Framing the plains and packaging remnants

von Guerard Bushy Park

A friend once asked, ‘why do botanists have such terrible gardens?’

The question might have triggered a long discussion, had we not just left my house. I changed the subject instead. Years later, I think I’ve worked out a credible response. It’s partly about scale. The scales at which people see gardens and ecosystems.

Take grasslands for example. Continue reading

The Big Grass Years

Themeda 2

How did the Big Wet years of 2010-2011 affect your local vegetation? Many readers sent in their observations when I asked this question in an earlier blog. Last week I summarized all of the observations from wetlands and floodplains. In the post below I summarize observations about grasses, herbs and weeds from the ‘dry’ hills and plains. Continue reading

Top 20 Oz Ecology Blogs

At one of the first conferences that I attended, an elderly professor was asked, ‘at what stage in one’s career should a researcher begin to engage with the media and the public?’ His esteemed response went something like, ‘a career should be spent building one’s soapbox, before one even considers standing upon it’. Many in the audience quietly groaned. Years later I chuckled as another speaker proclaimed, ‘the world’s top research economists invariably discover ethics sometime after they retire’.

Fortunately, that old world has turned, and today’s up-and-coming ecologists are far, far better than their predecessors at communicating their research to the public. Nowadays, every researcher, young and old, can tell the world about their work through the internet. In this month’s blog, I’ve collated my favorite blogs by Australian ecologists into a Flipboard Magazine for you all to enjoy. Continue reading

Taking stock of fencing

The exotic grass, Wild Oats (Avena barbata) is abundant in an ungrazed, fenced plot at Terrick Terrick National Partk.

The exotic grass Wild Oats (Avena barbata) dominates a fenced plot at Terrick Terrick National Park.

Stock grazing has reduced the conservation value of many native grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia. Not surprisingly, we often remove stock to help restore degraded areas. But how well does this work? Can damage caused by past grazing be reversed, or will the removal of stock create new, unexpected communities? Continue reading

The candles of Dunkeld

Treeless grasslands (to the west) and woodlands (on the east) in the Dunkeld region. Source: Google Earth.

The boundary between treeless grasslands and grassy woodlands in the Dunkeld region. The view is approx 12 kms wide. Source: Google Earth.

The woodlands of Dunkeld are among the most beautiful in the world.  Stately old trees, scattered across grassy paddocks, frame the rugged Grampians Ranges in the distance. In another continent they could be oaks or olives, but in Dunkeld the trees are River Red Gums. Eucalyptus camaldulensis. Century old giants.

The woodlands don’t go on forever, but peter out in the grasslands to the south and west. Sandy out-wash soils from the ranges allow trees to prosper. On the heavy clays further afield, grasses prevail. The boundary between the woodlands and the grasslands – the edge of the treed lands – is strikingly clear on air photos. Google Earth shows a ring of woodlands to the west, south and east of the Grampians, with farmed grasslands beyond.

But how stable is this boundary? Is it moving over time? In many regions, paddock trees are gradually dying out, creating a ‘tree regeneration crisis’. If this was the case at Dunkeld then the boundary would creep slowly in towards the ranges. Continue reading

Location location location: the future of environmental history

early map 2A recurring theme in Australia’s environmental history is the quest for the Grand National Narrative. The desire to create the universal ‘big picture’ story that is everywhere relevant, everywhere important. This theme dominates many popular environmental histories, from Eric Rolls’ A Million Wild Acres to Tim Flannery’s Future Eaters and Bill Gammage’s recent book, The Biggest Estate on Earth.

The quest for over-generality isn’t new, and can be traced back to Thomas Mitchell’s famous quote from the mid-1800s:

“Fire, grass, kangaroos, and human inhabitants, seem all dependent on each other for existence in Australia; for any one of these being wanting, the others could no longer continue. Fire is necessary to burn the grass, and form those open forests…. But for this simple process, the Australian woods had probably contained as thick a jungle as those of New Zealand or America, instead of the open forests in which the white men now find grass for their cattle.” (Mitchell 1848).

It’s a unique and perceptive observation. But it certainly stretches the geographical imagination. A thick New Zealand jungle? In Adelaide, Wagga Wagga and Canberra. Really? Would you buy a used car from Mitchell Motors? Continue reading

Can livestock grazing benefit biodiversity?

The endangered Plains Wanderer needs an open grassland habitat. Photo source: The Internet Bird Collection.

Grazing by livestock (mainly sheep and cattle) has irreversibly degraded many natural ecosystems in Australia. Consequently, stock are usually removed from public land when new conservation reserves are declared. The damaging effects of livestock on ecosystems such as rivers, wetlands and the alps are well known.

On the other hand, ecologists have recommended that stock continue to graze in certain types of reserves. Continue reading