Last Wednesday, Flood Creek Non-Nativist Landcare Group were privileged and delighted to be visited by David Holmgren, co-originator of the Permaculture concept. David had been in Canberra attending a panel discussion and screening of the film ‘Surviving Earth’ as well as giving a public lecture titled ‘Future Scenarios and Solutions’, a topic he discusses in his stimulating book ‘Future Scenarios’ (free to read online). In order to maximise the value of his trip to the ACT and southern tablelands region David also visited Braidwood to touch base with our group and get to know a few of the local Landcarers.
We were especially glad to get his input regarding our plan to conduct a ‘Non-Destructive Revegetation Trial’ along part of Flood Creek, which hosts a diverse natural assemblage of non-native species, including an overstorey of mainly crack willow (Salix fragilis). Knowing how damaging and ineffectual willow removal has been (and continues to be) across southeast Australia, Flood Creek Non-Nativist Landcare Group are keen to demonstrate some non-environmentally-destructive landcare alternatives.
On the way to Braidwood, after collecting David from near Bungendore, we were able to visit Mulloon Creek Natural Farms to observe the ‘Natural Sequence Farming’ work that was conducted there in consultation with Peter Andrews in 2006. Tony Coote (owner of Mulloon Creek Natural Farms) showed David around some of the restorative leaky weir structures which were put in place during the first stage of this project. It is simply astonishing to see the ‘before and after’ photos of Mulloon Creek and to realise just how well-vegetated and productive the creek and flood plain have become since these works were completed. The next stage of this project will see an extension of NSF-based landscape repair on neighboring properties further downstream.
Once we got to Flood Creek, in Braidwood, we were joined by a small group of interested Landcarers to walk the site and to discuss past and future Landcare projects in this area. David’s hometown of Hepburn has a similar semi-urban creek, called Spring Creek, where David and other members of the Hepburn community have been working for over a decade on their own community forest management project.
One of the first impressions that David shared about our site was how verdant and fertile it appeared. Due to the effective sequestration of nutrient runoff from higher in the catchment (including the town), the soil and soil-water conditions are significantly eutrophic. David’s suggestion was that these high nutrient levels may well prove an impediment to the introduction of many native overstorey species, which generally are not adapted to them. Jokingly, someone suggested we could always flush those nutrients downstream into the Shoalhaven River and Tallowa Dam if we really wanted to, just by killing the existing non-native vegetation!
Reidsdale’s own Peter Marshall, pointed out that the recent loss of some of Flood Creek’s big willows had opened gaps in the canopy allowing (arguably) less desirable plants like privet, box elder and hawthorn to proliferate in the newly available sunlight. His suggestion, therefore, was that one of the important things to achieve at this site is to establish other useful overstorey species that would bring back the shade. It was pointed out that most native species, especially local eucalypts would be unsuitable to this task due to the sparse shade that they provide. Being adapted to hot and dry conditions, eucalypts will often turn their leaves at right angles to the sun to avoid loss of moisture, thereby effectively allowing more light through. This is why you often see blackberry thriving and spreading under eucalypts, but this doesn’t occur under trees providing dense shade.
David spoke to us about the potential for real willow management, here and across southeast Australia. This would see willows actually managed for productive benefit. This idea can be contrasted with the inappropriately (mis)named “management” presently practiced by some NRM agencies (which is actually just pointless and counterproductive eradication). Regular coppicing of willows can provide a great deal of highly nutritious and sustainable fodder for local livestock. As well as this, vigorously-regrowing willows will more actively absorb excess nutrients, which are then effectively withdrawn from catchment runoff.
A side benefit of coppicing that I have noticed is that regrowth on coppiced crack willows is much sappier and less brittle than twigs on mature, unmanaged trees, hence coppice management may also help to allay fears of spread by snapped-off vegetative ‘cuttings’. Coppicing is a management technique we may utilise at Flood Creek in future, after alternative overstorey species become established and promoting succession is considered desirable.
