Our EcoCheck series takes the pulse of some of Australia’s most important ecosystems to find out if they’re in good health or on the wane.
When Europeans first saw Victoria’s native grasslands in the 1830s, they were struck by the vast beauty of the landscape, as well as its productive potential.
The explorer Sir Thomas Mitchell described the western Victorian plains as “an open grassy country, extending as far as we could see … resembling a nobleman’s park on a gigantic scale”. His fellow pioneer John Batman, in 1835, described the grassy plains to the north and west of what is now Melbourne as “the most beautiful sheep pasturage I ever saw in my life”.
The native temperate grasslands of southeastern Australia are a group of ecosystems defined mainly by the presence of dominant native grasses. Trees are either completely absent, or occur in very low numbers.
In Victoria, native grasslands can be found on the volcanic plains that stretch from Melbourne as far west as Hamilton. Despite their rather plain name, native grasslands are extraordinarily diverse, containing many species of wildflowers that grow between the tussocks of grasses.
It is possible to find more than 25 different plant species in a single square metre of native grassland, and the wildflowers produce dazzling displays of colour during spring.
The animals that inhabit these grasslands are equally diverse and fascinating. The striped legless lizard, grassland earless dragon and golden sun moth are three that live there today, although many others are now locally extinct. One can only imagine how impressive it would have been to see brolgas, rufous bettongs and eastern barred bandicoots roaming, nesting and digging on these plains.
Native grasslands were a significant food source for Aboriginal people. They provided both meat (kangaroos and other grazing animals were attracted to the open grassy landscapes) and vegetables.
Fire is critical to maintaining the diversity and health of native grasslands, and fire regimes used by Indigenous people are an important aspect of grassland management.
Plains to pasture
The story of Victoria’s native grasslands since European settlement is not a happy one. Grasslands offer extremely fertile land (by Australian standards, at least), which made them attractive for agriculture and grazing. Overgrazing by sheep and cattle, the addition of fertilisers to “improve” pastures, and changes to the frequency and extent of fires in the landscape led to a noticeable degradation of Victoria’s native grasslands by the early 20th century.
Since then, habitat loss and degradation from intensive grazing, cropping and – more recently – urbanisation have reduced the native grasslands of the Victorian volcanic plain to less than 1% of their original extent (as documented in the paper titled “Vegetation of the Victorian Volcanic Plain” available here).
Land clearing for urban development continues to pose a major threat to Victoria’s native grasslands. Many remnants exist in and around Melbourne’s key urban growth corridors.
A 15,000-hectare grassland reserve is planned to the west of the city to offset the losses that will occur as Melbourne grows. This is an exciting prospect – such a large reserve would provide an opportunity to showcase this threatened ecosystem on a landscape-wide scale.
But successful implementation of this reserve requires significant investment in restoration and management, and only time will tell whether it truly compensates for the inevitable losses elsewhere.
Saving what remains
A major challenge for the conservation of Victoria’s native grasslands is to maintain the patches that remain. These remnants, nestled in agricultural and urban landscapes, are often small and fragmented, and are subject to threats such as weed invasion and broad-scale use of herbicides and fertilisers.
Without regular fires or some other form of biomass removal, the native grasses grow too big and smother the wildflowers. Over time, grasslands can lose their species diversity, and with it the intricate beauty of their varied wildflowers.
On the face of it, the prognosis for these grasslands does not look great. They are certainly one of Australia’s most endangered ecosystems, and their conservation must necessarily occur alongside human-dominated land uses. This brings social challenges as well as ecological ones.
Native grasslands suffer from a public relations problem. The need for regular fires is not always well aligned with objectives for human land uses. What’s more, all those wildflowers only appear in season, and even then their beauty is only really evident at close quarters.
But grasslands have a few tricks up their sleeves. First, high-quality grasslands can be maintained in relatively small patches. There are some great examples around Melbourne, including the Evans Street Native Grassland, which covers just 4 hectares. But as tiny as they are, these reserves can be just as diverse as larger grassland remnants.
