Recreating the Country blog
A sleepy town with something unique...other than the pub
22 kilometers south of Ballarat is the sleepy town of Lal Lal. Here if you explore a little you will uncover the usual small town amenities plus a very pleasing red brick pub and a beautiful but crumbling historic bluestone railway station.
It’s also the home of a unique plantation that successfully marries biodiversity with forestry.
Though many thought at the beginning that a happy long-term relationship was very doubtful
In the beginning
Ten years ago a group of Foresters from the Ballarat Region Treegrowers scrambled over an old farm gate and walked onto an open field beside the road to the Lal Lal falls. The land was mostly a windblown swamp, but it was summer so the clay soil was hard, compacted and cracking.
It had been offered to the foresters by the French mineral company Imerys, who mine kaolin nearby. The group was considering the land's potential for planting Australia’s first biorich demonstration plantation.
A worthy challenge
They shared an interest in growing trees for profit and they also shared a desire to challenge one of the fundamental paradigms of forestry. The long held belief that commercial forestry should consist of monocultures of timber trees
You have probably seen this type of forestry plantation. Usually vast plantings of a single species of pine or gum. They’re planted with the intention to harvest in 15 – 25 years. They’re a tree crop grown for the production of wood or pulp for paper.
The nagging question for these foresters was ‘how can forestry plantations be made more biodiverse?’ This question loomed large in importance with the continued clearing of forests and woodlands in Australia, often to make way for planting forestry monocultures.
Ecologists have known for decades that forestry monocultures don’t support the diversity of bird and insect life that is found in remnant forests nearby.
Hobbs et al in a study of hardwood plantations in 2002 found;
‘Vertebrate and invertebrate assemblages are less diverse than those in native vegetation, largely because of the relative structural simplicity of the plantations’
Hobbs observed that hectares and hectares of tall trees didn’t suit a lot of Australian fauna. They needed the more complex structure provided by shrubs and understorey that is natural to native forests and woodlands.
ANU researcher, Dr David Lindenmeyer had observed that forestry plantations often supported wildlife if they were connected to remnant patches of bushland. So its reasonable to say that for many bird species the native bush is the ‘gold standard’ that makes up for the shortcomings of commercial forestry.
The holy grail - forestry that is biodiverse?
The Ballarat group made a decision to plant a new style of forestry that aimed to be as biodiverse as the native bush found around Lal Lal. It would also include many of the elements of traditional forestry. They wanted to prove that forestry could be both economic and biodiverse, which meant that it should support the full diversity of local wildlife.
These new plantations would employ the design principles recommended in ‘Recreating the Country’ a blueprint for the design of sustainable landscapes by Stephen Murphy, the author of this blog.
... and they called it ImLal
Their plan was to plant two 4ha sites (Imlal south & Imlal north) connected by a wide biolink. Their intention was to recreate diverse layered indigenous 'dry-forest' similar to the remnant vegetation found locally. Commercial forestry tree species were also to be incorporated. The primary objective of the project was to restore both sites with income producing and biodiverse plantings.
Ten years on
Driving along the road to the Lal Lal falls and gazing to the left, ImLal south emerges as a surprising contrast to the surrounding landscape of tussocky swamps. There are groups of tall trees and there are clumps of bushy shrubs. Remarkably they look as if they have always been there. A visitor to the site will see very little difference between the Lal Lal State Forest and this new biorich plantation.
A difference they would see is the 'form pruned' groups of tall trees that appear as long straight branchless poles. These will produce saw logs for sale in another 5 - 10 years.
Standing near a group of 40 Shining Gums, Eucalyptus nitens, you can look through their smooth trunks to a bushy clump of 20 Hop Wattle, Acacia stricta, an indigenous small shrub of the Lal Lal area.
Beyond the Hop Wattle, groups of indigenous Silver Banksia, Banksia marginata and Silver Wattle, A. dealbata create a taller understorey layer.
If you stand perfectly still, you will see small birds moving from branch to branch, from tree to tree and from layer to layer. They’re safe and well fed in this sheltered vegetation mosaic that is the maturing biorich environment
The bird life is truly remarkable.
