Recreating the Country blog
Guest blogger and poet for September & October is Gib Wettenhall.
Gib is a an award winning author, journalist, editor, publisher and advocate for preserving indigenous cultural heritage. His view is that;
"the 60,000 year-old Indigenous heritage we have inherited makes Australian landscapes as much cultural as natural".
He is the author of The People of Budj Bim written in collaboration with the Gunditjmara people of south-west Victoria, which in 2010 was Overall Winner of the Victorian Community History Awards.
Also, the author of The People of Gariwerd, the Grampians’ Aboriginal history, which has gone through three print runs.
He is currently writing and producing the 3rd in a series of booklets for the Yirralka Rangers, titled
Keeping Country, on the bi-cultural approach adopted by this Indigenous land management group in north-east Arnhem Land.
As a publisher, he has edited many books, including Stephen Murphy’s Recreating the Country and Tanya Loo’s nature journal set in the Wombat Forest, Daylesford Nature Diary, which reintroduces a six season Indigenous calendar for the foothill forests.
In 2006, he wove the Indigenous heritage of the Grampians Ranges into the essays published in a high quality landscape format book with photographs by Alison Pouliot,
Gariwerd: Reflecting on the Grampians.
Gib can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
We switch panels to store, as we unfurl solar sails
And lay the songline down.
We sing with joy when we reach the reef and the fish shoal is found.
We spear the fish, sail the songline back
To the beach where a hot fire glows
We sing to the fish of how our lives are twined as we pass damper to and fro.
The cats are gone, cane toads no more
The valley’s soil is soft
The shepherds herd their mobs of roos through glades of thigh high grass
And everywhere the wetlands spread and wild birds wheel aloft.
We sing on the zeppelin as it orients for home
Following power plant ruins below
It’s ten years now since the last coal was dug…
It’s back to the future we go.
Gib Wettenhall 2014
Reimagining and reinventing Australian culture
Australia’s landscapes are as much cultural as natural. People were everywhere, affecting everything, across the length and breadth of the continent over an unimaginable timescale, recently confirmed at an archaeological dig on our northern frontline at some 60,000 years ago. That’s the conclusion of historian Billy Griffiths in his acclaimed new book on the history of Australian archaeology, Deep Time Dreaming.
This primal Indigenous spiritual power is still evident in the country’s remote places. I have recently rock hopped for two weeks along the Roe River and scaled the blood-red gorges of the Prince Regent National Park on the western edge of the Kimberley. At every one of the waterfalls punctuating our progress, rock art shelters crowded with ancestral beings and creation stories overlooked the dark, deep green of secret/sacred pools. On gorge tops, artificially-placed standing stones act as markers, sometimes leading to ceremonial grounds, where, if you are willing to pay attention, the ancient power of the land and its people remains palpable.
The world is being undone before us
I agree with writer Richard Flanagan, who recently said at the Yolngu people’s Garma Festival, we are at a crossroads as a nation. “The world is being undone before us… Our bewilderment with the greater world we live in is buttressed by our determined ignorance of our own country.” If Australians do not reimagine and reinvent our culture, then we will be undone too. We must fill the silent spaces of the past and acknowledge a far older and richer culture than the Western civilisation brought to Australia by the British.
Where the Western tradition regards land as something that can be bought and sold, Indigenous people have a much more intimate, reciprocal relationship. As animists, Indigenous people right around the globe, regard themselves as the land’s custodians not its owners. Yuval Noah Harari describes in Sapiens how such custodianship brings with it responsibilities to care for and cherish their patch and everything that is part of it.
Animating the landscape with songlines
Each child is given a totem – a plant, animal or natural object – that links him or her to the natural world. Totems act as guides. They have to be shown respect and actively nurtured to ensure continued fecundity of plants and animals and a world that is healthy and alive.
Animating the landscape is done through ceremony. To the animist, everything has awareness and feelings. No distinction exists between humans and animals or even mountains and gullies, beaches or the sea. That rock at the top of the hill, the trees that clothe it, that flowing stream, the animals that drink there – all are living things with souls. Singing, dancing and painting act as the medium for linking people to the natural world and keeping it alive.
Every totem, every place, every insect, has a creation story attached to it. Strung together, the creation stories form songlines.
Each person who develops the abilities to sing, dance and paint the patterns of their songline gains a source of identity, power and a comprehensive map and archive of all that their landscape contains.
The wild honey bee songline might climax by pointing to a sacred site where honey spills out, emerging as a freshwater spring. The parrotfish songline tells you where they can be caught and how to cook them. In the dry hot season, two sisters who became stars sit far apart. In the cooler months, they can be seen together, sitting around one big fire.
At the dawn of creation there was the dreaming
In the Memory Code, author Lyn Kelly highlights how oral cultures discovered that the best way to avoid Chinese whispers and to pass on knowledge unerringly over generation after generation is by attaching vivid stories to specific features of place. Whether it’s via the uniquely distinctive menhirs in the circles at Stonehenge or the sinuous line of rocks depicting the Rainbow Serpent on a sacred Aboriginal performance space.
In Australia, the Indigenous peoples most sacred and profound beliefs centre on the Dreaming. At the dawn of creation, it was the ancestor beings – some human, some beast – who brought what was previously barren land to life. As they journeyed, the ancestor beings sang about their experiences and the creatures they encountered, giving out names and passing on knowledge, much of it essential to survival. At the end of their journeys across land and sea, the ancestor beings left aspects of themselves behind transformed into part of the landscape.
How about some 'black on white' for a change
So, Aboriginal stories and songlines are written on land and sea. As aide memoires, they are rooted in place, set in rhyming couplets or quatrain form, aligned to particular songs and dance movements, and to patterns painted in rock art shelters or on performers’ bodies. It’s a brilliant system for connecting people to place, as well as providing a map of how to live.
Over 20 years from 1932, T.G.H. Strehlow journeyed through Central Australia collecting 4,270 Aranda song verses. While he had immersed himself in the study of the founding legends of Western civilisation at European universities, he eventually concluded that the Aboriginal songlines represented a far more impressive poetic achievement. Moreover, when regularly performed, they held “a vital function in daily life.”
Clearly, we cannot appropriate Aboriginal songlines. We can, however, go further than simply acknowledging their culture. We could learn from their 60,000 years of honing their land management skills and move to adopt animist aspects of their culture, aiming to enrich the shallowness of the existing dominant Anglo-Australian culture.
A Yolngu elder once arrestingly remarked to me that all they ever heard from the “dominant culture” was “white on black.”
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“The politicians and most white people are always quick to tell us how we should change and improve ourselves. Don’t you think it’s time the dominant culture acknowledged their destructive footprint and turned in our direction for some black on white?”
Yes, I do.
Gib will write more on songlines in his October blog.
A close encounter
A good friend was sitting and watching the waves roll in near Aireys Inlet while thinking about a difficult life decision. A decision that could lead to his giving up the job he loved. He was captivated by the beauty and the wild freedom of the waves crashing in on the shore when he felt a light touch on his hair. He said it felt as if a friend had patted him reassuringly.
He looked around but he was alone on this open stretch of beach. Just a few meters away a Nankeen Kestrel settled on an old fence post and looked back at him. Its puzzled gaze fixed and without blinking. The two shared this close encounter for several minutes before the Kestrel lifted effortlessly on the breeze and glided away.
If we think back through our lives most of us would be able to recall a close encounter with nature. Often these encounters are uplifting, exciting, beautiful and become meaningful moments when we connect profoundly with the natural world.
If a close encounter happens at one of life’s crossroads then it can play a part in an important decision and become a moment to look back on, to find strength and reassurance. These close encounters could be with an animal, a plant, a remarkable landform or a beautiful place and they can form the basis of personal totems.
These close encounters with nature have played an essential part in important life’s decisions of humans for thousands of years. Particularly people whose culture is linked to the natural world that they live in.
