Whenever I fly out of Melbourne, I love to get a window seat. I can view the activity occurring below, the patchwork of treed areas, the expanse of farming enterprises, and get a better appreciation of our collective ‘occupation’ of the land that has developed over the past 200 years. From this vantage point, the sheer amount of biodiversity loss hits home hard.
Humans are the ultimate specialists in land clearing, of which we have ardently proven in Victoria and across much of Australia in little over 200 years. Undoubtedly, society has benefitted in many areas, but what of the cost to the environment?
The Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands reported that over 12 million hectares of forest was cleared in Victoria between 1869 and 1987 (Woodgate and Black, 1988). The Australian Government’s State of the Environment report of 2016 estimates that a further 180,000 hectares of virgin land was cleared in Victoria between 1972 and 2014 (Metcalfe D, Bui E, 2016). Can you believe, over 3,300 hectares of virgin land was cleared in just four years, between 2010 and 2014?
It is difficult to quantify the actual area of biodiversity loss in Victoria, but the consequences are clearly evident. Immediate pressures on the environment include the loss and fragmentation of native vegetation, but depending on subsequent land management, land clearing may have a profound impact on soil, leading to erosion, salinity, and nutrient loss.
Knowledge of the past can help us to better appreciate the current state of the Victorian environment and the challenges we face today. Although changes to the environment have been occurring for thousands of years, the arrival of Europeans to Australia marked the beginning of the greatest ecological impact this country has seen, especially during the colonial and post-colonial periods of the past 200 years.
Land clearing in Victoria can be seen in several chronological phases, each reflecting four factors: i. the human population of Victoria; ii. the level/volume of their consumption; iii. the principal economic activities they pursued; and iv. the technologies available to them (Victorian National Parks Association, 2014)
Prominent historical phases that have had major impacts to the Victorian landscape and its biodiversity include pastoral settlement, the gold rush in the 1800s, solider settlement schemes, and post-war immigration in the 1900s. A quick look at each of these phases, in turn.
Pastoral settlement during the 1830s to 1850s saw sheep grazing become the major industry along the eastern seaboard due to the demands of the British textile industry. Early pastoralists used fire to clear scrub and promote green grass for grazing. In 1853, the botanist, John Robertson, wrote about the ‘splendid country’ of the Casterton area, counting 37 species of native grass when he arrived in 1840 and noting that ‘all the landscape looked like a park with shade for sheep and cattle’. He then continues to describe the dramatic changes of native herbs disappearing, weeds invading, and writing, ‘…the ground is now exposed to the sun, and it has cracked in all directions, and the clay hills are slipping in all directions.’ (“Letters from Victorian Pioneers”, 1898).
Gold was discovered in Victoria in 1851, triggering a great rush. Gold towns sprung up and the population surged over the following 20 years, from a hundred thousand to almost three-quarters of a million. Gold became more valuable than wool, leading to extensive clearing and mining on poor soils throughout central Victoria. Timber was stripped from the land for pit props, firewood, and buildings; soil and rock were dumped, waterways diverted or dammed.
A vivid scene at Ballarat is painted in Henry Handel Richardson’s novel, Australian Felix:
“No patch of green offered rest to the eye; not a tree, hardly a stunted bush had been left standing, either on the bottom of the vast shallow basin itself, or on the several hillocks that dotted it and formed its sides. Even the most prominent of these…had been stripped of its dense timber, feverishly disembowelled, and has now become a bald protuberance strewn with gravel and clay…”
(Richardson, 1930); appearing in (Young, 1996)
Along with an increase in population came the demand for an increase in food production, agricultural land, road and rail networks, telegraph lines, housing and industry. The gold rush was a catalyst for rapid development, having a profound effect on the local landscape and its ecology in such a short period.
Towards the latter part the 19th century, and with the gold mining era coming to an end, a series of Selection Acts were passed that saw land taken from pastoral licence holders and made available for small farms. Large parts of the Northern Plains, Goulburn Valley, Gippsland and the Wimmera were subdivided, and millions of hectares of native vegetation were cleared (‘improved’). By the turn of the century, almost half of Victoria’s land area had been privatised. (Victorian National Parks Association, 2014).
The heavy utilisation of Victoria’s natural resources continued into the 20th century. The first 45 years were hard on the population, one having to live through two world wars and the great depression of the 1930s. The Victorian Government created the Soldier Settlement scheme in 1917, whereby land was leased to returning service men and women to open areas for farming (Old Treasury Building, 2022). A further wave of land clearing occurred and, coupled with rabbit plagues and dust storms of the 1930s, environmental degradation was accelerated. Victorian farms lost valuable topsoil and many walked off the land, in despair and in debt. (Victorian National Parks Association, 2014).
After the second world war a large-scale immigration program and a baby boom caused the Victorian population to jump from 2 million in 1945 to 3.5 million in 1971. Demand for timber increased, initially mostly for the housing boom, but governments also began to licence the export of wood chips to Japan for papermaking. New reservoirs were built to try to meet water demand and agriculture intensified, with more soldier settlement schemes. Technologies such as bulldozers and chainsaws made land clearing and timber felling easier and cheaper, subsidised by a taxation system offering deductions for ‘improvements.’
We are now at the beginning of the 21st century and the biodiversity issues that the Victorian landscape has faced in the last 200 years are not too dissimilar to what we are experiencing today. The demand for housing for a growing population continues to rise; a population of 4.6 million people in 2018 to a projected 11.2 million by 2056 (Dept. Environment, Land, Water, Planning, (2019). Our biodiversity remains under stress as we witness further losses across our fractured landscape. Our challenge to halt, and even reverse, biodiversity loss is an ambitious one, recognising the competing demands for our finite resources. Programs such as Wilderlands, along with its many partner groups, wish to meet this challenge head on. We hope you may join us.
Chris Lindorff, Wilderlands Chief Ecologist, is an experienced ecologist and land manager with a degree in Science, and Forest Science, from University of Melbourne.
- “Letters from Victorian Pioneers”, being a series of papers on the early occupation of the Colony, the aborigines, etc. Addressed by the Victorian Pioneers to His Excellency Charles Joseph La Trobe, Esq., Lieutenant-Governor of the Colony of Victoria. Published 1898
- Dept. Environment, Land, Water, Planning, (2019) Victoria in Future 2019 – Population and household projections to 2056. Victoria
- Metcalfe D, Bui E (2016). Land: Regional and landscape-scale pressures: Land clearing. In: Australia state of the environment 2016, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra, https://soe.environment.gov.au/theme/land/topic/2016/regional-and-landscape-scale-pressures-land-clearing
- Old Treasury Building (2022) https://www.oldtreasurybuilding.org.au/lost-jobs/on-the-land/soldier-settlement-scheme/
- Richardson, Henry Handel (1930). The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (1965 reprint of 1954 ed.). London: William Heinemann Ltd.
- Victorian National Parks Association. (2014) Nature Conservation Review
- Woodgate, P. & Black, P. (1988). Forest Cover Change in Victoria 1869 – 1987. Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands, Victoria.
- Young, A.R.M, (1996) Environmental Change in Australia Since 1788. Melbourne, Oxford University Press