Cancellation of walks

The next two FOBIF walks (16 August and 20 September) are cancelled due to reintroduction of government restrictions on the number of people allowed to walk together. Hopefully we will be able to resume our walks on 18 October which will be the last walk for the year. Check out this website for updates. Details of the October walk are on our walks page.

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How to do it: Golf!?

FOBIF’s recommended lockdown reading for this week is a short article on a Golf Course!

The article by Megan Backhouse can be found here.

It’s to do with management of native vegetation on the Royal Melbourne course: ‘The club’s Black Rock golf courses ­… contain some of Melbourne’s best remaining patches of the sand-heathland habitat that once existed on low, coastal plains everywhere from St Kilda to Frankston.’ This vegetation is carefully managed to coexist with the sport of golf.

The club’s horticulture manager Jim Moodie has to work to get golfers to see what he’s doing: not all players appreciate native vegetation. Some, in fact, don’t even see it. One player told journalist Megan Backhouse, without rancour, that ‘there aren’t any plants’ in one carefully signposted area. Clearly, the management program needs an educational component.

Among other methods used by Jim Moodie , is ‘a tight schedule of ecological burns. The fires are conducted in March and April, with each area burned no more than once every eight years to give time for plants to re-establish and to return a good seed bank to the soil.’ Each burn ‘lasts for about 20 minutes.’

‘After the fire, shrubs such as Leptospermum myrsinoides, which had become old and woody, re-shoot from the base or from seeds in the soil and take on a more wispy habit. With the height knocked back, more light is allowed in, which gives small grasses, sundews and other low-lying wildflowers a chance to thrive. The burning also stimulates the germination of seeds in the soil and helps to regenerate orchids, with some starting to flower more prolifically and, sometimes, previously unseen ones reappearing.’

A twenty minute fire! Now, that’s serious micro management, accompanied by impressive attention to detail…and over areas that are tiny compared to DELWP’s smallest burn area.

We shouldn’t forget that Royal Melbourne has lots of money, and can afford to be enlightened.

DELWP and Parks Victoria, by contrast, manage vast areas, and are cash strapped. They can plead that it’s impossible to manage public land like that . True—up to a point. Yet we should expect some level of attention to detail from them, and some level of careful organisation and informed management.

All of the above seem to have been lacking in last month’s catastrophic Maldon land grooming exercise.

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How not to do it 1: the Maldon catastrophe

Late last month Forest Fire Management crews groomed a significant area of Parks Victoria managed land on the south eastern edge of Maldon township.

Grooming (that is, slashing to ground level) is common fuel reduction technique close to urban areas, in preference to reduction burns.

One of the workers conducting the exercise told Maldon Landcare that the area was ‘weeds and dead stuff’. The problem is that in fact it contained one of the most successful and biodiverse areas of land restoration in the region.

Phoenix Street revegetation plot: two trees and a couple of shrubs left to show for 16 years of restoration work.

The land in question contained a plot of 7000 square metres of impressive biodiversity, the product of 16 years of restoration work. Work in the area was started in 1990 by Maldon Land Protection Group, and extensive plantings were put into this 7000 square metre block by Maldon Urban Landcare in 2004. Maintenance work has continued since then.  An account of the project can be found here.

The destruction of sixteen years work in a few days is a demoralising blow to Landcarers: not the best way to encourage volunteers to work on restoring public land. Here are a number of questions arising from this exercise:

  1. The land in question is not listed for action in the current Fire Operations Plan. So how does it fit into DELWP’s fire protection strategy?
  2. Given that the works are not listed in the Fire Operations plan, community members could not have been aware of them in advance. So why was there no effort to notify interested groups of the impending works?
  3. Further: does no one in DELWP check on the biodiversity value of land before starting work on it?
  4. And: were the workers briefed about the nature of the land they were clearing? Well, obviously not: so, why not?

FOBIF has tried contacting DELWP fire management with these questions. We’ll let you know if we get an answer.

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How not to do it 2: the problem is…

Maybe as important as all of the above is this: workers should be fully briefed.

The golfer’s artless comment that ‘there aren’t any plants’ in a recently burned patch exactly replicates the comment made by one of the workers to Maldon Landcare: ‘they were grooming weeds and dead stuff.’

Those ‘weeds and dead stuff’ were healthy native plants, many of them obviously in flower.

It comes down to two things:

First: all the land management policy documents and protocols in the world are useless if the workers on the ground are not well informed about the job, and fully on side with the conservation side of it;

And second: fire protection should never be seen as completely separate from (or even in opposition to) biodiversity and ecological health. As long as these two are separate we’ll  continue to get disasters like this one.

