Recreating the Country blog
Homo sapiens first arrived in Australia about 60,000 years ago when the climate was colder and dryer. At that time the world was in the grips of the last great ice age.
Ark Australia, home to a remarkable and unique mix of plants and animals, was about 4km south of where it is today. It had been slowly drifting north for 30 million years after breaking away from Antarctica.
Australia was then part of a greater land mass called Meganesia which included Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania and the low plains in between.
Our time machine has had a grease and oil change and is whirring in the background. Its time to climb on board and travel back to the Barrabool Hills in the far south of the great continent of Meganesia.
Its late summer and we are greeted by a perfect windless day. The undulating hills are much as we know them though we notice two fundamental differences in the animals and the plants.
Not far from where we are sitting a huge wombat like animal nearly 2 m tall (the largest Diprotodon weighed around 2,000kg) is tearing leafy branches off the tall broad-leaf trees. Its slow and rhythmical chewing is suddenly disturbed by a giant goanna that runs up the diprotodon's front leg and bites savagely into the surprised animal's thick hairy neck. The diprotodon instinctively falls to the ground and tries to roll onto the goanna, using its enormous weight as a defense against the veracious and powerful carnivore. The goanna rolls clear and the two animals stand motionless in a prehistoric standoff. The diprotodon bellows like an angry bull and stomps with its elephantine foot. The goanna thinks better of another attack and retreats at speed into the dense undergrowth.
Our attention shifts to the vegetation that surrounds us. We are sitting in a clearing but nearby is a thick dry forest dominated by acacias. The trees look similar to the Blackwood, Acacia melanoxylon and Lightwood, A. implexa that grow in the Barrabool Hills today but euclaypts are only a minor species. Other trees we can see in the forest are Drooping Sheoaks, Allocasuarina verticillata Kurrajong (Brachychiton sp.), as well as the fruit laden Cherry Ballart, Exocarpus cupressiformis and Quandong, Santalum accuminatum.
This list of species mirrors the plants that make up the Brigalow dry forests of southern Queensland and northern NSW that are dominated by Brigalow, Acacia harpophylla. These forests remain as an example of the composition of Australia's vegetation along the eastern states before the extinction of the megafauna like the diprotodon and frequent burning caused radical changes.
Studies of lake sediments show there was a fundamental shift to fire loving plants around 60,000 years ago when much of the fire sensitive 'dry' rainforests were abruptly replaced by fire loving plants like eucalypts.
Dr. Tim Flannery in his landmark book 'the Future Eaters' argues that when the first Australians arrived they found a continent dominated by large grazing and browsing marsupials. These included a marsupial rhino, diprotodons of different sizes, a marsupial lion, five species of extinct wombats, seven species of giant short-faced kangaroos, a giant species of mallee fowl weighing up to 7kg and the largest of all Australian birds, a 200kg stocky flightless bird related to the domestic chicken.
These animals were walking composting machines. As they browsed on the broad leafed trees and shrubs they converted it into nutrient rich manures that were quickly incorporated into the soil by relatives of the dung beetle. Though Australia's southern climate was dry, the soil was richer, with more nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and humus. This well structured humus rich soil combined with the denser forest vegetation resulted in much less runoff and the plants making better use of the meager rainfall.
The first Australians arrive
When the first Australians arrived across the land bridge from New Guinea an estimated 60,000 ya, the animals had never seen humans and didn't recognise them as a threat. The megafauna were slow, practically tame and easy to hunt, so their numbers declined rapidly. Fossil records suggest that they were all extinct 35,000 - 40,000 ya.
Flannery proposes that as the megafauna numbers declined, Australia's vegetation became overgrown and tangled because it was no longer being eaten. This added significantly to fuel loads, making hunting less convenient for the early Australians. Fire from lightening strikes would have shown them a way to manage the bush and open it up. Gradually the art of the cool burn evolved and this favoured the fire loving plants and not the food plants of the megafauna that were in a downward spiral toward extinction.
Burning and the decline of the megafauna changed Australia's soils forever from nutrient and humus rich to nutrient and humus depleted. This is because burning removes nitrogen, sulfur and humus from the nutrient cycle. Our nutrient starved soils then became more erodible, a problem that was added to by the parallel shift from forest to less dense open eucalypt woodlands.
and Australia becomes dryer...
The transition to eucalypt woodlands resulted in less inland rainfall which was another nail in the coffin of the megafauna. This is because the forests of broad leaf plants transpire significantly more water vapour which aids cloud formation and rainfall well inland from the coast. The narrow dry eucalypt leaves release much less moisture into the atmosphere so inland areas became dryer as the forests of broad leaf fire sensitive plants disappeared.
Waiting in the wings were the heathland plants that had evolved alongside the broad leaf forests. These plant communities had adapted to regular burning for at least 200,000 years and needed fire for propagation. They had developed toxic leaf chemicals that discouraged browsing by the megafauna to protect their meager resources hard won from the poor soils where they grew.
Heathland species like the banksia, hakea, tea-tree, paperbark and short live wattles were ready to spread as the poorer dryer soils became more common and the local climate dried.
In the Barrabool Hills the Golden Wattle, Acacia pycnantha, the Hedge Wattle, A. paradoxa, the Tree Violet, Melicytus dentatus and Sweet Bursaria, Bursaria spinosa were well adapted to fire and dry sandy soils. They can still be found on roadsides in the Barrabool Hills.
20,000 to 12,000 years ago the last ice age intensified in all parts of Australia and temperatures dropped to an average of 6 degrees below present day. With so much water locked up as ice at the poles, rainfalls declined in Australia and the Barrabool Hills dried significantly more.
This favoured drought and cold adapted plants like the White Cypress Pine, Callitris glaucophylla, and the Snow Gum, Eucalyptus pauciflora. Both these relics of the ice age can still be found within 20 Km of the Barrabool Hills. Other species that would have thrived in the cooler dry climate are Manna Gum, E. viminalis, Drooping Sheoak, Allocasuarina verticillata and the Black Wattle, Acacia mearnsii.
The Manna Gum, Drooping Sheoak and Black Wattle are still present in the Barrabool Hills today and appear to have been important to the Wathaurong people as there is clear evidence that their cool burning techniques were designed to favour these trees. For example the Drooping Sheoak was described by John Helder Wedge, John Batman's surveyor, who explored the Barrabool Hills on 18th August 1835, as 'thinly wooded with sheoak for 3 miles'. This open woodland pattern is not natural to Sheoaks and must have been the result of strategic cool burns. The purpose of this burning pattern and findings in other historic records about the original vegetation of the Barrabool Hills will be explored in the October blog;
The Barrabool Hills Vegetation.
Part 3 - Its original and natural condition in 1835
H G Well’s classic story ‘The Time Machine’ explores the idea of time travel through the adventures of an English gentleman who invents a time machine that carries him to past and future worlds. Like the time traveller’s machine the sciences of geology and paleontology provide windows into past worlds through fragments of evidence found in ancient rocks
There is a lot of ancient history hidden in the rocks of the Barrabool Hills and this history has played an important part in developing its unique landscape and vegetation. Let’s imagine we have borrowed the amazing time machine and it has carried us through many millennia in a matter of seconds to a time 135 million years ago when it all began.
We’ve arrived and we’re mystified because we’re sitting in total darkness and the air is sharp and cold. We zip up our windcheaters and pull our beanies down over our ears to keep out the chill of a deep arctic winter in Gondwanaland.
We shine our torches into the eerie darkness and see snow under the ghostly silhouettes of trees hugging the edge of a shadowy frozen lake. A dog sized animal ambles past sniffing the air curiously, its paw prints in the snow are strangely reptilian.
