Woodland musing

For a while now, decades in fact, I’ve been an interested observer of landscape change in the Newstead district and more generally across the box-ironbark country.

Three overarching observations:

  1. Significant areas of farmland, prime grazing land last century, are now largely de-stocked and actively regenerating – especially with eucalypts and native grasses.
  2. This farmland sits within a mosaic of  ‘bush’ – forest and woodland, much of which is public land in varying states of recovery. The legacy of repeated clearing (many areas were harvested for timber multiple times since the 1850s) is often reflected in regenerating eucalypt thickets where the stem density may be 10 to 100 times greater than it was pre-clearing.
  3. Bird populations know what’s going on … there are distinct patterns of species richness and abundance that reflect the past history of land use and management.

What is happening in central Victoria is not unique, in many parts of the world agriculture is retreating from areas where it was once pervasive, a phenomenon described as land abandonment. In my experience the greatest variety and numbers of birds tend to be found in areas where the original fabric of veteran trees has triggered natural regeneration of understorey plants and this is happening where farming practices are changing and land is recovering with or without direct intention.

The three habitat images below exemplify this:

#1 woodland bird habitat (private land) – large old trees, natural regeneration and patchiness – ideal for Jacky Winter, Hooded Robin, Diamond Firetail and Swift Parrot

#2 woodland bird habitat (public land) – woodland thicket with fair to middling understorey – not as bird rich as #1 but has potential … just wait 100 years or so to see this realised.

#3 woodland bird habitat (private land) – woodland thicket with minimal understorey – maybe a Brown Treecreeper or two and the odd Scarlet Robin … this too has potential but would most likely benefit from some active management (fire, thinning, planting etc) … and time!

There are layers of complexity too – while #1 woodland bird habitat is good it could be even better with replenishment of missing shrubs, grasses and forbs.

Jacky Winter, Green Gully, 5th September 2020. This species does best on the margins of intact bush and open country – especially abandoned farmland.

#1 – Woodland bird habitat ***

#2 – Woodland bird habitat **

#3 – Woodland bird habitat *

Eucalytpus regrowth is an important part of the story – it is ideal breeding habitat for a range of woodland birds, such as the Yellow Thornbill (pictured below), Mistletoebird and Weebill. Black-chinned Honeyeaters also enjoy this habitat.

Yellow Thornbill nest in eucalyptus regrowth

The tail end of a Yellow Thornbill

Peeking out from the beautifully woven nest of grass, moss and synthetics

Black-chinned Honeyeater


To read more about land abandonment here is an interesting article from the Yale School of the Environment.

13 responses to “Woodland musing

  1. So enjoying these posts since I joined recently. The photography is superb.

  2. amanda macgillivray

    Amanda Macgillivray


  3. Geoff, your posts are wonderful. I have been following them for about two years and recently realized I have not sent back comments to express my delight at receiving Natural Newstead posts each week. I have passed on the website to several family members and friends who are now followers.

  4. Thanks Geoff, the Yale School of Environment article is excellent food for thought. I have seen great ecological recovery, albeit at a huge cost and through hard won conservationist works across the north east of Victoria with the regent honeyeater project, plus a number of wonderful environmental groups such as Bush Heritage Australia, Conservancy Australia, Land for Wildlife and others doing just that, but with science behind them. Sometimes natural regeneration takes years to evolve and can become cluttered with too many saplings which may be unlucky enough to fuel a wildfire if lightning strikes, etc. It is a nuanced topic of so many variables and glad you have shown your area and how it is regenerating – always hope and a great positive.

  5. Hi Geoff – am still enjoying all your posts. Could you perhaps let us know your thoughts on the optimal fire regimes needed to assist restoration of each of the three woodland habitat types you describe?

    • Hi Steve, that’s a difficult question and not one that I can answer briefly or with any confidence. Also, my views will be largely conjecture as the changes wrought by multiple broad scale clearing events from the 1850s have changed the context so profoundly. I think active experimentation with different approaches, including cultural burning, will yield some insights so long as they are coupled with good monitoring. On regenerating farm land I think there is a role for small-scale patch burning to maintain an open structure and encourage recruitment of more diverse understorey … but weed invasion will need to be considered. Sorry for the scant thoughts!

  6. Fantastic Geoff, obs/analysis thank you.

    I’m forwarding this as well


  7. Thanks for the wonderful post and the reference to the Yale school article on the importance of abandoned Farmland. Last night I was hit between the eyes with reference to John Bellamy Foster’s new book. Please forgive me the length of this comment.

    It’s so important to understand that concerns for human impacts on ecology and climate began long before Rachel Carson …
    John Bellamy Foster “THE RETURN TO NATURE”

    ‘Among the revelations is his discussion of a 1,400 page book co-authored by Julian Huxley, H.G. Wells and Wells’s son G.P. Wells titled “The Science of Life”.’
    Among other things they discuss the most serious problem of all – what I would call the phosphorous bomb:
    “Phosphorus is an essential constituent of all living creatures. It is, however, a rather rare element in nature, constituting only about one seven-hundredth part of the earth’s crust… . From the soil of the United States alone the equivalent of some six million tons of phosphate is disappearing every year; and only about a quarter of this is put back in fertilizers. Meanwhile the store of fertilizers is being depleted, and man … is sluicing phosphorus recklessly into the ocean in sewage. Each year, the equivalent of over a million tons of phosphate rock is thus dumped out to sea, most of it for all practical purposes irrecover-able. The Chinese may be less sanitary in their methods of sewage disposal, but they are certainly more sensible; in China, what has been taken out of the soil is put back into the soil. It is urgently necessary that Western “civilized” man shall alter his methods of sewage disposal. If he does not, there will be a phosphorus shortage, and therefore a food shortage, in a few generations. But even if he does that he will still have to keep his eye on phosphorus; it is the weak link in the vital chain on which civilization is supported.’

    Carlo Canteri, Newstead

  8. roger1233@bigpond.com

    Great article – thanks Geoff! Best wishes Sam Monks

    Get Outlook for iOS

  9. A thought-provoking post, thank you Geoff. It will be interesting to see if you take this further. The Yale piece was a great addition.

  10. A postscript to my post above, and an apology. I didn’t make it clear that the sentence: “Among other things they discuss the most serious problem of all – what I would call the phosphorous bomb:” are my words, not the reviewers… Carlo

  11. Pingback: Dbytes #443 (16 September 2020) | Dbytes

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