Environmentalist and Calvary Cessnock resident Bill Hicks shares his story

Calvary Cessnock resident Bill Hicks had led an amazing and varied life – from koala conservation to developing the longstem planting method. Bill shares his story with us. 

Mr. William (Bill) Hicks was born in Woollahra, Sydney on 19 December 1922. Bill attended Primary School and High School in Woollahra before attending the Sydney Technical College to complete his Electrical Engineer qualifications by the age of 20.

Bill was an only child. He met his wife of 73 years Betty (now deceased) while working at a company together in Redfern. Betty was an accountant while Bill was an electrical engineer cadet. The couple had three children, 2 daughters and a son (now deceased). They have 6 grandchildren and a number of great grandchildren. He has a keen interest in Electrical equipment, environmentalism and also held a HAM radio license for over 30 years.

Bill stayed at Redfern for 7 years before moving into an Electrical Engineer role at Australia General Motors. He then started his own Electrical Engineering Business which he ran for 4 years before selling the business on to a larger firm.

In 1953 Bill travelled to England to learn about electric winchers for the fleet of freighters being built in South Australia as part of the Australian Ship Building Board. It was initially supposed to be a 3 week secondment that turned into a 3 month secondment. Bill was in England for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II and his office overlooked the celebrations.

He held a Managing Directors role at the Australian arm of the Cutler Hammer organisation. He then moved to Milwaukie to be part of the American counterpart. It was not long before the Australia arm was bought out by the American company. Bill then moved into the Director for Asia-Pacific for Cutler Hammer.

While working in the Electrical Engineering industry Bill also ran a motion picture business alongside his son for 8 years. Norkhil Technologies Pty Ltd provided sound and editing equipment.

Bill and Betty owned and ran the historical Barrington Guest House in the Barrington National Parks from 1970 to 1985. In 1985 Bill retired and moved to the Watagans with his wife Betty.

Memberships and Associations
• Bill served as a member of the Australian Government Commonwealth University Scholarship Board in 1970s
• He was a member of the NSW University Electrical Engineering Faculty Course Committee
• He was a member of the NSW Government Technical Educational Advisory Panel
• He has a long association with the Coal Mining Industry in the Hunter Region and frequently spoke on Electrical and Electronic subjects at Technical meetings
• Bill is an Honorary Member of the British Association of Mining Mechanical and Electrical Engineers
• He is a life member of the NSW Rural Fire Brigade
• He is a life member of Landcare Australia (Associated Wollombi Valley Landcare Group)

Native-plant pioneer
Bill had a very close relationship with his father who was very involved in environmentalism. Each holiday Bill would visit his mother’s extended family who lived on properties in Western NSW where he grew even fonder of Australia’s flora and fauna.

In 1957 in Sydney Bill became a founding member of the Society for Growing Australian Plants and President of the East Coast and Inland chapter. Some of his early achievements include:
• Founding chairman of the David G. Stead Wildlife Research Station at Wirrimbirra near Bargo, NSW
• Founding secretary of the NSW Environment Centre – part of the Nature Conservation Council
• Chairman of the Nature Conservation Council during the late 1970s

Koala Conservationist
Bill conducted a research project at his property in Oatley Bay, supported by National Parks and Wildlife Services, to research the dietary needs of koalas.

This project was initially rejected by the Government three times over a period of three years. His proposals were rejected as the law did not permit Bill to house native animals on his property for studies. In 1958 Bill received a call from Allen Strom, the Chief Guardian of Fauna. Allen had granted Bill permission to conduct research on koalas. Instead of changing the law a regulation was created for Bill to exclusively conduct his research.

Bill’s first koala in his reserve was Bob. Bob was rescued from a Hornsby light post and taken to Bill’s reserve. Bob was soon introduced to a female koala. It was not long before there was a baby joey climbing about the trees. Bill had over 12 koalas in his reserve at a time.

Once the koalas were strong in health they would be sent right across Australia to reserves and zoos to reduce the amount of inbreeding.

Through Bill’s research he had determined that Koala’s are quite selective with the type of gumtree leaves they eat. They are seasonal eaters and only eat specific types of leaves at certain times of the year. Research by Sydney University on koala diseases was also conducted using his koala reserve.

The Longstem Deep Planting Technique
In 1989 Prime Minister at the time Bob Hawke pledged to plant a million native trees to reverse the effects of degradation, salinity and erosion. The native trees were being planted with traditional methods but were soon dying off and eroding.