Animism is a belief system which values nature. It is part of early and present day religions of many forager societies and it is based on the belief that every animal, plant and place has a spirit. Like humans these entities have an awareness and feelings and can be communicated to using words, dance and ceremony. Animists believe that these entities are our equals and should be cared for and treated with the greatest of respect.
Yuval Noah Harari in his remarkable book ‘Sapiens’ a Brief History of Humankind describes animist culture. He gives the example of ‘an animist hunter addressing a herd of deer and asking one of them to sacrifice itself. If the hunt is successful the hunter may ask the dead animal to forgive him’. This is gesture shows recognition and deep respect for one life that has been taken to nourish another.
Animists were the first conservationists because they believed that the natural world wasn’t there just to provide for the needs of humans. They believed it should be protected and nurtured like any member of their family or tribal group. A failure to do so was wrong and could also result in momentous consequences
The momentous consequences are knocking at our door
We may scoff at the implication that failing to treat the natural world’s plants, animals and places with respect could lead to bad things happening. One animal shot for fun, one old tree with hollows cut down to make way for a wider road, one wetland drained to expand a cropping business, all may seem like small losses on a national scale.
However we are seeing today the effect of millions of small decisions over the past 12,000 years since the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution. We are seeing how the small decisions made by many over thousands of years have created a new Geological age, the Anthropocene. The age where many small decisions of one species is changing the climate of the planet.
“One plastic straw thrown away won’t hurt, said 8 billion people”.
The First Australians
The first Australians have a deep connection with country, its animals, plants and places. They believe that the spirits of their Dreamtime ancestors, who walked the earth in a time before time, still dwell in sacred places on country as do the spirits of the 2,000 generations of people who lived before them. These ancestral spirits can be found in ancient trees or rock formations, in significant places or can be recognised in the behaviour of native animals.
I remember watching a Wathaurung man before a welcome to country ceremony following the flight of a screeching Sulphur-crested Cockatoo. He referred to the bird as his brother and felt comforted by its presence. Another Wathaurung elder on a hike along the Moorabool River, commented on the Wedge-tailed Eagle, ‘Bunjil’ that had flown along the river valley while we walked. He felt uplifted, safer and reassured by its visit.
Bunjil is the spiritual totem or moiety ancestor for many of the clans between Geelong and Ballarat. Some Wuthaurung clans have 'Waa' the Crow as their ancestral moiety.
Bill Gammage in his book ‘The Greatest Estate on Earth’ (p 132) records the observation of early settler Alexander Berry in NSW in 1836.
‘The natives….believe in transmutation after death….they regarded that Porpoises, as having been the ancient chiefs of the neighbourhood, who when they died had changed into these animals; and who, they said, drove fish on shore for them, sometimes whales, when the people were very hungry’.
I have heard similar historic stories about the Wathaurung of the Geelong region fishing with the help of Dolphins on Corio Bay.
The first Australians have complex layers of totems deeply embedded in their culture. For them a totem can be a natural object, a plant or an animal that is inherited by members of a clan or family as their spiritual emblem.
Their totems define peoples' roles, responsibilities and relationships with each other and with creation. Totems could also be the descendants of the Dreamtime and are seen as heroes and spiritual guides.
A child's story
Year four author Rebecca Wilks from Euchareena Public School (220 km NW of Sydney) wrote a beautiful illustrated book on totems in 2014. Her book was produced under the successful “Tools, Totems and Tucker” Enviro-Stories Program.
Her words encapsulate the essence of totemism;
What is a Totem?
It is an animal or plant given to you at birth that your family has a special connection to
What does having a Totem mean?
It means you are responsible for looking after that animal or plant and its habitat
How do you look after your totem?
You never, ever kill your totem animal
How do you look after the habitat?
Make sure you have enough trees for climbing, resting and hunting’
Totem animals can be a source of inspiration
Rebecca is writing about an individual’s totem that is given at conception or at birth. A totem may reflect something significant the mother has seen, a natural event or a family tradition. One child was given the Echidna as a totem because her mother had to wait as an Echidna train crossed her path shortly before she gave birth.
Children then form a special and personal relationship with their totem, learn about how it lives and how to protect its habitat. They are likely to feel empowered by its strengths. For example:
Totemising a culture is a very effective way of protecting nature. It provides a powerful link between humans and wildlife. It helps us look behind our veils of ignorance to understand the needs of other creatures. It provides a voice for the voiceless and a vote for the defenseless.
M.H.Monroe writes in some detail about Indigenous totemism on this website. Click here to read more;
I posed the bold question at the end of my July blog ‘The rewilding of Australian Culture’,
What are your totems? click here to read
A wilding revolution
Become part of a wilding revolution that leads to every Australian choosing personal totems.
Every Australian child could be given a plant and animal totem when they start at preschool.
Every immigrant could be give a totem plant and animal when they are naturalised.
These would become their personal pathway into appreciating our amazing Australian wilderness.
My good friend pondered about his meeting with the Nankeen Kestrel. He thought about its qualities of patience, unwavering concentration and clear vision and how it recognises opportunities and acts on then when the right moment arrives.
He walked away from his seat on the empty beach deciding that the time was right to choose a new beginning.
Police Paddocks, Meredith, Victoria
- restoring a degraded grassland. To be posted in September
Take some time out and start the compelling natural history fantasy 'Seeds' the monthly chronicle here.
Two men separated by a generation and linked by blood, struggle to restore the natural environment. But all is not what it seems as Tristan Grey is dragged back in time to redress the wrongs of a nation.
Saving our grasslands and grassy woodlands.
If you care, you're in the minority
Over the last six months I have looked at how our Australian culture> is limiting our ability to prevent the loss of grasslands & grassy woodlands. I have also suggested some practical solutions such as indigenous burning practice> and strategic grazing>.
If you are reading this blog, chances are you have an interest in protecting grasslands. You probably wouldn’t be surprised if I suggest that you and I are in the minority.
If I was to put on my ultraconservative hat, I might say to you;
“why are we spending buckets of money on saving grasslands”?
After all I might add, “money spent on protecting or restoring native flora would have a far greater benefit to the broader community if it was invested in medical research, defence or training more school teachers”.
I might conclude that “restoring a kangaroo grassland on a country roadside or a 10 ha bit of scrub on private land benefits very very few Australians”.
Why don't most rational people care?
For those of us who are passionate about native flora, these views are confronting and extremely frustrating, but sadly not uncommon.
Conservationists scratch their heads with dismay as we wonder why every Australian doesn’t see native flora and fauna as precious. Why don’t most rational people care deeply about the steady slide into extinction of many of our unique plant and animal species?
John Delpratt points out the many values of roadside kangaroo grassland reserves in the second of his excellent articles>. Their low fire risk, improved visibility for drivers and their extraordinary beauty. He also mentions the powerful sense of place they provide. But are these tangible reasons that would motivate a nation to protect them?
Conservationists are acutely aware of the significant environmental services that natural areas provide. The wealth and health of our whole civilisation is underpinned by natural processes and ecological networks, but to the uninformed these are invisible as is the ongoing loss and destruction
Grasslands are messy scary places with hidden dangers!
Dr Kathryn Williams is an environmental psychologist who has studied the relationships between people and ecosystems. In ‘Land of Sweeping Plains’ – Managing and restoring the native grasslands of south-eastern Australia (edited by Nicholas Williams, Adrian Marshall and John Morgan), she recalls the raw emotional reaction of a colleague with no previous experience of native grasslands.
“Walking through the grassland you can immerse yourself in the novelty and pleasure of such an experience, but it’s one tinged with a visceral anxiety engendered by the possibility of snakes and lurking danger.”
Many Australians would nod their heads in appreciation of this experience. They see natural areas as messy scary places that hold hidden dangers.
Preserving grasslands is old fashioned
Williams goes on to describe studies of Australian farmers who consider native grasslands to be less attractive than a paddock of crops or grazing land of introduced grasses. They also considered grasslands to have less ecological value than much smaller areas of remnant woodlands.