Regular bird surveys have been done since October 2011, a year after the first planting. Seasonal surveys are led by ornithologist Dr Grant Palmer from Federation University, Ballarat. Ornithologist, Tanya Loos led earlier surveys
There was an initial siting in 2011 of one small flock of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Lichenostomus chrysops, eating insects from the leaves of one year old Blue Gums, Eucalyptus globulus. In 2019, over 30 surveys later, more than 80 species have been recorded at the site.
Grant Palmer recorded 30 species in his diary on a blustery day in May 2016 and wrote;
‘We had the pleasure of observing many Yellow-faced Honeyeaters and New Holland Honeyeaters, a White-eared Honeyeater, a few Brown-headed Honeyeaters and White-naped Honeyeaters and Silvereyes all working through flowering Swamp Gum in the planted section, with Brown Thornbills and Superb Fairywrens working the lowest levels, a Spotted Pardalote pipping in the foliage, and a Golden Whistler was also lurking in the inner foliage. A Grey Shrike-thrush and Grey Fantail were also clearly associating with this group. Watching this group of birds over a number of minutes provided a real highlight for the day’
In November 2020 Grant Palmer recorded an amazing 46 bird species in his diary. He went on to describe the maturing vegetation and the diversity of birds observed;
'The growth in the planted vegetation has been fantastic to observe over the past few years and the structure of the vegetation is changing all the time with some patches becoming more dense as shrubby species grow and tree species regenerate, while other areas become more open as the canopy layer becomes more established.
Importantly, resources like flowers and nectar are more available, attracting a diversity of honeyeaters. We were fortunate to observe Brown-headed, White-eared, White-naped, New Holland and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters foraging for nectar, as well as Red Wattlebirds and Silvereyes. Musk Lorikeets which also feed on nectar were present.
The small resident birds were in good number too, and many of these were recorded in the planted areas, including Brown, Buff-rumped and Striated Thornbills, Superb Fairy-wren, White-browed Scrubwren, Spotted and Striated Pardalotes and Grey Fantail. Several Grey Shrike-thrush were calling, pleasing all with their full repertoire of sounds. Australian Magpie, Grey Currawong, Little Raven and Crimson Rosella were common'.
Encouragingly a resident flock of Noisy Miners Manorina melanocephala, an Australian native species that aggressively excludes all other small birds, has not been observed since 2013.
Planting clumps of shrubs and understorey that now provide shelter and protection for small birds like the Striated Pardalote, Pardalotus striatus is likely to be responsible for the absence of the Noisy Miner. Pardalotes are now regularly seen.
Grant Palmer simply and concisely explains why dominating flocks of Noisy Miner are a problem in bushland - click here then scroll down to read more about Noisy Miners
The design features that were used at ImLal to enhance biodiversity, sustainability and productivity are summarised here;
(1) A diverse mix of indigenous plants from 16 families; 21 genera; and 33 species. The species list was compiled from;
(2) The inclusion of indigenous eucalypts (x5) and acacias (x7). These genera provide important food, habitat and resources for wildlife.
(3) The creation of five vegetation layers which improves the feeding efficiency for wildlife and makes them less vulnerable to predators. The ground layer is developing as trees die or are thinned. These logs are left on the ground to provide habitat.
(4) Clustering plants into same species groups of 5, 10, 20 & 50.
The smaller species are planted as larger groups. (E.g. Kangaroo Grass, Themeda triandra, was planted in groups of 50; Tall Eucalypts species were planted in groups of 5). This ensures adequate pollination for fertile seed production and good foraging for wildlife. Planting this way automatically builds in structural vegetation layers.
