Way back in 1992 (30 years ago), the Victorian Department of Conservation & Environment (DCE) produced the Draft Conservation Program for Native Grasslands and Grassy Woodlands in Victoria. This document was the first attempt by an Australian government to develop a comprehensive program for the conservation of native grasslands and grassy woodlands. In the same year, Neville Scarlett authored Field guide to Victoria’s native grasslands: native plants of Victorian lowland plains.

After more than a century of clearing and working the land for increased agricultural productivity, a greater awareness of the scarcity of grasslands and their need for conservation was gaining momentum. In 1999, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) commissioned James Ross, Chief Botanist, to produce a confidential report titled, Identification of Priority Areas for Protection and Establishment of Protected Areas – Victorian Volcanic Plain Bioregion. This study assessed the current reservation status of vegetation types across the Victorian Volcanic Plain (VVP) and found that most vegetation communities to be very poorly or inadequately represented in reserves.

Consensus was forming amongst researchers and practitioners of grassland management, that in order to adequately address biodiversity protection of grassy ecosystems of the VVP, what was needed was the development of a network of public reserves and private land managed with collective and sympathetic aims – referred to as a ‘protected area network’.

That “big is better than small” and “connected is better than fragmented”, are well established precepts of ecosystem conservation. Yet, grasslands of the VVP are amongst the most depleted and fragmented ecosystems in Australia, with only a tiny percentage of its pre-European extent remaining.

The concept of a protected area network approach to conservation is considered the only solution to the issue of providing long-term protection to flora and fauna of the VVP. Still in Victoria, but further north, the Victorian Riverina has undergone a similar history of land clearing to make way for cropping and improved pastures for livestock.

In Victoria, the greatest area of grassland and grassy ecosystems occur on private land, and even then, the majority have been extensively modified and bear the burden of pest plants and animals that continual threaten the survival of native species. Much of the extent of native grasslands on public land are confined to road reserves, rail reserves, cemeteries, and small reserves near urbanised areas. However, much of this land is under no formal reservation that provides a guaranteed protection from disturbance or clearing. This leaves an enormous responsibility on the shoulders of land managers of privately-owned grassland patches.

The contribution to conservation of privately-managed grasslands, including the Budgerum Grassland Reserve (a Wilderlands project) is perhaps higher than for any other endangered vegetation community in Victoria.

Fortunately, a tremendous amount of knowledge of grassland management has been gained over the past 30 years to assist land managers with their efforts to maintain and improve their grasslands. A valuable kick-start to generating this knowledge arose through the Grassy Ecosystem Reference Group of the 1990s, culminating in a sharing of results from research at a conference in 1998 and the production of Down to Grass Roots – Management of Grassy Ecosystems Conference Proceedings.

Notably, a short booklet was produced by Tim Barlow and Trust for Nature in 1998 called, Grassy Guidelines – How to manage native grasslands and grassy woodlands on your property. Although there have been many subsequent publications, including scientific research articles, written since Grassy Guidelines, it is still referenced often and provides a useful and easy-to-understand guide for private individuals wishing to protect and manage grasslands on their property.

You can download the booklet from the VVP Catchment Management Network website here: https://vvpcmn.files.wordpress.com/2010/02/grassguide.pdf

Prior to the 1990s, it was a popular myth that grasslands were ‘simple’ ecosystems. The lack of trees, logs and a vertical structural complexity may have contributed to this impression, but researchers and practitioners of grasslands know that it can be an extremely challenging ecosystem, with high vulnerability to weed incursion, high seasonal variability, tricky biomass management requirements, specific management requirements for small populations of threatened species, and active management to ensure maintenance of health. My hat goes off to anyone who has declared their commitment to protect these rare and fragile ecosystems and is working hard to ensure the plants and animals that depend on grasslands have a future.

Wilderlands is proud to support the grassland and grassy woodland communities of Budgerum Grassland Reserve, a 90-hectare patch of very high-quality grassland on the Victorian Riverina. With a detailed management plan and an on-title conservation covenant with Trust for Nature, Budgerum Grassland Reserve will provide protection to many rare and threatened species…. forever.

Chris Lindorff, Wilderlands Chief Ecologist, is an experienced ecologist and land manager with a degree in Science, and Forest Science, from the University of Melbourne.