Well known grassland conservationist and central Victorian farmer, Neville Oddie believes he is viewed by many people as ‘trying to hold onto something from the past that impedes progress today’. This suggests that preserving remnant vegetation is considered by some Australians as old fashioned and in some way holding us back economically.
There are certainly some deeply held attitudes in the broader community that are getting in the way of grassland conservation and protection.
How then can these old views be brought into the twenty-first century?
The hard work of a committed few
One of the key goals in grassland management is to help people feel connected to grasslands and appreciate their many benefits as well as their fragility.
I remember first seeing the Teesdale Grassy Woodlands over twenty five years ago when it was Gorse infested and home to the Teesdale tip. I was with a grasslands expert who became excited about its floral richness after a short walk.
This was news to me at the time and it helped me appreciate its values. It started me on a long campaign to save and restore this reserve and through my involvement I developed a strong personal connection. It is now Gorse and tip free, a popular place to walk and highly valued by the Teesdale community because of its natural beauty and uniqueness.
This sounds like the happy ending we would all want but it was achieved through the hard work of a small committed group of volunteers. The majority of the Teesdale community were too busy with life’s demands to get involved, attend a wildflower walk or an evening talk on the local birds.
Does this story sound familiar?
Changing hearts and minds
How do we connect the majority of Australians emotionally with wild places?
Is it through ‘cues to care’? Aids that reveal the quality and values of messy landscapes?
All of these innovations are gratifying for people with an interest in wild places but sadly they are frequently ‘preaching to the converted’ and have very little impact on the hearts and minds of the broader community.
(Hover your mouse over the images below to read the caption and click to enlarge)
Totem-izing the Australian culture – a wilding revolution
To reach the hearts and minds of the average Australian we need cultural and social change as outlined in my recent December> and January> Blogs.
Fundamentally we need to adopt many of the values of indigenous Australians and become honorary aborigines as was suggested by Don Burke at the 2016 Landcare conference. This may sound like a radical solution but consider how their culture maintained an ecological balance across this nation for over 60,000 years. A balanced fabric of complex ecologies that has almost been unravelled by our culture and values in less than 200 years.
With respect to Aboriginal elders past, present and future I propose that we start in a small way by all choosing a personal plant and animal totem plus an ‘ugly’ (see the brilliant Wilderness Society’s campaign to ‘save Ugly’).
Select and connect with an Australian animal and plant species that can be found near your home.
My personal totems could be;
The Eastern Yellow Robin is very curious and has a single note song which is usually repeated three times. I chose this species in the hope that they will return to my emerging native garden after an absence of many decades. They are an important habitat indicator species because they need areas with diverse layered vegetation in an area of 5 – 10 ha.
An ancient Sweet Bursaria that’s growing in the park next door helped me feel more settled in my new home. Bursaria> are a wonderful small tree that help maintain the ecological balance of woodlands.
The White-striped Free-tailed Bat is one of my favourite ‘ugly’ mammals. In my youth I could hear their high pitched sonar bell like call while they hunted in the upper canopies of trees at night
What are your totems?
Become part of a wilding revolution that leads to every Australian choosing their personal totems.
Every Australian child could be given a plant and animal totem when they start at preschool. These would become their personal pathway into appreciating our amazing Australian wilderness.
I wonder what Malcom Turnbull’s totems could be? Any suggestions?
Next month I will explore the idea of choosing personal totems and provide some resources to help
Please send your ideas so they can be included.
Read the heart warming story Amie and the intoxicated kangaroos>
Its based on an actual indecent that will surprise you
Jumping in at the deep end.
A conversation, an opportunity and a coincidence provided the fragile thread that pulled together an unforgettable adventure in a mountainous region of Italy called Abruzzo.
I have to admit that the prospect of flying to Rome and joining a group of seasoned hikers on daily mountain treks of 12 to 20 km had me quaking in my brand new hiking boots. I’m reasonably fit but I'm ashamed to admit that I’ve rarely walked 12 km in one day let alone 20 km in mountains above 1500 meters.
My wife Lina and I even invested in trekking poles because we thought they might help get us through. At least we would look the part and in Italy that really matters. The Italians speak of “la bella figura” which literally means ‘the beautiful figure’. In Australia we would interpret this phrase as ‘looking good’ or in our case 'looking half competent'.
Abruzzo is located about two hours drive east of Rome. It is mountainous, spectacular and dotted with small hilltop medieval villages. It is an area that most tourists don’t visit because it has had an undeserved reputation of being backward and undeveloped.
Key descriptions stood out as I did some background reading. The literature said there was a large network of parks which are protected and managed to encourage regeneration of the fauna and flora. The Gran Sasso, Majella and Abruzzo are three major National Parks that are home to a diversity of wildflowers and wildlife like the iconic Marsican Brown Bear, the Apennine Wolf and the Abruzzo Chamois.
The spectacular mountain ranges of Abruzzo occur on one of the most seismically active regions of Europe. These abrupt ranges are the result of two tectonic plates colliding and pushing up what has been described as the geological ‘backbone’ of Italy. Movement along this fault-line in 2009 did severe damage in the town of L'Aquila causing loss of life and making 60,000 of the population of 80,000 people homeless. Other towns in this part of Abruzzo were also damaged by this 6.3 magnitude earthquake.
The mountains are made of hard wearing sedimentary rocks, ancient and economically important limestone, dolomite and the highly prized travertine. These rocks have been ground into steep, deep valleys and tall peaks by a long history of glaciation.
We thankfully managed to shake off our jet lag with four special days with family in London. On the 21st of May we flew into Leonardo da Vinci international airport to meet our guides, the amazing Jackie and Iole>, and a dozen companion trekkers. We drove east in two comfortable people movers making a stop for lunch in Tivoli and eventually arriving at the remote medieval village, Santo Stefano di Sessanio which was to be our rustic home for the next three nights.
The next day dawned cloudy, drizzly and only 16 degrees, though surprisingly Rome was experiencing a heatwave. Such was the climatic variation at these higher altitudes. Though it was cold and grey, the green meadow we walked onto to start our 16 km walk was ablaze with wildflowers. Like every wildflower walk I’ve been to in Australia, nearly 30 minutes passed and we had only progressed 100 meters. I thought hopefully at that time, this is a trekking pace I can manage quite comfortably. I was sadly mistaken as the pace picked up and my companion trekkers became dots on the misty horizon.
Good fortune continued to make up for the lack of sunshine. It arrived in the form of the young and generous orchid expert Michael Waller who is writing a book on 'Britain’s Orchids'. Michael was joining the walk to photograph and broaden his appreciation of Europe’s orchids. Follow this link to see some of Michael's beautiful orchid photographs. Thanks to Michael I was able to put names to many unfamiliar plants. Though I often felt out of my depth and recalled vividly the bewilderment I felt on my first wildflower walk in the Inverleigh Nature Conservation Reserve in Victoria, Australia over thirty years before when I knew very few of the local plants.
Yet it was remarkable how familiar this grassland felt. The plants fell into a familiar pattern. The assemblage of orchids, lilies, legumes, tussock grasses and colourful wildflowers in this alpine meadow had the ambiance of a southern Australian grassland in September.
Though the abrupt snow draped mountain peaks in the background was a spectacular reminder that Abruzzo's climate and topography couldn't have been more different.
Wildflowers and grazing
Interestingly this diverse grassland has been maintained by regular grazing for millennia. Since Roman times shepherds have grazed sheep on the mountain pastures of Abruzzo. This practice reached a peak in the 1500's when an estimated 3,000,000 sheep in small flocks roamed the mountain grasslands growing fat on the green summer pick. Mutton, wool and sheep's milk products brought wealth to the mountain communities as well as the Medici dynasty in Florence.
