Tiptoe through the Themeda… notes from a grassland restoration day at Woorndoo

Last week, at the tail-end of peak grassland blooms, Greg, Sheryl and myself got along to Woorndoo on the Victorian Volcanic Plain (VVP) for a grassland restoration info day.

The grasslands of the VVP have been almost totally cleared due to their suitability for agriculture, and the little that remains is often confined to strips of roadside vegetation. However, to see a native grassland in full-flower is something special and a bunch of people are doing their best to not only protect what is left, but to recreate grassland habitat through complex restoration techniques.

Caterpillar on a Blue Grass-lily at Woorndoo Common

The Woorndoo Landcare Protection Group (WLPG) is heavily involved in conservation of the native grasslands throughout their area, so it was an ideal place to hold an event. After an early visit to the amazing Woorndoo Common grassland across the road, there were some great presentations from grassland ecologists and vegetation managers, including an overview of grassland formation and ecology, research around burning regimes, initiatives from DELWP and Vic Roads to manage grasslands, and discussion of restoration initiatives as well as typical hurdles and some ways around them.

It was also great to hear from the Woorndoo CFA, who have been burning 60-odd km of Woorndoo roadsides pretty much every year for as long as anyone can remember. While this has always been focussed on community safety, recently they’ve been working more closely with grassland experts to maximise the benefits of burns. A significant point was made in that the lower biomass of native grasses is a much safer option for roadsides than dense pasture grasses.

An afternoon field trip headed out to the Woorndoo-Streatham Rd restoration site where the WLPG has been working since 2013, with 1.25ha of restored grassland and another 1.25ha on the way. We were taken through the restoration process by John Delpratt (Uni of Melbourne) and David Franklin (WLPG) and the results were there for us all to see, with a carpet of native grasses and wildflowers. The primary technique used was removal (scalping) of the top 10cm or so of soil, which removes weed seeds and excess nutrients that weeds love and gives a clean slate to work with. The site was then direct seeded, with seed that is often processed less than in some restoration projects. Being collected from seed orchards the seed can be quite uniform and seedheads of some species can be simply cut and lightly mulched as preparation, saving time (& money) sorting and cleaning. Detailed monitoring plots have been established at the site to gather data and will help to further refine the techniques.

Hoary Sunray amongst Scaly Buttons and Lemon Beauty-heads (in bud) in the Woorndoo-Streatham Rd grassland

The information-sharing between researchers and practitioners in this area is pretty impressive. Just like in a native grassland, there’s a buzz of complex interactions, with research generated by groups such as the Uni of Melbourne and Greening Australia being rapidly tested in the field by revegetation practitioners such as the WLPG, who feed back their on-ground experiences as well as their own ideas and experiments.

As John Delpratt described, the techniques and technologies resulting from these various collaborations have advanced such that a native grassland can now be fairly confidently created on suitable sites – which need to be flat and free of rock and significant native vegetation (due to the scalping process). The planted grassland may not have all the species initially, but it will function as a native ecosystem, with the possibility of adding more diversity over time.

It’s clear that the grasslands of the VVP are advocated and cared for by a passionate bunch of people that gives you some confidence in their future. They are all out to make a positive impact and the open sharing of hard-won knowledge – what you could probably call “trade secrets” – is something that you don’t necessarily find in other fields!

Thanks to the Woorndoo Land Protection Group and other organisers and speakers for having us along.

Jonathan Tuck