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  Proceedings of the Second National Conference of the Native Grasses Association
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A Native Grasslands Overview

Darryl Cluff

Native Pastures Management and Development Officer
Stipa Native Grasses Assn. Inc.

One morning in February 1997 forty-odd people, with a common interest in grasses, met for a breakfast meeting in Dubbo NSW to discuss the formation of a Native Grasses Group.

This was in response to the growing interest over the previous years in native pasture management and the environmental value of the native grasses. We considered that native grasses were undervalued and in an effort to promote their use we decided to exchange information on a regular basis through newsletter communication, field days and conferences. Stipa Native Grasses association was officially formed.

By being supported by both the Department of Land and Water Conservation and the NSW Department of Agriculture, STIPA was able to carry out promotion throughout the Central West of NSW. However, interest has proved to be much more widespread and currently 1200 copies of the quarterly newsletter are distributed throughout Australia.

The history of native grassland management practices for grazing and cropping is also a history of settlement and survival of the people of European descent in Australia. It is worthwhile reflecting on some of the events that have dramatically changed the landscape.

The First Fleet; a beginning to agriculture.

Under the leadership of Captain Arthur Philip, the first fleet consisting of eleven ships, 700 convicts, sailors and marines dropped anchor in Botany Bay on 20th and 21st January 1788. An accurate description of the area, written 18 years previously by Lieu. James Cook indicated that they had navigated with pin-point accuracy half way around the world. But what was wildly inaccurate was Cook's description of the landscape. Philip was lead to believe that the land consisted of "lawns", clear areas of land that were suitable for cultivation and the production of European crops.

After a fruitless search lasting five days for land matching the description that Cook had recorded, the fleet weighed anchor and relocated to Sydney Cove. Here at least there was an adequate supply of fresh water.

So inauspicious was the landing at Botany Bay that Australia Day, commemorating the landing of the First Fleet is celebrated on 26th January, the day the First Fleet dropped anchor in Sydney Cove. Here work parties of convicts were immediately organised to find suitable grazing areas for the livestock. Others were ordered to clear large trees and undergrowth to begin the cultivation of the soil for the production of crops.

Out of necessity to become self sufficient in the shortest possible time a new style of land management was introduced to Australia, a European system. This divided land management into two separate but incompatible systems, farming and grazing. In the first three years of settlement the colony almost failed.

Clearing the Land.

Large gangs of up to 500 convicts were employed to dig out and burn the trees. An extensively cleared area of land north west of Sydney was named "Emu Plains", not because the landscape was flat, but in keeping with the meaning of the word "plain" meaning `devoid of ornament', that is, devoid of trees. This was one of the few times where "plains" was used in a locality name to describe an area that was cleared.

Across the Blue Mountains.

Surveyor George Evans followed the footsteps of explorers Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson and surveyed the area around the present day Bathurst NSW for its suitability to farm and graze. In his journal he frequently commented on the high quality of the grasslands. He named some of these vast treeless grasslands; O'Connell Plains, Macquarie Plains, Bathurst Plains, Mitchell Plains, and further away from Bathurst he simply noted their existence. He also noted that many hills were grassed to their summits.

The Grasslands.

In `An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in the Colony of NSW' (James Atkinson, 1826) the author gives an unambiguous description of the extent of the grasslands in this publication: "Extensive plains are a distinguishing feature in the interior of NSW. These tracts, although termed plains in the colony are very seldom level, but generally a gently undulating surface, destitute of timber, and covered with grass. They extend, with many interruptions, but still forming one great chain, from Liverpool Plain, in the county of Cambridge, to Maniroon Plains, to the Southward of Lake George."

Plains and Forest Land.

By referring to contemporary journals and noting the frequency of use of the word "plain" it is possible to conclude that the author was entirely correct. James Atkinson gave an unambiguous meaning to the word "plain", unfortunately he, and other writers rarely recorded tree density. Terms such as "well spaced trees" were frequently used, but are now interpreted by some writers to mean anything up to 30 trees/ha. Associated with this is the perception that a shrubby understorey existed, consistent with another frequently used term "forest land". However "forest land" had a much different meaning 200 years ago. This was the most sought-after grazing land containing scattered trees with a high quality grass understorey.

The bulk of the landscape, west of the Great Dividing Range in NSW, through Victoria, South Australia and into Western Australia was made up of vast areas of grassland containing only scattered trees or areas that were entirely treeless.

The Grasslands.

The status of the grasslands has been largely overshadowed in recent times by the environmental focus on trees and shrubs and need for greater biodiversity. The perception that trees and shrubs dominated the pre-European landscape has been the subject of many environmental articles but it is not supported by the journals of the explorers and early settlers.

The last couple of years have seen a shift in emphasis from trees and shrubs to native vegetation, this of course includes the grasslands. Stipa Native Grasses Association Inc. has possibly contributed to the changing attitude.

Very few writers attempted to record the grassland composition, John G. Robertson being a notable exception. He recorded 37 species of grass on his Wannon, Vic. property in the early 1840's. Overgrazing and the invasion of non-native annual grasses into the grasslands, Robertson noted, reduced their grazing quality. Salinity outbreaks in the watercourses soon followed, possibly due to a combination of the above factors.

What went wrong?

Overzealous grazing within the first few decades of settlement of a region quickly and dramatically changed the composition of the grasslands. These changes are dealt with in detail by authors such Eric Rolls in "A Million Wild Acres". He states "Australia's dense forests are not are not a remnant of two hundred years of energetic clearing, they are the product of one hundred years of energetic growth."

Selective grazing by livestock depleted some species and created the bare soil conditions necessary for the unprecedented invasion of non-native plants, eucalypts and pines into areas in which were formerly scattered trees and grassland. In some areas this has continued to the present day.

Replacement with the more familiar and researched non-native species was considered the logical development of grazing activities. Better management of the grasslands has only recently seriously considered, but now a prerequisite is the re-establishment is native species re-establishment.

Farming and the Impact of Rabbits.

In the first half of the 20th century, much of the current farming/grazing land began the enterprise change from grazing to cropping/grazing. The decision to change was mainly on economic grounds. The land had an inability to sustain the traditional stocking rates due to pasture decline and continual overgrazing by plagues of rabbits. Author C.E.W. Bean noted in "On the Wool Track" (1910) that in areas where sheep were excluded, rabbits were not a problem.

The overgrazing of the grasslands by sheep had created the ideal conditions for the proliferation of the rabbits. Anecdotal evidence today indicates that rabbits can be "grassed out" by improvement in grazing management of domestic stock and reconstruction of the grasslands.


Soil cultivation for the production of grain dealt a decisive blow to the destruction of the grasslands during the first half of the 20th century. However the development of direct seeding technology now indicates that grain crops can be produced without the complete destruction of the native pastures.


Two hundred years of grazing and farming has dramatically changed the Australian landscape. The grazing value of native pastures is being assessed and for the first time, the "replacement" theory questioned.

A romance with non-native grazing plants, which has lasted for over two centuries, has not achieved production levels sufficiently high enough to balance water use with soil water uptake. Two of the most pressing current land management issues, soil acidification and dryland salinity, are directly associated with inefficient water use.

The re-establishment of native plant communities as the basis of the grazing industry and the incorporation of perennial native plants into the cropping system could produce an agricultural system that is highly productive without the customary environmental costs.

Stipa Native Grasses Association Inc. has made a significant contribution to the changing attitude to native grasses and native pasture management since its inception. It could be the direction leader for research to develop more socially acceptable land management systems.

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