Recreating the Country blog
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.
Yet 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), 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 pioneer plants weren't spreading.
This prospect is particularly unexpected when we consider that many of the remnant plants found in the Barrabool Hills today are pioneer species, able to spread naturally and quickly into an open grassy landscapes.
Trees like Black Wattle, Blackwood, Lightwood, White Cypress Pine, Sweet Bursaria, Silver Banksia River Red Gum and Manna Gum grow easily from seed dispersed by wind, water and animals. Yet in major areas of the Hills and in the Geelong district this didn’t happen. Drooping sheoaks dominated.
The other unexpected feature of these early woodlands of Drooping Sheoak is their wide spacing as described by Wedge; “Crossed the Barrabull Hills….for the first 3 miles are of the same description, grass rather light and thinly wooded with sheoak”.
Wedge’s description and artists depictions are at odds with the natural habit of Drooping Sheoaks.
Female Sheoaks produce cones with lots of fertile winged seeds. Most of these seeds will grow into a young trees where the wind blows them. The result is always a thicket of willowy young sheoaks growing just beyond the canopy of the mother tree. A thicket so dense that bush walkers have to find a way around rather than attempt to push through.
The sheoaks were so thick on a roadside at Mt Duneed near Geelong in the early 1900’s, that a climber could scramble a whole block in the trees’ canopy without touching the ground (Graeme Anderson pers. com)
Drooping Sheoaks by design.
Bill Gammage in his controversial tome ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth. How Aborigines made Australia’, argues that the Australian landscape was designed by the first Australians to make hunting game and gathering food convenient and efficient.
In his view the landscape of pre 1835 was strategically shaped by burning. He describes a sophisticated process that encouraged desirable plants to grow in preferred locations.
Gammage gives the example of an 1847 painting by John Skinner Prout, The River Barwon, Victoria at Queens Park. Prout shows a continuous line of trees on the river bank beside an open grassy strip that appears to be about 50 meters wide. Beyond the grassy strip is a woodland of scattered trees. Charles Norton’s 1846 painting from Ceres> looking toward Fyansford depicts the same pattern of vegetation on the Barwon River at this time.
For a hunter concealed in the woodland,
this is an ideal environment to spear a kangaroo as it moves across the open grassy strip from the river. It provides shelter and a fertile grassy meadow to attract grazing animals as well as hollowed trees for possums which were an important source of food and skins to make all weather cloaks which were an essential item of clothing.
Colonist Anne Drysdale described the same location in 1841,
“This place is really beautiful. A short distance from the Barwon, which is a noble river: all so green and fresh, with trees of the finest kinds….scattered about and in clumps, like a Nobleman’s Park. The clumps are formed by burning of a large fallen tree, the ashes have the property of bringing up a clump of Wattles or gums”.
Gammage gives many more examples of fashioned landscapes, designed and shaped for a purpose.
It is therefore likely that the dominance of sheoaks in the Barrabool Hills was the result of burning by the First Australians. Their unnatural wide spacing seems also to have been part of a strategic design.
Gammage outlines the burning strategy used to produce open woodlands of Drooping Sheoak at Cape Otway. (My own observations over the past 25 years, which include burning Drooping Sheoak in the Teesdale Grassy Woodlands, 35 km west of Geelong, support Gammage's explanation).
“Two hot fires within seven years eradicates Drooping Sheoak in the Cape Otway provenance. Seeds grow, but need 5-7 years to seed in turn and 10 – 12 years to seed well. Cool fire kills seedlings and spares mature trees but won’t provoke seed release. No fire lets seedlings become a dense whipstick forest.”
If we accept Gammage’s theory on indigenous land management as correct, then what purpose would an open grassy woodland of Drooping Sheoaks serve for the Barrabool Tribe of the Wathaurong people who occupied the Hills for more than 25,000 years?
Have you heard the Whit:ge:wherri?
Helpful insights are provided by the Wathaurung word Whit:ge:wherri (pronounced witjweri) which describes the unique sound of rushing, whistling or moaning made by the breeze through the foliage of sheoaks (PhD student Jennifer Dearnaley pers. Com. from Lou Lane’s investigations).