135 million years (Ma) ago Gondwanaland was a super continent made up of Australia, Antarctica, Africa, New Zealand and South America and it was sitting around the South Pole. Australia was so far south on planet earth that it experienced perpetual summers and perpetual winters lasting up to six months of the year, much like Norway, Alaska and the north of Finland experience today.
We touch the accelerator on our time machine and travel back just another six months to the humid warmth of the perpetual summer. Beanies and windcheaters are torn off as the heat glares down from a bright sun that is now directly overhead.
A large platypus scrambles onto the bank and startled by our time machine turns and slides back into the lake. The presence of the platypus and the sight of a small polar dinosaur drinking at the lake’s edge confirm that the lake is freshwater. We notice that the dinosaur has large possum-like eyes for night vision in the arctic winter and a long tail reminiscent of a kangaroo. Its ability to hunt during the long winters suggest that it is warm blooded like the ancient platypus.
We can now appreciate that the lake extends as far as the eye can see and is surrounded by a lush vegetation of ferns, cycads, clubmosses and horsetails, creating the understorey for a towering conifer rainforest related to the Wollemi Pine (family Araucariaceae), complemented by Myrtle Beech, Nothofagus cunninghamii and Gingko trees.
Note 1 - Gingkos & Note 2 - Plant fossils>
The first flowering plants including the ancestors of the Banksia, Grevillea and Macadamia (Proteaceae family) are beginning to bloom in this prehistoric world but there are no familiar trees like the acacia, eucalypt and casuarina.
This temperate humid climate has produced a lush rainforest nourished by numerous rivers and streams. It is the time of reptiles and dinosaurs and the ‘birdsong’ of the flying dinosaurs (pterosaurs) is likely to have sounded like the rasping shriek of the White-faced Herons that frequent our present day wetlands. This unnerving sound echoing around the humid misty forest gives this place a pungent and menacing atmosphere.
It was another species of small flying dinosaur (Archaeopteryx) from this same time that is likely to have evolved into modern day birds with their beautiful diversity of song.
The rivers and streams tumble down from precipitous mountain ranges quite close to the inland lake. At the lake their rapid pace slows and their sandy load is dumped around the shallow lake’s edge in extensive fanlike deposits. These deep sediments are the same grey mudstones and golden sandstones that we see today in roadside cuttings through the Barrabool Hills and the Otway Ranges.
Note 3 – Ancient sands>
The landlocked lake steadily fills with sediment and plant material from the surrounding hills. Accommodatingly the lake bottom slowly subsides creating a shallow swampy environment that continues for millions of years resulting in sandstone and mudstone deposits of over 1,000 metres deep in some places. Note 4 - Barrabool Hills sandstone>
Our time machine carries us forward to 85Ma ago and now the super continent of Gondwana is showing signs of breaking up. Australia is beginning to split away from Antarctica, the beginning of a long process that takes another 55Ma. Eventually Australia drifts free and begins its slow passage north toward the equator and a warmer dryer climate at the dizzying speed of 6cm/year.
About 35Ma, before Australia brakes free, an immense comet estimated to be 10 km wide hits planet earth near the Gulf of Mexico. It is thought that its impact would have released an amount of energy equivalent to more than a billion Hiroshima bombs.
After this life on earth is changed forever and planet earth experiences a mass extinction of three quarters of all its plants and animals. The era of dinosaurs comes to an end and the era of mammals begins.
and the birth of the Barrabool Hills (added 7/8/17)
As time travelers we discover that as Australia drifts north its climate gradually warms and dries. During this journey Australia experiences ice ages and a two hundred year drought. Eventually the seasons also change from endless mild summers and dark freezing winters to warm summers and mild winters with transitional seasons in between. Australia’s unique flora and fauna begins to emerge, adapt and evolve. It is around this time that the Barrabool Hills is born.
Our time machine arrives at 30 Ma ago and we feel the earth shake violently as we experience the first of a long series of huge earthquakes that lift the ancient freshwater lakes above the surrounding area.
Eventually these ancient lakes of Gondwana dry out and the sea invades surrounding areas making the Barrabool Hills an island surrounded by shallow seas rich in marine life. Note 5 - Waurn Ponds Limestone>
These powerful earthquakes slide along fault lines in the sandstone and evidence of these faults can be seen today as steep hills at the southern edge of the Barrabool Hills running from Pollocksford to Ceres Bridge (the Barrabool fault) and Queens Park to Newtown (the Newtown fault). These faults have remained active to modern times and bit by bit the Barrabool Hills has been lifted more than 90 meters above the Geelong coastline.
While the Barrabool Hills is being raised above the surrounding plains by regular earthquakes, its deep sandstone is being sculpted by extreme weather including an ice age that begins 2.4Ma ago. At this time the earth’s climate becomes very cold and glaciers cover parts of southern Victoria.
Also during this time the night skies become a spectacular sound and light display as volcanoes erupt and shimmering hot lave flows out over the plains and fills river valleys shifting and blocking rivers creating inland many lakes. This continues throughout most of southern Victoria until a few thousand years ago, but it has very little effect on the Barrabool Hills that now stands high above the lava covered plains to the west.
Our time machine stops once again at 11,500 years ago when the climate is beginning to warm significantly. So much so that the polar ice caps partly melt and the sea level rises. From our elevated view on the top of the Barrabool Hills we watch the sea rush in and cover the vast coastal grassy plain to the east of Geelong, now called Port Phillip Bay. Tasmania also becomes isolated from Victoria as Bass Straight floods and the narrow connecting land bridge regularly used by migrating marsupials and the first Australians, is covered with by seawater forever.
Its 8,000 years ago and our time machine is just ticking over, allowing us to watch the Barrabool Hills slowly wear down. This is a warmer wetter period and small creeks rush down the slopes after heavy rains and erode the ancient time hardened sands, carrying them north to the Barwon River. Once part of the Barrabool Hills, the Barwon River was pushed to the north as the hills rose.
Regular upward fault movement of the Barrabool Hills keeps the creeks energised, enabling them to cut deep into the hard sandstone. Gradually over time the undulating hills and the fertile valleys that we admire today begin to assume their familiar character.
From freshwater lakes to abrupt hills, from sandy aquatic deltas to deep hard sandstone, these remarkable changes took tens of millions of years. Impassively and gradually, like an immense rudderless ocean liner, the great continent of Australia journeyed from the Antarctic Circle to the equator, a passage that caused Australia’s climate to change very slowly and steadily but radically.
The Barrabool Hill’s lush towering conifer and gingko rainforest in a protected swampland has gone forever. It has given way to temperate grassy eucalypt and casuarina woodlands that have adapted well to exposure to strong winds, dry hot summers and mild winters.
The plants of Guandwana have been replaced with a hardier mix of plants that is unique to the Barrabool Hills.
How these modern plants have evolved and were modified by the first Australians who arrived over 50 thousand years ago will be explored in the next blog.
Book your seat for our next journey back in time on the wonderful time machine.
The Barrabool Hills vegetation. Part 2 – The arrival of Homo sapiens
To be posted in September
We stood as a group of about thirty in a semicircle on a scantily grassed clearing that was sloping gently toward the bank of the Moorabool River. Behind us was the Barwon River with its magnificent old River Red Gums. It was once a sacred place where the two rivers met, a confluence of life giving waters that flowed clear and pure from the Otway Ranges and from the Wombat Forest.
Today it was a sacred place once more. Today marked the coming together of two cultures both ancient and new, both cultures looking to forge an understanding, a connection, a respectful appreciation with each other and the mighty Barwon River. It was the beginning of the fourth and final leg of the Big Barwon River walk, an epic discovery adventure over four years organised by the Upper Barwon Landcare Network.
A Sulphur Crested Cockatoo screeched as it searched for a perch high in the canopy of the trees. The young dark skinned man who was the focus of our attention looked up and thoughtfully followed the bird’s flight as if he had a primal empathy with this raucous interloper. The young man was Norm Stanley from the Wathaurung Aboriginal Cooperative and he was here with Corrina Eccles to welcome us to country.
