July 2022

 Cultural burning – There is a great deal of excitement generated over the idea of cultural burning, but very few landholders practice any burning at all.  On Gang Gang we started small, lighting up a single tussock in 2005, and have been gradually honing our skills since then.  Recently, the reading of an account of indigenous burning has further spurred our ambitions to use fire as a major means of biomass control in our grassy woodland.

Warm yourself by the fire

If you have been casting an eye over our landscape, groaning quietly at the build-up of grass biomass and wondering what to do about it before summer, you are not alone.  But in recent weeks I have found a mode of burning that helps maintain pasture health and diversity, is relaxingly mindful and does much to mitigate the build-up of fuel resulting from the past two very wet years.

The weather has been so relentlessly rainy, cold & windy that we did not even attempt to start our normal autumn burning program this year.  Then, in the last days of May, I started reading indigenous writer Vincent Steffensen’s book Fire Country [1] and it reinvigorated my enthusiasm to get out there and start burning.  I could see that the wetness of the landscape could allow the sort of cool burns that do not threaten the whole landscape and could be directed with minimum effort.  So, in the first week of June, we did some tentative lighting up.  I was amazed just how flammable some things were despite having had 106 mm of rainfall in May, about twice the average.

We started with the large tussocks of Red-anther Wallaby Grass (Rytidosperma pallidum) that had developed to the west of the house as these would be a great worry in a scorching summer. We found that the tussocks burned enthusiastically, but despite a blasting cold wind, the flames did not spread and each tussock had to be lit individually.  This meant that the diversity of plants in the inter-tussock spaces were largely spared, and will be able to flower in spring.  The photos show the reduction in biomass that was achieved while still maintaining a thin litter cover.  In the exceedingly poor soils associated with this deceptively productive grass, a patchy burn such as this is just right.

Unburnt (below)

Burnt (below)

I’ve been doubtful of the relevance northern Australian burning practices to the temperate south.  Our settlement is dense, and the vegetation and climate are different.  But these insights of Steffensen’s stayed with me:
– In the right conditions you may need no major equipment for cool autumn/winter burns.  Based on many years of burning experience on our property, we have now burned for three weeks with only a shovel and an ignition source each.  We keep a backpack spray as back-up. Indigenous fire managers had bare feet, a bark ignition source, and branches to smother flames.  Well-judged fires will largely extinguish themselves.
– You need to read the landscape and burn different parts as they become ready.  Use natural fire breaks (roo tracks, bare or green areas) to begin with, and over time use burning to create a system of breaks over the landscape.
– Long-unburnt landscapes full of weeds may need more frequent fire and special attention, but by focussing on promoting the natives (the solution) rather than killing weeds, much can be achieved.

It takes years to learn to burn confidently, and perhaps we need a service industry providing annual burning for landholders without the time to sit and contemplate the flames of a relaxed fire.  For the others, get a permit, invite the neighbours, start small and stay cautious.  Use equipment that matches your level of comfort, and enjoy the calming, warming effects of a trickling fire.

[1] 2020, published by Hardie Grant