Dismantling feral ecosystems

Basalt escarpent, overrun with serrated tussock

I’ve been privileged to work for a few weeks on a basalt escarpment in Melbourne’s western suburbs. The area is spectacular; I love the views and geology and flora of the escarpments. Even this one, which is seriously infested with invasive exotic species.

The section I’m working on is overrun with serrated tussock (Nasella trichotoma), a South American native that causes big problems in agriculture and native grasslands. It’s an attractive species, but tends to smother everything around it – and its seeding panicles (seedheads) break off and blow in the wind, spreading it far and wide. Native animals, stock, and even rabbits barely touch it, preferring to eat almost anything else including all the native species. So it has a great competitive advantage, and easily takes over (especially under heavy grazing). It sets thousands of seed per plant, building up a huge reservoir in the soil seed bank. Continue reading


Autumn burning

Here’s a few photos of an ecological burn I was privileged to be on for work. Hopefully I can explain a bit of the why and how as far as burning native grasslands goes.

The grasses here were forming a thick thatch of dead matter, which can smother out all the smaller plants, annuals, and even the grasses themselves eventually. I arrived early so I had a bit of a walk around and although it was a great patch of Themeda triandra (kangaroo grass), it was getting a bit rank. You couldn’t see a single square centimetre of bare ground.

Autumn burns remove all that mostly dead biomass so that the winter growing C3 grasses have a chance, and many of the herbaceous plants (think: wildflowers). Come next summer, the Themeda will also take off again. It may be choking everything out again within a couple of years, needing another burn; if the local climate is dry, it might take a bit longer. Continue reading

Far, far away

A review of two books and partial review of a third. Details of books at end.

Steppe. Something you may have heard of in tales of the Cossacks and Scythians in European history and literature. What is it?

I bought the book Steppes: The plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions for a global, biogeographical comparison with Australia’s temperate grassland bioregions. And indeed, there are many parallels. But as I learned, Australia does not really have steppe in the sense this book uses the word.

Continue reading

Required re-education readings: Dark Emu

An abridged version of this review has been published by Green Left Weekly

As a kid the way I was taught about Indigenous people was terrible. For one thing, the understanding of the Indigenous economy and technology was non-existent. I had this picture of people living in homes basically made of a bit of bark and maybe grass and sticks leaned up against a tree trunk. Kind of like I often now see kids doing  to make cubby houses. The impression was they spent their time wandering around and occasionally spearing a kangaroo or goanna for dinner.

Over the years I picked up bits and pieces of a more realistic and less insulting picture of Indigenous life, but it wasn’t really until I read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe that it all fell into place such that I can maybe imagine in some detail how people lived.

The original inhabitants of Australia built comfortable huts of various materials, including stone in some areas. They farmed grains and root vegetables as staple crops in many areas. They created dams and weirs and canals to hold and move water. They traded valuable products like axeheads and smoked eels and fabulous possum-skin cloaks.

I don’t know if the valley here was a settlement, but I will guess what it could have looked like. Perhaps on the higher edges of the broad floodplain there were villages of huts made from basalt blocks and bent-over wattle trees and bundled reeds, comfortable insulated shelters in winter rain or summer sun. Earth ovens would cook feasts maybe of the bustard and mallee-fowl that used to live around here, and the yam daisy (from which the town Myrniong takes its name) which was probably farmed, maybe on the rich alluvial soils. Continue reading

Grasslands: every bit counts

Dumbarton St grassland

I visited the Dumbarton St grassland in Reservoir the other day. It was brought to my attention via an online petition asking the government not to sell it off for housing (please go there and sign!). It’s a large vacant block in a residential street, backing onto a linear reserve for a pipeline/aqueduct.

It doesn’t look much from the street, although grasslands often have that problem. The front half is mown and the back half is dominated by rank exotic grasses of the kind that tend to infest wasteland everywhere.

But in the centre is a small Eucalyptus tree (I think it was a River Red Gum), and in a halo around it, a spread of native grassland plants with few weeds among them. The Eucalypt probably takes enough moisture from the soil that the fast-living exotic invaders don’t bother with that area. So here there’s some mat-rush (Lomandra species), Bindweed (Convolvulus angustissimus), Nodding Saltbush (Einadia nutans), native tussock-grass (Poa species) and quite a lot of the once-ubiquitous Kangaroo Grass (Themeda triandra). And even among the weedy grasses, closer inspection reveals patches of Themeda are scattered here and there, and Convolvulus twining around the grass stems. Continue reading

It is the silly season already!

Just because you can, doesn’t mean it’s OK. Reblogged from VVP CMN

Victorian Volcanic Plains Conservation Management Network

I always think of Christmas as the silly season and that has started already with Christmas trees and other decorations  in the larger stores and we haven’t even had the Grand Final.

The other ‘silly season’ is when contractors think it is OK to drive on wet #VVP grassland roadsides and that it won’t cause any damage. I took these photos yesterday on a roadside in Moorabool Shire. Lucky for them it is not a high conservation value roadside, but still no excuse to drive off road or through a small wetland area.

                                                 small seasonal roadside wetland

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Planting native grass to control mosquito borne disease

Yellow robin

Did you know that if you want to control mosquito borne disease it may help to plant native grasses? The reasoning as to why this might be so is a bit of a yarn. Bear with me.

Living near a river, mosquitoes are inevitable, but some times they are worse than others. And they are a worry, as mosquito-borne diseases like Ross River Fever and maybe even the sinister “Buruli ulcer” are becoming more common even in Melbourne.

Microbats, those little flutterers that are about the size of a mouse (“flittermice” is an old name), eat about half their body weight in insects every night. Including mosquitoes. Up to 500 insects an hour. But the bats need somewhere to hang out and sleep during the day, and this is typically in little crevices and hollows in old trees. Continue reading