New honour for Jaara elder Uncle Brien Nelson

At a ceremony in Melbourne last week senior Jaara elder Uncle Brien Nelson was included in the Victorian Aboriginal honour roll.

For many years Uncle Brien has been one of this community’s most distinguished cultural leaders. In 2009 he was made an honorary associate of Latrobe University, for which he has made a number of films with Gerry Gill, who described him at the time as a ‘pre-eminent Aboriginal leader, who has made an extraordinary lifelong contribution to the recognition of indigenous culture and reconciliation.’ Uncle Brien’s response was a characteristic mixture of eloquence and self effacement, including his summing up: ‘I never thought I’d be honoured by anything or anyone. I was happy just to be there.’  This time he was too ill to attend the ceremony, but his daughter played a video in which he said, in the same spirit: ‘Thank you for taking the time to listen to a person’s dreams.’

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Is it all the way downhill from here?

Guess what? Long unburnt box ironbark environments are more likely to recover from drought stress than ones which have been recently burned!

This is one of the findings of the ‘Either side of the Big Wet’ research project, the gloomy findings of which were outlined at the Arthur Rylah Institute last Monday.

The project was designed to measure how environments responded to the millennium drought [1997-2010], and their resilience [how they recovered] during the wet years [2010-2011] and after [to 2016]. The findings were pretty depressing, but for those prepared to look, there are lessons in them for land managers.

The research area included 120 transects across the Box Ironbark region from St Arnaud eastwards towards Rushworth, and four important sections of the Murray floodplain from Chowilla in the west to Barmah in the west. ‘Resilience’ was defined as the ability of species to recover after stress.

Monday’s presentations were necessarily heavily statistical in emphasis, but they can be brutally summarised as follows:

–Most bird species were found in fewer transects and were less abundant in 2016 compared to 1997, in spite of a partial recovery in the wet years 2010-2011.

–Plains amphibians were doing even worse, with ‘little evidence of breeding activity’.

–Box ironbark vegetation showed decreases in litter, large trees and higher shrubs and increases in dead saplings and hollows. The wet years weren’t enough to arrest the decline. Sites surrounded by woodlands declined more during the drought, but recovered better. Significantly [from FOBIF’s point of view] vegetation showed higher resilience in long unburnt areas.

–On floodplain vegetation, it was found that the proportion of woodland classified as ‘good’ declined from 60% to 28% over the period. It seems that ‘big wet’ years between droughts are not enough to arrest declines.

Overall, the research seemed to conclude that the legacy of big droughts lives on, that short wet periods don’t bring full recovery, and what recovery they do bring is eroded by subsequent dry spells.

Further, the area in question faces pressure from climate change and expanding human populations, with consequent exploitation of water resources and land for residences.

The project was conducted by researchers from Melbourne and Canberra universities and the ARI.


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OK, we have some facts: what do we do with them?

A disappointing feature of the ARI gathering was the disconnect between the findings and any possible management implications. Several questions aiming to find a practical response to the research were batted away. It’s very obvious that there are in fact serious policy and management challenges in this kind of research: to do with fire practices and water management, for starters.

The low point in the gathering came with this exchange:

Question: This a pretty doom and gloom scenario. Can you show us some positive prospects?…For example, if you had a hundred million dollars to spend on measures to improve resilience, what would you recommend?

Answer: If I had a hundred million dollars, I’d be out of here.

This is an amazingly flippant answer, the effect of which was not softened by some subsequent very general remarks about control on development . This research was financed significantly by several Victorian land management agencies, including the NCCMA, DELWP and Parks Victoria. Let’s hope they, and the public, draw some urgent practical conclusions from it.

For our part, we’ll write to local fire managers and ask what conclusions they can draw from the finding that long unburnt box ironbark environments are more resilient to drought conditions. We still haven’t quite recovered from an answer given to us by DSE in 2012 in response to a question we put them about their disastrous Tarilta valley burn. The question was, what was the ecological reason for the burn? The answer: ‘Apart from several small bush fires, the burn area has no known fire history. The ecological objective of the burn was to introduce fire into the long unburnt forest.’ If the current research is right, that burn—and a few others like it—significantly reduced the resilience of that patch of bush.