There was a small fire burning at his side which appropriately had been set in a hollowed-out burl cut from the fallen limb of a River Red Gum. To make the hollow Corrina explained, was a process of repeated burning and chiselling. This primordial practice produced an aesthetically beautiful wooden bowl that had to be pre-soaked with water so that it could cradle a small fire.
Corrina carried layers of fresh young branches with grey/green River Red Gum leaves from which we could select a leaf for our part in the smoking ceremony to come. She embraced the small leafy branches with the solemnity of a monk carrying a holy relic among the gathered faithful.
The familiar sound of the didgeridoo brought our attention back to Norm, who now bare chested with his hair held back by a pale blue headscarf, was focused on his art, his abdomen and cheeks sucking in and exhaling air to produce a continuous drone. He eased into a regular rhythm accompanied by a mellow echoing tap with his ringed finger against the wood of the didgeridoo and the high, clear penetrating sound of Corrina with the Clapsticks. The rhythm of these three synchronised sounds was spellbinding.
The spectacle was immersing as we were carried back hundreds of years to when indigenous travelers were welcomed and inducted onto these traditional lands of the Wada Wurrung people. The scene had a solemnity and a grandness that was uniquely Australian.
Norm walked among us and played his remarkable instrument that was flared at the end like a wooden baroque trumpet.
An aromatic smoky eucalyptus scent filled the air as Corrina added leaves to the glowing coals in the red gum burl. We were all invited in turn to bring our leaf and place it on to the growing layers that were giving off plumes of white smoke. The modern day travellers on the Big Barwon River walk entered the smoke to cleanse away any negative thoughts that they may have brought with them and to invite the ancestors to come and watch over the travelers to ensure a safe journey.
I recalled an image of a Catholic priest at benediction swinging his smoking brass ‘boat’ sending sweet smelling plumes wafting down the church’s isles. By comparison this very ancient ceremony that we were witnessing had a simplicity and a raw honesty that perfectly fitted this open air ‘cathedral’ with its huge red gum pillars and its vaulted leafy ceiling towering overhead
Norm Stanley welcomed the group in Wada Wurrung with the unfamiliar sounds of;
“Nyoorra woorreeyn. Keem barne barre Wada Wurrung. Kitjarra ngitj, bitjarra ngala, mok-tjarra ngitj. Keen keen beel baa Yoowang ngitj,’’
These words carried with them the mystery and allure of an oracle’s prayer.
(See the translation below).
His welcome in English included ancient symbolism as he turned to each of the four corners of the compass;
“North acknowledges water and white clay for purification;
East acknowledges the rising sun, golden sands and the winds that shape them;
South acknowledges the charcoal that remains in the earth and reminds us of our old people;
West acknowledges fire and red ochre. Fire of the flames of the camp fire that burns in our hearts.
Red ochre that was gifted to us for ceremony to remind us that we came from the earth and our
spirits from the red sunset”.
Norm turned to the group and with his arms raised said,
“from my old people I gift you this smoking ceremony”
Translation of the Wada Wurrung welcome to country – “Hello, how are you. This is Wada Wurrung country. Let us talk together in friendship. Let us walk together, let us not fight, let us have peace and learn, black and white together, thank you”.
Footnote: Over the next three days, 7th, 8th, 9th April, the Big Barwon River walk was successfully completed.
Day 1 – 20 km walk and paddle from Merrawarp Bridge to Breakwater;
Day 2 – 20 km kayak from Breakwater across lake Connewarre to Sheep Wash reserve at Barwon Heads
Day 3 – Short guided walk to The Bluff at Barwon Heads to complete the four year
Congratulations to Jennifer Morrow, Mandy Baker, all the organisers and participants for a truly remarkable and personally fulfilling experience.
To view a video clip of Norm Stanley on the didgeridoo and Corrina Eccles on the clap sticks click to the Geelong Landcare Networks Facebook page here. https://www.facebook.com/GeelongLandcareNetwork/
Geoff Anson from Barwon Ridge winery doesn't just make award winning wines. Geoff's photos tell the story; Please click on the images to enlarge and to read the captions.
European culture and its battle with nature
As an ecologist and a manager of flora and fauna reserves I seem to spend a lot of my time battling against the forces of nature. For example each of the three reserves that I help to manage has problem weeds that have to be suppressed with herbicides each year to prevent them from spreading and over running the remnant native plants, though the spraying inevitably and ironically kills some of the native grasses and herbs that we are trying to protect. The irony of this process weighs heavily on me at times but I/we seem to be locked in to an endless cycle of herbicide spraying in a fight with nature from which there appears to be no retreat.
Since the beginning of white settlement in Australia, battling nature has been our chosen way of life.
Richard Howitt wrote in 1845 in 'Impressions of Australia Felix';
"Day after day it was no slight army of trees against which we had to do battle. We had to fight hard with them to gain possession of the soil, for the trees in those days were giants"
Howitt was describing the beginnings of 170 years of clearing trees from the Australian continent which sadly is still going on full steam ahead in some states. There is no doubt that many Australians still see the environment as an enemy that has to be beaten into submission or at least subdued.
The First Australians partner with nature
It makes more sense to work with nature than to do battle against her. Becoming a partner with the most powerful force on earth is an extremely desirable relationship.
How can this present combatant relationship be turned around?
How do long foes begin a new relationship of cooperation and nurturing?
T0 the First Australians nature and nurture are inseparable. Partnering with nature is so deeply embedded in their culture that it is impossible for them to feel whole as people without maintaining a tangible connection. This connection with 'country' goes far beyond the love and empathy for familiar places that I often feel for the place I live, it's a deep and complex spiritual connection that sadly goes well beyond my powers of comprehension.
Bill Gammage on page 131 of 'The Biggest Estate on Earth' quotes Strehlow to give some insights into this spiritual relationship;
"the overwhelming affection felt by a native for his ancestral territory - mountains and creeks and springs and water-holes are to him not merely interesting or beautiful but the handiwork of ancestors from whom he himself has descended. He sees recorded in the surrounding landscape the ancient story of the lives and deeds of the immortal beings whom he reveres. The whole countryside is his living age old family tree."
The ancient art/science/spiritualism of cool burning
Two events that I attended recently brought me a little closer to understanding this deep spiritual connection that the First Australians have with nature. Both involved fire and both were profoundly moving experiences. This blog will describe the first of these events. The second event will be described in the June blog.
Wiyn-murrup yangarramela is Wada Wurrung (Wathaurung) for ‘fire spirit comes back’. Hearing this ancient phrase spoken at Bakers Lane Reserve, Teesdale was the prelude to what was planned for this 4ha reserve in the next few hours. It was a process, a ritual, a ceremony and a celebration that this grassy woodland had not experienced for over 180 years. It was the beginning of the ancient practice of indigenous burning lead by Ngarigo elder from the Snowy Mountains, Uncle Rod Mason. He had practiced his craft for 53 years and had started as a boy in his homelands in the western desert.
It had been a dry summer and April 4th dawned as the perfect windless day for a burn though the forecast was for a warm day in the high twenties. So the planned afternoon burn was brought forward to a 7am start to avoid any safety risks associated with a warm afternoon. A small 'camp' fire was burning and people were gathering, some in casual clothes around the fire and others in CFA yellow protective overalls around the fire trucks.
Before the burn we were welcomed to 'country' by Wada Wurrung Elder Uncle Bryon Powell. He explained that the smoke from the branches of Cherry Ballart and River Red Gum were symbolic. The smoke was to clear away any negativity that we may have brought with us, the parasitic Cherry Ballart reminded us of the importance of giving back to the land that nurtures us and the mighty River Red Gum would give us strength.
