agriculture

Magic amidst a multitude of stems

Victoria's box-ironbark forests are magic. Whatever time of year you visit, their beauty is evident. The rugged, gnarled trunks of the ironbarks stand black as if they’ve clung to their night-time colour scheme despite the breaking of day. Up close, the black bark is crisscrossed by deep fissures, forming a net whose depths are the colour of rich amber and give the sense that the trees are bursting with warmth. The other eucalypts are more demure. From the pale grey, elephant skin-like bark of the Grey Box to the shaggy mess of bark cloaking a Red Stringybark, each adds its own immutable stamp on the box-ironbark forest identity. Above, the foliage hangs grey-green as if a thick mist has descended on the forest. The calls of woodland birds ring out, and, at certain times of the year, the forest floor and understory is awash with floral splendour. There is no choice but to be spellbound.

The different bark characteristics of the dominant eucalypts (left to right: Red Ironbark, Grey Box, and Red Stringybark) give the box-ironbark forests an unmistakeable character.  Image: Rowan Mott

The different bark characteristics of the dominant eucalypts (left to right: Red Ironbark, Grey Box, and Red Stringybark) give the box-ironbark forests an unmistakeable character. Image: Rowan Mott

When gold was found in central Victoria in the middle of the 1800s, miners soon flocked to box-ironbark country. They, like me, quickly saw how special these forests are. However, the value they saw was in the versatility of the timber. It made for ideal stays to bolster mine shafts deep underground; it was perfectly suited for use as railway sleepers in the burgeoning rail network freighting gold across the state. And, as hinted by the warm colour in the fissures of the bark, it burned with a long and lovely heat in campfires and cooking stoves. The rapidly growing population also increased demand for food and many of the grassy box-ironbark woodlands on fertile soils were soon replaced by agricultural enterprises to supply this demand. In the years that followed the discovery of gold, mining boomed and the magnificent box-ironbark forests were felled. 

Miners quickly descended on (and under) Victoria’s box-ironbark country during the middle of the 1800s following the discovery of gold. Evidence of their activity can still be readily seen today.  Image: Rowan Mott

Miners quickly descended on (and under) Victoria’s box-ironbark country during the middle of the 1800s following the discovery of gold. Evidence of their activity can still be readily seen today. Image: Rowan Mott

I started this article by spruiking the magic of today's box-ironbark forests, and they are indeed magical. The box-ironbark forests we are fortunate to have today rekindled themselves from ruin like a magical phoenix rising from the ashes - a small, irrevocably damaged phoenix. When the gold rush began to ebb, disused mine sites began to regain their tree cover. However, box-ironbark forests never returned to their full extent. In fact, only 17% of their former area is forest today. Unlike the gold mining boom, agriculture and settlements have relinquished little of their hold over box-ironbark country with the passing of time. 

In parallel with the huge reduction in forest, a quick walk through one of Victoria’s box-ironbark forests today reveals other, more subtle legacies left by the gold rush. Most of the trees now standing have regrown from the base of the cut stump of their predecessor, and this regrowth has resulted in a forest made up of trees with multiple, thin stems. Gone are the immense forest giants of previous centuries, and their loss has seen the depletion of many habitat features relied upon by the wildlife that calls these forests home.

Many of the trees in today’s box-ironbark forests have re-grown from the base of a cut stump. This typically results in a multi-stemmed growth form.  Image: Rowan Mott

Many of the trees in today’s box-ironbark forests have re-grown from the base of a cut stump. This typically results in a multi-stemmed growth form. Image: Rowan Mott

Tree hollows used by large birds and arboreal mammals are now scarce, and nectar – a key food source for many birds in these forests – formerly produced in copious quantities by the forest giants is now supplied in inferior volumes by their multi-stemmed counterparts. Furthermore, the larger trees would have produced more and larger fallen timber than today’s smaller trees, and thus species that use fallen timber for den sites (e.g. the Yellow-footed Antechinus) and foraging (e.g. the Hooded Robin) likely suffer as a result.

Species that depend on large tree hollows, such as the Barking Owl, are threatened by the lack of large trees in present day box-ironbark forests. The thin, multi-stemmed growth form of most of the trees simply cannot provide enough of this vital habitat feature.  Image: Rowan Mott

Species that depend on large tree hollows, such as the Barking Owl, are threatened by the lack of large trees in present day box-ironbark forests. The thin, multi-stemmed growth form of most of the trees simply cannot provide enough of this vital habitat feature. Image: Rowan Mott

Species that forage on the ground among fallen timber, such as the Hooded Robin, are declining in Victoria. The loss of large, old trees, which contribute disproportionally to the amount of fallen timber, is likely a contributing factor in their decline.  Image: Rowan Mott