(5) Encouraging natural regeneration from the remnant roadside vegetation to within 40m of the adjoining boundaries. This is an exciting aspect of revegetation which encourages nature’s latent potential to gradually restore the open areas
(6) The 150m average site width ensured excellent opportunities for regeneration of each species and minimises the edge effect making it attractive to more species of birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and amphibians
(7) Developing vegetation linkages between the north and south sites by planting a biolink. Also linking to the roadside reserves and ultimately the remnant vegetation around the Lal Lal reservoir
(8) Incorporating 12 forestry timber species in easily accessible large clumps to provide resources and a future income stream. These trees are form pruned to add value to the timber. Locally endangered Silver Banksia, Banksia marginata and Bushy Needlewood, Hakea decurrens have been planted as a seed orchard. There are many other possibilities to harvest seeds for food, for sale or for later revegetation projects. For example, the clumps of local Swamp Wattle, Acacia retinodes can provide seed for the food and beverage market. Click here to read more about wattle seed's prospects for becoming the next macadamia
Experiencing is believing
ImLal now attracts annual visits of forestry and environment students from Melbourne University, Federation University and Geelong TAFE. The students conduct surveys and experience the pleasing ambiance of this new style of revegetation.
They can observe that it has many of the features of the natural bush with the addition of productive plants that will return a significant income in the future.
They can appreciate that forestry and biodiversity can be happily married, while recovering much needed high quality habitat and species diversity that has been lost to wildlife through many decades of clearing.
Click here to read more about how to design a biorich plantation which incorporates income generating plants into a diverse & sustainable biodiversity planting
Photo - Delicious Muntrie fruit, Kunzea pomifera, as a ground layer species in a biorich plantation. It produces edible bushtucker for the culinary market and important on-ground habitat for insects, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. A clear win-win
Click here to visit the biorich revegetation website to learn more about the design of the biorich sites at ImLal and the inspiring results.
Photo. An aerial view of ImLal before it was planted showing the south and north sites separated by a large wetland which was once a kaolin quarry
Meet the 21st century drop slab hut planned for ImLal
(by Gib Wettenhall)
Ballarat Region Treegrowers has now embarked on a small-is-beautiful project with wood craftsman Lachie Park at ImLal.
The tiny hut will be a thing of beauty and spruik the quality and aesthetics of common local native timber as a materially renewable resource. The hut will demonstrate the resources that a biorich plantation can produce from timber to seeds, flowers and foliage. Once the hut is in place, it will service and add value to many more educational field trips for visitors to the demonstration site.
To read more about this project click here
Setting the scene - the bush cafe
It had been a long exhausting drive and seeing the sign to ‘The bush café’ was as welcome as stumbling into a shady oasis in a sun scorched desert.
The gravel drive wound through the woodland trees until the vegetation opened on a tranquil scene. Here in this out-of-the-way place was a beautiful mud brick café perched on a hillside overlooking a meandering tree-lined creek below.
The Greys wearily climbed out of their dust coated SUV, stretched and walked through the garden into the cafe. They were soon to discover that this was a café like no other.
The beautiful coffee/hazelnut aromas emanating from the country kitchen were coming from roasted acacia seeds.
Putting a value on nature’s gifts
There are not many things in life that are free except for perhaps the air that we breathe and bounty of seeds provided by the plants in our parks and gardens.
Each year plants flower and set seed but most of this precious commodity just falls to the ground where it either decomposes or becomes food for small mammals, birds and insects. Far less than 1% germinates and grows into new plants.
Two creative thinking Victorian families have begun to harvest some of this natural abundance. One is turning it into delicious food while the other has recognised its scarcity and value to landscapers restoring natural environments.
But first some science - building income into biodiversity
One of the key ways of mimicking nature in landscape design is group planting of the same species. This enhances pollination by insects and birds and native fauna just can’t resist coming in to explore and to have an east feed. A big clump of plants in flower looks beautiful to both wildlife and humans. Group planting also creates very important vegetation layers in woodlands and forests
In a large plantation same-species clumps can include these sorts of plant numbers;
Grouping makes harvesting and management easy
In biorich planting we use nature’s pattern of same species grouping to add 'useful' plants.
These useful plants can be either local indigenous plants or Australian native plants (not local to the area) with a potential to provide products for personal use or to generate income.
These useful plants are limited to 20% of the total planting to protect the plantations biodiversity values.
April’s blog explores two indigenous plant products with significant incomes generating potential that can be conveniently included into biorich plantings.