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Don’t be put off by the big words

Prevailing wisdom in the political class envisages big population increases in Victoria in the next few decades. Whether these increases are a good idea, or will prove to be illusions after COVID 19 is not clear, but in any case the state parliament is running an enquiry into ‘the current and future arrangements to secure environmental infrastructure…for a growing population in Melbourne and across regional centres.’

In the Lushington Hill bushland reserve. Areas of bushland in urban or urban fringe areas are part of what the enquiry wants to ‘secure’ for the benefit of people.

‘Environmental infrastructure’ sounds complicated, but is simple: it includes ‘parks and open space, sporting fields, forest and bushland, wildlife corridors and waterways’. The enquiry is mainly interested in land ‘within or close to urbanised areas.’

You don’t have to be very sharp to get that this list includes the very thing that DELWP staff have just devastated in Maldon: bushland close to an urban area, popular for recreation by townspeople. We’re hearing a lot about the very real mental health problems caused by COVID 19 and the resultant lockdown: pleasant places close to home are a substantial benefit to mental health, and should be looked after, not trashed by the very people trusted to manage them.

We suggest that readers have a go at submitting on this one. A few words would be enough, to plant the idea that one good way to ‘secure environmental infrastructure’ would be for government employees to refrain from destroying environmental assets.

Submissions are due on September 28 via

Email to eii@parliament.vic.gov.au; or

eSubmission at www.parliament.vic.gov.au/eii; or

Hard copy to:The Committee ManagerLegislative Assembly Environment and Planning Committee, Parliament House, Spring Street,EAST MELBOURNE  VIC  3002

Email or eSubmissions are preferred, owing to staff problems arising from the virus.

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Send a card to stay in touch . . .

Three of the greeting cards in FOBIF’s set of 8 local nature cards.

Our greeting cards are now available from Buda, 42 Hunter St, Castlemaine, Friday to Sunday, 1-4 pm and Falkner Gallery, 35 Templeton Street, Castlemaine, Thursday to Saturday, 11-4 pm. We can also deliver them if you live reasonably close to Castlemaine.

You can see all the photos plus information about buying the cards online on this past post. Cost for set of 8 is $20 including postage.

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Cats, dogs and biodiversity

Readers of the daily press will have noted the damning report on Australia’s biodiversity protection laws, which concluded, among other things:

  • “The EPBC Act is ineffective. It is not fit for current or future environmental challenges, such as climate change.”
  • “The EPBC Act has failed to fulfil its objectives as they relate to Indigenous Australians.”
  • ” The EPBC Act is duplicative, inefficient and costly for the environment, business and the community.”

Muckleford Castlemaine road, winter: What is holding this landscape together? This is one of the questions provoked by the Biodiversity report.

If you want a bit more detail on the horror story, click here. The draft report is open for consultation till August 17. To have a go, click here.

The government has responded to the report by sending out signals about ‘cutting green tape’—always a bad sign, and mostly meaning ‘cutting environmental protection’.

Here’s an opinion worth brooding on, from conservation ecologist Megan Evans:

‘The EPBC Act is in genuine need of reform, but many of its problems can be fixed with investment in basic regulatory infrastructure – think actual IT systems, not hard copy records – and on-ground action that science has demonstrated to be effective, but continue to go unfunded.

‘Stopping extinctions isn’t even that expensive.

‘The latest science estimates 1,700 of Australia’s threatened species could be recovered with about $1.7 billion annually. For comparison, Australians spend about $13 billion a year on pet food.’

That last figure comes from a 2019 survey by Animal Medicines Australia. It’s not an argument against pet ownership, but it is a question mark against our priorities.

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Dogs, cats, chooks, biodiversity…and viruses

Which one of the above is the odd one out?

Answer: none.

The world is a pretty tangled place, and pretty well everything in it is linked.

This is the gist of our recommended lockdown reading for the month: On Pandemics: deadly diseases from bubonic plague to coronavirus, by David Waltner-Toews [Black Inc 2020]. This  is an update for COVID 19 times of his 2007 book, The chickens fight back: pandemic panics and deadly diseases that jump from animals to humans. As you can tell, it’s a cheery read, made so by the writer’s obvious affection for viruses, bugs, ticks, fleas, rats and other discomforting things. Five minutes into it and you’ll be slightly surprised to be still alive, given the number of threats to your existence hovering over your head, or maybe gazing at you through the eyes of your beloved cat. Viruses don’t pop out of thin air: they have often been living quite comfortably in other creatures, only to emerge when that arrangement has been disturbed by humanity…

One important lesson from this book (among many), is the writer’s clear outline of the link between ecological disruption and virus borne diseases. Broadly, his argument is that viruses which have found a home in wild places are forced to relocate to humans when these invade those places; and that biodiversity is an important barrier against pandemics. Here are a few typical quotes:

‘Triatomine bugs originally lived (happily?) in free living forest animals in south and central America. With deforestation, some bugs that were originally sylvatic….seem to have developed a penchant for certain types of human dwellings.’