Species that forage on the ground among fallen timber, such as the Hooded Robin, are declining in Victoria. The loss of large, old trees, which contribute disproportionally to the amount of fallen timber, is likely a contributing factor in their decline. Image: Rowan Mott

As time passes, it is possible to see the slow succession as the forest crawls towards its former glory. Tree stems growing from the base of a dead and decaying stump are often weak, and it is not uncommon to see one or more stems of a multi-stemmed tree lying on the forest floor, having split from the stump. Similarly, the dead stump lacks bark, which usually provides the tree with a protective shield from fire. Fire in a box-ironbark forest, even a low intensity fuel reduction burn, will often result in many multi-stemmed trees collapsing because they are burnt out from the base once fire enters the exposed stump.

And so, as the number of stems slowly decreases, the growth rate of those that remain increases because they no longer experience as much competition for resources, such as light, nutrients and water. The transition of our box-ironbark forests to their original state is glacially slow, but I am hopeful that one day these forests will once again be dominated by trees of a behemoth size.

It is not uncommon to see one or more stems lying on the ground after their weak attachment to the stump from which they were regenerating gives way.  Image: Rowan Mott

It is not uncommon to see one or more stems lying on the ground after their weak attachment to the stump from which they were regenerating gives way. Image: Rowan Mott

Fire can more easily burn a dead and decaying stump than a live, bark-covered tree. Trees that have resprouted from the base of a cut stump are often more susceptible to fire than free-standing trees because they are readily burnt out at the base.  Image: Rowan Mott

Fire can more easily burn a dead and decaying stump than a live, bark-covered tree. Trees that have resprouted from the base of a cut stump are often more susceptible to fire than free-standing trees because they are readily burnt out at the base. Image: Rowan Mott

If you were to take a large diamond and hit it with an even larger hammer until the diamond shattered into many tiny fragments, would you then throw the diamond fragments away? Of course you wouldn’t; they’re still diamonds after all! Victoria’s box-ironbark forests have been shattered by the hammer of the gold rush and agriculture, but they remain incredibly valuable. Their worth cannot be understated for declining species such as the Squirrel Glider, Woodland Blind Snake and Regent Honeyeater, for which box-ironbark forests represent their core habitat. Far from diminishing the magic of box-ironbark forests, their history of degradation in the last two centuries and the resilience they have shown is even more reason to celebrate them. 


download.png

Rowan Mott

Rowan is a Monash University PhD graduate and now works there as an ecologist. His research interests are broad, spanning seabird foraging ecology to plant invasions. When not in his office, he will most likely be in a woodland with binoculars around his neck and camera in hand.

You can find him on Twitter at @roamingmoth


Banner image courtesy of Rowan Mott.

A Fiery Season

This is a guest piece by Bruna Costa.

Autumn in Melbourne, the season to rug up, stroll across damp grasslands and wade through brilliantly tinted leaves and breathe in the cool, crisp air. It’s a time to sit by a wood fire and watch flames curl around glowing logs. And it’s the season when we ogle our neighbours’ persimmons ripening on their fiery tree, or their pomegranates, bursting with juicy, red seeds. 

It’s also the time when we wait for that phone call or text message.

‘The chestnuts are ready.’

The date is set for when we head for the hills equipped with gum boots, leather garden gloves, and loads of buckets and bags. Chestnut day encompasses all the magic that is autumn in the hills of eastern Victoria.

For one group of harvesters, the destination is Gembrook where morning fog, like a veil, obscures the rising sun and becomes trapped in the valleys, its whiteness a contrast to the display of autumnal colours on deciduous trees.

Pickers bring plates, fill the kitchen table with delicious home cooked foods, cheeses and wines, not to mention the sumptuous desserts waiting to be devoured. But before anyone tucks in, they must first pick chestnuts.

Young children, teenagers, parents and grandparents parade down the steep hill to where the chestnut trees line the paddock.

DSCN0914.JPG

Trees bearing the best flavoured chestnuts are where to begin.

There are as many burrs on the ground as those clinging to tree branches, but it’s the fallen ones that bear ripened nuts ready for the picking. Burrs split open revealing three chestnuts snuggling within the spikes; in some instances, the nuts spill out onto the ground. Children are encouraged to collect the ripe nuts scattered loosely amongst the leaf litter.

The procedure for collecting chestnuts is to split the outer shell open by running your boot over the prickly burrs. Alternatively, a good pair of garden gloves will help to pull the casing apart to reveal its contents. The best of the three nuts are chosen, and sometimes, all three nuts are worth collecting.   