“Wattleseeds are the next macadamias”.
Anthony Leddin, a qualified plant breeder, is pushing the boundaries with wattle seed production at 'Eumerella Run Wattle Seeds'. Anthony has applied his training and practical skills to set up a commercial production area of 12 hectares at Yambuk, 20 km northwest of Port Fairy, Victoria. He predicts that wattleseeds will be the next macadamias, an Australian success story which is now a worldwide sensation.
Roasted and ground wattleseed is well known for its nutty flavour in icecream, but it is also becoming more popular as a gluten free and protein rich additive to biscuits, cakes and breads. Its delicious rich flavour is suited to pancake batter and muffins as well as desserts like mousse, crème brulee and anglaise. Did you know that there are now thirteen boutique beers that boast wattleseed as an ingredient?
Barons Black Wattle Original Ale (embellished description alert)
is flavoured by native Australian roasted wattle seed. This ale is described as having a rich amber colour and a base malt flavour of toffee and caramel. The roasted wattle seed rounds out the offering with a unique taste that hints of hazelnut, chocolate and mocha. It is described as a full bodied, full flavoured beer that is surprisingly smooth with an amazingly silky finish.
Beyond The Black Stump Wattle Seed Limited Release Beer
(embellished description alert)
is described as a traditional strong ale brewed with native Black Wattle seed, giving it ‘sweet hazelnut notes with a hint of vanilla’. It is reported to be easy-drinking with a subtle sourness
Swamp Wattle and Coastal Wattle
Anthony has focused on two species of wattle, Swamp Wattle, Acacia retinodes, from the Halls Gap area and Coastal Wattle, A. sophorae, a salt wind tolerant local species that was eaten by the Gunditjmara people, the traditional owners of southwestern Victoria.
Wattleseed as well has being protein rich, also is a good source of Vitamin D, selenium, magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc. Of the almost 1000 named Australian wattle species, the seeds of over 20 were used as food by Indigenous Australians and over 100 species were harvested for their edible gum, roots, witchetty grubs and manna - produced by lurps living on the wattle leaves. The bark, leaves and wood of some species were used as medicinal remedies. To read more about wattle uses and ecology you could read 'Acacias - the cafes of the bush'
See also this link to a pdf ‘Aboriginal use of Wattles’ by Norman Morrison
Income from wattle seeds
Anthony has planted 5,000 trees, alternating the two species as a strategy to reduce salt wind damage to the Swamp Wattles. His planting layout and pruning is designed to enable mechanical harvesting with a modified grape harvester, though most commercial harvesting of wattle seed is presently done by hand.
He estimates that the wattle harvest will yield a conservative 250kg/ha, though 1 tonne/ha has been suggested as possible. The current value of one kilogram of wattle seed is $45 or a conservative $11,250/ha. This scales back to 0.5kg/tree or $22.50/tree.
The value of this seed can be enhanced by roasting and grinding to a flour. The flour can also be turned into wattleseed paste for added convenience and to develop the maximum strength of flavour.
These very drought hardy wattles fix their own nitrogen, so they don’t need to be fertilised, mulched or watered, which makes them a very low maintenance and a low cost food crop. At 'Eumerella Run Wattle Seeds' the wattles are organically grown so there is no use of herbicides or pesticides.
To read more about the commercial potential of wattle seeds click here
Anthony is happy to take orders for acacia seed and can be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Wattle Seeds Australia's website provides practical information about growing and producing wattle seed as a nutritious food.
Other Australian native foods being grown for food are ;
Anise Myrtle, Bush Tomato, Davidson Plum, Desert Lime, Finger Lime, Kakadu Plum, Lemon Aspen, Lemon Myrtle, Muntries, Mountain Pepper, Quandong and Riberry.