An important part of the grazing calender was the annual practice of Transumanza. This involved herding the huge population of sheep as well as cattle from the mountains of Abruzzo to the lowlands of Puglia in the south, to avoid the severe winter cold in Abruzzo.
The demand for Abruzzo wool collapsed in the late 1800's when cheaper Australian Merino wool started flooding the textile markets. With the backbone of the economy crumbling, people left the region, emptying the towns. Abruzzo entered a dark period when the beautiful medieval towns became almost deserted, the buildings crumbling and in need of repair.
Though mutton and pecorino cheese remain important foods today, the region now supports only 450,000 sheep, a number of cattle and small herds of wild mountain ponies. These animals are strategically grazed on the grasslands of the National Parks, a strategy that is maintaining the plant diversity. For example orchid expert Michael Waller recorded over thirty orchid species during his week in Abruzzo at the end of May.
It is this pristine natural environment that is sparking a revival. Tourists who want to escape the busy tourist areas of Italy are finding history and nature in Abruzzo without the crowds. The old buildings are being restored and a new ecotourism industry is emerging.
Here is a taste of the wildflowers of Abruzzo presented as a colourful collage of flowers and landscapes.
Orchids click on image to enlarge
Wildflowers click on image to enlarge
Landscapes click on image to enlarge
If you feel like vegging out with a light, educational, natural history mystery. Click here - 'Seeds' the monthly chronicle>
John is an Honorary Fellow with the University of Melbourne.
He was a lecturer in plant production and seed technology at the University’s Burnley campus for 25 years prior to his retirement.
His involvement with native grassland conservation focused initially on cultivation and seed production systems for grassland forbs and later on the reconstruction and management of diverse native grassland communities for both ecological and horticultural applications.
Over the past few months, Steve has introduced the native grasslands and grassy woodlands of temperate Australia; what we know of their management and why we are losing the battle to save them – a compelling story in four Blogs. I have the privilege of adding my own contribution to this discussion.
Last month I wrote about the on-going, incremental loss of native grassland on our public roadsides, but also of the recent progress in restoring these communities, primarily by direct sowing.
This month, I’d like to explore the value of restoration for conserving these critically endangered communities and how a small community in south-western Victoria is approaching this issue. I will argue that local community action is an achievable method for kick-starting the replacement of large tracts of exotic, high biomass, summer-dry roadside vegetation with lower biomass native grassland communities, dominated eventually, in most instances, by summer-growing Kangaroo Grass.
The many benefits of roadside grassland reserves
There are numerous reasons why rural roadsides are potentially very valuable for long-term native grassland conservation, and simultaneously, why remnant and restored native grasslands are so well suited to our roadsides.
Coming to a roadside near you?
A case study in community action.
Woorndoo is a small agricultural community in south-western Victoria. Along with its surrounding districts, its road reserves and public lands (Woorndoo Common, Woorndoo Cemetery) support some of the richest remnants of critically-endangered natural temperate grasslands and grassy woodlands. However, these precious remnants are under constant threat and incremental damage from road and roadside works, and the ingress into disturbed areas by competitive exotic species.
In 2013 The Woorndoo Land Protection Group, with the support of Moyne Shire, restored a strip of approximately 250 m (1.25 ha) along the Woorndoo-Streatham Rd from its intersection with the Bolac Plains Rd. The site had a history of roadside cropping. They had available to them the expertise of local farmer and nursery operator David Franklin. David had been a member of the GGRP team (lead by Paul Gibson Roy - see Part 1) from its inception a decade earlier.
To read an interview with David Franklin click here
David immediately adopted, then helped refine, their innovative approach to grassland restoration. As summarised in Part 1, the technique relies on preparing a low nutrient seed bed, with a reduced soil weed bank, which is direct sown with a native grassland seed mix. The complexity of mix depends on the number of species available as seed and the objectives of the project.
Success inspires support
Largely based on the success of this initial sowing, the Woorndoo group were able to win a two-year State Government Community Action Grant in 2017. The grant is funding the expansion of the regional seed production area (SPA), detailed experiments towards expanding the range of techniques available for increasing species diversity and population size within existing and new restorations, and a further 1.25 ha direct sowing in 2019. The first round of experiments is due to be planted and sown into the existing restoration later this month. The Woorndoo Project has a strong emphasis on volunteer involvement and the communication of results through workshops, field days, social media (fb: Woorndoo Land Protection Group) and publications.
Although the initial restoration at Woorndoo was driven by local experience, the techniques are accessible to any community with land management skills, and a willingness to share and apply those skills to restoring diverse native roadside vegetation in their local area. One of the great beauties of this process is that well-restored areas quickly become a seed source for further restoration – and so on.
The industry needs to expand to meet the need
I am under no illusion. To achieve a large and sustained increase in the area of restored diverse native grassy habitat, the industry will have to become more professional. Regional seed supplies, particularly of the many non-grass species that contribute to diversity, must be available in reliable and sufficient quantities. Contractors must be able to develop viable enterprises to encourage investment in well-trained staff and appropriate machinery for the initial sowing and on-going management. Road managers such as VicRoads and rural shires must be able to plan new sowings with confidence and at a reasonable cost. This has been achieved in other jurisdictions.
In the US roadside grassland restoration is a big industry
When Paul Gibson Roy visited seed producers and restorationists in the US for his Churchill Fellowship in 2015, he was amazed by the size and sophistication of an industry that is underwritten, in part, by Federal Government regulations mandating the use of native vegetation for some Federally-funded projects.
Read Paul’s full report and his specific recommendations for Australia here
For now, local communities are well-placed to make a difference in their own districts. Greater diversity in restoration sites and in the individuals undertaking the work will inevitably lead to increased innovation, and demand for seed and operational resources – the beginnings of a viable market place. But let us all keep in mind that wisest of principles: “First do no harm”.
Part 1 of this blog summarised the broad requirements for successful grassland restoration, and sources for more detailed information. Within the next couple of years, the Woorndoo Project should be able to expand the suite of techniques and approaches that prove successful for a small community organisation relying heavily on volunteers.
John is an Honorary Fellow with the University of Melbourne.
He was a lecturer in plant production and seed technology at the University’s Burnley campus for 25 years prior to his retirement.
His involvement with native grassland conservation focused initially on cultivation and seed production systems for grassland forbs and later on the reconstruction and management of diverse native grassland communities for both ecological and horticultural applications.
Over the past few months, Steve has introduced the native grasslands and grassy woodlands of temperate Australia; what we know of their management and why we are losing the battle to save them – a compelling story in four Blogs. I have the privilege of adding my own contribution to this discussion.
The critical element for any conservation activity is HOPE
Constantly, we are reminded that natural temperate grasslands and grassy woodlands are among Australia’s most endangered plant communities. We watch in disbelief and frustration as these complex and beautiful communities are incrementally degraded, reduced and obliterated by human activities such as urban expansion, pasture modification and cropping, and road and roadside operations.
The situation is dire but my experience over the past three decades has engendered that critical element for any conservation activity – HOPE. Hope, that by our efforts we truly are investing in a better future. Hope, because we now have the knowledge and tools to rapidly and massively expand the area of diverse native grassland.
And while restoration can never entirely substitute for an intact, species-rich natural temperate grassland, such areas are now so rare on road reserves that the construction of reasonable facsimiles has become the only viable means of securing and expanding this beautiful and functionally important landscape.
Restoring diverse native temperate grassland communities from scratch
In the last two decades, research and field applications have established principles and practices for establishing, from scratch, diverse grassland communities comprising species from the natural temperate grasslands of south-eastern Australia.
In most cases, this can be achieved by a single direct-sowing of a seed mix of grasses and forbs (wildflowers) onto a prepared seed bed. Details of the development of these methods have been published in various journal papers by Paul Gibson-Roy (with others), and Paul and I contributed joint chapters to ‘Land of sweeping plains – managing and restoring the native grasslands of south-eastern Australia’. (If your library does not have a copy, ask that they order one. Disclaimer: we authors do not receive royalties.)
