September walk cancelled

We have decided to cancel Geoff Nevill’s September FOBIF bushwalk due to the current restrictions on group gatherings. Hopefully we will be able to offer the walk next year.

The October walk in the Fryers Ridge will be led by Christine Henderson. Check out the details here. Once again check this website beforehand.

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In case you missed it…

ABC Television’s Gardening Australia program ran a segment on our local bushlands on August 20.

Gardening Australia’s Millie Ross (right) discusses carnivorous plants with Cassia Read. The program covered soil crusts, Ironbarks and quite a lot in between.

The program, filmed on the Monk, packed a lot into its 8 minute duration. Local ecologist Cassia Read invited viewers to take a close up look at their surrounds, starting from the ground up; and presenter Millie Ross reminded us that gold was just a ‘moment’ in the history of this place, and that we would do well to take the long view on what is of value in it.

You can find the program on iview, here. The segment starts just after 29 minutes.

And while we’re on the subject of looking about us,  it’s National Wattle Day this Wednesday, September 1: not a big day on the calendar, maybe, but worth a moment’s reflection. We recommend Megan Backhouse’s short Age article on wattles, here.

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Ian Higgins: A world lost…A world to regain?

The nature and function of peas

The lush grasslands Major Mitchell called Australia Felix in 1836 were the starting point of Ian Higgins’s inspirational talk to the FOBIF AGM on August 9.

The park-like scenes which so excited Mitchell were the end-product of processes the Major knew nothing about: Indigenous management, and a botanical complex entirely suited to the soils and climate of Victoria.

Mitchell spoke in ‘rhapsodic terms about how brilliant the native pastures were.’ Legumes—native pea plants — were the nitrogen fixing engines of these pastures…

‘Inert Nitrogen gas is abundant in the atmosphere, but needs to be chemically “fixed” in the soil for it to be made available to plants, for which it is an essential growth nutrient.  While the chemical “fixing” is always done by micro-organisms, some plants host these organisms allowing them to work faster.  The best known are the legume plants, all of which now belong to the Fabaceae family—including our native peas.

Globally, legumes and other natural processes create the vast majority of fixed nitrogen, but since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have been used to “fix” nitrogen into ammonia (which is then modified into fertilisers).  Widespread and increasing application of artificial nitrogen fertiliser is now a global problem degrading waterways and polluting groundwater (not to mention the greenhouse gas consequences of their production).

The fate of native legumes in pastoral lands

Mitchell did not understand the importance of peas to the health of our grasslands, and neither did the pastoralists who followed him.

It took less than five years for the rich native pastures of Victoria to be degraded by European practices.  Pastoralist John Robertson, described the fate of these idyllic landscapes in 1853, after just 3-4 years of his management:

‘Many of our herbaceous plants (which included 37 species of grasses) began to disappear from the pasture land… and die in our deep clay soil with a few hot days in spring, and nothing returns to supply their place until later in the winter following. The consequence is that the long deep-rooted grasses that hold our strong clay hill together have died out;  the ground is now exposed to the sun, and it has cracked in all directions, and the clay hills are slipping in all directions; also the sides of precipitous creeks—long slips, taking trees and all with them…

‘…One day all the creeks and little watercourses were covered with a large tussocky grass, with other grasses and plants, to the middle of every watercourse…now that the only soil is being trodden hard with hard with stock, springs of salt water are bursting out in every hollow or watercourse, and as it trickles down the watercourse in summer, the strong tussocky grasses die before it…the clay is left perfectly bare in summer…Now mostly every little gully has a deep rut…ruts seven, eight and ten feet deep, and as wide, are found for miles…

‘…And after all the experiments I worked with English grasses, I have never found any of them that will replace our native sward. The day the soil is turned up, that day the pasture is gone for ever as far as I know.’ 

In SE Australia, the agricultural solution to widespread depletion of soil nitrogen was the introduction of exotic legumes, particularly, subterranean clover.  This is a technique known as ley farming, where crop or pasture species are interspersed in time or space with legumes to maintain soil nitrogen that would otherwise diminish with every harvest.