Click here to read more about them and their potential on this informative website
Victorian Native Seed
Converting an open paddock into a woodland or forest is a wonderfully satisfying process. Particularly when it mimics patterns seen in nature that make a woodland irresistible to wildlife. Click here to read how its done
Two Victorian visionaries have taken this process an important step further. They set out to revegetate a 5 ha paddock to attract wildlife and to supply the local community with a precious commodity that was in short supply – indigenous seed. Click here to visit the 'Victorian Native Seed' website
Libby, a Botanist with 30 years experience in Natural Resource Management and Steve a Geographer/Historian with 20 years practical experience in land management have combined their skills to plant an open landscape with an extraordinary diversity of local plants. These plants range from canopy trees like gums (four species), through understorey trees (Silver Banksia & Drooping Sheoak), an assorted mix of indigenous shrubs, grasses and herbs.
They now have 83 species in their seed production area and have identified a further 128 species in their adjoining bush block. Some of these are rare and threatened.
Their motivation for this unique enterprise was as much to protect the local remnant bush as it was to generate an income. They focused on species that were difficult to collect in the wild or that were fragmented, a fate that has affected many of our plant species that were once part of a broad and connected landscape.
Putting in enough plants to provide a solid genetic foundation for their product meant they had to plant large numbers of the same species in clumps. Botanists recommend a minimum of 50 plants to provide an adequate gene pool
For example the now rare Yarra Gum, Eucalyptus yarraensis has 74 trees in its plant community. The rare tree form of the Silver Banksia, Banksia marginata has 311 plants in various clumps. These now produce reliable quantities of seed every year. A locally rare shrubby hakea called Bushy Needlewood, Hakea decurrens has 95 plants in clumps to create plant communities. Some of the beautiful rare and endangered herbs they have planted are Pussy tails, Ptilotus spathulatus, Swamp Billy-buttons, Craspedia paludicola, Matted Flax-lily, Dianella amoena and Hoary Sunray, Leucochrysum albicans.
‘All plantings (apart from the Eucalypts) were done by mixing up groups of the same species. This is to give a natural look to the planting while still making the seed collection easier because the same species are in groups together’ (Libby pers.com)
Because eucalypts, banksias and hakeas are pollinated by birds and insects their clumps can be spaced by hundreds of meters, allowing for the long distances these pollinators will fly when they get a taste for a particular flower.
A new wetland system
The seed production area also includes a newly created creek that drains the house garden in wet weather and feeds into a new wetland. This project provides the ideal environment for riparian plants that are usually found along waterways. Here they have planted River Bottlebrush, Callistemon sieberi (279), River Tea-tree, Leptospermum obovatum (202), Australian Buttercup, Ranunculus lappaceus (100) plus Spiny-headed Mat-rush, Lomandra longifolia and a local Flax-lily, Dianella sp.
Overlooked and undervalued - maintenance
One critical job that’s often overlooked in revegetation is maintenance. Newly planted trees and shrubs have to be protected from invading weeds for up to two years until they fully establish. To quote Libby from her website;
‘The seed production area requires constant maintenance. Initially the plants were sprayed around with glyphosate every year to control the long weed grasses. Now to avoid potential harm to frogs and native grasses, leaf litter is collected when we do fire control work around the house area. This is spread thickly around the small plants. Large plants now produce enough of their own litter to reduce weed growth.'
Libby and Steve took the precaution to rabbit proof fence the whole property, though kangaroos remain a constant challenge. Just a few species have needed added protection from Roo damage – Silver Banksia, Drooping Sheoak and Flax-lilies. Swamp Wallabies, usually difficult to manage on revegetation sites, have fortunately kept to the denser cover of the nearby forests and woodlands.
Reaping the rewards – lots more birds.
One of the most appreciated ‘ticks of approval’ for revegetation projects comes from visiting wildlife. At Victorian Native Seed there has been at least a doubling of family groups of Blue Wrens and many species of honeyeater which are also staying longer than before. Interestingly the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos are really enjoying the seeds on the hakeas and banksias. Individual cones are now bagged to save enough for seed sales.
Victorian Native Seed has an enlightening website full of resources about the plants they grow and how to germinate the seed. They have also set up some creative bird survey sites at ponds on their properties - Click here to be enchanted by film footage from their hidden cameras
More on Biodiversity and profit will be posted in May
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.