Recreating the Country blog
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
Feel like vegging out on a good yarn. click here to catch up with 'Seeds the monthly chronicle'
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'
Before the first white settlers began clearing trees and shrubs around Geelong, Drooping Sheoak, Allocasuarina verticillata was a widespread and distinctive feature of the Barrabool Hills and the Geelong region.
Drooping Sheoaks were the first tree that Surveyor John Helder Wedge recorded in his diary in 1835 as he crossed the Barrabool HIlls near Pollocksford. Artists Charles Norton> painted a landscape of grasslands and Drooping Sheoaks near Ceres in the Barrabool Hills in 1846 and Eugene von Guerard> sketched the harvesting of Drooping Sheoak on the banks of the Barwon River in 1854.
These early records suggest that a significant part of the Barrabool Hills landscape was open grasslands under scattered Drooping Sheoaks.
Recent surveys show a diverse vegetation.
We know from recent vegetation recent studies (Remnant Roadside Vegetation of the Surf Coast Shire, 1997, Moulton P. Trengove M, Clark G>) and (Gordon TAFE, Conservation & Land Management students and teacher surveys, 2017, for Flora of 'The Hills' booklet - see below), that there is a diverse community of plant species remaining on roadsides and on private properties in the Barrabool Hills. These studies hint at the extraordinary diversity of the vegetation in the Barrabool Hills before 1836.
Click to the Flora of 'The Hills' booklet> for a comprehensive plant list and guide to the vegetation of the Barrabool Hills. (Launched on 27th October, 2017 by the Barrabool Hills Landcare Group)
Why was much of the pre-settlement landscape dominated by one species of tree?
The vegetation of the Barrabool Hills - Part 3. Its original & natural condition in 1835. - Plant density
1835 – Walking the Hills with Wedge and Buckley
On Tuesday 18th August 1835, the first steps were taken toward the colonisation of Geelong by John Helder Wedge, a surveyor working for the Port Phillip Association.
After setting up camp at Indented Head, Wedge guided by William Buckley who had lived with the Mon:mart clan of the Wadawurrung people for 30 years and knew the area well by its indigenous names, headed into the unknown for a seven day tour. Making observations they walked from Breamlea to Lake Connewarre, followed the Barwon River to Pollocksford, trekked south-east across the Barrabool Hills to Lake Modewarre, headed south-west to Paraparap and then returned back to Breamlea through Jan Juc, a total distance of 70 kilometers.
Wedge’s notes provide the first insights into the vegetation of the Barrabool Hills before the pressures of British colonisation began the rapid and fundamental vegetation changes created by their demand for the natural resources.
On Thursday 20th August Wedge recorded;
“Crossed the Barrabull Hills….for the first 3 miles are of the same description, grass rather light and thinly wooded with sheoak. The soil from thence to the declivity (downward slope) which leads down to the Lake (Modewarre) is a rich brown loam with excellent grass. The soil from the declivity is not so good and rather wet at this time of the year and the grass sour. The country around the Lake is lightly timbered and grassy with very gentle rises and flats”
The following day he described vegetation near the lake as “thickly timbered, the gum trees prevailing”.
The images below are from wedges diary courtesy of the State Library Victoria. Hover over the image to read the title and click to view in more detail.
Homo sapiens first arrived in Australia about 60,000 years ago when the climate was colder and dryer. Evidence suggests that the Wadawurrung people have lived in the Geelong region more than 25,000 years. 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.
Its time to climb on board our amazing time machine and travel back to the Barrabool Hills in the far south of the great continent of Meganesia. We have arrived in late summer on a perfect windless day. The undulating hills are much as we knew them though we notice the animals are much larger and we are surrounded by a forest of tall acacias.
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.
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.
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."
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.