The umbrella-like shape of the trees, with limbs hanging low, touching the ground, encompasses family, friends and newcomers that gather beneath their limbs. The closeness inspires light-hearted conversation. Voices rise up through the branches and drift uphill aschestnuts are rhythmically tossed into receptacles. Everyone is encouraged to pocket the largest chestnut for a weigh-in at the end of the harvest.    

After a morning of foraging, the workers arch and stretch their stiffened backs before trudging back up the steep hillside towards the homestead. The help of a small tractor to transport the laden bags and buckets up to the shed is welcoming.

Everyone shares a hearty lunch, and then they gather for the weigh-in. A small set of brass scales is placed on the table on the decking, its weighing plates each barely big enough to carry one large chestnut. Excitement fills the air as everyone jostles for a position around the table. Children are first to test their prized chestnut, while the adults wait their turn. The bearers of the largest fruits receive a packet of lollies and their names are written on a trophy. All good fun.

Then it’s time to test the fruits of the day’s labour. An old frying pan with holes poked through its base is filled with chestnuts, their brown skins already split with a sharp knife. The frypan is placed on the open fire and the chestnuts are left to cook until the skins are blackened and the insides are soft and aromatic. They are wrapped in an old towel and allowed to sweat for a while. Everyone digs in, peeling back the two layers of skin to reveal warm, softened flesh.

In late afternoon, the panorama that is Gembrook is a view worthy of the drive. The sun’s rays penetrate amassing clouds and the colours in the sky compliment the fiery red maple leaves. It marks the end of a rewarding day.

The pickings are distributed and everyone leaves with quantities of chestnuts for themselves and to be shared with friends back home where they make a suitable exchange for the neighbours’ ripening persimmons and splitting pomegranates.


Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group. She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.

Review: Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes

The quintessential farm usually consists of large expanses of cleared land, primarily dominated by exotic crop species or pastoral grass for livestock. The clearing of land for agricultural practices is often accompanied by a reduction in biodiversity, and consequently a decrease in the ecological processes that a healthy ecosystem performs.

Ecologically sustainable farming practices can help mitigate some of the impacts on biodiversity due to agriculture. Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes is a guide to these practices, discussing which are the most effective in restoring ecological processes on farmland. Across six main chapters, the authors ask ‘how can we maintain or even increase food production without undermining the productive capability of farms and without significantly eroding biodiversity?’

Birds, the most diverse group of vertebrates found on farmland, can be beneficial to farmers, as they contribute to natural pest control, plant pollination and even seed dispersal. The chapter dedicated to birds discusses whether implementing nestboxes really affects the number of bird species at a location, as well as the importance of paddock trees and remnant vegetation. Native mammals are discussed in a similar fashion, although invasive species such as the red fox, European rabbit and black rat are also examined.

One great aspect of this book is the way that the authors explain the processes behind the science. For example, the chapter on reptiles includes topics such as ‘How are reptiles surveyed in agricultural landscapes?’, ‘A way of categorising reptiles’ and ‘How are lizards measured?’. These insights allow the reader to better understand each topic, and the practices they are discussing.

The text also discusses the important role that invertebrates play in agricultural landscapes, as they contribute to many crucial ecological processes, including pollination, seed dispersal, and the recycling of organic matter, as well as being food source for other animals. The role of ants on farms is a particular focus of this section, as is the effect that plantations have on butterfly species.

Farmland vegetation is also covered, including how vegetation cover and attributes change with time, and how this change can affect the animal species found at planting sites. The effect of livestock on vegetation cover and condition is also discussed, and the importance of large logs and native grasses for biodiversity touched on.

Of particular interest to me was Chapter Seven: ‘Managing wildlife friendly farms’. This chapter ties together the previous topics, and explains the do’s and don’ts of managing an ecologically sustainable farm. Habitat protection and restoration is discussed, as is the importance of evidence-based farm planning.

Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes explores ecologically sustainable farming in short and concise chapters, but manages to do so without sparing the science or importance of each topic. The authors explain the science behind the findings, allowing the reader to better understand the text, and also manage to slip small snippets of interest into each chapter. This book will prove valuable to anyone managing agricultural land, but is also an excellent read just for interest’s sake. The authors’ book dedication to ‘the many farmers…doing outstanding restoration and management’ also highlights some of the important work being done by farmers in the fight to protect and enhance our nation’s biodiversity.

 This book belongs on your bookshelf if... You’re interested in agricultural ecology, you manage a rural or agricultural property or you want to learn more about the biodiversity found on farms.

Head to the CSIRO Publishing website to purchase your copy. 


Emma Walsh

Emma Walsh is a science graduate who enjoys sharing her love of nature with others. In the past, she has worked as a wildlife presenter, and enjoys teaching children about our native wildlife and its conservation. Her other interests include gardening and bushwalking.


Cover image via Wiki Commons/Nick Pitsas (CSIRO).