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Frogs wanted

The photo below shows two out of the three ponds created in Victoria Gully Castlemaine, by the Victoria Gully group. The ponds are designed to take runoff from nearby streets, and are to be planted with rushes and tussock grasses suitable for frog habitat.

Two of the three ponds in Victoria Gully: long term frog prospects are hopeful.

The chain of ponds is designed to be intermittently full, and it will play a small part in reducing runoff to Forest Creek in times of heavy rain. The group has been working in the area for several years attacking broom and gorse infestations, and has created two exclusion plots in the degraded gully. The Vic Gully group is auspiced by FOBIF.

Heavy rain over November 16 and 17 over the town of Castlemaine [falls were localised and variable] made a small dent in an otherwise dry prospect, and filled the ponds to overflowing. Falls this year are significantly below long term averages. Apart from big falls in April [141 mls, a hundred more than the average!], nearly every month has been significantly down, the worst being 6 mls in June, 50 mls below average]. Gloomy prognostications aside, however, we live in hope.

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FOBIF 2017 breakup

On Monday 11 December Friends of the Box-Ironbark Forest is having a BBQ at Bronwyn Silver’s place in Walmer.

It starts at 6 pm and the address is 1036 Muckleford-Walmer Road, Walmer. 

*  food to share, including something for the BBQ if you like

*  crockery – plate, cups, cutlery
*  drinks 
*  a chair

All FOBIF members are welcome but please RSVP to Bronwyn: 0448751111 or 

Gold Dust Wattle and eucalypts reflected in the dam near the BBQ area

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Red Gums: good news vs bad news

So, what’s going on with our River Red Gums?

We noted last year how lots of them were looking pretty dire, and this year is, if anything, worse: whole roadsides and paddocks in this region and beyond are looking pretty desolate where the Red Gum is the dominant tree.

Damaged Red Gums east of Mount Alexander, November 2017: Psyllid attack is devastating the foliage.

The main culprit, it seems, is the Psyllid lerp, a leaf munching creature whose larvae suck out the nutrients from the tree leaf. The result is often the eventual death of the leaf, and the presently common spectacle of trees with sparse or dead looking foliage.

The good news is that these infestations come and go, and in the natural order of things, the trees come back. If you look closely at some of the apparently terminal trees around the place, you can see fresh leaf growth coming on. And we’ve had the experience of the Stringybark forests in the south of our region a few years ago being absolutely stripped by colourful but gluttonous cup moth larvae. They recovered.

Fightback: new growth emerges on damaged Red Gum, Campbells Creek, November 2017.

The potentially bad news is that distortions in natural conditions may make the trees less resistant to such attacks. Extended drought conditions, for example, may not only weaken trees, but cause bird populations to decline.

This latter is important because birds—specifically pardalotes—are among the most effective predators of Psyllid lerps.

The moral of the story is: maintain forest and woodland resilience by protecting diverse understorey habitat for important birds and insects, and creating vegetation corridors to link vulnerable tree populations.

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And on the subject of lerps, pardalotes and others…

While we’re on the subject of encouraging good bird habitat, readers may be interested in these two events:

First, you can do your bit for the pardalote! Earth to pardalote is a workshop on how to create win-win gardens for people and wildlife. It’s being run by Cassia Read next Saturday from 10 to 12 at the Diggers Store, 61 Main Road Campbell’s Creek. She’ll be talking about the essential elements you can add to your garden to build backyard biodiversity and garden food webs; and will then run a workshop to guide participants through how they can nudge their own garden in a wildlife friendly direction. The cost is $15, and bookings can be made via this link:  UPDATE: THIS WORKSHOP HAS BEEN CANCELLED.

Second, Either side of the big wet is a free seminar being run next Monday at the Arthur Rylah Institute [123 Brown Street Heidelberg] from 11 am. Southern Australia is expected to experience long sequences of severe rainfall deficits under climate- change models based on IPCC emission scenarios. These droughts, such as occurred from 1997-2010  (the Big Dry), are projected to be punctuated by short periods of above-average rainfall (e.g. the Big Wet of 2010-12).

The seminar will present research on the prospects for Box Ironbark flora and fauna under this scenario. And if you can’t make it to distant Heidelberg, there’s a webinar: details can be found at

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It costs a bit to be a beach basher

It seems there’s a niche market for whom there’s nothing quite so enticing as sitting in your $85,000 4WD on a remote beach somewhere, enjoying the sight of your own tyre marks and muttering ecstatically, ‘How pristine is that?’