The couple moved to the Watagans when Bill retired from his work as an electrical engineer. And it was here on their five hectares (12 acres) that Bill and Betty came up with the “longstem deep planting” technique that enabled native plants to be substituted for willows for streambank rehabilitation.

Once Bill and Betty had settled at the Watagans they were approached by a Landcare group asking them if they would join. The group wanted to stop planting willows (which had become weeds) to control streambank erosion, and wanted to plant natives instead. Bill was asked to develop a technique that would allow the natives to survive.

The problem was that young natives planted along riverbanks tended to die from thirst (sandy riverbanks are quite dry in their top layers) or be washed away in floods. Willows were successful because a stem could be planted deeply. Bill used his research experience to break the problem, eventually coming up with the longstem deep planting solution that many experts, including academics, did not think would work.

Bill’s technique of long stem planting challenged two horticultural principals that had been widely accepted:
• You cannot plant a tree at a deeper level than the soil level of the container in which it was originally grown
• You cannot grow a large tree in a small container as it will distort the roots and inhibit growth

Longstem deep planting involves growing native plants to about a metre in length in 50mm square tube pots. This unusual length is achieved with a fertiliser mix and allowing the plants’ roots to be air pruned. A deep hole is dug in the ground using a water jet (or petrol auger) so that about 70 percent of the plant’s stem is buried in the ground. This means the roots of the plant are in deep, moist soil and will survive, regardless of the conditions. The plants took in nutrients without expanding. Roots grow from leaf and branch nodes, resulting in an extremely healthy tree. His method is not plant or soil selective so will work across a variety of climates and solve a variety of vegetation issues.

In 1989 Bill’s method sparked interest from the Catchment Management Trust and Department of Land and Water Conservation who approached him to produce 25,000 trees for the Hunter River Planting program. This was Bill’s first large batch of trees to be produced using his method. Other orders followed, with the Hick’s producing at least 100,000 native trees at their property’s small nursery.

After the success of the river restoration project Bill and his wife Betty travelled across Australia showcasing the benefits of Longstem Deep Planting as there was a need to teach others about how they could grow their own using this method.

At the Nepean River demonstration Bill was approached by a representative of the Egyptian government. The representative was working alongside Beirut University to rejuvenate the banks of the Nile. This was the first international venture for the planting method.

The technique is now being adopted by the horticultural industry. In 2010 the method featured in an episode of ABC TV’s Gardening Australia which produced a lot of interest from viewers.

Bill has received honors for his work including:
• 2000 – RiverCare Highest Award – Diamond Award
• 2000 – Banksia Environmental Foundation Inc. Innovation Award Winner
• 2000 – Hunter Region Landcare Network – Local Landcare Legends
• 2000 – Australia Day Environment Award

Bill is currently passing on his knowledge to his grandson Will. Will works for the Department of Mines and is reinvigorating old mining sites near Wollongong. Bill’s planting method is proving to be essential in the redesign of these sites.

Bill has worked and is working on a variety of projects utilising his method:
• Central Africa – Planting edible fruit trees
• Egypt – Planting vegetation on the Nile
• Gosford Council – Rainforest rejuvenation
• USA government – National Parks Project
• England – Native tree project
• Calvary Cessnock – Bill is in the planning stages of creating a nursery where residents can grow their own long stem trees.

Bill has his own manual entitled Longstem Deep Planting Technology: A guide for growers and planters that he sends across the globe. The manual is also accompanied by two DVDs. He has also produced several documentaries on various subjects including the Tibetan Monks and Koala Conservation. Bill also runs his own website http://www.longstemtubestock.com.

Calvary Cessnock Tech Savvy for Seniors
Bill’s wife Betty moved into Calvary Cessnock Retirement Community as she was diagnosed with dementia. Bill would drive 2 hours each day to see his wife (1 hour there and back from the Laguna).

Bill has since moved into Calvary Cessnock Retirement Community to make his life easier. He is still able to continue his work and has his computers set up in his room. Bill says that he has much more time for his work as his meals are provided and his room is cleaned. Bill was also able to go up and see his wife Betty who unfortunately passed away this year.

After moving in Bill worked with the Volunteer Coordinator Therese Fitzgibbon to implement a 10 week Tech Savvy for Seniors program. The program was in conjunction with Jobquest and provided residents with knowledge on:
• Skype
• iPads
• Mobile Phones
• Basic computing

Bill now follows up with the residents that attended the sessions to provide further support.

Bill has made a meaningful impact on the environment to ensure it is preserved for future generations and is only continuing his journey at Calvary Cessnock Retirement Community.