As the owner of an eco-accredited, off-grid hut on a swathe of conservation land in Central New South Wales, you’d expect Louise Freckelton to have a keen interest in sustainability. But after surviving the Black Summer bushfires, and with her enduring love and respect of nature, Louise become even more passionate about minimising her impact.
We caught up with Louise to chat about her journey to create Kestrel Nest EcoHut and her heartfelt belief that treading lightly and consciously is everyone’s responsibility – and it’s easier than you think, even on holidays.
Kestrel Nest EcoHut owners Louise Freckelton and David Bray. Photo: Lean Timms.
Can you tell us about your personal background (and interest in sustainability) and what inspired you to create Kestrel Nest EcoHut?
I cannot remember not being interested in nature and the environment. For me this is not a new awakening. I was born with plant juices running through my veins! My first family home was on the very southern edge of Sydney. It was a simple house with no fences to keep the wild out. The surrounding bush was my backyard. I would run through the bush without shoes, explore the sandstone caves nearby and lie down on the ground to study a flower, an insect, a blue-tongue. If you are obsessed with nature then you have to be absolutely focussed on your impact and your responsibility to live as lightly as possible.
Kestrel Nest EcoHut is a natural outcome of where we live. Our farm – Highfield Farm and Woodland is two-thirds conservation area protecting critically endangered habitat and only one third is for our farming enterprises. When we moved here 10 years ago there was an old hut ruin on the property. It housed boundary riders employed by a larger station who were out checking livestock and fencing. It was a simple tin and timber building with a bit of fancy pressed metal inside lining the walls. It had a wide and shady verandah – a place to rest after a long day in the saddle.
We developed Kestrel Nest to respect that original old farm building, it uses materials from the old hut and reiterates its colours. And we developed it so that guests could access our conservation area and so they could totally turn off and tune into the silence. And for a little while live a simpler life.
“If you are obsessed with nature then you have to be absolutely focussed on your impact and your responsibility to live as lightly as possible.“
Can you tell us a little bit about your process of sourcing sustainable materials for building and construction, and any particular challenges or successes you have had in this area?
One of the biggest challenges is always working within the limitations of your builder and the council. Concerned that the building was rain, insect and animal tight, our builder did not want to use recycled materials on the outside of the building. But we chose materials that would weather and get a patina with time so it would look like it had always been there.
But wherever possible the builder was delighted to work with recycled materials from the old hut ruin and the beautiful timber grown and milled on the property on the inside. His first occupation was as a high-end cabinetmaker so he shared our love of wood.
Our kitchen is made from the beautiful distressed mini-orb and pressed metal from the old hut. The kitchen shelves, bench tops and floorboards and enormous rafters, bunks and bathroom furniture are all from the beautiful Red Box, Red Gum and Stringybark trees from our property, milled by a local farmer from Talbingo. All of the trees used were already dead when we harvested them.
By far the biggest challenge in creating Kestrel Nest was Black Summer. Our build was half done when the Dunns Road Fire threatened our farm. The fire started very near us but for two-and-a-half weeks the wind pushed it away from us. Then on 10th January 2020 the fire consumed two-thirds of our farm.
Five brave crew – from the RFS and National Parks – defended the half-built Kestrel Nest when the paddock it stood in was completely burnt. The next morning when we went to view the scene a Kestrel flew low over our shoulders and our eyes met. It was like she was very glad to see another living thing and the feeling was mutual.
That Kestrel was the ONLY bird we saw for two weeks following the fires. The only bird. We simply had to name the hut after her.
With the reclaimed materials from the old hut, the timber sourced from the property and our experience with this bird, Kestrel Nest is a place very much of here.
The old hut, which was pulled down by previous owners.
Can you describe some of the most challenging aspects of creating and maintaining a sustainable business like Kestrel Nest EcoHut, and how you address those challenges?
I’m not sure that it is very challenging really. I think you just need to put your sustainability and environmental hat on and think about the impact you are having all the time and try to minimise it. That said, it is impossible to be perfect. The world we live in has consumption baked in and even celebrated. Building a new building has consumption baked in. Setting up a stay has consumption baked in. In an imperfect and environmental dismissive world all you can do is do your best and make decisions that sit most comfortably with you. Sometimes regulations don’t allow you to do all you want to do. All you can do is your best.
In terms of day-to-day operation, we supply breakfast provisions from the farm – eggs from our chooks, home-made sour-dough bread, our lamb or beef sausages. Guests can order our farm grown meat, hampers of locally sourced produce and beer/wine from local makers. In the bathroom we provide real handmade soap made with the lamb fat that would otherwise be thrown away. All firewood is sourced carefully and sustainably from fallen timber on the property making sure to leave plenty behind as habitat for insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals.
“I think you just need to put your sustainability and environmental hat on and think about the impact you are having all the time and try to minimise it”
How does Kestrel Nest EcoHut balance the need for economic viability with the commitment to environmental sustainability, and what strategies have you found to be most effective in achieving this balance?
Actually, I do not think there is a conflict here. Many people choose Kestrel Nest as their stay because they are wanting to holiday with minimal impact, or they are interested in exploring how to live off-grid and are interested in how we farm because they want to do that themselves.
Environmental sustainability is a feature many are looking for – in marketing terms it is a ‘key distinguishing feature’, a ‘unique selling proposition’. I think Black Summer and the recent floods have made people hyper-aware that climate change is here now and we need to live differently, even or maybe especially on holidays.
Can you speak to the impact that ecotourism has on local communities, and how Kestrel Nest EcoHut works to support and empower those communities?
The United Nations define sustainable tourism this way: “tourism that takes full account of its current and future economic, social and environmental impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities.”
