These new ‘flat-pack’ homes are made to protect wildlife from bushfire aftermath

A cardboard housing estate on a headland in Sydney could prove a game-changer for native animals that lose their natural homes in bushfires.
By AAP December 1, 2021 Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page

A new housing estate made from cardboard is taking shape on a blackened fire ground with spectacular views of Sydney Heads.

The small cutting-edge, six-bedroom homes, surrounded by bushland, are affordable, quick to assemble and perfect for blended families.

There are no kitchens or bathrooms but that shouldn’t bother the native marsupials, reptiles and insects scientists hope will move in after surviving the devastating North Head bushfire in October last year.

Ever since a planned burn got away and tore across 54 hectares of land, they’ve been largely homeless.

The blaze incinerated the vegetation the animals relied on for protection, leaving them at much greater risk of being picked off by predators such as birds, cats and foxes.

But Macquarie University mammal ecologist Alex Carthey has come up with an ingenious solution with the help of Melbourne designer Alex Goad, who usually spends his time making structures for artificial reefs.

Their habitat pod is a teepee-like shelter made from flat-pack cardboard that will biodegrade and vanish once it’s done its job.

It’s cheap, light and takes about five minutes to press out and assemble. It has six internal compartments, with doors of various sizes to let in everything from bandicoots, possums and bush rats to reptiles and beetles.

The smallest holes towards the top let in enough light to allow vegetation to regenerate.

If the pods are popular with the creatures of North Head, they might soon be a familiar sight in areas ravaged by bushfires or blackened by hazard reduction burns.

Related: Native rats reclaim Sydney territory from black rats

(Image credit: Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Dr Carthey says predators are quick to move in after large fires because they know their prey has nowhere to hide.

“There is some shift in thinking towards maybe it’s not so much that most of them die in the fire, it’s that really dangerous post-fire period when we might lose the most animals,” she says.

“It would be awesome to be able to get that cover out immediately.

“Once we are confident in them, they could even go out with the people doing the hazard reduction burns and be dropped in the wake of the fire as it goes through.”

About 200 of the pods will be field-tested at North Head, which is the site of an ambitious mammal reintroduction program run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

Three small mammal species that were locally extinct on North Head have been restored since 2017, including the Eastern Pygmy Possum.

Thankfully, all three species have been spotted since last year’s fire, and might end up making themselves at home in the habitat pods.

Ecologist Angela Raña has been busy assembling the pods and getting them into position and will monitor how effective they are over the next year or so.

After last year’s fire, she spent days getting refuge tunnels made from chicken wire and shade cloth into position, but it was hard going. It took a lot of manpower and the devices are heavy.

She’s hopeful the habitat pods will be the lightweight, mobile, and cost-effective solution Australia needs at $25 each – a cost likely to come down with mass production.

“We could deploy them in places that are really hard to get to. There’s the potential we could use drones to deploy them,” Ms Raña said.

“If they work they could be used for bigger bushfires which, with climate change, are bound to happen.”

Last week, CSIRO scientists warned climate change was fuelling the risk of more “mega fire years” covering more than one million hectares of forest.