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Woodlands at Tarcutta Hills. By Annette Ruzicka
Woodlands at Tarcutta Hills. By Annette Ruzicka

The first of many flames

Location: Wiradjuri Country, New South Wales
Words by: Will Sacre
Published 13 Jun 2023

In 2021, Wiradjuri Elder Uncle James Ingram and a number of the Bush Heritage team walked across the rolling hills and woodlands of Tarcutta Hills Reserve, Wiradjuri Country, southern New South Wales, for a cultural heritage survey. Little did they know, they were headed towards a new era in collaborative land management for the reserve. 

Uncle James identified the remnants of a rich ancestral history – several modified or ‘scarred’ trees, artifacts, and culturally significant meeting places. 

To help protect these cultural values Uncle James called for a cultural burn.

Bush Heritage’s Aboriginal Partnerships Manager NSW and Yuin Wiradjuri woman, Vikki Parsley, saw this as the beginning of something important, and within a year, the plan materialised.

“I saw that as my role, to support him, and start those conversations with Bush Heritage,” she said. 

A cultural burn in progress. By Vikki Parsley

“There’d been a gap of at least 180 years since a cultural burn had taken place on Tarcutta, but the community turned up and we were able to get fire on the ground.”

For years, Bush Heritage has supported Aboriginal partners with culturally led burns across the country, including burning in the Kimberley with Karrajarri, Bunuba and Wunambal Gaambera people, deeper in the desert with Birriliburru people and south at Friendly Beaches Reserve with the truwana Rangers on palawa Country, Tasmania.

The cultural burn on Tarcutta Hills, however, was a large step forward for the region – it marked the first cultural burn on a Bush Heritage reserve in New South Wales. The displacement of Aboriginal people from their ancestral lands combined with the challenges of extensive land clearing and grazing pressure has made the path to restoration challenging and slow.

“This burn covered one to two hectares. It’s part of a longer-term strategy that we’re currently developing. The ecology is complex, and we hope Tarcutta can be a model for how we conduct cultural burns on other reserves,” said Vikki. 

For Vikki and the team, cultural burns facilitate opportunities for people to connect with their Country and be involved in the solutions to large-scale ecological issues. 

For this continent, fire is an important and familiar land management tool. When a landscape hasn’t been managed with this tool, for nearly two centuries, it changes shape.


Rhys Swain, Bush Heritage’s National Fire Program Manager, understands landscape health as a matter of balance, and in the absence of fire it becomes uneven.

“Too little fire favours certain species of plant and animal, and can exclude others, particularly plants that require fire to germinate,” he said.

Rhys’ role is to find the sweet spot to keep Country healthy and he believes in holistic land management practices that adopt the strengths of two knowledge systems.

“We are combining the best available information to direct our fire management activities,” he said. “Traditional ecological knowledge, and modern science.”

Some changes in the landscape occur so gradually, they’re difficult to monitor and take a long time to reverse. Woody thickening is a prime example.

“One of the issues out there is tree density,” said Vikki. “The trees have grown too thickly.”

Western methods of fire suppression, logging and disruptive farming practices encourage this kind of growth and gradually crowd the landscape, leaving no room for a grassy understory. When trees grow too close together, this prevents the survival of species that feed off grasses like small rodents, mammals, and insects.

“Burning has a natural thinning effect,” said Vikki, “and fire is our primary tool in mitigating this. It also resets parts of the landscape by eradicating a lot of invasive vegetation.”

Fire Expert Dean Freeman, Tarcutta Hills Co-Reserve Manager Kelly Price and Aboriginal Partnerships Manager NSW Vikki Parsley inspect the burn area on Wiradjuri Country. By Bee Stephens

Kelly Price, co-reserve manager at Tarcutta Hills Reserve, described the importance of patchy, cool burning at Tarcutta.

“The whole idea of cultural burns is to create a mosaic, where burns pattern the landscape, but some of the areas are left unburnt. This helps to reduce the fuel load, which means should a wildfire start, it will be lower intensity and cause less damage,” she said.

The landscape isn’t designed to burn all at once, and with cooler fires moisture is retained in the soil, allowing native vegetation to bounce back quickly.

“There’s a lot of catching up to do. Controlled fire practices have been absent from the landscape for such a long time. Traditional Owners completed lots and lots of small burns over long periods. This frequency is something that long term fire planning with the Wiradjuri community can reintroduce to the landscape,” said Kelly.

For Bush Heritage, Tarcutta Hills presents the perfect opportunity for strategic collaboration. The knowledge exists in the right places, and there is a community of like-minded people ready to act on the needs of the landscape.

“The burn at Tarcutta is an example of what we’re trying to achieve more broadly in our work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners at Bush Heritage,” said Vikki. “Fostering communities so that they feel they have the power to lead.”

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