The First Australians believed these sounds were the voices of their ancestor’s speaking to them. It’s a mysterious mournful sound that was very personal and deeply meaningful. Sheoaks provided a connection with the spirit world and it was common for Aboriginal burials to be near or even underneath Sheoaks.
This connection with the voices of loved ancestors made Drooping Sheoaks very special trees that allowed the living to hear passed family members speaking to them. They could ask their advice and talk about personal matters (Nevill Bonney, 2016, 'Sheoaks, wind harps from the desert to the sea').
They were the mobile phones to heaven, an important link between the wisdom and knowledge of the past and the day to day challenges of the present.
The Drooping Sheoaks provided many other benefits to the Barrabool Tribe.
Practical and farming benefits:
Food & medicine:
The Wathaurong words for sheoak were Narada or Ngarr:rai meaning hair tree (J. Dearnaley). This beautifully describes a most recognisable feature of the tree, but it doesn’t give any further insights into its cultural importance.
Koort:Boork:Boork referred to stands or clumps of sheoak trees (J. Dearnaley) which suggests that sheoaks had enough familiarity and importance in Wathaurong culture to deserve a phrase for a sheoak community.
I know I have only scratched the surface researching the importance of Drooping Sheoak to the Barrabool Tribe and the Wathaurong people generally. Though the level of cultivation of this tree throughout Victoria by Australia’s traditional owners suggests an importance well beyond what I have described.
This research is presented respectfully and acknowledges the first Australians past and present. It is told in appreciation of the 1,000 + generations of men, women and children who have walked the many bush paths before us.
For more reading on the vegetation of the Barrabool Hills;
Part 3 - Its original and natural condition in 1835, plant density>
Part 2 - The arrival of Homo sapiens>
Part 1 - From ancient rainforests>
Also visit the Barrabool Hills Landcare's beautiful new website>
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.
Wedge’s brief description of the vegetation of the Barrabool Hills is clearly inadequate though we can read that he did distinguish between sheoaks and gums. As a surveyor he was more interested in the economic potential of this new land. His priorities were likely to record the topography, the availability of fresh water, the suitability of the soil for crops and the quality of grass for grazing. This was his first trip from Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and his knowledge of the local plants would have been insufficient to provide detailed plant lists and most of the plants he saw were yet to be named.
We know from present day evidence of plant surveys of the Barrabool Hills that there are at least thirteen tree and shrub species surviving on roadsides and private property. Also the grasslands would have been rich with many species of native grasses and flowering herbs because over sixty can still be found today.
What can the Colonial artists tell us?
In Wedges defense, open woodlands of Drooping Sheoak were a feature of the Geelong district and other parts of south eastern Victoria. Respected artist Eugene von Guerard sketched the harvesting of Drooping Sheoaks for firewood on the Barwon River near Geelong. He also recorded them scattered on a hillside near Keilor, Victoria in a similar density to their likely occurrence in the Barrabool Hills in 1835.
A prominent artist at that time, Charles Norton painted a scene from Ceres looking back toward Fyansford in 1846 in which he clearly shows an open woodland of Drooping Sheoaks in the foreground, eucalypts along the Barwon River and eucalypt woodlands just north of the river separated by a wide band of open grassland.
Artist John Skinner Prout depicted the same scene viewed from a closer location to the Barwon River one year later in 1847, adding credibility to the accuracy of Charles Norton’s earlier painting. Norton also painted Geelong in 1842 and clearly shows Drooping Sheoaks along Moorabool Street with the You Yangs in the background.
Another fascinating insight was provided by Jennifer Dearnaley, a PhD student of plants traditionally used by the Wadawurrung people with reference to Lou Lane's investigations. Jennifer explained that the Wadawurrung name for the Barrabool Hills is barro:aabil which literally translated means ‘the place of the rounded hills’.
In an email she explained that their name for the hills describes its morphology which could only be appreciated if the hills had been relatively de-nuded with a low density of trees and shrubs.
