Our research focuses on the population dynamics of plants and how they are influenced by impacts of natural disturbances and global environmental change. We are particularly interested in the interactive effects of fire, grazing and drought in grasslands and woodlands in southern Australia, and how climate change, fragmentation and shrub encroachment affect ecosystems.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Victorian Bush - its 'original and natural' condition

The Victorian Bush is a book by ex-forester Ron Hateley that encourages a re-examination of popular beliefs about the historical role of fire in Victoria and its use in landscape management. It uses historical accounts of early surveyors and settlers, amongst others, to examine the nature of the Victorian landscape at the time of european settlement, and how the ecology of the bush may have changed in the interim.

Hateley challenges the widely held view that aboriginals dramatically changed the nature of Victorian forests through ‘firestick farming’, i.e. regular and extensive burning of the landscape as a means of ensuring a plentiful supply of food. This is diameterically opposed to the views presented in another recent book utilising historical ecology by Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth - How Aborigines Made Australia; Allen & Unwin, 2011) who proposes that aboriginal burning was responsible for transforming large tracts of land into an ‘open and park-like’ state. It's the most interesting aspect of his book - examining the weight of evidence for understanding the role of fire in southern Australia.

While Hateley acknowledges the widespread use of fire by aboriginals, he suggests that its influence in Victoria has been vastly exaggerated. He challenges the oft-repeated claims of proponents of frequent fire that have extrapolated evidence from northern Australia to assume that aboriginal burning practices in the savannas were also employed in the forests of south-eastern Australia. The primary evidence suggests that the tall wet sclerophyll forests and temperate rainforests of south-eastern Australia were characterised by a thick understorey and not subject to regular firing by humans prior to European settlement. Phil Zylstra's research, based on dendrochronology and charcoal and pollen deposits, supports Hateley's view here; fire frequency in the Australian Alps and the wet sclerophyll forests of south-eastern Australia, for example, has substantially increased (not decreased) since European settlement.

This book encourages us to think about issues such as fire management and landscape reconstruction, and to question simplified interpretations of nature. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in vegetation dynamics, landscape history and ecological management. The Victorian Bush – its ‘original and natural’ condition is available from Polybractea Press www.polybracteapress.com.au