Another important point that David emphasised was that Willows (especially the crack willows so numerous around Braidwood) are a pioneering species; they establish and grow rapidly, stabilising soil, and sequestering nutrients, but then collapse, leaving gaps within the canopy for other willows or new tree species to grow through. In the case of Flood Creek it seems this has been occurring over the last 20 years or so (there is still some contention as to whether willow senescence here may be partly due to human intervention). In working with this pioneer species, in a non-destructive manner, we may now have the opportunity to influence our little forest towards an even more diverse, useful and aesthetically-appealing system. It seems strange that some people are determined to work against natural processes of succession and diversification by returning pioneer riparian forests to degraded agricultural pasture or urban wasteland (or, perhaps, degraded agricultural pasture or urban wasteland, plus a few native seedlings). Why not recognise and simply augment the natural productivity and biodiversity that is already present?
Several desirable plant species were proposed for use at Flood Creek as part of our Non-Destructive Revegetation project. Given the diversity of aspect, light exposure, existing species and structure, it will not be a case of us simply converting this entire area to a forest of “X”. It is the nature of non-destructive revegetation that Flood Creek will continue to be a diverse riparian system. Future landcare activities in this area should only add to the existing biodiversity and habitat value.
One of the main goals for this project is to clearly demonstrate (to ourselves, to the wider community, and to ‘the-powers-that-be’) that the establishment of native vegetation can be achieved by natural succession, without the need to turn an existing riparian forest into an ‘ecological ground-zero‘ first. Because of this there will certainly be a number of native species utilised as part of our non-nativist trial.
And why wouldn’t there be? Non-nativist Landcare is an inclusive, logical and holistic approach based upon a sound assessment of existing ecological realities. Bunyas, tea-tree and casuarina are all potential candidates for use in this area and other natives will no doubt be suggested as we continue to observe and interact with this site. Suitable non-native trees will also be utilised and, since many of these can be planted as advanced pole cuttings and will grow rapidly in this moist and eutrophic environment, they will be extremely useful for quickly creating shade, mulch, fodder and logs for structural purposes.
There is already a self-sown apple amongst the Flood Creek forest and more fruit trees will likely prove a great resource for the citizens of Braidwood in future. I recall in the past the number of interested townsfolk who were able to share the surplus harvest of the big quince hedge on Elrington St. These and many other fruit trees would certainly be valued and well-utilised if we decide to establish them here.
After an hour and a half at Flood Creek, we continued David’s journey heading further east, to Reidsdale where we were invited to tour part of Peter and Kate Marshall’s property. As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the Marshall’s farm is a diverse forestry, grazing and mycology enterprise. You don’t need to walk very far to see a large range of tree species. David and Peter both seemed very much within their element and (I’ll admit) these dedicated and experienced tree-freaks left me feeling it was all too much to take in. What an astonishing wealth of botanical and ecological knowledge there is between these two! Our walk and the day ended back at the house after an enjoyable potted tour and a few insistent showers of rain. We local visitors departed leaving David to enjoy a dinner of willow-fed lamb with the Marshalls before heading to Goulburn to catch the night train south again.
Early feedback from some of the other participants was that it had been a great treat to be able to discuss and assess our site, and the species within it, in a calm and rational manner; without automatically labelling some species as undesirable “weeds”; and without beginning from the ridiculous presumption that this incised, eutrophic and urban creek “should” contain only the native species that were present in 1788.
As I said when I began this post, we felt privileged and delighted to be visited by David. He’s an intelligent and experienced ecological practitioner who has a great wealth of wisdom to share. As an early adopter of the conceptual framework of ‘Ecosynthesis’ he holds perspectives that can be of great use to the Flood Creek Non-Nativist Landcare Group, and to other landcarers of all permutations. These perspectives provide clear understandings to guide our interactions with Australia’s demonstrably non-native modern-day ecological realities.
David is obviously a naturally inquisitive person and a lifelong learner, he seemed to enjoy his visit to our neck of the woods just as much as we did. We hope to see more of him again soon, either back up here, or south of the border, in his natural habitat by Spring Creek.