This scarcity of trees is also supported by the first settlers that lived in the Barrabool Hills. In the 1840’s a farmer described the soil and the openness of the hills;
‘The soil on these hills is exceedingly rich, surpassing it is said any other part of the colony; and unlike most hills and mountains in this primitive region, they are clear of trees. The farmer having nothing more to do than drive the plough into the virgin soil, without clearing or any other preparation’.
There were areas where the vegetation was much denser in the Hills.
The following extract from an 1851 auction notice for 2849 acres of land located in the Barrabool Hills, 9 miles from Geelong with Barwon River frontage, describes both open country and densely timbered country nearby.
‘The land is of the best description in the district of Port Phillip, subdivided in to farms of 15 – 88 acres each, with easy access to water and among them are many most eligible sites for vineyards and market gardens.…..and there is within one mile of the property an unlimited supply of timber on Government land’.
Another farmer in the 1840’s remarked on the problem of tree stumps breaking his ploughs;
‘… as long as the land was ploughed it would grow a good crop because the virgin soil was so rich. A blacksmith was kept on the station to repair just the ploughs alone, the ground being full of stumps’.
Again in the 1850’s a firm of three brothers leased a farm in the Barrabool Hills. The youngest remembers grubbing 20 – 24 stumps per hectare.
‘... our first farm was 111 acres which had been lightly timbered country, the timber having been felled and carted or burned off. The stumps had however not been grubbed, although the previous tenant had been cultivating the land for seven years before it fell into our hands. Our first operation was grubbing of between 1100 and 1200 stumps’.
The McWilliams map
In 1861 Andrew McWilliams, an engineer for the Barrabool and Indented Heads Road Districts, published a beautiful and detailed map of the ‘Parish of Barrabool – County of Grant’.
His map shows a patchwork of cropping and grazing properties in parched yellow covering approximately 66% of the Hills. The remaining areas shown in pale green are remnant vegetation and the original plantings of vineyards & orchards along the Barwon River. In 1861 these horticulture enterprises accounted for less than 1% of the green areas, therefore McWilliam's map indicates that at this time approximately 33% of the Hills still had native tree cover.
In tantalizing detail McWilliams has drawn scattered trees on the pale green areas in an attempt to indicate tree densities. He also varies the shape and size of the trees to depict different tree species.
For example Rocky Spring, a property on Merrawarp Rd that is still there today, is shown on his map as a 30ha property with 50 scattered remnant trees and some buildings in red (click on the far right map below to see the detail). This is a density of 1.7 trees/ha which is about average for the densities of remnant vegetation shown on his map. We can assume that McWilliams only included the large trees because if they were drawn to scale I estimate their canopies to be 15 – 30 meters wide. Smaller trees and shrubs were not shown because of the limitations of the map's scale.
The McWilliams map of the Shire of Barrabool is available for viewing at the Geelong Library Heritage Centre. Click on the images below to see them in more detail.
Putting together the pieces of the puzzle
In August 1835 John Helder Wedge and William Buckley would have walked onto a sunny grassy open landscape when they left the shade of the River Red Gums along the Barwon River. Drooping sheoaks, taller species of acacia and a few scattered Manna Gums were likely widely spaced at 30 – 100 meters on the higher and dryer parts of the Hills. Under these taller trees would have been clumps and scattered shrubs like Sweet Bursaria and Tree Violet that are still found in the Hills today. Other types of tall trees that were likely to have been present in this mix are Silver Banksia, White Cypress-pine, Black Sheoak and Cherry Ballart. Some of these elevated open areas would have had no trees or shrubs, being pure grasslands, perfect for the wooden ploughs of the first settlers.
In the moister gullies the vegetation was likely denser where widely spaced mature eucalypts dominated, offering the new settlers a good source of building materials and firewood. Even the smaller shrubs in these gullies were significantly larger than they are today. So large that they could be cut for poles for the construction of small outbuildings. An example of this is a buggy shed that was built in the 1850’s with Woolly Teatree poles.
This structure is still standing on a property on Honeys Road and the Teatree poles are in good condition. A sample of bark taken from the poles matches bark removed from a present day Woolly Teatree confirming the story passed down through the generations. The original Woolly Teatrees growing in the nearby gully must have been hundreds of years old to have grown to this remarkable size.