‘…populations of plants, mammals, birds and insects living in ecosystems with low biodiversity tend to be more adversely affected by host-specific disease, and more effective at spreading it, than populations in ecosystems with high biodiversity…’

‘…Lyme disease was less likely to occur in more biologically diverse habitats, since the ticks and the bacteria they were carrying were less likely to find suitable hosts on which they could feed in such habitats…diverse habitats, which buffer against disease, are resilient, which means they have the ability to adapt and change.

Waltner-Toews  paints a complex picture, but the general thrust of it is: biodiversity is good for the health, in more ways than one. He makes it clear that this fact applies to cities as well as rural areas. Green belts, complex streetscapes and biodiverse gardens can all be barriers against disease. And he has an intriguing set of reflections on the value of household pets–and their possible dangers.

All of which is relevant in the context of the current questions being asked about the origins of COVID 19.

There are many other dimensions to Waltner-Toews book, especially his strong argument that poverty is a major factor in the damage done by diseases. But we’ll just leave you with this, er, fun fact: Did you know that the global body mass of commercial chickens now exceeds that of all other birds combined?

On pandemics can be had from Stonemans Bookroom in Castlemaine.

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A small, good thing

Pandemics are global matters, of course, but David-Toews insight that preservation of biodiversity is an important factor in preventing them offers us plenty of ways to be part of that prevention.

One such is open to us now: a chance to support a Shire initiative to get some grip on weeds, which are a major threat to biodiversity in this region.

Who’s a pretty weed, then? St John’s Wort on Mount Alexander shows how weeds can cause monocultures that reduce landscape resilience: but the presence of weeds on public land is no excuse for neglecting them on private property.

The Shire’s Local Law is under review, and the Mount Alexander Shire has proposed the addition of this clause:

19.Control of noxious weeds

(1) An owner or occupier of property must not allow cause or suffer the property to have upon it noxious weeds.

Max penalty: 10 Penalty Units

(2) For the purposes of subclause (1) eradication or control of noxious weeds must be undertaken as prescribed by Catchment and Land Protection Regulations 2012

This clause will help because noxious weed infestations on private land don’t respect property boundaries and can easily jump the fence into areas which volunteers have made weed-free. By expressing support for the proposed new clause, we all have an opportunity to help ensure Council accepts it.  Submissions don’t have to be long and detailed – a sentence would be OK.

No one is suggesting that the clause in question will solve the weed problem. There’s plenty of confusion about what is a weed and what isn’t, for example. There’s the intermittent problem of nurseries selling weeds to the public. And, of course, there’s the very large elephant charging around the room: the rampant growth of weeds on public land.

There are big challenges here about informing the public, and about putting pressures on politicians to adequately fund public land managers so they can do their job properly.

But none of this is an argument against the new clause. It’s a small, good step towards making our townships better places, and it deserves support.

Council will receive submissions, headed Local Law Review, up until 5pm this coming Friday, 31 July.  Email to info@mountalexander.vic.gov.au or write to Jeffry Amy, Co-ordinator Community Safety & Amenity, MASC, Box 185, Castlemaine 3450.  A draft of the new law is at www.mountalexander.vic.gov.au/HaveYourSay.  For more information, phone Jeffry Amy on 5471 1764.  Submitters may also indicate if they wish to address a council meeting.

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Want to do your bit for biodiversity? Do it in the garden!

You have to admire weeds: their tenacity is an example to us all. Every gardener knows that they don’t give up without a fight, and the struggle against them can seem to be both thankless and futile. Even talking about them seems to cast a pall over the garden scene.

For a more positive take on gardens and nature, take a look at Wombat Forestcare’s recent publication: Grow wild: gardening to sustain wildlife in the Hepburn shire, by Jill Teschendorff. This publication is of course centred on the area to our south, but much of it is of practical relevance to the Mount Alexander region. The 71 page handbook contains advice about habitat creation and protection, garden design and plant selection. Importantly, there’s a section on creating habitat in an exotic garden: most local gardeners are reluctant to go for fully indigenous gardens, and constructive compromise is offered here. Finally, there’s a list of recommended plants: though based on conditions in Hepburn, it contains many plants suitable for our region. The book does tend to lend itself to larger gardens or bush blocks, but there’s plenty to interest the town gardener.

You can buy the book by emailing info@wombatforestcare.org.au ($15 plus postage).

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