Not as we know it

Not As We Know It: Down Frankston Way

Just as so many native trees, shrubs, birds and mammals love the sea air, we humans are particularly fond of it too. Unfortunately, this means that if you’re a coastal habitat, you’re almost destined to be disturbed, dug up or built on. When Europeans arrived in Victoria, they were particularly destructive, and from Brighton to Beaumaris, through to Aspendale and Frankston, the native coastal habitat was etched away, replaced with roads, shopping centres, coffee shops, impressive houses, and a particularly pretty bike route along the coast. When I find time to head to the Mornington Peninsula, I always make my way down along the coast, sweeping along the road and taking in the ocean views. While there’s some coastal scrub hanging on along the coastline, it’s only a glimmer of what would have been almost 300 years ago, before Europeans arrived.

Around Brighton and through to Beaumaris, the gentle slopes opened the area up to grassy and herb-rich woodlands. In some areas, the sandy soils became more infertile, with sedges and shrubs such as common heath and prickly tea-tree dominating the area. Where the soil had a few more nutrients, eucalyptus and sheoak species were able to grow, and were subsequently scattered through the landscape. There was a thick understory of species such as tall sundew, weeping grass and cranberry heath surrounding them. While you’re much more likely to see trendy dog breeds like French bulldogs and spaniels bounding through the area now, hundreds of years ago kangaroo and wallaby would have bounded around instead. The red-bellied pademelon, now restricted to Tasmania, would also have been prevalent. Hundreds of years ago, they were free from the predation of foxes and the habitat destruction that later wiped them out on the mainland, and they happily roamed around Port Phillip Bay.

This beautiful grassy woodland habitat would have stretched out through to Bentleigh. Reaching up to ten metres high, species such as Jimmy’s shining peppermint and messmate stringybark would have sprouted up across the landscape. In some places, shrubs grew in thick, dense thickets, with swamp paperbark and woolly tea-tree outcompeting most species. In the areas where light could pass through the thick shrubs, moss, lichen and liverwort tried their hand at survival, drinking up the sun and spreading through the understory. This interesting concoction of environments continued through Mordialloc, Parkdale and Braeside.

As well as the thicket of swamp scrub, herb-rich, heathy and grassy woodlands occurred in patches throughout the areas. Some river red gum, swamp gum, and rough-barked manna gum would have been scattered around, but generally speaking, it was the understory of grasses, reeds, and bracken that reigned supreme. The beautifully named stinking pennywort and variable stinkweed made up a good portion of the understory, along with the more endearingly named swamp billy-button and tiny water-milfoll.

From Aspendale through to Seaford, which have some of my favourite ocean views as you drive towards Frankston, the area was wetter than the surrounding habitats and as a result was mainly treeless. While some swamp gum may have popped up here and there, it was shrubs and grasses that loved this environment the most. White purslane and wattle mat-rush were widespread, bringing bursts of white and yellow into the green landscape. These grasses would have continued through to Carrum Downs, with kangaroo grass and reed bent-grass sweeping through the area, until swampy riparian woodland emerged around Lyndhurst, snaking through parts of Carrum Downs, Cranbourne, and Dandenong South. Swamp paperbark, blackwood and woolly tea-tree made up the majority of the habitat. Birds would have loved this environment, with the flowers of the swamp paperbark beautifully fragrant to our native species. Native butterflies such as the imperial hairstreak and tailed emperor love blackwood, as it is a host plant for their larvae until they become adults. 

In Frankston, heathy woodland began to emerge again. Eucalypts reached up to ten metres tall, shrubs such as the common heath, prickly tea-tree, and prickly broom-heath dominating the understory. The bright colours of the flowers of common heath, combined with the beautiful soft whites of the prickly species, would have made a wonderful sight. No doubt honeyeaters and native bees could have been heard throughout the area, happily pollinating our shrubs and heath. Moving through to Mount Eliza, we once again meet grassy woodland, with sheoaks and eucalypts emerging and kangaroo grass and wattle mat-rush sprouting up in the understory. Lovely natives such as feathertail gliders, echidnas, and bandicoots would have made themselves at home between the trees and shrubs, gobbling up beetles, ants and other crawling creatures.