Unlike our native legumes, the exotics couldn’t be sustained on our infertile soil without the addition of phosphate fertiliser—in Australia, usually as “superphosphate”.

The “sub and super” combination certainly was a revolution in terms of propping up exotic (foreign species) based agriculture for a century, but it was the death knell for many native species that until the advent of aerial fertiliser broadcasting, could persist in steep or rocky bush paddocks.

Where imposed, this high fertility regime brought about widespread dieback of trees, worsened the dryland salinity problem and, wiped out most of our native herbaceous plants, which cannot compete with the luxuriant growth of pasture composed of invasive species.  Locally, our indigenous leguminous herbs that were once typical components of grasslands and woodlands are now extinct or almost so.

Having ransacked the Pacific islands for its phosphate supply, Australia and the rest of the world may soon face “peak phosphate”.  Regardless, inexorably rising prices will eventually make phosphate dependent exotic ley farming unsustainable in naturally infertile areas.

When that happens, wouldn’t it be nice to have some native legumes that can thrive in low phosphate landscapes!

Could the lost world of native pasture lands be brought back?

Ian presented pictorial profiles of the native peas of our region that are now locally rare, endangered or extinct.  All but one of these are herbaceous and would have been among those that greeted the Mitchell expedition, and caused him to call Western Victoria ‘Australia Felix’.

Ian posed a challenge for local enviro groups and concerned citizens: “Can we not, in our environmentally aware community restore these species to viable, wild populations?”.

The table below lists these plants.  The botanical names are hyperlinked to photos on another of Ian’s projects, the VicVeg Online website.

Common name Botanical name Indigenous ley farming opportunity?
Slender tick-trefoil Desmodium varians
Clover glycine Glycine latrobeana
Variable glycine Glycine tabacina
Austral Trefoil Lotus australis
Southern Swainson-pea Swainsona behriana
Broughton Pea Swainsona procumbens ✖ (toxic to introduced livestock)
Emu-foot or Tough Scurf-pea Cullen tenax
Golden Spray Viminaria juncea ✖ (woody shrub)


Ian said: “there’s good reasons for hoping that we can get back some of these plants in our district”.  One was that Mount Alexander Shire has more landcare and environmentally focussed groups than anywhere else in Victoria.  He encourages us to request these plants from local indigenous nurseries and grow them in whatever way we can manage: even in gardens or in pots they can produce more seed which is in extremely short supply.

Another was that amazing things can happen once fertility of soil is reduced.  As an example, Ian noted the reappearance of orchids in his suburban native grass lawn established on top of repeatedly disturbed soil mixed with building rubble.  This happened by itself once the fertility was reduced by removing the lawn clippings over a period of twenty years or so.

Lastly, the regenerative agriculture movement described by Charles Massey in his book, Call of the reed warbler offers a more sustainable approach to agricultural production.  Pastoralists working in this field seek to return perennial native grasses and other herbs through grazing management.  They understand that high fertiliser applications are counterproductive.  Ian proposed engaging with the regenerative agriculture movement as one way we might restore our native pasture legumes to the district.

On a sobering note, he pointed out that plants constitute 57% of endangered species, but get only 4% of funding devoted to their conservation management.

‘Plant blindness is a terrible affliction’

Although our herbaceous peas have declined dramatically, we still have many pea species in our district.  The story of their survival is also linked to phosphate levels.  The more fertile parts of our region that supported grasslands and woodlands were preferentially converted to agriculture, exterminating our herbaceous peas in the process.

In contrast, much of the low fertility sedimentary ranges were left relatively unscathed by farming (though often ravaged by gold mining).  Here, a wonderful variety of forest pea shrubs still survives and thrives, thanks to their evolution of sclerophylly and other traits that enabled them to cope with extremely low levels of soil phosphate.

Their diversity is bewildering to beginners at plant identification who often resort to the old “egg and bacon flower” as a generic name to cover the twenty or so local species.

Ian acknowledged this difficulty and gave a run down on ID guides to plants over the decades, before launching FOBIF’s Native peas of the Mount Alexander region, which he very kindly placed in company of such wonderful guides as that by Leon Costermans.  Plant identification, he argued, is ‘a way to deal with reality’, and added: ‘Plant blindness is a terrible affliction’.