The process can be used to restore both small and extensive areas of native grassland to replace exotic vegetation, to expand existing stands of native grassland or grassy woodland and to replace areas of exotic vegetation within an existing native grassland or grassy woodland.
The basic requirements for success are simple
The basic requirements and procedures for the successful establishment of native grassland by direct sowing are simple, but they must be understood and applied rigorously – as with any human action relying on complex biological processes, disaster is always an option.
While most of these native species grow well with elevated soil nutrients, they lose their competitive advantage over nutrient-loving exotics, which will be in the soil seed and bud bank or adjacent vegetation.
If we were able to separate elevated soil nutrients from the soil weed bank within a reasonable time-frame, soil stripping would not be necessary. However, using currently-available technologies, it takes years to sufficiently deplete nutrients and the soil weed bank.
Planning, tweaking and patience
The level of technology needed to prepare the seed bed and prepare and sow the seed mix will depend on the scale of the project. Machinery has been developed for large sowings.
It is critical that any grassland restoration project has the capacity, and intent, to manage the newly-established vegetation to control excess biomass, native or exotic.
Similarly, there must be the intent and capacity to influence the vegetation trajectory. This may mean increasing native diversity, if required, or managing species, plant and/or animal, which are threatening to disrupt the restored community. This may be as straightforward as appropriately-timed burning and/or slashing, usually in autumn; a skilled but routine operation in many regions.
There are practical protocols and techniques for each of these steps but if suitable seed is not immediately available for all species there may be a lead time of several months to two years to complete the site preparation and sowing. Depending on the time of year seed is sown and the post-sowing weather conditions, a proper assessment of the success of the sowing may take a further six to eighteen months.
While I would advocate including Kangaroo Grass in most roadside sowings, it can be relatively slow growing and may take a few years to establish an obvious presence, and much longer to become the dominant grass. In the meantime, Wallaby Grass, Poa and other native grass species do a fine job. If the sowing includes a diverse mix of wildflowers, the reward can be a very fine and colourful display within a couple of years.
I am a strong believer in public land conservation – and rural roadsides offer thousands of kilometres of connectivity and corridors for the plants and small creatures that once, and should still, be defining lifeforms of our wider semi-natural landscapes.
Public land, especially roadsides, will always be vulnerable to occasional damage but the more high-quality, connected habitat we have, the less significant will be the impact of each damaging event – particularly when we have the tools and confidence to repair the damage.
To read more about the amazing breakthroughs in restoring grasslands click here to read the 2017 Grassy Groundcover Gazette newsletter
John continues his roadside reserve story in May when he explores a community-based approach to roadside restoration and presents a case study in successful and on-going action from south-western Victoria.
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Chapter 7 - The Wadawurrung, has just been posted
Grasslands and Grassy Woodlands in temperate Australia, Why we're losing the battle to save them. Part 4 - Grazing, an important management tool
Historically kangaroo grazing was important for the health of grasslands
Grazing is a natural process in the life of a grassland or grassy woodland. Before British settlement mobs of kangaroos would randomly move about their home range and graze on the most succulent grasses and herbs.
This chance grazing pattern created patchworks of long and short grass providing different habitats for wildlife.
Where the grass was longer in a eucalypt woodland, the nocturnal Rufous Bettong would prosper. In the shorter grassed areas, many of the ground feeding parrot species could feed. Chance grazing was an important part of the grassland ecology and it provided habitats that supported hundreds of native insects and animals and the ecological services they provided.
Today there are more kangaroos and fewer grasslands
In the twenty-first century kangaroos are still important grazers in our parks and reserves, but two things have changed. There are now more kangaroos and less grasslands for them to graze.
These grasslands are also in isolated pockets, forcing kangaroos to spill over onto private land. This allows the mobs to grow well beyond the capacity of the native grassland to support them, putting more pressure on the grassland plants often with disastrous results.
This artificial ‘static’ grazing pattern is a radical change from the natural pattern of grazing mobs constantly on the move. A moving mob grazes more generally and doesn’t have time to target the tasty plants. Static grazing allows animals to pick and choose resulting in tasty plants being constantly overgrazed and potentially vanishing.
Grazing is a species balancer
Grazing also helps to ‘open up’ the grasslands. For example when a dominant native grass like Kangaroo Grass, Themeda triandra, is not grazed or burnt for more than ten years, it can become too crowded, choking-out neighbouring herbs and orchids. The Kangaroo Grass eventually declines because of a build-up of dead grass at its base.
In contrast, if Kangaroo Grass is grazed or burnt regularly, there are inter-tussock spaces or gaps for other plants to occupy. The Kangaroo Grass is also healthier, each plant potentially living for more than 100 years. The overall result is a stable and diverse grassland plant and animal community.
Grazing can control introduced grasses
Aggressive introduced grasses that displace native species in grasslands are difficult to control. Hand weeding is a useful method for small areas but it is labour intensive and creates soil disturbance that encourages more weeds to grow.
Spraying with herbicides is expensive, has associated health risks and there are only a few selective chemicals like flupropanate that target problem weeds like Serrated Tussock or Chilean Needle-grass that may be growing in a pristine grassland.
Grazing is little used to maintain the health and diversity of grasslands but it has the potential to be a very useful tool. Associate Professor Ian Lunt commented on grazing in The Conversation in 2012;
‘In Tasmania, a number of threatened native plant species survive in grazed areas; if stock are removed the plants are smothered by thick grasses and decline’.
Click on this link to read Ian Lunt's complete article;
In Chinamans Lagoon, an 8ha reserve within the township of Teesdale, Victoria, the removal of grazing animals had a profound effect. Two horses and a few sheep had grazed in the reserve for decades suppressing Veldt grasses enough for 55 species of indigenous plants to flourish.
In 2002 the grazing animals were removed and this enabled two species of South African Veldt grass, Perrenial, Ehrharta Calycina; and Annual, E. longiflora to spread, eventually swamping the native grassland species within ten years. In 2017 only 8 tree & shrub species and 5 grass species could be found.
To read more about identifying and controlling veldt grasses click here;
Merinos to the rescue
In 2016 the wet spring produced exceptional veldt grass growth in Chinamans Lagoon which was a significant fire risk to the Teesdale community. Mowing or brush cutting the long grass wasn’t practical because of the native trees and the ground debris.
Research suggested that heavy grazing is the Achilles-heal of Veldt grasses so in September 80 Merino sheep (10 sheep/ha) were introduced over four weeks. This trial was hoping to stress the invading veldt grasses and also open up more inter-tussock spaces for the indigenous grasses to recolonise.
The Merinos did an excellent job of reducing the fire risk and preferred eating the exotic veldt grasses and avoided the native spear grasses and wallaby grasses for the first two weeks. The long term plan is to graze the lagoon annually in early spring to weaken the hold of the veldt grasses to allow the native flora to recover.
Ian Lunt in another grazing study observed that it took three years for the benefits of grazing became apparent. ianluntecology.com/2011/11/08/restoring-woodland-understories-4/.
Pulse grazing to restore grasslands
The ecology of a grassland benefits most from a large mob of kangaroos grazing randomly and then moving on. Pulse grazing with a mob of sheep mimics this pattern of grazing and potentially can be used as a grassland restoration tool.
Sheep left to graze for long periods create an even heavily grazed grassy landscape. This may look attractive, but for wildlife it spells loss of habitat and for the grassland it spells loss of biodiversity.
Pulse grazing produces an uneven landscape. To achieve this effect a large number of stock are introduced for a very short time. Also called crash/patch/mob grazing, the short grazing time avoids ‘tasty’ plants being targeted and results in more general grazing. In essence the mob is slowly walked through the grassland nibbling as they walk like the kangaroo mobs of old.