It’s this niche, apparently, that the editors of the Age Drive supplement had in mind last Saturday when they did a feature on four different brands of these vehicles. These were pictured nicely posed on a beach, and the text noted, among other things, how well they handled sand.

Come to think of it, the drivers may not be examining the formerly pristine sand, but each other. Certainly they wouldn’t be thinking about the creatures they might have crushed on the way down.

We had a go at the RACV a few weeks ago for a similar piece of crassness. The RoyalAuto editors were pretty impressive in their response. Maybe it would be a good idea for readers of the Age to ask its editors what values they think they’re promoting in features like these.


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RACV and off road driving: an answer

FOBIF has received an answer from the RACV to its letter about an article in RoyalAuto magazine promoting the irresponsible—and idiotic— practice of driving on beaches (see below).

We complained that the article should have been corrected online, as the editors had promised, but had not.

It appears we were half right: unknown to us, there are two online versions of Royalauto: the article in question was corrected in one, but not the other.

The relevant parts of the letter from the assistant editor of Royalauto  read as follows:

‘RACV RoyalAuto magazine and the photographer have both acknowledged the errors in this story and have apologised for not better checking the facts and the images.

‘As soon as the error was raised, the RoyalAuto editor updated the online story, removing reference to driving on the beach, and he wrote a fulsome apology.

‘However, the story in the flip book was not altered. This was an oversight that we are fixing today.

‘Once this work is undertaken, all online references to 4WDs on beaches will be removed and the fulsome apology will appear in both places.

‘We also followed up with this article in print in the November edition:

Here’s the apology referred to:

‘EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was amended on 29 June 2017 to take out a reference to driving on Snelling Beach. Local by-laws state that you are only permitted to drive on a beach up to 250 metres from a constructed access road for the purpose of launching and or retrieving a vessel. Once the vessel is launched the vehicle should be parked off the beach. It was RoyalAuto’s intention to bring attention to a wonderful part of the world and apologises for appearing to encourage driving on this wonderful beach. Please do not drive on Snelling Beach.’

The November article referred to above includes the following sensible advice:

‘Stick to tracks designated for travelling. Leaving tracks can cause compaction and wheel ruts and damage vegetation. Wheel ruts may not repair, and in some ecosystems such as coastal saltmarsh they can alter tidal patterns and damage larger areas. Birds, such as the endangered hooded plover which nests on sandy beaches, are especially vulnerable.’

This small media kerfuffle is important because it’s a tiny step in the direction of changing Australian driving culture. Of course, it remains to get manufacturers and retailers of off road and adventure equipment to stop actively encouraging silly driving practices.

And it’s not only relevant to beaches either. Inland bush is not immune to destructive driving. And FOBIF is aware that during the recent VEAC Western Forests consultation there was some agitation in Castlemaine against the idea of any new national parks in the region. One of the objections was that in national parks, you have to drive on formed roads, and that this is a terrible restriction on our liberty. Of course, you are supposed to drive on formed roads in state forests, too, so it isn’t really clear what that fuss was about.

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FOBIF has written to the RACV asking for clarification on its view of 4WD practices, in particular the practice of driving along beaches and other off road places [see our post].

In connection with the article we complained about in the July issue of RoyalAuto, we asked:

  1. Where is the apology/retraction of the offending parts of the article?
  2. What do the editors of RoyalAuto understand by the word ‘pristine’, when they can apparently accept that it applies to a scene with a car and numerous tyre marks on the ground?

We also pointed out that the Code of Conduct for off road driving for Four Wheel Drive Australia includes the following points:

‘3. Respect our flora and fauna. Stop and look, but never disturb. 4. Keep to formed vehicle tracks.’ [our emphasis]

And we asked: ‘does the RACV not endorse these protocols? Ninety percent of 4WD drivers are sensible and law abiding. It is a source of great irritation that advertisements for these vehicles regularly show them plunging recklessly through creeks or churning through vegetation: this encourages the minority of cowboys who think that trashing our environment is great fun. It’s a pity that in this case the RACV seems to be on their side.’

We’ll let you know if we get a response.

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