A dark skinned man in his 60's wearing jeans and a checked jacket stepped to the centre of the circle of people and comfortably spoke about the day ahead. This was Uncle Rod Mason who held the knowledge about indigenous burning and its benefits to 'country'. "This is a safe technique and today 's workshop will help build your confidence" he said. Uncle Rod was watching the smoke from the fire and was waiting for the first breeze to come with the sun rise
By 7.30 as predicted we had a breeze from the north, so the group moved to the southern end of the reserve where Uncle Rod walked into the long grass and started lighting a clump of grass with a cigarette lighter. Quickly the Wada Wurrung onlookers joined in and numerous patches of burning grass began crackling. The ancient practice of cool burning had begun.
Cool burning - how it was done
The process was simple as Uncle Rod explained. Keep the wind to your back and light patches of grass about 1 m apart. So the indigenous burners backed into the long grass lighting up patches with handfulls of dry grass that were lit from the main fire.
At this time I made a few interesting observations - the fire was cool, patchy, there was not much smoke and it was not threatening. People were standing within a few meters of the cracking grass and chatting. It was a very friendly social occasion, a shared and connecting
Burning the allotted 3ha took about 3 hours and it was fun with most of the people having a go at lighting up. My only discomfort was a few singed hairs on the back of my right hand.
The CFA also joined in but started to vary the pattern and spaced the fire patches further apart to between 5 - 10 m. This simple variation made the fire much hotter and chatting onlookers began to move further back.
I mentioned this to Uncle Rod who by this time was burning 50 m away from the CFA. He knew their fire was hotter because the smoke was black. "We want to keep the charcoal on the ground to protect and insulate the soil on hot days. The smoke should always be white for a burn to revitalise the ground" he said.
At this moment he bent down and put his hand flat on the burnt ground and then pointed to a small spider that was scurrying across the sooty newly burnt surface. "This ground is already cool and the burn will make the land fresh and healthy again. Fire should move across the ground like trickling water and as the slow burn moves, wildlife can move away because they have plenty of time. The burn should be cool enough for insects to survive and there should be no scorch marks on the trees" he said.
From our conversation I understood that annual cool burns would return an ecological balance of plant, insect and animal species to make this place healthy again. Would this process of regular cool burning 'clean up' the weedy plants that I have been fighting against for decades?
When the indigenous burn was completed, the CFA used their technique to burn a 1 ha section to the north of the reserve. The two styles of burning would demonstrate differences in the recovery of the two sites. Dale Smithyman from the Golden Plains Shire who had organised the event wanted to observe the varying patterns of plant species and plant density that would emerge after the burn.
The CFA burn for comparison
We were standing to the south of the CFA burn and watched as the line of flames on the far north side leapt into the air. The flame height was two - three times higher and thick black smoke filled the air. Very quickly the onlookers were moving to safety because the flames were hot and the air was pungent and hard to breathe. The burn was over within thirty minutes but what had been a convivial and relaxed ambiance was now changed.
Uncle Rod was watching with the rest of us so I asked him for a comment. "After the indigenous burn the ground will take 2 weeks to recover, but after that hot burn the ground won't recover for 3 months", he said.
We assembled back at the Teesdale Hall for lunch and some talks about the culture of burning from members of Wada Wurrung community. However before the guest speakers could begin we had a long wait for CFA who had stayed back at the burn site to make it safe by doing some 'mopping up'.
When they finally arrived I overheard one of the CFA chiefs confiding in another;
"you know Tony, the indigenous burn may have taken longer but there was no mopping up". Tony nodded. "we spent all our time mopping up around the CFA burn and making it safe and we'll probably be back tomorrow".
The same CFA officer added "the indigenous burn may have taken three times as long but there was no mopping up needed so overall the two methods took about the same time but the indigenous burn was much safer", Tony once again nodded his agreement
Thankyou to Tracey McRae for the beautiful photographic record of the cool burn below;
Ancient Australian culture - Welcome to country smoking ceremony in June
Explaining the values of these natural areas is an important part their successful management. When visitors appreciate what they have to offer, peaceful bush walking tracks, wildflowers and resident wildlife, they are more likely to protect and look after them.
An effective way of informing visitors about these beautiful places is to describe their assets in 'plain talk' and to provide a window into what they might see on a walk as well as the mysteries they might not see. Hopefully these glimpses into the natural world will spark curiosity as well as pride in the these natural places that desperately need recognition and the communities long term protection.
Interpreting nature is more challenging than it looks because it involves an understanding of science, marketing and story telling. Like any good yarn, stories about nature should grab your attention in the first few words and hold it till the end. Unlike a good yarn though, which may sacrifice some truth and accuracy to keep an audience transfixed, interpretive stories have to tell it how it is.
Though there is some room to move as the story teller 'sells' the beauty, the quirkyness or the incredible interaction between wildlife and plants. This all has to be done in a few well chosen words and if done with flair then 'less is definitely more'.
People reading an interpretive sign are usually in a hurry and are time poor. They will only spare a few seconds for an unexpected stop to read something that catches their interest. If the story and images are engaging, they may stay a little longer or make time to read more on their next visit to the reserve.
Here is a closer look at the various story themes on the Teesdale Grassy Woodlands Reserve sign - Click on the images to enlarge.
When thinking about farm plantations and bushfires the potential benefits are maximised if a plantation is well positioned, well designed and well managed.
To help you ease into this important topic, this blog follows three lines of discussion;
Native farm plantations provide many benefits to a property including increased biodiversity, wind shelter for stock and crops, shade, drought fodder, timber for firewood, construction and craft and so on. I have a slide of twenty benefits that I show at Landcare presentations. One benefit that isn’t mentioned often is the potential for farm plantations to protect a property from bushfires.
Fire protection benefits of native plantations
The key benefits of plantations are;
1. Slowing the progress of a fire by reducing wind velocities.
A fire may be stopped by a plantation or it will move at a slower speed if it spreads to the wind protected side. If wind velocities are 50% reduced then the fire will be moving at half its former speed within the wind protected zone of the plantation. This protected zone is generally 20 x height, so a 20 meter tall plantation will reduce wind velocities and slow the progress of a fire over a 400 meter zone from the plantation edge.
A note on design of windbreaks near a house or sheds:
When designing native windbreaks near a house or sheds that include trees over 20 m tall, keep trees at the recommended safe distance of 30 meters - 1.5 times x maximum height from any building assets like a house and sheds. For wider plantations (25 – 50 meters) consider planting tall trees on the side of the plantation away from the house and sheds to keep them at a safe distance.
For the best wind protection a windbreak’s length should be at least 20 times the tallest tree height to be effective and meet at paddock corners to provide good protection if the wind and fire change direction. So a 20 meter maximum height windbreak would ideally be 400 meters long and form a T or L shape with another plantation at the north-western and south-western corners of a paddock for the optimum wind and fire protection allowing for wind changes turning a fire.
For smaller properties plantations 50 - 100 m long on the northern and western boundaries will provide adequate protection if the wind changes from the north to the west or south west.
2. Reducing damaging radiant heat.
The CFA website describes radiant heat as ‘the heat you feel from a fire, it is the biggest killer in a fire and the best protection is distance’.
If you can’t distance yourself from a grass or bush fire, a vegetation barrier is a very effective shield from radiant heat. As mentioned in the February blog, deciduous trees provide a safer vegetation screen from radiant heat because they are less flammable than most native plants, however a native plantation with good shrub and understorey layers will dramatically reduce the radiant heat transferred across the plantation.
3. Trapping embers from approaching fires.
Many of the glowing embers carried by strong winds will drop to the ground when the wind velocity decreases at a plantation. The condition of the ground layer will then determine whether the embers will start a fire within the plantation or burn out.