Part of the cure for this affliction is now –potentially—in our hands!

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Slime mould knows the way out of Ikea!

Here’s a curious note on slime mould research, from the London Review of books :

Trichia affinis in a Castlemaine garden: slime moulds are very mysterious life forms: not plants, not fungi, a little bit like animals. If they can find their way out of Ikea, maybe they have something to teach us?

‘The mycologist Lynne Boddy once made a scale model of Britain out of soil, placing blocks of fungus-colonised wood at the points of the major cities; the blocks were sized proportionately to the places they represented. Mycelial networks quickly grew between the blocks: the web they created reproduced the pattern of the UK’s motorways (‘You could see the M5, M4, M1, M6’). Other researchers have set slime mould loose on tiny scale-models of Tokyo with food placed at the major hubs (in a single day they reproduced the form of the subway system) and on maps of Ikea (they found the exit, more efficiently than the scientists who set the task). Slime moulds are so good at this kind of puzzle that researchers are now using them to plan urban transport networks and fire-escape routes for large buildings.’

We’re not exactly sure what to conclude from this, except that it suggests that fungi and slime moulds would be terrific subjects for research.

And adapting Ian Higgins’s assertion (see our post), we could say, ‘Nature blindness is a terrible thing!’ So, if you’re looking for some lockdown reading, here are a few suggestions:

Alison Pouliot The allure of fungi: a book of amazement, beautifully illustrated.

Alison Pouliot and Tom May: Wild mushrooming– fungi for foragers. How to tell the delicious from the deadly!

Joy Clusker and Ray Wallace: Fungi of the Bendigo region. The one to carry around our bushlands…

Sarah Lloyd: Where the slime mould creeps. This book is a real eye opener. Sarah’s talk at the FOBIF AGM a few years ago was a hit, and her Instagram photos are astonishing.

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A walk on the high side

A small group took on FOBIF’s August walk in brisk sunny weather yesterday. The route started below the Expedition Pass spillway and negotiated the western end of the Reservoir and up to the highest point of Specimen Gully Road, then back along the top of the ridge above the Res.

The spillway, Expedition Pass reservoir, August 15: the water is not an everyday sight.


The spillway was flowing freely—not something you see every day of the year. Hovea and Hardenbergia were in prolific flower, some unusually grand Stringybarks were passed along the way, and the views from the ridge top were, as expected, exhilarating–taking in a sweep from Mount Alexander around to Macedon, Franklin and Kooroocheang.

The distance covered: between 9 and 10.8 kilometres—the best minds in the group were unable to reach agreement!

Our thanks to Barb Guerin and Lionel Jenkins for devising a terrifically interesting route, and negotiating passage from no less than five landowners.

Next month’s walk is planned for the Muckleford Forest. Given the possibility of changed virus regulations, please check the website before the due date.

Photos by Liz Martin (first 10 photos) and Bernard Slattery (last 2 photos):

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Strategic fuel breaks planned for our region

Discussions have begun over the government’s Strategic Fuel Breaks program, set to come to this region in the next few months.

The program is described here. There are two kinds of break:

Asset protection breaks, to be set up around settlements. These consist of areas 40 metres wide, mown down to 10 centimetres, and maintained permanently in this state. In principle, FOBIF has no problem with this program. In fact we’ve been banging on for years about the desirability of focussing safety measures around settlements.

Fryers Ridge road: we’re concerned to see the detail of how a Landscape Protection break would look along this road.

Asset protection breaks were noted in the recent draft Bendigo bushfire mitigation plan as ‘the most urgent works’ for that region. Interestingly, however, they appear to have lost priority, because of the complexities of working with settlement boundaries. Instead, the project in this region seems to be focussing on

Landscape Protection breaks. These are also up to 40 metres wide, along roads through forested areas.

The details of these breaks are less clear. According to the DELWP website,

‘Depending on their purpose, Strategic Fuel Breaks are fuel reduced areas up to 40m wide, that once established, will resemble open grassy wood or heath lands. They involve the permanent reduction of bushy vegetation through mulching and slashing, and the removal of hazardous trees and impediments to maintenance such as stumps, logs and branches.’

