The ancient trees that stalked across the paddocks when I was a child were my first clue that something was wrong with our landscape.
They started to die.
“Theý’re old” said Dad. “They’ve had their time. We just need to plant some more.”
So he planted more. The Goodradigbee Shire supplied Sydney blue gums in little plastic tubes. The big trees were eucalypts, and so were the new little ones. Not the same type, or even a local type but that was what was available.
I lobbied for planting some wattles, because I liked the flowers and the way they’d made a golden line down the valley when we first arrived.
“They don’t live long enough. They die after five years.” said Dad.
The trees he planted died even more quickly , most of them before they even grew up to the top of their metal sheep guards. Each guard was expensive and time-consuming to make, requiring two or three steel star pickets and a length of netting, plus a certain amount of tie-wire and cursing the rocky ground. Many of them still sit empty, too much trouble to remove.
It turns out that trees don’t like to be alone. They rely not just on the soil and water around them, but also on the small birds that pick off beetles and borers and generally protect them from being eaten. Those small birds require the cover of shrubs to protect them from predators, among other things.
Each tree that died broke a link in the chain that connected other trees to remnant bushland and their small bird protectors, making the pressure worse for the survivors.
Even those that lived through the first years have struggled just like an “old” tree, with straggling dead branches recording times of dieback and new growth around the trunk showing eucalypt determination in adversity.
So replanting lonely trees, while it seemed to be the most direct way to replace shade and shelter in a paddock, was not a solution at all. It was a massive amount of work for a very limited result.
Dad’s answer was to plant European trees – willows and poplars in particular. There were a few experiments with cedars, Monterey pines and also honey locusts for stock fodder. The honey locusts have struggled along and are now getting to be a faintly useful size. They certainly aren’t going to become the weed they can be in wetter areas.
Essentially, many of the native trees were replaced with exotic ones. The total number of trees didn’t decline, thanks to Dad’s efforts, but they changed type and now are mostly grouped in plantations.Unfortunately, those exotics were quite hard hit during the long drought from 2003-2009. They have the advantage of being less fire prone than eucalypts, but they lack the complex relationship with surrounding wildlife that makes a native tree so important.
So I went back to working out how we could plant natives successfully. The most useful piece of information I gained was that trees couldn’t be planted alone, they needed to be part of a grove including shrubs. Others were figuring this out too, and their plantations were doing much better.
So it turns out that if we want to protect our old trees, and produce new ones for the future, we have to plant shrubs as well, and the right ones. My plan is now to develop areas with thick concentrations of trees and shrubs. If possible these areas will also work as windbreaks, and build links towards the isolated, vulnerable old trees.
When that’s done, perhaps we’ll be able to plant some individual trees, as long as they’re within fifty metres or so of a bird refuge. Also called a shrub.