The Fullerton Hadley Landcare group, as part of their Great Eastern Ranges Initiative- K2W community Landcare grant, held a seminar on 4th April at Kempton Hall, Fullerton to explore the application of cultural burning practices for gaining better productivity, biodiversity and cultural benefits.
Over 45 people attended with visitors from Blue Mountains through to Cowra to hear from Speakers including Dr. Milton Lewis, Michelle Hines and Larry Towney from the Central Tablelands Local Land Services Paddocks Alight team and special Guest Speaker Bill Gammage author of the Biggest Estate on Earth; How Aborigines Made Australia.
Bill Gammage gave us the historical context of how Australia was managed pre 1788 and describes it as not being wilderness as once thought, but as a landscape that reflected a sophisticated, successful and sensitive farming regime integrated across the Australian landmass which had been created by Aborigines using fire or no fire to nourish and distribute plants and plant distribution to lure animals. Fire was not an indiscriminate tool of fuel reduction or grass promotion, but carefully employed to ensure certain plants and animals flourished.He argues that people made plant communities such as grass or open forest a favorable habitat, they associated communities to link feed to shelter and they used these associations to lure and locate animals, so they knew where their resources were and, subject to lore, harvest them as they chose. They could make paddocks without fences as the only large predators to disturb prey were humans. “Aborigines were not aimless hunter gatherers, they planned and worked hard to make plants and animals abundant convenient and predictable they depended not on chance but on policy.”
Dr Milton Lewis explained his connection to traditional burning with the time that he had spent in the Northern Territory.
“I could go out into the bush with those people and light a match where ever they felt right; This needs burning today and this in a week or two , they had that contact every day . They were walking the land everyday they knew those places they knew what they were doing would not damage that sight it might but would help with something else, a food plant, medicinal plants that they were trying to keep, all very important things”.
Traditional fire burning uses a “cool fire”, lit using point ignition techniques and only during optimal times of the year for particular types of landscape. The fire is set in conditions that ensure flame heights stay very low, never burning the canopy of the trees. Milton explains that there are sacred elements to the forest and the canopy is sacred and should never be burnt.
With traditional fires that we do, we are there with friends, some are walking around with bare feet, which shows how cool it is and there is an implicit understanding of what that fire is going to do, how its going to act where its going to go and what will come after that fire. The place of fire purposely moves very slowly through an area, allowing animals and insect’s time to escape the flames and survive the fire in patches that remain unburnt. Importantly, not all areas on a given site are burnt, resulting in a mosaic of burnt and unburnt country. This method leaves refuge areas for animals, allowing plants to survive and regenerate quickly after the fire.
Milton also recalled his connection to fire ecology with his work as an ecologist looking at the threatening processes associated with a particular bird species, the Gouldian Finch, and how it was food scarcity from lack of burning that was a major cause of its decline. This highlights the significant role that fire plays within the Australian Landscape. Many native plants and shrubs are highly adapted to fire, not only in terms of surviving fire, but many such as the Gouldian Finch rely on burning to keep them healthy and to regenerate.
Milton has brought this knowledge with him to the central tablelands where he and Michelle Hines have been doing some trial burns over the past year and a half through the Paddocks Alight program.. They are already getting some great results, particularly noticing the regrowth and seeding of native grasses and the reduced number of weeds in each of their trial sites.
“I believe in this really strongly, the power in good burning and good science associated with it. What I was taught in the territory and making it work in other places I don’t know how often fire works here, or what periods you need, or what intensities; its all learning for me, but I think its worth a try when nothing else seems to be working. We pour chemical on, we spray weeds, we have pests everywhere andlook at what happens. so I think its about time for us to try, look at it in a new way its certainly working out west for us. We have lots of people looking at it , its not easy to get it happening a lot of people not in favour of the ideas but there are enough to get swing towards let us having a try.” M. Lewis
Michelle gave a talk on the process of setting up the traditional burning project. All of the hurdles etc that they have gone through to get the project off the ground. The Paddocks Alight project all started around a campfire with Milton and Russel Hill after a river dreaming trip on the Lachlan in 2009. Got the idea progressing by holding a series of community meetings with presentation on fire. They came away from the meetings with a core groups of people who were very interested, landholders offering paddocks, bit of knowledge, Aboriginal people from communities that had some knowledge. They got funding from Australian Government and set up a tech group with representatives from community, RFS, other projects such as Fire Sticks, OEH and the CMA to work out how to get started. Realised that it would be more difficult to burn down south because of fire season and permits etc. and so one of the most important things was to set up partnership with RFS. The RFS also provided training which has been extremely vital to the success of the project. They had lots of sites that had been offered, process to see which sites we wanted to use. went with grasslands and derived grasslands avoiding native veg regulation, Ended up working on 10 properties with 2 sites burn and non burn with broad monitoring at each of these sites including soil testing, pH carbon cation exchange etc, mammal trapping, had to get licensing to trap animals etc from OEH, bird and reptile surveys and vegetation monitoring.
The day was extremely successful with the great organisation of the Fullerton Hadley Landcare group who also provided an amazing catering effort
Following on from the success of this day, Upper Lachlan Landcare and the Great Eastern Ranges Intitiative K2W cultural heritage project will be sending 6 community members to attend a traditional burning workshop in Capey York – see attachment CapeYork_Itinerary_UPDATED with Victor Steffensen and the Central Tablelands LLS . The Fullerton Hadley Landcare group have received funding through the second round of Great Eastern Ranges community group funding to set up some pilot sites in the Fullerton area.