The rich soils of the Barrabool Hills could have supported a diversity of trees, shrubs and grassland plants at much higher densities than was recorded in the early years of settlement, however evidence suggests in 1835 it was an open landscape with widely spaced trees and shrubs over rich and diverse grasslands. This was no accident or freak of nature but a description of a designed and highly managed landscape.
Research into the vegetaton of the Barrabool Hills was initiated as part of a Barrabool Hills Landcare Group project. The historic research was supported by the Wettenhall Environment Trust.
In my November blog I’ll look at the plant species that are indigenous to the Barrabool Hills and explore why and how this landscape was created by the Barrabool tribe of the Wadawurrung people.
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."
When thinking about farm plantations and bushfires the potential benefits are maximised if a plantation is well positioned, well designed and well managed.
To help you ease into this important topic, this blog follows three lines of discussion;
Native farm plantations provide many benefits to a property including increased biodiversity, wind shelter for stock and crops, shade, drought fodder, timber for firewood, construction and craft and so on. I have a slide of twenty benefits that I show at Landcare presentations. One benefit that isn’t mentioned often is the potential for farm plantations to protect a property from bushfires.
Deciduous trees act as a fire retardant and are often the reason why some houses survive a bushfire when neighbouring houses are burnt. Why do they provide fire protection and how can they be used in rural areas to make summers safer?
The Weekend Australian Feb 21 2009
A former owner of the Crossways Hotel in Marysville, which survived the fire in 2009, Mr Lawrey is advising residents to plant European trees around their houses rather than eucalypts. "European trees saved my house," he said. "The embers that landed in the trees had time to burn out".
If they land in eucalypts, they burn immediately. "He said all three commercial buildings left standing in Marysville had European trees nearby. They really cooled the fire down when it reached them"
The benefits of deciduous plants.
Deciduous plants are very useful around the home and in public places not only because they add to the ambient beauty but also because they provide cooling shade in the summer and let the sunlight through in the winter.
Evergreen trees are unable to provide this shade contrast. In fact Australian natives often do the reverse and let more sunlight through in the summer by turning the flat surface of their leaves away from the sun to reduce transpiration loss. Some natives like eucalypts let in more light by shedding their leaves during the very hot dry periods.
Deciduous trees cool the air around them through transpiration. The water held in leaves is released from the stomata as water vapour. A Similar evaporative cooling principle is used in air-conditioners. On a hot day it is possible to feel the temperature drop a few degrees as you walk from the shade of native trees under deciduous trees. I experienced this tangible temperature change recently on a visit to the Adelaide Botanic gardens on a 38 degree day walking beneath a very large London Plane tree. It wasn't a coincidence that many more visitors to the gardens that day were seated under this shady tree than could be seen in the rest of the gardens.
Additional benefits of a deciduous trees and vines are fruit & nuts; timber for craft, furniture, and building; firewood, attractive flowers and autumn foliage; shade; privacy screening and as mentioned before they let in the winter sunlight which can make a cold room warmer and dry a boggy track.
This article suggests fire safe ideas for planting native gardens around your home on a rural property. The key message is that a well maintained garden has a much lower fire risk.
Planting native gardens with groundcovers, shrubs and small trees for fire safety and aesthetics
Living in the country has a lot going for it most of the year – plenty of wildlife, cheaper property prices, great communities, less traffic and clean air. Then the summer rolls around and the frightening prospect of bushfires becomes a sobering reality once again.
Bushfires can be deadly as we all know too well and they are going to become more frequent and more serious in the southern states according to the Climate Institute’s long term projections
Public enemy number one in the bushfire season, aside from hot days with strong northerly winds, are the plants that burn and carry the fire to our homes - grasses, shrubs and trees. Yet we know native gardens often support important communities of native birds, frogs, lizards and insects, give us shelter and a lot of pleasure, so how can we enjoy our gardens and be fire safe as well?
Here are some practical insights into what to plant, where to plant and how to maintain these beautiful native plants to make our homes safer during the fire season.
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.