On the drive along the coast from Brighton to Frankston, it’s difficult to imagine the diversity that would have once been. It’s particularly difficult in Frankston, which is now almost a city in its own right. A train station, shopping centre, movie theatre, and many delicious fish and chip shops now stand where trees, shrubs, animals, and birds used to be abundant. But nature is resilient in the strangest of ways, and native shorebirds such as pelicans, gulls and cormorants can still be seen on the beaches throughout the bay. Ringtails have managed to survive despite the presence of cats and foxes. Rosellas, cockatoos, and even birds of prey like falcons aren’t unfamiliar sights, soaring above our suburbs, searching for places to roost and feed. In the last few years there has been an increase in planting along the coast of Port Philip, to stabilise our beaches and help to conserve our native species. While too late for our once wide-spread pademelon, it may be enough to help birds and other mammals increase in number. Maybe one day we will even be able to get a glimpse of what it would have been like all those years ago. 

Mary Shuttleworth

Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.

Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.

Not As We Know It: Williamstown to Werribee

This is a guest article by Mary Shuttleworth

When I was a little kid, at least once a month I’d convince my parents to take me to Williamstown. I didn’t want to go for the beach, or the ice-cream, and definitely not the coffee – I wanted to go because there was a shop there that sold stone fairies and pretty rocks, and when I was six, I thought that was pretty cool. I’m in my twenties now, and amazingly, despite the surge of eclectic Melbourne designers, that fairy shop is still there. I still think it’s pretty cool, though I have to admit the allure of the beach and the ice-cream is what tempts me to Williamstown now. 

Before Williamstown began to be developed by European colonisers in the 1830s, open grassy woodland occupied much of the area, stretching from the centre of the area up through to Laverton. The area was rich in grasses and herbs, with species such as kangaroo grass, wattle mat-rush, weeping grass and kidney weed making up most of the ground cover. While there was the occasional Gippsland or river red-gum that popped up through the grasses, like in most of Victoria, these areas were dominated by grasses and herbs. While we now have the Princes Highway sweeping across Melbourne, 200 years ago grasslands were what swept through Victoria, over areas such as Williamstown, Altona Gate, Laverton North, and Derrimut. These grasslands contained a mountain of diversity of plants, insects, and animals – a diversity that is now drastically different, due to the huge development these areas have seen in recent history. 

Williamstown Beach, past and present?  Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

Williamstown Beach, past and present?  Images: Williamstown SLSC, Victoria University

There are some wonderful walks around Williamstown, with the Williamstown Beach to Altona Foreshore Trail being one of my favourites. Walking along the beach with the wind in your hair and the occasional shrubs and grasses, it can feel quite wild – especially if you arrive early enough, and you’re lucky enough to catch a water rat scuttling along the trail. It is difficult to imagine that around Victoria Street and up through the coast to Werribee, coastal saltmarsh once surrounded the ocean in a wide band. Succulent herbs, shrubs, rushes and sedges made themselves home along the tidal flats, species such as creeping brookweed, rounded noon-flower, and austral seablite sweeping up along the coast. Around Cherry Creek and extending to Queens Street in Altona Meadows, there was a small band of scrub that differed from the surrounding saltmarsh. Here, taller species were more common, with Moonah species, coast wirilda, and coastal tea-tree growing in the area, up to eight metres tall. Surrounding them were low-lying herbs tussocks such as bristly wallaby grass and coast blown grass that swept through the area, well- adapted to the soils.

Kororoit Creek, now a great location for walks or runs, was once full of aquatic, low-lying plants such as red water-milfoil, tiny duckweed, and water ribbons. Along the creek line there were occasional eucalypts scattered amongst the tussock grasses and herbs, extending up through Laverton North and past Sunshine West. Featherbrook Drive Wetland, another great location for bird-watching and walking, was a fantastic pocket of diversity, with sedgy wetland found in the area. Fine twig-sedge, wetland wallaby grass, and soft twig-rush found homes in the wetlands, which would have been ideal habitats for an assortment of native ducks.

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River. Image: Parks Victoria

Werribee River meets the bay near Werribee South, and goes straight through the heart of Werribee. Two hundred years ago, wwamp gum, narrow-leaf peppermint and river red-gum would have been relatively frequent along its banks, towering up to 20 metres in height. Large sedges and tussock grasses such as kangaroo grass, tall rush, and the adorably-named bidgee-widgee would have made up much of the ground cover and understory along the river. Of course, this is dramatically different to modern times, as the river travels up through the extensive development that now exists there. While the river has seen some hard times, it has certainly added character to the area, with Werribee Mansion and Werribee Open Range zoo sharing their borders with the winding waters. Luckily, there’s now a lot of effort being made to improve its health, with hopes that doing so will entice back some of our native species.