Second, native grasslands can be surprisingly resilient, in both urban and agricultural landscapes. A case in point is the tiny grassland at the Watergardens shopping centre northwest of Melbourne, which has been maintained despite being completely surrounded by a car park. Several high-quality grasslands in pastoral areas have been maintained for decades under grazing at low stocking rates.
Third, native grasslands represent a great opportunity to engage urban residents with nature in cities. Many beautiful remnants exist in some of Melbourne’s newest suburbs. Some already benefit from the efforts of dedicated community groups, while others are still waiting to be discovered.
Grasslands in other parts of the world, such as North America’s prairies or the African savannah, are viewed with romanticism and awe. In the Australian consciousness, grasslands take a back seat to the mythical outback. But the future of the grasslands of southeastern Victoria may well depend on our capacity to generate the same public profile for this truly remarkable but critically endangered ecosystem.
Are you a researcher who studies an iconic Australian ecosystem and would like to give it an EcoCheck? Get in touch.
The link below is to an article reporting on the rediscovery of the Night Parrot in western Queensland, Australia.
The link below is to a photo gallery of photos of various sites throughout western Victoria.
Travellers to the Barrington Tops are being warned that outlaw and modern bushranger Malcolm Naden is suspected of hiding out in the remote wilderness area. There is currently a $50 000 reward for information that leads to his capture. He is the most wanted person in New South Wales, suspected of being involved in the disappearance of his cousin Lateesha Nolan and the murder of Kristy Scholes in 2005 at Dubbo.
Naden has sought refuge in the bush in the region bordered by Dubbo in the west and Kempsey in the east since 2005. During this time he has broken into homes, stealing non-perishable food items, camping gear and other equipment required to survive the bushland in which he hides and lives. He is known to be an expert bushman.
Naden first hid in the Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo and has since been known to have been in the vicinity of the Barrington Tops. In 2008 he was known to be in the vicinity of Stewarts Brook, in the western Barrington Tops area. In January 2009 he was known to be at Bellbrook, west of Kempsey. Three months ago he was known to be at Mount Mooney, in the northern Barrington Tops. It is thought that he is also responsible for similar break-ins around the Mount Mooney area in late August 2010. There have been a large number of break-ins across the region this year. He is believed to be armed, with a rifle having been stolen in one of the break-ins. Not all of the break-ins are confirmed as being committed by Malcolm Naden, but they all seem to bear his signature.
According to local newspapers, it is also believed that kangaroo carcasses have been found in the Barrington Tops, butchered in an expert manner. Naden was an abattoir worker and similar carcasses were found at the Dubbo zoo when Naden was hiding there.
The area in which Malcolm Naden is thought to be hiding was once the hideout for the bushranger known as ‘Captain Thunderbolt.’ Naden seems to be following in Thunderbolt’s footsteps in more ways than one.
For more on Malcolm Naden visit:
The planning for my holiday is now well and truly underway, with the holiday now being referred to as my ‘NSW Road Trip 2010.’ There is also a website address for viewing my itinerary and for following my progress. It has been a rushed process in the end, organising this road trip, so there will yet be some changes to the itinerary.
I am expecting changes in far western NSW due to road conditions, especially given recent weather conditions out that way, including the widespread rain and flooding that has taken place. Given I have only got a small rental for this trip, I am not really prepared to take the car onto certain roads (which I believe will be part of the rental agreement anyway).
At this stage I am expecting to miss Ivanhoe and head for Mildura instead. I also expect to miss Tibooburra in the far northwest corner of the state, as the Silver City Highway is largely dirt. With these probable changes to the itinerary, I will also miss driving through the Menindee Lakes area, which really was something I was hoping to see – another time perhaps.
On another ‘track,’ I found our that the hottest February temperature experienced in Ivanhoe was around 48 degrees Celsius. No, not the reason I am thinking of bypassing Ivanhoe – most centres out west have similar temperatures in February anyway.