So, taking this definition into account, sustainability MUST take into account the impact on ‘host communities’ and work to minimise it or work to enhance and support the local community as a vital part of your sustainability actions. This in my mind includes being mindful of the housing crisis that is in part exacerbated by the proliferation of short-term stays.
Living in small rural communities makes supporting our host community easy – it comes natural – it’s part of life here. Being a member of the Rural Fire Service, supporting school fund-raisers and the local agricultural show society, providing free night stays for a fundraiser for the local rural cancer patients support group. Buying wine from local wine makers and bacon from the local swine-herd, buying the best raspberry jam from the berry growers up the hill. Using the fabulous local photographers and film-makers instead of city-blow-ins. Buying art from local artists instead of a print from Freedom Furniture.
“…Black Summer and the recent floods have made people hyper-aware that climate change is here now and we need to live differently, even or maybe especially on holidays”
How does Kestrel Nest EcoHut address the issue of waste reduction, and what strategies have you found to be most effective in minimising waste and reducing environmental impact?
In everything we supply for guests we try to minimise packaging – real handmade soap, no pump-packs; pantry supplies – olive oil etc – are purchased from local bulk-food suppliers and stored in reusable glass containers. All laundry is washed in rainwater and dried in the sun on the farm. Grey water from the laundry is treated on site and returned to the environment. The washing machine and water pump are solar powered.
As for separating and composting waste – well, at first we were quite hesitant about this, but then we realised our guests came to stay with us because they were interested in being low impact – just like us. We realised that if we considered ourselves as the ideal guest then we could frame waste reduction around how we wanted to behave. So we set about instituting a waste separation system. As we don’t have a town waste separation system, we had to do this ourselves.
We bought three beautiful old-school metal bins and labelled them compost, recycling and rubbish. We provided compost bins inside and wrote instructions. We mention that we revel in guests leaving their compostable as this adds to our veggie garden. We note that the money earned from recycling their cans and bottles would go to a local disability support charity. And we gave guests the option of taking home their waste destined for landfill as a way they could take responsibility for their waste generation.
To our great surprise, all guests separate their waste and 90% of guests actually DO take their landfill waste home. No complaints, no whinging, no drop in 5 star reviews, actually people who are grateful for the facilities.
Our feeling is that most people separate their waste at home and ‘get it’, in fact they feel awkward if they are not provided with the facilities to do so while on holidays. Provide it and they will separate!
Can you describe the steps you take to educate guests about sustainability practices and encourage them to incorporate these practices into their own lives?
Well, we don’t. Not explicitly. We provide a beautiful off-grid and off-line stay on our farm that combines conservation of critically endangered habitat with conservation-led , biodiversity-inclusive, low carbon farming. Our website and listings note this. We provide information on the beautiful timber and recycled materials in the build. We provide waste separation. We offer two tours – a Farming with Habitat Tour and a Bird Watching Tour. People get here, turn off and ‘get it’. They yearn for it. They seek it. We are just here doing what we are doing and guests get it, often even commenting on how easy they found it to live off-grid, how wonderful it was to live off-line, how wonderful the bird life was. We are not here to explicitly educate, we just provide an immersive environment where people can slow down and reflect
Can you explain the importance of biodiversity conservation and habitat restoration, and how Kestrel Nest EcoHut works to protect and conserve local ecosystems?
We are living through an extinction crisis – and one made by humans. Anyone who owns land has a responsibility to do everything they can to reduce further extinctions and enhance the environment to ensure that non-human life has a chance of surviving the Anthropocene. In fact, I’d say that as a landholder this needs to become part of your social licence to trade at all.
Two thirds of our farm protects critically endangered Box Gum Grassy Woodland. This habitat only exists now in 5% of its former range. It supports many endangered birds and other creatures. It is our great responsibility to not only protect this habitat but to enhance it. Further, our farmland is comprised of Temperate Native Grasslands. Alarmingly, these are only in reasonable health in 1% of their former range. This has inspired us to consider the whole of our farm as a conservation area.
Something like 19 species of native butterfly rely on healthy native grasslands. Many native birds depend entirely on the grasslands we are enhancing. This needs to become standard – you own land, you have a responsibility to protect and enhance the biodiversity. This is not a burden, it is a tangible way we can address climate change and the extinction crisis. It provides purpose to our farm and stay business and increasingly purpose is going to be what guests and customers seek.
Can you speak to the challenges of implementing sustainable practices in a rural setting, and how Kestrel Nest EcoHut has overcome these challenges?
I don’t see any challenges. In fact the trauma that rural communities have suffered with extreme droughts, catastrophic fires and exceptional floods have made rural communities profoundly aware that climate change is here. Farmers are adjusting their practices, farmers are joining Farmers for Climate Action and proudly displaying their signs on their gates.
In the end you just have to do what you can in your situation and not worry about what others think anyway. Sometimes, surprisingly people are glad that you are being upfront about the environmental changes. Many also recognise climate change, it’s just that they don’t always stick their heads up.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned about sustainability through your experience running Kestrel Nest EcoHut, and how do you hope to share these lessons with others in the industry?
That it is easy. It is not a privilege. It is not sack-wearing penury. Your accommodation doesn’t have to look ugly.
That guests want it. That guests get it. The guests choose YOU because you are concerned with the environment. That this can be your key distinguishing feature.
One piece of advice is this – please do not make insubstantial and unsubstantiated green claims. Having solar panels and a water tank is not enough – most people in Sydney have these – that is not performing – that is just the start.
Go and enquire with Ecotourism Australia about their programs. Get certified and don’t green wash.