The number of sheep needed to mimic a mob of kangaroos is likely to be very high. The flock sizes will be much higher than recommended stocking rates. Normally a native grassland would support 1 – 2 sheep/ha if the sheep are left to graze in a paddock for months. Pulse grazing stocking rates over 1 – 2 days, are likely to be 10 – 20 times higher than the recommended rates. For example a 20 ha reserve may require a flock of 200 - 400 sheep.
Dividing the grassland into small areas with portable electric fencing would enable flocks to be moved daily, producing a desirable patchwork landscape. This would be quite time consuming, but the grazing process would only need to be repeated every 1 – 5 years to keep the grassland healthy.
A less time consuming alternative could be found by experimenting with smaller flocks in larger patches over 1 – 2 weeks. To find the right formula some monitoring of the grassland would be necessary. The sheep would be moved when prominent, easy to observe indicator plants were starting to be heavily grazed.
Whatever strategy of pulse grazing is adopted, deciding on some management goals like increased species diversity and reduced dominance of certain native grasses is important. Set up photopoints at marked fence posts and in patches containing key species, marked with a hardwood peg, for a valuable aid to recognise change.
The plan is to come back each year to the same locations at a similar time and point the camera in the same direction to get the same photo. Comparing the photos over time is a wonderful reminder of where you started and how much the landscape has changed.
Below is a set of photopoints that I took in the Teesdale Grassy Woodlands Reserve to monitor Gorse, Ulex europaeus control. Hover over the images for an explanation.
Pulse grazing is working miracles in Africa
Ecologist Allan Savory, who is reversing desertification in 15,000,000ha on five continents, promotes ‘Holistic Management and Planned Grazing’ which is very similar to pulse grazing.
Savory advocates using huge flocks of sheep or huge herds of cattle. With his grazing system he is turning bare deserts into lush grasslands, but the critical ingredient is that he mimics the constant movement of the wild herds of Wildebeest grazing on the savannahs of Africa.
See his TED presentation below, already viewed 4.5 million people, to be inspired with his simple solution to climate change;
Pulse grazing - something to chew on
Pulse grazing with large flocks of Merinos mimics the historic grazing pattern of mobs of kangaroos. This should benefit grassland ecologies if it is done when the soil is firm, to avoid compaction caused by hard hooves. Flowering and seed set times will be less important for pulse grazing as many plants will be undamaged in this short grazing cycle.
For longer periods of grazing of 1 – 2+ weeks, monitoring grazing will be an important trigger for sheep removal. Flowering and seed set times in spring are times when the sheep should be removed to allow plants to complete their reproductive cycle.
To read more on monitoring grazing in native grasslands for conservation click here
In Part 5 of the Grassland series guest blogger and respected grassland expert John Delpratt will consider the future of Kangaroo Grasslands in roadside reserves. How they are faring and how we can best look after or restore them
To be posted in April
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Managing Grasslands and Grassy Woodlands in temperate Australia. Why we're losing the battle to save them. Part 3. The wisdom of Indigenous Elders
I respectfully acknowledge the traditional custodians of this country past and present. I acknowledge their comprehensive understanding of Australia’s living landscapes. Their culture nurtured this land for over 3,000 generations and used fire as a dynamic management tool.
It’s time to listen and learn from the wisdom of Indigenous Elders. It’s time to adopt Traditional Owner burning methods to nurture and to heal the wild landscapes of rural and urban Australia?
‘Fire Stick Farming’
Anthropologist Rhys Jones changed the way the world thought about Indigenous Australians when he published ‘Fire Stick Farming’ in 1969. He began his article about Aboriginal use of fire with a question.
“We imagine that the country seen by the first colonists, before they ring-barked their first tree, was ‘natural.’ But was it?
Jones went on to describe a managed Australian landscape that had been changed by burning to produce a land full of wild vegetables and rich hunting grounds.
He proposed that fire had many uses to the First Australians and importantly it was used to alter the vegetation. For example to push back forests and replace them with grasslands and grassy forests which were richer in animal and plant foods.
Early explorers observed the effects of indigenous burning
In 1848 explorer Major Thomas Mitchell observed ‘fire stick farming’ in New South Wales and suggested it was used to create a comfortable open living environment;
“The native applies fire to the grass at certain seasons, in order that a young green crop may subsequently spring up and so attract and enable him to kill or take the kangaroo with nets.
In summer, the burning of the long grass also discloses vermin, birds’ nests, etc., on which the females and the children, who chiefly burn the grass, feed. But for this simple process, the Australian woods might have been as thick a jungle, like those of New Zealand or America, instead of open forests”.
Explorer Charles Sturt famously described lands around the Murray River in 1830,
“In many places the trees are so sparingly (and almost judiciously) distributed as to resemble the park lands attached to a gentleman’s residence in England”.
The country that the first explorers described was managed with many small mosaic burns (mostly less than 50ha) that minimised the risk of uncontrolled natural fires. This type of burning conducted every 3 – 4 years produces diverse grasslands and grassy woodlands of varying ages which provides ideal habitat for a diversity of wildlife.
Indigenous Australian’s use of fire was sophisticated
Bill Gammage in his book ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’, puts into context what many of the early settlers thought was a natural phenomenon;
“In 1788 people shepherded fire around their country, caging, invigorating, locating and smoothing the immense complexity of Australia’s plant and animals into such harmony that few newcomers saw any hint of a momentous achievement”.
Gammage contends that Indigenous Australians developed complex patterns of burning that favoured desirable plants and animals.
For example, a landscape with belts of well spaced gums next to a wide strip of open grassland and permanent water was perfect for hunting kangaroos.
Each native animal has its preferred habitat and a detailed traditional knowledge enabled the first Australians to replicate these habitats with the sophisticated use of fire.
By doing this they always had a good supply of root vegetables and plenty of the animals they needed for food, tools and clothing. They also knew in which landscapes to find them.
Since 1788 fire has become a constant threat
Burning changed after the traditional burning practice progressively stopped in Southern Australia as the white settlers moved in. The fires became unplanned, much hotter and dangerous. This brought about a dramatic change in the type and density of vegetation as the ‘gentleman’s parks’ became dense tangled thickets.
On Black Thursday February 6th 1851 a devastating fire burnt nearly a quarter of Victoria. A farmer from the Barrabool Hills near Geelong described the aftermath;
‘It was so awful in its aspect, so sudden in its accomplishment, so lamentable in its consequences, that it can only be equaled in those pages of history where invading armies are described as laying countries waste with fire and sword’
Eventually fuel reduction burns became a necessary and accepted part of rural life. Roadsides were burnt as fire breaks and National Parks and Reserves were regularly burned to reduce the fire risk. But did it?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that current burning practices are adding to the overall fuel loads. This is because they are often too hot, too infrequent and the timing is based on a pre-set timetable for fuel reduction. Timetables don’t take into account the unique needs of wildlife, the character of the vegetation, the variable seasons or even the local weather conditions that can change radically without notice.
Hot burns result in high rates of germination of fast growing pioneer species like acacias and an increased density of highly flammable fuel within five years.
It is still a commonly held belief of people that manage control burns that ‘a hot burn is a clean burn’ and that the fire should be as hot as possible. This type of burn in a grassy woodland can result in an increase in thick understorey and shrub growth that competes with grasslands species. It also kills significant mature trees with hollows.
Both of these outcomes are undesirable for the park/reserve and its wildlife, as well as for rural communities.
Indigenous traditional knowledge is alive and well
Indigenous elders are now in demand to conduct Traditional Owner burns because of the recognised benefits to the natural environment. For indigenous Australians burning is a spiritual practice that connects them to Country. Burning is also a social occasion even though it is a finely tuned procedure.
You can read an account of a recent Traditional Owner burn at Bakers Lane Reserve, Teesdale at this link ancient-australian-culture-cool-burning.html
Traditional Owner (T.O.) burns are very different to modern control burns.
