Australia’s Monaro farmers use Aboriginal cool-burn fires to recover biodiversity, rejuvenate degraded farm land
Farmers on the Monaro plains of New South Wales in Australia are learning new land management skills from the country's traditional Aboriginal custodians. In an effort to recover biodiversity lost over two centuries of farming, farmers like Charlie Massy are looking for practical solutions to rejuvenating what he described as “severely degraded country”. Dr Massy is a highly respected woolgrower, academic and author and leader in a movement known as regenerative farming. “We just grazed the crap out of [the land] and destroyed it; what we're dealing with now is a degraded ecosystem,” Dr Massy said. He said the use of chemicals and fertilisers to restore the landscape simply made the problem worse and suggested a better solution was to look to land management skills developed by the country's original custodians. We're talking about a continent that's adapted to fire [and] they were a people who were here for 50 000 years who used fire as a management tool,” he said. Following European settlement and the displacement of the region's Aboriginal communities, traditional methods of land management ceased. Aboriginal methods were replaced by what Dr Massy described as an industrial farming method that was, “knock the hell out of country to extract what you want”.
He described it as a “double whammy” with the loss of millennia of Aboriginal knowledge and landscape rejuvenation practices replaced with destructive farming practices. He said it was “logical” to learn how Aboriginal people used fire and to bring that into modern-day land management.
Practising 'cool' fire burning at field day
Dr Massy said that meant bringing farmers together with Aboriginal people to learn and practise techniques known as 'cool-burn patch' or 'mosaic' burning. He recently hosted a Landcare field day on his family's 1 820-hectare sheep and cattle property and nearly 50 people showed up to learn from Indigenous land manager, Rod Mason. “It's very important for non-Indigenous people because they're the new land owners now,” Mason said. The traditional method was to use small 'cool fires' to bring on fresh grass that would attract game for hunting.
The effect was to create a landscape over thousands of years which resulted in what the first explorers and settlers described as grassland or open woodland, using terms such as “like a park”, as researched recently by award-winning historian, Bill Gammage. Essentially, the technique involves burning a small patch in mild conditions, such as cool mornings or late afternoons in late autumn and early winter and when there is little breeze.
Field day participants comprising local farmers as well as representatives from Landcare, NSW Local Land Services and Greening Australia, worked together to learn principles like wind direction and slope of the land, site preparation and fire control. The cool fires were easily extinguished using rake hoes or backpack sprayers.
Outcome of burn to be monitored
Nicki Taws from Greening Australia marked out and recorded the plant and tree coverage prior to the burn and will return after a few months to monitor the outcomes. “There will probably be a good response of fresh growth after the burn and the fire may have triggered some germination of (native) plants that weren't evident here before,” she said. “And possibly, [there may be] some regeneration of seedlings and some new growth on some of the trees as well.”
Dr Massy said the burning would create much-needed biodiversity and was an important tool that needed to be part of a day-to-day routine. “You're going to be killing exotic seeds and encourage germination of natives,” he said. “Just poke out and burn an acre or two or half an acre and just start creating those mosaic patches; that's how you start getting biodiversity.”
Land management breaking down prejudice
With these farmers adopting Aboriginal land management techniques, it also means prejudices and barriers between the two communities were breaking down. “It's a tragedy that it's taken two centuries that we we're at last starting to think a bit differently and get over those old prejudices that the colonial world had towards Indigenous people,” Dr Massy said.
For Aboriginal people, it is not only a rare and welcomed recognition of their knowledge but it also means the re-introduction of aspects of their millennia-old traditions. “We'd like them to apply the same management techniques as our ancestors did,” Mason said of the farmers. “I'd really like them to learn these traditional skills, embrace them and use them on their properties. I mean actually live this style of land management. Live it.”
Source: ABC Net