Plantation management to minimise fire risk
A cool burn through a plantation in April & May will reduce the fine fuel loads on and near the ground in the summer fire season. This burning cycle can vary between 3 – 15 years and depends on the build-up of fine fuel on the ground. A cool burn is best defined by the speed that the fire travels (0.4 – 3 meters/minute) and the fires flame height (0.2 – 0.8 meters). Burning late in the day when the dew is starting to dampen the leaf litter helps to keep the fire from heating up.
A cool burn will ‘clean up’ the fine fuels and regenerate some plant species like the acacias that need fire to germinate their seed. A cool burn is safe and simple to manage with a damp hessian sack or even an acacia branch which is used to ‘swat out’ any fire that is spreading where it’s not wanted.
A good cool burn will be patchy, leaving unburnt areas of leaf litter behind logs and rocks as refuges and as a source of food for resident frogs, lizards and ground feeding mammals and birds while the burnt areas recover. The wildlife population living in a plantation will recover and often expand within two years after a patchy cool burn because of the increased plant diversity it generates.
Choosing native species that are less flammable
Features of plants that make them less flammable include leaves with;
- high salt content
- high moisture content
- low volatile oil content
- high ash content (makes plants harder to ignite)
Large broad leaves are also harder to ignite than narrow leaves.
- Smooth tight bark
All eucalypts have low leaf moisture when compared to deciduous trees as well as a low ash content which makes them easier to ignite. Eucalypts also have over 4% volatile oil in their leaves which can ignite at temperatures as low as 60 degrees C. For comparison, deciduous trees have less than 0.1% volatile oils in their leaves and wattles, grevilleas and hakeas have less than 1%. Eucalypt species with loose ribbons of bark or open fibrous stringy bark are more of a fire risk because fire can move up the trunks into the flammable volatile oil rich canopy.
Species like the Manna/Ribbon Gum, Eucalyptus viminalis, Swamp Gum, E. ovata, Southern Blue Gum, E. globulus and Mountain Ash, E. regnans all have loose ribbons of bark, an important source of food for birds, possums and gliders, but a risk if planted near a home or sheds. Also risky because of their flammable bark are the stringy bark eucalypts like Messmate, E. obliqua and Red Stringybark, E. macrorhincha.
Hard rough bark eucalypts like many ‘Box’ species, the Ironbarks, Eucalyptus sideroxylon and E. tricarpa and smooth, patchy sometimes scaly bark species like River Red Gum, E. camaldulensis are classified as a ‘moderate’ fire risk in the Victorian Government’s ‘Overall fuel hazard assessment guide – 4th edition’.
Smooth bark eucalypts are classified as a ‘low’ fire risk and therefore a better choice near buildings because fire can’t travel up the trunk to the canopy and ignite the oil rich leaves. These species include Spotted Gum, Corymbia maculata, Lemon Scented Gum, C. citriodora, Sydney Bluegum, Eucalyptus saligna, Sugar Gum, E. cladocalyx and Smooth-bark Apple, Angophora costata.
Other plants with high volatile oils in their leaves are callistemon species (bottlebrush), leptospermum sp. (teatree), melaleuca sp. (paperbark) and prostanthera sp. (mint bush). These are all beautiful plants but present more of a fire risk because of the volatility of their leaves if planted near a house or sheds
Native species that are a lower fire risk because they have low oil, high moisture and high ash content in their leaves are acacia species (wattle); atriplex sp. (salt-bush – also have high leaf salt content) banksia sp.; brachychiton sp. (kurrajong); casuarina sp. (sheoak); Dodonaea viscosa, Wedge-leaf Hop-bush; grevillea sp.; hakea sp.; Melycitus dentatus, Tree Violet; Myoporum viscosum, Boobialla (high moisture and very high ash leaf content); olearia sp. (daisy-bush); pomederris sp.; rhagodia sp. (salt-bush – also have high leaf salt content) solanacea sp. (Kangaroo Apple).
Choose species from this group of plants that have large ‘soft’ leaves and avoid plants with small, narrow, hard, dry leaves when planting near your family home and sheds.
All plantations, whether they are planted for wind shelter, firewood, forestry or to improve biodiversity will reduce the fire risk on farms by slowing down damaging northerly winds. Including a diverse mix of plants with low flammability as shrubs, understorey and canopy trees will significantly reduce the radiant heat transferred beyond the plantation and provide wind shelter over a large area of the adjacent paddocks. Maintenance of the ground layer with regular cool burns will protect windbreaks from the damage a major hot fire can cause to a plantation and make them even more of an asset on fire danger days.
Deciduous trees act as a fire retardant and are often the reason why some houses survive a bushfire when neighbouring houses are burnt. Why do they provide fire protection and how can they be used in rural areas to make summers safer?
The Weekend Australian Feb 21 2009
A former owner of the Crossways Hotel in Marysville, which survived the fire in 2009, Mr Lawrey is advising residents to plant European trees around their houses rather than eucalypts. "European trees saved my house," he said. "The embers that landed in the trees had time to burn out".
If they land in eucalypts, they burn immediately. "He said all three commercial buildings left standing in Marysville had European trees nearby. They really cooled the fire down when it reached them"
The benefits of deciduous plants.
Deciduous plants are very useful around the home and in public places not only because they add to the ambient beauty but also because they provide cooling shade in the summer and let the sunlight through in the winter.
Evergreen trees are unable to provide this shade contrast. In fact Australian natives often do the reverse and let more sunlight through in the summer by turning the flat surface of their leaves away from the sun to reduce transpiration loss. Some natives like eucalypts let in more light by shedding their leaves during the very hot dry periods.
Deciduous trees cool the air around them through transpiration. The water held in leaves is released from the stomata as water vapour. A Similar evaporative cooling principle is used in air-conditioners. On a hot day it is possible to feel the temperature drop a few degrees as you walk from the shade of native trees under deciduous trees. I experienced this tangible temperature change recently on a visit to the Adelaide Botanic gardens on a 38 degree day walking beneath a very large London Plane tree. It wasn't a coincidence that many more visitors to the gardens that day were seated under this shady tree than could be seen in the rest of the gardens.
Additional benefits of a deciduous trees and vines are fruit & nuts; timber for craft, furniture, and building; firewood, attractive flowers and autumn foliage; shade; privacy screening and as mentioned before they let in the winter sunlight which can make a cold room warmer and dry a boggy track.
How deciduous plants provide protection from bushfires.
Deciduous plants are fire retarding because they have high moisture content in their leaves without the flammable oils. They can provide excellent fire protection in four ways.
1. By shielding buildings from the damaging effects of a fire's radiant heat.
A vegetation screen between a building and an oncoming fire can prevent windows shattering, plastics melting and timbers buckling by reducing the radiant heat emanating from the fire. Radiant heat is short and intense because a bushfire front takes only 30 - 40 seconds to pass through. In extreme fire conditions a house has to withstand temperatures of up to 1200 degrees for about two minutes if it is exposed to the full un-shielded intensity of the radiant heat.
Native trees and shrubs will also shield a house from radiant heat.
2. By catching flying glowing embers before they reach the home.
It's not uncommon to hear stories about people who stayed to save their homes and later celebrated with friends at the pub only to return to a smouldering ruin. The cause of this enormous disappointment and personal tragedy are the airborne embers of burning leaves and bark that cause spot fires ahead of a fire-front and continue to fall after a fire has passed.
Many airborne embers become caught up it the foliage of surrounding trees. If they become caught in deciduous trees they're no longer likely to be a threat.
3. By 'snuffing' out the embers they catch.
The water filled leaves of deciduous trees will cool and extinguish glowing embers in the same way that water puts out a fire. The leaves on the side nearest to the fire-front will be scorched as they take the heat out of the embers but they won't ignite and add to the intensity of the fire.
A eucalypt or a pine could accelerate the fire and burn because they releasing volatile oils which can spontaneously ignite at temperatures above 60 degrees.