A fifty year old prophecy
I’ll leave the last word on Traditional Owner burning to Anthropologist Rhys Jones who prophetically wrote nearly 50 years ago in ‘Fire Stick Farming’;
“Probably for tens of’ thousands of years fires were systematically lit by Aborigines and were an integral part of their economy.… we must do what the Aborigines did and burn at regular intervals under controlled conditions.
The days of “fire-stick farming” may not yet be over”.
My thanks to Dale Smithyman, an enthusiastic supporter and student of Traditional Owner burning practice, for his guidance with this blog
A regressive step by the National Landcare Program.
Sadly the visionary funding through the National Landcare Program, to employ Indigenous Natural Resource Management Facilitators at the Catchment Management Authorities, will not be offered in the National Landcare Program Phase 2.
This decision is extremely disappointing and could be seen as a subtle form of racism that is just as damaging to the re-emergence of a strong indigenous culture as the overt forms of racism that we all despise.
It’s time that we question the deep seated and unconscious bias behind a decision like this. It may have been justified with words like ‘restructuring’ and 'cutting costs', but it is a form of racism that is particularly destructive because of it's frequency and because it often goes unnoticed under our radar.
If you need a brief escape from reality, 'Seeds the monthly Chronicle' is now into chapter 5. Chapter 6 will be posted very soon. Click here to explore>
Managing Grasslands and Grassy Woodlands in temperate Australia. Why we're losing the battle to save them. Part 2 - who cares?
The cost of not caring.
The majority of Australians aren’t aware that we’re losing the battle to save Australia’s biodiversity.
Most of them live in cities where ‘wild’ Australia has been banished and a close encounter with nature might be seeing a Brush-tail Possum on the roof or a Magpie caroling on the front lawn in the morning.
For the future to see the majority of Australians caring about our native vegetation and the wildlife it supports, we need significant changes in our national attitude and to our culture.
Here are some of the ways that a caring culture could be nurtured;
Captivate young Australians.
At the top of my list is raising the profile of Australian plants and animals in schools.
Australian children need to be captivated by the beauty and wonder of our wild plants and animals from a young age. They need to appreciate that we (Australians) need to care for the diverse ecology that supports us and our lifestyles.
Wouldn’t it be delightful if each Australian child was given a personal totem plant and animal to learn about, understand and care about as they progressed though our education system?
The animal and plant would likely become part of their personal identity. Children would go out of their way to see their animal and plant in the wild. They would likely move mountains to protect them.
This simple measure would provide our wildlife with what it desperately needs - advocates to speak up for them when they are under threat.
And its very likely that children need a regular connection with nature to support their mental and physical health.
Nature deficit disorder is a phrase proposed by Richard Louv in his 2005 book ‘Last Child in the Woods’. His book develops the idea that children's mental & physical health and personal development is suffering because they are spending less time exploring ‘wild places’.
Louv argues that regular time spent in natural places has a positive effect on children’s attention span, stress reduction, cognitive development and their ability to be creative. It also generates a sense of wonder and a connection with the earth.
Future voters. Without happy childhood experiences in the natural environment, children are less likely to want to protect wildlife when they are voting adults.
To read more about the importance of ensuring that all children grow up having a positive attitude toward our environment, you could read the article;
‘Landcare, who cares’- charting new directions>
Even as adults, regular contact with wild environments is likely to be critical to our mental health. Landcare farmer Doug Lang explains in his very honest and revealing book ‘The Nature of Survival’, how planting trees and watching wildlife return to his farm at Balintore in south west Victoria, was pivotal to his recovery from severe depression and tragic loss.
To read more about Doug's story click on this link - natureofsurvival.com.au/index.html
To read more about nature and health try this great article published on the ABC Science website recntly called 'Bushwalking is really good for you. Sure, it's relaxing — but it boosts your biology too'. Click here;
Raising the profile of native flora and fauna with adult Australians.
Can you imagine a clever marketing campaign that links Australian pride with the things that are unique about the Australian bush?
I'd encourage Wil Anderson, from ABC’s Gruen, to throw this challenge to his guest advertising experts to solve in 'the pitch' segment of his show.
More seriously, if governments wanted us to care more about Australia’s fabulous flora and fantastic fauna, they have the mechanisms to do it, but I think it’s a can of worms that they would prefer not to open.
But I live in hope! Come on Malcolm, you could be the first Australian Prime Minister to ‘save a billion trees’, and grasslands and endangered species and......
Promoting the idea of environmental stewardship.
A steward recognises their duty of care of the land and that their tenure is temporary. Environmental Stewards would be funded by governments to manage natural areas on their properties. Our taxes would be well spent supporting farmers to maintain a healthy environment as everyone would benefit in a future Australia.
Stewardship is not a new idea. It has been discussed in Landcare circles since it began in 1986. Paying farmers to maintain landscape amenity is a common feature of agricultural policies in the northern hemisphere, but its taking much longer to gain support in Australia. There are examples of the Australian government ‘testing the water’, but the Conservative political parties in recent times seem to have turned their backs on the idea.
For example the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP) was part of the Australian Government's $2 billion Caring for our Country initiative in 2007. It provided incentive payments for land managers on private land for long term protection of high value environmental assets.
ESP was run in NSW and Queensland from 2007 - 2012. As a result of this program, 150 farmers are being paid to conserve the threatened Box Gum Grassy Woodland ecosystems for 15 years - the last contract will end in 2027. A similar program was run in South Australia to conserve the Peppermint Box Grassy Woodlands and Iron-grass Natural Temperate Grasslands.
These threatened ecological communities are matters of national environmental significance, with only five percent or less of the pre-European extent remaining. Conserving these grassy ecosystems helps a range of native plants and animals that rely on them for habitat.
This was an inspired program that accepted that a long term commitment is needed to repair and protect endangered ecosystems. Unfortunately it was discontinued.
To read more go to;
Sensible innovative real-estate development.
The momentum of city growth and housing development seems relentless. Our expanding cities and towns have to be built somewhere, though who wants more and more suburban sprawl? There is perfect logic in building up instead of building out and making maximum use of the land that's already occupied for housing.
If we have to have houses on remnant grasslands, then protect large areas by designating them as well managed public parks and reserves.
Why not incorporated native grasslands into private gardens around the homes that are built there? What a stunning suburb that would be!
There is enough productive farmland being developed for housing around our cities to provide for those of us who want a cottage garden and a bed of roses.
Dr. Paul Gibson Roy, who is an expert on restoring grasslands, eloquently expressed his vision for Australian cities and towns of the future;
'Australians revel in their green landscapes, be they public parks or home gardens. However, this urban diversity is most often predominantly composed of non-native species. Exotic plants (and animals) will always be a part of our landscapes. There is no shame in this. But there is no reason why more of a balance cannot be struck. One that sees our native flora more used where exotics now are. As in the US, native grasses and wildflowers should be a part of our public spaces, our lake sides, our grand parks and gardens' (2015 Churchill Fellowship report on his study in U.S p67).
To read Paul's full report click on the link below;
Strict laws preventing clearing of native vegetation at local, state and federal levels.
Protecting our Australian natural heritage should be a priority and above politics. If not now, then when? We have to take direct unflinching steps to limit future losses while other environmentally friendly cultural changes take root over the coming decades.
Self regulation and less red tape doesn't work as can be seen in N.S.W. and Queensland where native vegetation clearing has stepped up a notch since the laws were eased.
We need a lot more people on the ground to facilitate flora and fauna protection.
Public servants working in the areas of sustainability and environment for the Federal and State Governments are too few, are undervalued and have very little job security.
Shrinking departments. For the past decade the various government departments concerned with the environment have been shrinking. Commonly people that leave or retire are not replaced. This results in fewer people to manage our environment and to support motivated volunteers and community members.
Underpaid professionals. Environment workers are doing work that is critical to protecting our quality of life, yet they are among the poorest paid professions in Australia. My view is that they should be among the most highly paid Australian professions. This would guarantee the long term commitment of enough gifted creative minds to navigate our way out of the environmental disaster that we seem to be heading for.
