Saturday, 24 March 2012

Megafauna Collapse led to Mega Vegetation Changes

On 23rd March 2012 Rachel Sullivan via ABC Science Online posted the article in this hyperlink (titled the same as what we've titled this blog post) highlighting the change that occurred in the vegetation in Australia post the extinction of most of our endemic mega-fauna: Reading Rachel's article inspired us to track down the original report in the Science journal. Here's a link to the Science Magazine website ( From there we found that the actual name of the full original report is titled "The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia".

Given the significance of this report to what we believed to already be the case in terms of human impact on the Australian landscape we paid the USD 15.00 and downloaded the full report. Here's a copy of the unedited Extract from this report: "Giant vertebrates dominated many Pleistocene ecosystems. Many were herbivores, and their sudden extinction in prehistory could have had large ecological impacts. We used a high-resolution 130,000-year environmental record to help resolve the cause and reconstruct the ecological consequences of extinction of Australia’s megafauna. Our results suggest that human arrival rather than climate caused megafaunal extinction, which then triggered replacement of mixed rainforest by sclerophyll vegetation through a combination of direct effects on vegetation of relaxed herbivore pressure and increased fire in the landscape. This ecosystem shift was as large as any effect of climate change over the last glacial cycle, and indicates the magnitude of changes that may have followed megafaunal extinction elsewhere in the world."

The research and writings of well known Australian environmental scientist Tim Flannery bring to light that some 95 % of Australia's native megafauna is now extinct post human occupation and that most of these were herbivores (plant eaters). Page 119 of his book 'Future Eaters' has a table showing 48 extinct species including: 
  • Tree feller, marsupial rhino, large and small species of diprotodons
  • 5 species of wombats, giant rat kangaroo, and the marsupial lion
  • 7 species of giant short-faced kangaroos
  • 8 species of kangaroos
  • Dwarfed marsupials and monotremes
  • Various birds and reptiles
On Page 112 of the same book he lists some of the extinct predators as:
  • Gigantic goanna - Megalania - 200+ to 1000+ kg and measuring up to 7 metres long
  • Land crocodile - Quinkana - 200 kg+ and up to 3 metres long
  • 100 kg python - Wonambi - reaching 6 metres long with a 30 cm diameter
  • Several extinct crocodiles
It is basic human nature for survival and quality of life reasons that we rid or exclude critters in the environment that are a threat to our existence or comfort. Thus in our view blaming Aboriginal people for the extinction of the megafauna species is not appropriate. It's just the way of things. What the research does support is many of the principles espoused in the Holistic Management material developed by Alan Savory et. al. and the important role large herbivores play in restoring and maintaining land and soil health.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Management Techniques on Ochre Arch

In response to our last post titled Deserts and Desertification one reader (aka Anonymous) asked: “I would like to know more details of your management techniques. Perhaps you could refer to dates your blog mentions this or give more details here”. Sorry ‘Anonymous’ but we are not prepared to allocate time to going over all our previous posts when you can readily do so yourself.

The question from ‘Anonymous’ is, however, a handy prompt to share a few things about our management philosophy. What follows are few points that might be of interest to our blogsite followers.

We make our decisions holistically
The major components of making holistic decisions for us are:
  • We are advocates and practitioners of the decision making framework developed by Alan Savory and others as documented in the text ‘Holistic Management – A New Framework for Decision Making’. Copies of this book can be ordered directly from Holistic Management International via this link: We reckon reading this book is an essential step for anyone managing land. We have been asked repeatedly to try and summarise the content of this text but doing so just does not give the recipient of what we say an adequate full picture.
  • As a key component of the above we have developed our own unique holisticgoal. The main components of this include 1. The quality of life we want to live. High on our list is freedom, simplicity of business operations, and frequent quality interactions with our family 2. What we have to produce (in order to give us the quality of life we want). High on this list is profit from farm and off farm activities, engagement in diverse activities, and a place that people want to visit 3. The future state of our resource base. High on this list as far as our farm goes is that we want to optimise species diversity in the broader landscape, have increasing ground cover and herbage mass production, and have genetically improving herding animals.
  • We do use a range of techniques that support the above. One example is that with areas of bare ground that no longer have any form of decent soil or soil structure we use a range of methods that introduce organic matter to those areas from which soil can then develop. Some alternatives used so far with varying levels of success include: 1. Encouraging animals to camp on bare ground, with them naturally leaving dung and urine on the surface when they leave 2. Animals that die are moved onto bare patches 3. When trees are lopped or felled (e.g. on fence-lines) we move branches onto bare ground 4. Off cuts from lamb marking are placed on bare ground 5. Kitchen scraps also go onto bare ground. Ideally we’d like to buy in hay or similar and have animals work this onto the soil surface but at this point we are not ready to allocate time or money to doing this.

