter’s father Hugh ran cattle in the Northern Territory and thought the island would be a new world for his three boys while providing a property to fatten his territory steers for market.
“My parents bought the island in 1954 and they brought a bulldozer, a little D4 Caterpillar out of the Territory with them and we started knocking down trees,” Mr Davis said.
“Every white fellow has damaged the place, but in particular my family did.
The destructive impact of Europeans was evident even before settlement when Matthew Flinders started a fire on the island in 1802 to signal to his crew on the Investigator.
The fire burnt the heavy woodland for three days.
“Every person from thereon in, myself included, has had a go at clearing country,” Mr Davis said.
Mr Davis gradually reduced the flock from about 3500 merinos to 400 now and implemented a water catchment system.
“When we first came here all the bird species disappeared other than wedge-tail eagles and crows and they were living off the carcasses of the sheep that were dying because there were too many sheep here,” he said.
“Probably seven-eighths of the show was under very serious degradation then.”
A plant from the Northern Territory helped save the island from salinity.
Athel pine trees started to pull the saline water down underground again to heal the country.
“My dad had planted Athel pine trees on the turkey nests [in the NT] and instead of bringing all my gear back I brought a suitcase full of cuttings,” Mr Davis said.
He’s since planted thousands of seedlings and fenced off revegetation areas.
The next issue was to stabilise the sand dunes.
“Because we had far too many sheep here, they chewed off the coastal sand dune grasses,” he said.
“I introduced South African verle grass so wherever there is sand country now, there is South African verle grass and that helps hold down the soil, the soft fragile country.”
What to do about water?
Water on the island was also a challenge.
The Investigator carted 10,000 tonnes of town water to the island before a pioneering water catchment system was built in 2002.
“This place averages 11 to 12 inches a year and that’s because of the rain shadow we’re in here,” Mr Davis said.
About 2500 square metres of black poly plastic liner was laid to catch rainfall straight into a small dam near the homestead complex.
“We’re storing above ground 1.5 million litres of water but once we fill all the tanks, then we pump water down to the little coastal soak down at Homestead Beach,” Mr Davis said.
‘One crazy family living out here’
The logistics of the island have been a constant battle, with transport a continuing obstacle.
Theo Modra, 85, farmed Thistle Island, located four hours from Port Lincoln, from 1962 to 1985.
While his sea conditions were rougher, Mr Modra said it was a remarkable feat for Mr Davis to still be farming Boston Island.
Mr Davis hosted 70,000 tourists on the island over four decades and thinks this is where its future lies.
“It’s never really been a viable farm,” Mr Davis said.
“I think the island, as with Magnetic Island in Queensland, should be meshed into the Port Lincoln community.
“It’s a magnificent property. We are very, very privileged to own this very beautiful island — it’s kept me in beer and whiskey for the last 60 years but its wool growing days are numbered.”