About five years ago, I went on a rowing tour of the Werribee River. While I recommend one actually practices rowing beforehand, I truly enjoyed it. Our guide excitedly told us how the health of the river had improved monumentally, and was barely comparable to what it had been 10 years ago. He was adamant that one early morning a few months ago, he had been sitting on the banks of the river, and had actually seen platypus swimming together, doing their dance in the waters between reeds.

While I’m not absolutely convinced, I can’t help but be excited when I remember his face as he told the story. ‘Just imagine it!’ he’d said, ‘Wild platypus - In Melbourne!’

It’s certainly difficult, but not unachievable. Let’s hope we can make it happen. 

Cover image by Australian National Botanic Gardens

Not as we know it: Along the Maribyrnong

This is a guest post by Mary Shuttleworth

Brimbank Park is only 15 kilometres out of Melbourne city, and yet, embarrassingly, I hadn’t bothered to make the trip up there until about two weeks ago. It’s full of a wonderful range of native plants and wildlife, and even though it’s quite close to the hugely developed Melbourne Airport, it feels like it’s hundreds of miles away. It’s a welcome escape from the residential areas I’ve become so accustomed to. Visiting parks like Brimbank always make me wistful. I’m struck by an awareness that once, everything would have looked like this - minus the picnic spots and water fountains, of course. The north-western suburbs of Melbourne have seen rapid increases in development in the last few years. From Yarraville to Footscray, and stretching out past Keilor, both residential and industrial developments have transformed the suburbs significantly in the last 50 years. It’s almost impossible to fathom the changes made to these areas over the last 300 years, before airports, roads, pavement or farmland.

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Old Red Gums over the Maribyrnong. Image: Weekend Notes

Prior to European colonisation, Maribyrnong River and the surrounding areas were an expanse of trees, shrubs, and grassy plains. Up the northern area of the river, which now runs through Keilor and up alongside what we now know as Melbourne International Airport, the river was surrounded by fertile, rich scrubland. Narrow-leaf peppermint would have arched over the water, reaching up to 15 metres tall. Kidney-weed, hairy panic and wingless bluebush would have been common, most of the soil covered by these low-lying species, with only a few larger shrubs and medium-sized trees poking up between the competitive grasses. Away from the river, the trees died back, replaced by a sweeping grassland that occurred across Keilor and Tullamarine, stretching down as far as Essendon North. Grasses such as kangaroo grass, mat grass and kidney-weed would have swept across the area, providing vital habitats for native species, in particular invertebrates. Melbourne’s International Airport, now paved and developed into a hub of transport, was once an expanse of grassy plains, home to some of the 140 species of butterfly found in Victoria, such as the orchard swallowtail and grassland copper.

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

The Maribyrnong River today. Image: The Buckley

Closer to what we now call the suburb of Maribyrnong, the habitats surrounding the river shifted to riparian woodland. Here river red gum, manna gum and Gippsland red Gum towered up to 20 metres alongside the water, herbs and shrubs making up the understory as the river swept around bends.

Quickly, though, the salty waters of the Maribrynong River would have taken hold, and these great trees would have died back. Even today the river is flushed with salty water from coastal swells, though you wouldn’t realise it when you look at the lush grass along Flemington Racecourse. 300 years ago, these swells affected the habitats as well, sending salt through the soils surrounding the river. The only plants that prospered were ones that were adapted to the salty waters, predominantly low-lying species such as variable willow-herb, creeping brookweed, white sebaea, and Australian salt-grass. Almost no trees would have been found in these areas, the salty soils keeping them at bay. 

With all of this in mind, it is no surprise that the Maribyrnong River Trail is one of the most scenic in Melbourne. Scattered with parks and picnic areas, it meanders into Melbourne city much like the river itself, lazily looping around suburbs and landmarks. It is particularly popular on weekends, with dog-walkers, families, and fitness enthusiasts making their way along the pathway at their own pace. Though the surrounding areas of Maribyrnong, Footscray, Yarraville, Ascot Vale, Keilor, Flemington, and Kensington have seen much development in recent years, the winding nature of the river has helped shape these suburbs into what we see today.