Could the fuel reduced areas in these forest breaks be ‘grassy wood or heathlands’? And what, exactly, would that mean? We have received mixed messages on this. At a meeting in the Fryers Forest last Friday, representatives of FOBIF, the Castlemaine Field Naturalists and local landcare met with project leaders to clarify the question. The answers were encouraging, but the matter is still under discussion.

In the meantime, FOBIF’s position is that

–Asset protection breaks should be a priority, and that

–Landscape Protection Breaks might be a good idea—depending on how they’re implemented. Given that breaks are proposed to run the length of the Fryers Ridge and Porcupine Ridge roads, and several other environmentally important parts of our bushlands, this is a vital point. We’ve repeatedly had problems with managers’ trackside maintenance (for a sample horror story, check here), and are fearful of repeats on a grand scale.

A further point is that the Strategic fuel breaks program seems to be independent of the Fire Operations plans. We’re confused by this and are seeking clarification.

Discussions on the project are ongoing–but it seems that works will start before the end of the year…

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Fuel management: the detail counts

FOBIF has made a submission to DELWP on the current fire management plan. The ‘fuel reduction’ burns currently planned can be seen on the Department’s excellent interactive map here.

Our submission essentially related to the following:

–We believe burns planned for the Wewak and Helge tracks are far too big—collectively they are far and away the biggest area planned for burning for decades. See our previous posts here , here, and here.

–We have enquired as to the approach to be taken to the Columbine Creek burn, especially in relation to its past burn history. See our post here

–The burn plan envisages another attempt to burn a section of Kalimna Park burned only last year. We ask in what way this year’s attempt will be different. See our post here

–We ask how the Department’s plans for Walmer state forest allow for the presence in the zone of the rare plant Grevillea dryophylla.

We have also asked for clarification as to the relation of the planned burn program to the Fuel Breaks project which is currently under discussion for this region (see Post above). There doesn’t actually seem to be much connection between the two programs—at this stage we’re a little confused by this fact.

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Forty participants logged in to last Monday’s FOBIF AGM by Zoom. They heard an inspirational talk by Ian Higgins on the disappearance of Australian native pea plants—the lost world of Mitchell’s Australia Felix—and their possible return to our landscapes. A detailed report on Ian’s talk will be posted on this site in the next week or so.

President Marie Jones reviewed the group activities for the year: a continual round of negotiations with land managers, submissions to government, and cooperation with like-minded groups. Our monthly walks program attracts good numbers. We lobbied for a full time environment officer position at the Shire, and were pleased with the outcome. We are positive about the Balak kalik manya ‘walking together’ project for Kalimna Park, and about indigenous co-management generally. Our publications have continued to sell very well, our recent guide to native peas almost selling out in few months. Our upcoming guide to bushwalks in the region is due for publication in the coming month.

Elections were held for the FOBIF committee for 2021. The following were elected unopposed:

President: Marie Jones

Vice President: Neville Cooper

Secretary: Bernard Slattery

Treasurer: Lynette Amaterstein

Committee members: Asha Bannon, Jeremy Holland, Frank Panter, Cassia Read, Bronwyn Silver

There remain two vacant positions on the committee for ordinary members.

Remember: FOBIF committee meetings are open to all members. They’re at the Continuing Education building in Templeton Street at 6 pm on the second Monday of every month except January.


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Oh well: maybe it had to come to this…

We’ve seen them floating onto beaches in other parts of the world. We see them lying around in gutters…Maybe it was inevitable we’d see one flying through the air and landing in the trees: a small offshoot of virus conditions, and another cryptic comment on how our culture relates to nature?

Not so cute: Native Cherry with mask, Castlemaine.


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August 15 FOBIF walk

Next Sunday’s walk, Beyond the Res (11), will go ahead but people will have to register with FOBIF beforehand ( New regulations in regional Victoria allow 10 people in a group outside. We will have 2 groups of 10, one led by Barb Guerin and the other by Lionel Jenkins. Due to current regulations masks must be worn on the walk. You can find out more about the walk here. We will be meeting as usual outside the Community House in Templeton Street at 9.30.  

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