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>
This blog describes a Traditional Owner cool burn in detail
Ancient Australian culture - the traditional skill of cool burning
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.