Recreating the Country blog
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.
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 an author, an ecologist and a nurseryman. He has been a designer of natural landscapes for over 30 years. He loves the bush, supports Landcare and is a volunteer helping to conserve local reserves.