Short contracts instead of permanent employment. Young Australians motivated to work protecting our magnificent and unique environment are often employed under short term contracts for one or two years. Planning a future, buying a house and providing for a family, the basic tenets that our Australian society is built around, are not feasible under this sort of employment structure. With this level of job insecurity provided by governments, why would young Australians contemplate a career working to protect the environment?
Recognise the huge cost to future Australians of mismanagement
if we continue to turn our backs on these environmental problems.
What will be the cost of dealing with rising sea levels in all the coastal cities and towns of Australia - and its already happening.
Preventative action will be too late then.
Australians are aware of what it is that makes us unique and what brings visitors to this country.
It’s not our long culinary history and ancient buildings that we associate with a holiday in Europe and Asia.
It’s our unique plants, animals as well as the climate and landscape that gave birth to them.
Yet with our current laissez-faire attitude we are putting at risk the fundamental ingredients that make us who we are.
Over 200 years ago, the British who colonised this country set about systematically replacing the original Australian flora and fauna with plants and animals from their homeland and other countries. Today we would call their actions ignorant and misguided.
How will future generations of Australians judge our lack of action, at a time when climate scientists, ecologists and marine biologists are trying to impress on us, that the weight of evidence is beyond doubt. We need to change our attitudes and care more about our run down environment?
Australia's natural environment is like an ailing grandmother whose house is desperately in need of repair. She’s suffering and her cherished home is getting hotter in the summer and colder in the winter with no relief in sight.
Her precious native garden is overrun with exotic weeds and the diverse and beautiful native birds, that once lived in her garden, filling the air with their beautiful song, have been eaten by the neighbour’s three pet cats.
She’s put a sign up in her window that says,
‘Please help me’
but passersby are too busy to take any notice because they’re all hard working Australians with mortgages to pay and they can't spare a second.
They don’t know that granny’s house and garden is the crumbling keystone that is holding their disconnected worlds together.
Part -3 of this grasslands series will be posted in February
If you need a brief escape from reality, Chapter 5 of 'Seeds the monthly Chronicle' has just been posted. Click here to explore>
Managing Grasslands and Grassy Woodlands in temperate Australia - Part 1 Why we're losing the battle to save them
Native grasslands and grassy woodlands are delightful to visit in spring because of their tranquil beauty and absolute uniqueness. Every incredible flowering grassland is as different as the location, climate and soil where it's found.
Tragically these native grasslands are fast disappearing and there are not many unspoiled grasslands left to visit. Of the one third of Victoria that was once covered in native grasslands and grassy woodlands in 1835, less than 0.5% remain today.
The second bitter pill to swallow is that around 40% of Victoria’s threatened animal species depend on these grasslands. So we’re losing a lot more than the wildflowers. We’re losing our irreplaceable, rich and complex grassland ecology as well, that is an integral part of our distinctive Australian heritage.
If you’re reading this blog then you’re likely to agree that protecting these natural assets is worthwhile and needs urgent action. It has become critically important that we make sure that this part of our natural heritage isn't completely lost in the coming decades.
Saving grasslands and grassy woodlands
How can we keep our remaining grasslands healthy and in good condition in future years for all Australians to enjoy?
The answer is both cultural and practical.
The cultural answer is summed up by one word - caring. By caring we could stop the losses today. More on getting Australians to care in Part 2.
The practical answer involves using management techniques like;
(The following methods will be discussed and expanded in future blogs in this grasslands series)
Current government policy won’t save our flora and fauna.
My skeptical view after years working with the system is that governments are only willing to ‘toy’ with the practical solutions because doing the job properly is seen as a mine field of expenditure black holes.
They choose to provide little bits of funding through grants to Landcare and community groups. This practice permits them to boast about all the good work and millions of trees they’re planting. For politicians, planting trees is the environmental equivalent of kissing babies. It’s an opportunity for a newspaper photo but it does little to solve the real problems.
Sadly there doesn’t seem to be any kudos for politicians if they boast that they have protected or restored a grassland. They seem to prefer to have their environmental credentials measured by the numbers of trees that were planted on their watch.
Remember Bob Hawke’s famous election pledge in 1989;
"Bob Hawke crossed his heart and hoped to die if his Labor government didn't honour his 1989 election pledge to plant "a billion trees".
What about saving a billion trees Hawkey?
The present Federal Government Landcare funding has 'lowered the bar' from Bob Hawke's flamboyant boast, but the marketing principal is still the same. Its current funding program is called Twenty Million Trees by 2020.
The sad truth is that governments have to be dragged kicking and screaming to protect a tree, a grassland, a woodland or a forest. It’s much sexier to plant a tree than protect a tree.
There is a widely held view in the community that only tree hugging Greenies protect trees and cynically I can imagine a politician asking, 'where's the photo opportunity'?
The current biodiversity funding system is unworkable
What we have been lumbered with is an extremely inefficient system built around a drip feed of grants for tree planting.
What we need is a system that prioritises protecting and enhancing the bushland reserves that we have while building substantial vegetation corridors connecting them. Some significant new reserves could be part of this new system
To be fair there is some grant money for biodiversity protection which focuses on the control of invading introduced pest species like grassy weeds and rabbits. This is a lifeline for conservation volunteers who spend their weekends trying to hold back the tide of exotic invaders. However this money is grossly inadequate to do the job properly. It’s also far too short term because it's usually provided for just one or two year’s work.
Haven’t politicians and their advisers heard the age old gardener’s mantra? ‘One year’s seeding leads to seven years weeding’. Biodiversity grants should be ongoing to enable pest plants and animals to be managed in the long term.
We are ‘burning out’ good people.
This system also ‘burns out’ a lot of good people who spend days and weeks fruitlessly applying for grants. Since the grant system was introduced it has without exception returned unacceptably low levels of success. The average Landcarer very quickly loses heart because applying for grants is seen as a waste of precious time. As a consequence many worthy projects have never been started.
Little or no monitoring.
The other side to this frustrating system is that we are getting a tragically low ‘bang for our buck’ as taxpayers. This is because there is little or no monitoring of the outcomes of tree planting. No one knows how many plants survive each year and how the results could have been improved. There are many great results but there are also many very poor results where there is not a tree surviving to show for a multi-thousand dollar project.
A local farmer who planted around 10,000 indigenous plants in 2016 mentioned that he achieved only 20% survival because of the dry spring.
Governments don’t seem to be interested in these statistics, but they are statistics that are critical to understanding how to achieve better planting results in the future as well as the best use of these tax payer dollars.
We’re losing the race
The sad indictment is that we are still losing more native vegetation than we are planting or saving.
"Approximately 1,600 ha of woody vegetation and 3,000 ha of rare grassy native vegetation continue to be lost annually in Victoria, only a small proportion of this is matched by vegetation offsets”
Matt Ruchell : Executive Director Victorian National Parks Associations (March 2012)
A simple solution that politicians don’t want to hear.
A simple solution that would dramatically accelerate restoration work is tax incentives for landowners. This is an effective and historically successful method of changing spending behaviour. It also returns the initiative to the landowners who are more likely to be aware of the problems to address and assets to protect on their properties.
This isn't a popular idea with governments because it takes away their control of some of the environmental budget's spending. If they thought it through more thoroughly, they would have to acknowledge the potential to bring about huge environmental changes far more efficiently.
For example, if the Federal Government offered 150 - 200% deductions on all private money spent on protecting and restoring the natural environment, we would engage a lot more farmers. This single initiative would also free up Landcare facilitators from the thankless task of writing grant applications. Their time could be better spent in the field advising farmers, improving their success and auditing the years revegetation projects.
The long term answer involves cultural change.
Part 2 on 'raising the profile of the natural environment' will be posted in January 2018
'Have a safe and enjoyable Christmas & New Year'
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.