March 2018 This is living – on the surprising success of a restoration
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While there is recognition of the role of fire in the evolution of Australian vegetation, much of the tradition lore about managed burning in southern Australia has been lost. The final piece on this page is entitled:
The Burning Question – the use of fire to improve grassland condition
This is living – March 2018
After a rather pleasant wet spell in December the moisture in our landscape started to shrink down to the low lying areas, and it would appear that many of the birds did as well. In late January there appeared birds in such profusion and variety around Lake Kevin that it was dizzying. The combination of water, greener grass and the flowering of the nearby Yellow Box combined to be irresistibly attractive to birds. On the water a Wood Duck pair and their brood of eight drifted about, being dodged by water-skimming Tree Martins. Sacred Kingfishers zoomed here and there, while Dusky Wood-swallows swooped on airborne insects for their hungry offspring. A large dead tree provided convenient parking for these birds, together with assorted Galahs, Noisy Friarbirds, and Varied Sittellas. The surrounding bushes were aquiver with numerous bush birds: Spotted Pardalote, Willie Wagtail, Speckled Warbler, Red-Browed Firetail, Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Eastern Spinebill, Superb Fairy-wren (aka Blue Wren), Brown Thornbill, White-throated Tree Creeper and Buff-rumped Thornbill.
The spectacle of these cheery creatures was even sweeter with the thought that they were enjoying themselves in the location that was the most degraded part of the property a decade ago. I was even more impressed that some of the birds were species that were rarely seen anywhere on Gang Gang in the past, but now have moved in permanently (Blue Wren, Willie Wagtail). Others which has had been seen overhead previously were now finally gracing us with their perching presence (Dusky Woodswallow, Tree Martin). The finches were especially exciting to have as this was the first time they had stayed for more than a fleeting visit. And the Speckled Warblers are always special, being a particularly handsome species struggling to survive. Foxes eat most of their offspring, owing to the bird’s unfortunate habit of nesting on the ground.
Twelve years ago, this area featured an ugly concrete flume, undermined by gullying. It sat in a hectare of scalded, eroded soil and gullies, parts of it salt affected. Past owners had works done ten years previously (contour banks, the flume, fencing) but it had all fallen apart, whether by poor management or bad luck. On advice, we decided to inter the failed infrastructure under a dam wall. This is when Kevin came on the scene. As you might expect, I am not a fan of the damage that bulldozers can do to vegetation, but Kevin did some spectacularly good earthworks and constructed a beautiful dam (which we named after him). It was now up to Jon and me to revegetate the wall and surrounding salty, eroded area.
Ten years from the time of this photo, the gully had been replaced by high quality bird habitat.
We did a little bit of planting, some scattering of seed collected from elsewhere on Gang Gang, and added grass clippings and prunings to the most scorched spots. Other plants just found their way. This was one of the few sites where I have not been fussed about weed removal. Almost anything that could grow was welcome here.
After ten years, there are small eucalypts, lots of wattles, some dense bottlebrushes and Sweet Bursaria. The ground is a mosaic of bare ground and grass – the ground feeders seem to prefer a measure of bare soil as it enables them to move freely and keep an eye out for danger. Flowering occurs throughout the year now, which contributes to insect numbers (as does the dam) and wattle seed is relished by the parrots. Gang Gangs now linger longer on Gang Gang thanks to this new food source. As far as the birds (and ourselves) are concerned, this is living.
Lake Kevin ten years after the first photo, taken from approximately the same point.
The Burning Question – May 2017
By all accounts there used to be a great deal of burning undertaken by indigenous Australians. They used fire to promote fresh growth in the grasslands and make them more appealing to herbivores such as kangaroos, wallabies. They also used fire to assist with the flushing and capture of this game, and for ease of movement through the bush. More subtle use of fire was employed to improve the habitat in which various edible animals and food plants could flourish. The early explorers with their eye to settlement and farm production were tremendously impressed by the quality of the soil, and the richness and diversity of the grasslands that the aborigines maintained.
In southern Australia, the orally-transmitted knowledge behind these burning practices is largely gone. Displacement was rapid, and very few of the early European settlers were interested or respectful enough to sit down and learn why the aborigines did what they did with fire. Europeans had other plans in mind. Their herds of livestock, ploughs and agricultural seeds were going to transplant a different kind of food production onto the landscape. What need was there for fires when the sheep and cattle were going to use the grass?
For an ecologist such as myself, there is a great longing to have seen these pre-European landscapes and have an understanding of the management practices of the time. Could it help us regain the large healthy populations of Yam Daisies and other corm-producing plants that once fed some many people yet remained abundant? Is it possible that traditional management practises could rehabilitate some of the many species of wildflower that are now rare?
Historians such as Steven Pyne and Bill Gammage have helped us to understand how profound and deliberate the aboriginal use of fire was. Their accounts provide tantalising glimpses of attitudes and the practises of burning, but little that is systematic or instructional, and which can be applied confidently now. Trying to translate these random observations into a coherent view of the entire complex landscape is like peering through pinpricks in a dark shroud. Tiny glimpses and so many unanswered questions. How were the requirements of the many hundred different plants and animals met? How frequent were the fires and under what seasonal and weather conditions were they lit? Directing and controlling the course of a fire in bare feet, would call for an astonishing level of skill.
If enough people has been asked and the books written, the knowledge would be priceless. Of course they would not be able to directly provide an operating manual, as so much has changed between then and now. Think of it:
– our soils are more eroded from heavy grazing but may have more nutrients from fertilizers;
– our grasslands have been grazed but rarely burnt for most of two centuries;
– there are many non-native species present;
– there is infrastructure that should not be burned, buildings, fences, contained livestock;
– we are not used to handling fire anymore and regard it as a danger and a health hazard. These are some of the reasons we are taking baby steps when it comes to using fire to foster diversity and health in the local vegetation. Though if we did have access to aboriginal fire lore, there might have been some guiding hands to lend confidence to our first tottering attempts.
At Gang Gang we started burning small areas a few years ago, our own first steps. Which is why we spent Easter sending up plumes of smoke, visible to friends across the valley. We are necessarily more encumbered than our aboriginal forebears, with water sprayers and shovels in hand. Still, this does not disturb the meditative process of watching gentle flames trickle across the ground. And when a contained circle of grassland flares up with a low roar and settles with a sigh, it is deeply satisfying. Perhaps we are genetically pre-disposed to having a firestick in our hands.
 Pyne, S.J. 1991. Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia. Henry Holt, New York.
 Gammage, B. 2011. The biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.