4. The leaf litter isn't flammable and breaks down rapidly to humus, improving the soils ability to hold moisture.
Have you ever noticed the smouldering heaps of raked deciduous leaves in the late Autumn? Some over zealous gardeners try to burn them when its much easier to turn them into compost. They are difficult to burn and this feature will stop a fire from spreading. This was observed after the devastating Western Australian fires of 2009 by a firefighter defending a house at Ferndale.
"Every ember that fell on the side of the house that was planted with Blue Gums started a fire in the fallen gum leaves.
Every ember that fell on the other side, amongst the poplar leaves, just petered out.
There was a 100 per difference.
Where to plant for fire protection.
The key fire sectors are north, north west, west and south west. These are the directions that a fire will come from and also the sides of a property best planted with deciduous trees or vines.
Bad fire days are always associated with strong northerly or north westerly winds. North winds are warm in summer as they blow across the northern deserts before they reach the southern states. These warmed gusty winds can strip the moisture from leaves and cause less hardy plants to wilt.
Wind directions can change. A cool change is always very welcome when it brings relief from extreme heat, but it can turn a fire to the east. If a fire is coming from the north with a narrow front and is turned toward the east by a westerly change, the long eastern edge of the fire becomes the new and much longer fire front.
To protect your home against all these possibilities imagine a semicircular zone from the south-west extending to the north and plant this zone with deciduous plants to guard against the unpredictable nature of fire. Choose trees appropriate to the size of the space available because large deciduous trees can dry out garden beds and cause structural damage if planted too close to a building.
What deciduous plants are suitable for your country property.
When choosing suitable plants you will have more success if you factor in your annual rainfall, aspect (south & east facing positions and slopes are cooler than north & west facing), drainage and soil type. This knowledge is critical and can make the difference between success and failure whether you are planting hardy natives or exotic deciduous trees. This knowledge is also very useful when you visit your local nursery.
Generally in dry areas drought tolerant plants will cope with a long dry spell and hold on to their leaf moisture in the dry months. This is a very important feature if they are to function as a fire shield.
I have added some potential uses and cautionary notes in brackets below as an alert to help your choice and avoid future regrets. Always check the eventual size of the trees you're planting and keep them at least 1.5 times their mature height from any structures with foundations. Very large trees like the Beeches, some larger maple species, Weeping Willow and London Plane can cause structural damage and their roots can lift paved areas. On the brighter side, an avenue of London Plane trees planted in the fire sector will proved a very effective fire shield from 40 meters away from a homestead.
The following genera of deciduous trees prefer moist soils.
They are unsuitable as fire shields in dry climates unless they are in a moist gully or well irrigated:
Willows (an environmental weed on waterways, one species used traditionally to make cricket bats).
Poplars (buy non suckering cultivars, valuable timber).
Most oaks (valuable timber, acorns are edible if the bitter tannins are removed by repeated boiling).
Maples (valuable timber).
Birches (valuable timber).
Beech (valuable timber, edible nuts).
The following genera of deciduous trees are hardy and tolerate very dry conditions:
Ash (Desert Ash is very hardy but potentially a weed, grafted cultivars like the Claret Ash are not weedy, valuable timber).
Plane (valuable timber, the roots are deep, invasive and potentially damaging).
Hawthorn (spread by birds and can become an environmental weed),
Black Locust (boat building timber, firewood, will sucker).
Honey Locust (valuable hardwood)
The following common fruit and nut varieties will cope well with long dry periods when established:
For a good crop in dryer locations drip irrigation is recommended.
Quince (will sucker), pomegranate, plum, persimmon, pecan, pear, mulberry, fig (will sucker), apricot and almond.
Apple, peach, nectarine are less drought tolerant but will still survive without irrigation if 'the dry' is not too prolonged.
Walnut (Black Walnut provides valuable timber), hazelnut, chestnut and cherry definitely need moist soil with good drainage and prefer cooler summers
Ornamental pears and ornamental prunus are a very useful medium sized trees that will cope with drought and poor drainage. The prunus species which include almond, apricot and plum are tough and adaptable to most soils particularly if they are grafted onto plum rootstock.
I have included this link to a comprehensive guide to fruit ornamental trees written by Flemmings. It should answer any questions you may have about the suitability of different trees. www.flemings.com.au/tree_guide.asp
Flemmings are a well known nursery dynasty that have researched and published this excellent guide to trees that they sell through retail outlets. There are cheaper wholesalers of deciduous and fruit trees, so it is definitely worth shopping around.
Ornamental and fruiting grape vines are also very hardy and can be used as a trellised fire shield.
Deciduous trees provide many benefits around human settlements but reducing the fire risk is arguably a most critical asset that should be considered for every rural home.
Planting back the indigenous and native vegetation in rural and urban areas is essential to protect our indigenous flora and fauna and to restore the resilience of the natural environment to change, but it would be foolish to ignore the advantages that deciduous plants offer to human safety in the advent of a serious fire.
This article suggests fire safe ideas for planting native gardens around your home on a rural property. The key message is that a well maintained garden has a much lower fire risk.
Planting native gardens with groundcovers, shrubs and small trees for fire safety and aesthetics
Living in the country has a lot going for it most of the year – plenty of wildlife, cheaper property prices, great communities, less traffic and clean air. Then the summer rolls around and the frightening prospect of bushfires becomes a sobering reality once again.
Bushfires can be deadly as we all know too well and they are going to become more frequent and more serious in the southern states according to the Climate Institute’s long term projections
Public enemy number one in the bushfire season, aside from hot days with strong northerly winds, are the plants that burn and carry the fire to our homes - grasses, shrubs and trees. Yet we know native gardens often support important communities of native birds, frogs, lizards and insects, give us shelter and a lot of pleasure, so how can we enjoy our gardens and be fire safe as well?
Here are some practical insights into what to plant, where to plant and how to maintain these beautiful native plants to make our homes safer during the fire season.
Australian plants 'want' to burn.
If you live in the country you’ll notice that eucalypt trees shed their leaves as the summer gets hotter and the soil dries out. These leaves collect in spouting, on roofs and heap up around the walls of houses and sheds. Gum leaves are also extremely flammable because they contain volatile eucalyptus oils. Some gums like the Manna Gum, Eucalyptus viminalis, also shed ribbons of bark in the summer that build up on the ground around the trunks of the trees along with the leaf litter and small branches. This is because gums and many other Australian plants need fire to reproduce. Fire aids seed germination and dispersion as well as providing a chemical rich ash bed that is critical for the seeds of some plants to germinate.
As gums are an attractive landscaping feature and an important food source for wildlife, it is desirable to include them in gardens around buildings, however it is safer to plant small gums with smooth bark to minimise their likelihood of burning. Examples of small smooth bark gums that are suitable to plant in gardens near the family home and outbuildings are Cup Gum, Eucalyptus cosmophylla, Fuschia Gum, E. forestiana, Wallangarra White Gum, E. scoparia, Snow Gum, E. pauciflora, Platypus Gum, E. platypus.
Gums are members of the Myrtle family and so are Bottlebrush (callistemon) Tea-tree (leptospermum) and Honey myrtles (melaleuca) which also have aromatic oils in their leaves and are all very flammable. These plants are safer planted a distance of at least twice their mature height from the walls of a house. Gums taller than 10 meters are safer if planted well beyond 20 meters from the home because of their summer habit of shedding leaves that can blow tens of meters in strong winds, adding to fuel loads around rural buildings.
Are there fire retarding plant species?
You may by wondering if there are native plants that are not flammable, that will protect a house from fire. This is a question that I have grappled with for years and the answer is yes and no.
