I went to a grass and fire forum

on 18 Mar 2014 

Last week I attended the Fire Management within Grassland Ecosystems Forum 2014, which was organised by the City of Salisbury, an Adelaide suburb on the northern fringe of the South Australian capital. There are extensive grassland plains on the northern side of Adelaide, hence their interest in the subject.

The range of speakers was varied, with ecology just as much on the agenda as fire management and the indigenous traditional use of fire as a landscape management tool. There were quite a number of presentations by fire services such as the CFA (Vic) and the CFS (SA) and the DEWNR (the South Australian Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources), but the keynote speakers concentrated more on the question of why burn in grasslands, when and how often.

Tim Low spoke of the relative youth of Australian grasslands, and that these systems have not been in Australia that long. Typical grassland birds like larks have therefore not been around these parts of the world that long either, with bushlarks thought to have only called this country home for about 1 million years or so. This applies also to some of our more iconic grass species like Themeda triandra. Also thought to have arrived here only 1 million years ago, possibly introduced by birds from Asia. This species is now proven to be the same species as the Themeda that occupies open country in Africa and India. Hence the scratching of the species name australis and the reintroduction of triandra.

Dr. John Morgan of La Trobe University dug a little deeper into the ecology of Kangaroo Grass and its relation to fire. He said that Themeda without fire is usually not long around and sort of drowns in its own successful growth if not grazed or burnt regularly. After about 7 years it peters out a bit and its place is than taken up by weedy plants like thistles who are after the newly released nitrates the Themeda roots have no longer locked up underground. With occasional grazing or preferably burning this process could be postponed indefinitely, with Themeda tufts reported to be able to grow into their seventies. He mentioned also that despite it being a dominant grass species throughout Australia, it is not a great coloniser and that it finds it difficult to recolonise a site it has drowned itself out of, with a gap of 7 to 10 years before it establishes itself again.

This talk by Dr Morgan does inform my practices at Nardoo as one of the goals of the management there is to promote and stimulate Themeda growth and seed production as it supplies a number of the threatened woodland bird community with staple food. I will have to reconsider fire as a tool and will have to have discussions with Matt and Jim in regards to this. It might link in with a request from Trust for Nature that I received during this forum on possibly taking over the management of their Kinypanial grassland reserve not far from Nardoo. That reserve is pure native grassland that needs ecological burns and actually has one scheduled for later in April.

Our very own Leanne Liddle had a very good presentation on her experiences in firestick land management up in the APY lands. For those of you who are not familiar with Leanne, she is one of our board members and she learnt all her fire and other land management skills in the traditional way from her grandmother and great grandmother and still puts these methods to practice up in the far NW corner of SA. One of the great points she made was that the complex and intricate knowledge Aboriginal people have of country and caring for it is in most places still available. She said that if white people would want to they could still adopt a lot of these practices and that if they would be approached the right way, with an open mind and respect, that most traditional managers would be very happy to share  most of this knowledge, for the good of the country. She also explained how degradation of sections of land have direct ramifications for Aboriginal families as status, reputation and influence are based not on wealth or size of land, but on the quality and health of the land each family is responsible for. Neglected land brings shame to the people responsible for looking after it. She also stood up for Aboriginal land management practices by stressing that land managed by the indigenous people like the APY lands or the Wunambal Gaambera lands in the Kimberley had such little loss of biodiversity compared to the rest of Australia, with the Wunambal Gaambera areas having not a single flora or fauna species go extinct since colonisation.

Graeme Hand of STIPA Native Grasses Association told the forum about how his NGO helps farmers to work with native grasses to stabilise their soils and farm income. He argues strongly that our agricultural systems of today are a dead end proposition as the outlays for each farm increase over time but the output stays about the same. He showed an interesting graph comparing farm debt with productivity and it is not difficult to understand why many farms are going bust. Graeme argues that he can turn things around for individual farmers if they’re happy to change things around radically. By using grazing regimes that promote native grass growth he says he helps farmers to gain back control of their soil health as well as their farm finances.

He also told an interesting story on his work as a consultant for the federal government. He was asked to review all environmental projects funded by the feds in one recent year. He said he judged each project on whether or not it helped restore landscape functionality of whether it sequestered carbon for a reasonable price. Of all the projects 72% failed both criteria, 18% could have met one of the criteria but Graeme wasn’t sure (was hard to measure) and only 10% achieved these goals to some extent. It might be good to do an audit of the projects BHA runs on these two criteria to see if we do any better than the feds.

Paul Gibson-Roy of Greening Australia is always worth a listen to. He is the eternal scrutineer, always asking why and what for. He spoke at length about whole of landscape restoration and his work in grassland restoration, but he becomes more interesting when he puts his work and that of others in context in regards to the general health of this continent. He argues there is a general state of delusion in the environment movement and the general public about what constitutes a healthy landscape and landscape functionality. With apex predators gone or going, fire management regimes completely altered due to the complex issue of expensive assets now being everywhere, from towns to fences to roads to telephone exchanges to power lines, dense regrowth in areas where there was once open forest and clear-felling where there was once dense forest, it is virtually impossible to predict what a healthy landscape now is or what we have to work towards.

Quite often at symposia, conferences or fora, the most interesting conversations are going on during the breaks or afterwards in the pub. I used this time to help organise the autumn burn on the Trust for Nature grassland reserve close to Wedderburn as well as to catch up with your former colleague Paul Foreman. You can’t keep him away from anything that has the word "grass" in the title, so it was no surprise to run into him in Adelaide. He asked all about BHA obviously and I told him how things were going. Paul reasserted his ideas on lower lying country, with its higher levels of productivity and which is therefore most under pressure. He asked if BHA was looking more to acquire properties that have the more productive and higher fertility alluvial plains and valleys on them, as these support larger volumes of life and are also mostly taken up by agriculture.

It was a packed two days and on the way home I had lots of time to reflect on all the stories told and ideas raised. I will now initiate conversation on a possible fire regime at Nardoo and taking over management of the TFN grassland reserve.