Yes, because many of the hardy natives from the acacia (wattle), banksia, casuarina (sheoak), correa (native fuschia), dodonaea (hop-bush), hakea, grevillea, prostanthera (mintbush), rhagodia (saltbush) and westringia (native rosemary)genera’s are less likely to burn than the myrtles discussed above, if they are young and healthy or are older plants that are regularly pruned.
No, if they are old and woody with dead wood on the interior of the plant. Any plant will burn if it’s in this condition and any plant is more likely to burn if it is drought stressed from weeks without rain. Even succulent shrubs without aromatic oils in their leaves like Hop Goodenia, Goodenia ovata will burn if they are old and woody.
The good news is that all native plants, including the aromatic myrtles, will reduce wind speeds and shield a house from radiant heat. Both of these characteristics will critically improve your likelihood of surviving a fire and are very valuable assets
Prune native shrubs back, up to one third, in the autumn/winter/spring
Pruning to reduce old wood, remove dead wood and encourage fresh new succulent growth in the summer, reduces their likelihood of burning in a fire situation. Pruning off the lower branches of native shrubs and small trees will reduce the risk of fire climbing into the shrub in areas mulched with wood chips or leaf litter. These are standard pruning practices to keep a garden looking at its best.
Tussock grasses like the popular Silver Tussock Grass, Poa labillardieri dry off in the early summer and are definitely a fire hazzard. This can be managed easily by burning them with a flaming rolled up newspaper before the fire restrictions are declared or cutting back hard with hedge clippers. This is important maintenance that will keep the plants looking fresh and green over the summer. Lomandras like the Spiny-headed Mat-rush, Lomandra longifolia will stay green in shady gardens and only need cutting back every three to four years. In hot dry prositions cut them hard back before summer when they have a number of dead leaves.
An open structure in the garden can add to your safety
Keep shrubs well away from the walls of your house
A meter wide path between a garden and the walls of the house provides a good buffer zone and allows access to the house for regular maintenance like brushing down spider webs that can trap dry leaves and glowing embers. Keep native shrubs at least 1.5 times their height away from the edge of the path. Therefore a 2 m tall shrub should be at least 3 meters from the path's edge.
Space your native shrubs adequately to prevent fire spreading from plant to plant
Native plants that want to burn are a significant risk if planted too near a house, particularly if they are part of a layered landscaping where shrubs are planted very close to taller trees. This creates a ladder of vegetation for fire to climb into tree canopies. Providing a clear space between shrubs and small trees reduces the risk of fire spreading from plant to plant.
Note: For those of you who are familiar with Sustainable Biorich Landscape design system described on this website, restoring wildlife habitat calls for a different strategy and does not apply when planting within 20 meters your home. Group planting and creating vegetation layers is critical for wildlife but it also increases a vegetation community’s chances of burning in a fire. A cool burn is an important process that restores diversity to a natural environment.
Plant ground-covers that are less flammable between well-spaced shrubs and small trees
Hardy native groundcovers that are succulent and leafy and no taller than 10cm will help to suppress weeds while reducing the risk of a fire spreading. Three plants from the Saltbush family and one from the Daisy family look attractive, are low maintenance and satisfy the above criteria well. The Berry Saltbush, Atriplex semibaccata; Nodding Saltbush, Einadia nutans; Ruby Saltbush, Enchylaena tomentosa; and Common Everlasting, Chrysocephalum apiculatum. They can be purchased cheaply as tubestock, are fast growing and will then spread around the garden themselves, aided by small birds, wind and running water after a heavy summer rain.
Strategically placed ponds
A well placed lily pond can provide a refreshing outlook on a hot day as well as other lesser known benefits. A pond near an opening window will also evaporatively cool any breeze that happens to be wafting across it. A pond is particularly cooling if placed to the north of the house as it cools northerly breezes on a summers day.
Standing water could save your house in a fire by providing a place to quickly fill a bucket or soak a mop. If the pond is topped up on total Fire Ban days it can become part of your 'fire plan' to protect your home and family.
Of course all the birds within 50 meters will come in for a drink and a bathe, adding to the endless fascination that a pond can provide.
Part 2 will discuss the role of deciduous trees in fire protection and how to position them for maximum fire protection.
Part 3 will discuss planting native wildlife corridors and shelterbelts in the context of fire safety
Indigenous Australians deserve much more from Landcare.
Two experiences at the Landcare conference left me feeling very disappointed.
An excursion out to Coranderrk settlement which is owned by the Wurundjeri Council on the Wednesday and a conversation with an indigenous elder from Geelong on the Thursday, left me thinking that we still treat the indigenous community with disregard. We did in the 1830’s and we continue to do it in 2016. I thought the National Landcare Conference would set an example for the Australian community but I was sadly mistaken.
The story of William Barak and Coranderrk is a story of the great courage and resilience of the first Australians and it is also a story of the pathetic bloody mindedness of the first white settlers.
John Batman’s fiasco of a treaty in 1835 with eight aboriginal elders on the banks of the Merri Creek lead to 360,000 hectares of land being exchanged for blankets, beads, knives and mirrors. The repercussions of this misunderstanding, the indigenous elders were offering a permit to enter their land not the sale of their heritage, resulted in the Kulin peoples being forced from their traditional grounds by farmers and their very rapid decline which was hastened by starvation and disease.
Out of this monumental disaster for the indigenous peoples of the Melbourne region, a black statesman and visionary emerged, William Barak. Like Moses leading the Israelites, Barak, his uncle Billibellary and cousin Simon Wonga hoped to save his people and find them some land that they could call their own and settle-on in peace.
The search for their own land started in 1843 when Barak’s uncle Billibellary approached the Aboriginal Protector, explaining that dispossession and rapid change had left his people with a sense of having no future. Billibellary’s proposal was that the government give them a block of land in their country on the Yarra so they could live and plant crops like white men. It was not until 1863 that the dream was realised and Coranderrk, a 930 hectare block, was set aside at the confluence of Badgers Creek and the Yarra River in Healesville, 60 Km east of Melbourne
Soon after Coranderrk was gazetted, Barak and his cousin lead 40 men, women and children on the long walk to reach their new home. Their friend Pastor John Green, who was appointed to manage the reserve lived with them. He became their adviser and together they built a thriving village that included a school, dairy, church, bakery, butchery, hop kilns and orphan dormitories. The farm was so successful that three years later the government doubled the size of the reserve. Its population was now over 150 people.
The injustice begins again as two attempts are made by parliament in 1874 & 1881 to dispossess Barak and his people of their land which was 'deemed too good for aborigines' but each time through diplomacy and campaigning, the inevitable was postponed. In that period Barak and supporters made three protest walks to parliament in Melbourne to put their case. In a press interview
Barak famously said, "Me no leave it. Yarra, my country. There's no mountains for me on the Murray."
In these later years the people at Coranderrk were living in poverty, because the Government was taking all their profits, leaving them to starve and freeze in the winters because they could not afford warm clothes and blankets for women and children.
Barak died in 1903 and in 1923 Coranderrk was divided up for soldier settlers from the First World War, leaving only 97 hectares for the 9 indigenous people who refused to be moved off their traditional lands to the Lake Tyers Mission.
I can’t help but wonder how Australia’s history might have read if Barak and his people had been rewarded for their extraordinary tenacity and compliance. After all it was their land that was taken in the first place and the parliament wouldn’t even give them back 1000 hectares.
In 2016 a small group of indigenous people who are descended from the founders of Coranderrk are now restoring its health with substantial corridor plantings using whole farm planning principles. For more information on Coranderrk visit http://coranderrk.com/wordpress/?page_id=839
Fast forward to September 2016 and a crowded foyer at the very grand Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. I was standing alone trying to decide which one of the four themes of presentations I would choose for the afternoon, when Reg Abrahams an elder from the Wathaurong Aboriginal Cooperative glanced my way as he was walking past. He approached me with ‘don’t I know you’ and we fell into conversation.
I had met Reg a number of times but most recently at a Wurdi Youang open day. Wurdi Youang is a Reserve just west of Geelong that is culturally and environmentally significant to the Wathaurong. Reg is managing the development of the reserve, a process that involves revegetation, enhancing the priceless cultural features and working with Mt Rothwell Biodiversity Interpretation Centre to restore and translocate threatened flora and fauna. It’s a great project that will offer training for indigenous rangers and opportunities for the wider community to learn about indigenous culture. For more information about the Wurdi Youang stone circles and indigenous astronomy you could go to this link www.atnf.csiro.au/people/rnorris/papers/n258.pdf and for the indigenous perspective aboriginalastronomy.blogspot.com.au/2011/03/wurdi-youang-aboriginal-stone.html
Reg was somewhat bemused as he had just been informed that his planned 30 minute slide presentation had to be compressed to 5 minutes. He would be on the big stage in an hour, after Don Burke who was keynote speaker for the afternoon. No one would consider asking Don to shorten his presentation to allow Reg to have more time.
I should add that this was the only time in the whole conference that had been allocated to Indigenous Landcare Stories.
Reg must have been used to this sort of treatment because like Barak and the people of Coranderrk, he was philosophical and compliant. He was not angry or vindictive, two emotions that he had a perfect right to express. I felt angry and vindictive on his behalf, but it didn’t let on.
Reg gave his shortened presentation with confidence and good humour. Later at question time he mentioned that the Indigenous Ranger program was going to end in 2018. The Landcare audience of several hundred expressed their dismay for the short-sightedness of 'the powers that be'
Reg was joined on stage by three indigenous women who also told their stories over the next twenty five minutes. Aunty Esther Kirby from Barham on the Murray River spoke with love and sincerity about the old River Red Gums on the river and the healing properties of local plants. Her willingness to show any visitors around and teach them about culture, plants and bush foods was very moving. Don Burke was so stirred that he asked if he could be inducted into her tribe and become an honorary aborigine.
The indigenous community have so much to teach Landcare about their deep connection with the land and how it can be managed with respect. I hope that at future National Landcare Conferences, one of the four themes that spans the two days will be ‘Indigenous Landcare’. An allocation of half an hour for the full two day conference was a sad reminder that attitudes have changed little toward the first Australians in the 180 years since white settlement.
Three talks and a conversation on climate change
The conference was held at Melbourne Conference and Exhibition centre on Thursday 22nd & Friday 23rd September. For those that had the time there were eleven field trips to choose from on Wednesday 21st. I headed off to Christmas Hills and Healesville for the day. The master of ceremonies for the conference was the very entertaining and down to earth host of Gardening Australia Costa Georgiadis
Talk 1 - Let’s start with the bad news
Dr Will Steffen from the Climate Council of Australia spoke bluntly and emphatically on climate change trends, stripping away the wishy washy rhetoric of conservative politicians with undisputable scientific observations and predictions like;
You can read more detail on https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/contributors/will-steffen
Surprisingly the professionalism and science behind Dr Steffen’s presentation gave me an unexpected feeling of hope which I can only explain by saying that if scientists of his calibre are working on solutions we may just get around to applying some of them, if the conservative politicians and the interests that they represent can just stop dragging their feet.
You could also look at this site for our national approach to climate change
Talk 2 - Now some good news;
There was an air of optimism when Dr. Siwan Lovett spoke passionately on the ‘Rivers of Carbon, Rivers of Life’ program that she has been involved in the Goulburn district in New South Wales. Challenging her audience she said,
“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will fix it”
The story she told about a very successful program aimed at restoring vegetation on waterways clearly showed a way forward.
In a nutshell she was saying that the best place to start repairing waterway vegetation is on river bank sites that are in the best condition and therefore have the highest potential for recovery.
She would say to landholders about their waterways and wetlands,
“We are here to mess it up and slow it down”.
Neat rivers store very little carbon and are carbon poor. Messy waterways with trees, shrubs, grasses and fallen logs store a lot of carbon.
Carbon typically enters the waterways two ways. Litter from plants and animals is carried into rives and is buried in sediment, locking it up potentially for thousands of years. In the water carbon is stored by algae and aquatic plants that absorb it as they grow. Organic matter (carbon) in the waterways is eaten by microorganisms, insects and fish.
On river banks vegetation provides corridors through the landscape for both terrestrial and aquatic species increasing biodiversity, connectivity and stored carbon which is ideal for maximising both carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation on a local and a regional scale.
In the Rivers of Carbon program equal value is given to needs of place and people, valuing equally landholder practical knowledge and scientific expertise. This combination underpins all works and inspires motivation through confidence in the predicted outcomes. If you would like to find out more about this very successful program click on this link
Talk 3 - Locking up carbon in the soil and reducing methane emissions from cattle was Kathy Dawson’s theme.
Carbon sequestration was achieved with an innovative program which involved the humble dung beetle and an ancient carbon rich soil enhancer used by the Mayans and Incas called biochar which is a charcoal product made from organic matter that is burnt slowly without oxygen. This process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.
By feeding a beef herd a daily ration of biochar and introducing dung beetles, Bubas bison, the biochar was infused into the manure and incorporated into soil to depths of 60 cm. She spoke of pasture improvements of 30% and reduced emissions of rumen gasses.
Kathy is from Warren Catchments Council inc. in south west WA. To follow up on this idea please click on these links.
- with Kevin Chaplin, CMA officer from Mildura.
Sheoaks are in trouble in arid regions
Sheoaks are survivors and have adapted well to both the wet and dry conditions that Australia can offer, but a survival strategy that has got them through a gradually drying and warming climate and the many significant climate changes over the past 50 million years, appears to be unravelling.
Sheoaks are the ‘luddites’ of the plant world because the way they reproduce is as old fashioned and inefficient as commuting to work on horse-drawn cart would be today. They rely on wind to carry pollen from male plants to female plants which is a system that became old fashioned when insects started to do this job for plants over 50 million years ago.
At the time sheoaks were emerging some other iconic Australians, banksias and eucalypts, were also on the rise. These plants embraced the new insect reliant system which enabled them to share pollen over long distances. When insects do the pollinating plants genes can be shared over tens of kilometres, but when wind does this job it’s reliable over just a few hundred meters.
Two sheoaks that have made arid Australia their home are Belah, Casuarina cristata and Buloke, Allocasuarina luehmannii. Both are small trees growing to over 10 meters and both have adapted well to extremely dry climates.
Kevin gave me an insight into their plight that shocked me. He had observed that the current climatic shift to dryer winters and wetter summers was making the arid landscapes dryer overall. Because of the speed of this change in climate these dry climate specialists were not adapting fast enough and were dying.
Normally the resilient sheoaks would share pollen with others of the same species in dryer (or wetter) climates allowing future generations to adapt. This pollen sharing would happen over long distances in small wind driven steps through a network of sheoaks extending across the country. But this network has been broken in arid areas largely through clearing of land to enable the use of huge ‘centre pivot irrigation’ watering systems for broad acre cropping.
It is the endangered Red-tailed Black Cockatoos that is also the loser in this story as they depend on the seeds of the Buloke for food as well as old eucalypts that have very deep hollows for nesting.
Aside from looking for moister drainage lines to replant these sheoaks, composite provenancing can broaden the gene pool of isolated remnant patches. In brief this involves including 10 – 30% of seedlings from dryer districts (if they exist) in the revegetation mix as well as plants from nearby patches that would have shared pollen when the landscape was better connected.
For more on composite provenancing and variations to this solution you could read
Composite provenancing – progressing the ‘local is best’ paradigm for seed sourcing by Dr. Andrew Lowe.
Stephen Murphy is qualified in Geology and Environmental Management and has been a nurseryman and a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.