We work with the best people we can find
It has taken us a long time to find the great people we work with who provide goods or services in support of our farm operations. Those wanting to understand why this is so important should read the book “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. Here’s a link to some more information

Our Livestock are Low Maintenance and High Performing
In 2009 we consider ourselves very fortunate to have visited Nigel Kerin’s place at Yeoval at a time when he had some of his merino ewes for sale. They had been specifically bred for high fertility and fecundity, good wool quality, as well as large strong plain bodies with low susceptibility to fly strike. The rams we buy from Chris Blowes at Jandon Partners Molong are bred along the same lines.
Some of our management practices with the sheep include:
  • Through our grazing planning our stock ALWAYS have access to high quantities of herbage mass growing naturally in each paddock
  • (With a few exceptions) We only treat those animals with problems, not the whole lot. Fly strike is a good example where we don’t treat the whole mob with chemicals routinely but rather allow nature to identify the susceptible and treat those. To quote from a friend of ours “We'd rather personally subsidise the sustainable, yet socially not readily acceptable than the socially acceptable, but inherently unsustainable.” The level of fly strike in our mob recently was around 2 % which we feel is acceptable, especially given the recent deluge of rain and the fact that several locals have shorn or chemically treated all their sheep 3 times so far during the summer.
  • Animals that don’t perform to expectations are culled. Examples: ewes that don’t fall pregnant within 2 cycles, sheep that have been flyblown or have cancers, lambs selected by our sheep classer as not suitable.
  • Breeding timed to maximise fertility and seasonal feed availability and quality

We use low stress stock-handling techniques
The discoverer and developer of these techniques was Bud Williams from the USA. In Australia there are several businesses that teach them but we have attended course run by the Low Stress Stockhandling team. Here’s a link to their website:
Some key points:
  • The techniques are low stress for both us and the stock
  • The behaviours of herding animals are extremely predictable
  • We get to understand how animals see us
We move our stock silently on foot and without dogs. Consequently they are very quiet, trust us and actually perform better as a result.

Our learning journey will never finish
We choose to be here on the farm and thrive on the fact that we are free to do what we think is right. We continue to look for different ways to do what we do and readily take on new ideas.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Deserts and Desertification

We recently self-nominated and were listed on the Holistic Management International website as a contact point for people who wanted to communicate with an Australian practitioner of Holistic Management. Flowing from this we were contacted by a bloke in Melbourne who wanted us to recount our experiences in producing additional herbage mass from our farm from the application of holistic planned grazing. After sending off our initial response the bloke then changed tack substantially and revealed that what he was hoping we could give him examples / explain how Holistic Management fixes deserts (I'm being simplistic). Obviously not having had experience with this directly we were not able to help him much, if at all really. We learned quite a bit from the overall exchanges, though. It gave us a deeper understanding of the difference between deserts and desertification, something we'd not pondered much on in the past. Here's a few of the points taken from documents emailed to us by the Melbourne bloke.

From the publication: The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and its Political Dimension, Uwe Holtz, Bonn, 26 May 2003: "Desertification means the degradation of land and vegetation, soil erosion and the loss of topsoil and fertile land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations." The author goes on to list the 12 major 'soil diseases' that lead to land degradation, sourced from the publication German Advisory Council on Global Change, Summary for Policymakers. World in Transition: The Threat to Soil, reprint, Berlin 2001. "The German Advisory Council on Global Change has put together what it considers to be the twelve most important anthropogenic 'soil diseases'. The names chosen for these syndromes are deliberately symbolic, each one having been taken from a selected crisis area or a striking phenomenon accompanying the syndrome. However, the label always stands for a particular syndrome which occurs or can occur in different regions of the world. The twelve syndromes, which are in a certain sense “geodermatological diagnoses” of the “skin” of our planet Earth, are:

1. Changes in the traditional use of land: the Huang He Syndrome
2. Soil degradation through mechanized farming: the Dust Bowl Syndrome
3. Excessive use of marginal land: the Sahel Syndrome
4. Conversion and/or over-exploitation of forests and other ecosystems: the Sarawak Syndrome
5. Misplanning of large-scale agricultural projects: the Aral Sea Syndrome
6. Remote transport of nutrients and pollutants: the Acid Rain Syndrome
7. Local contamination, accumulation of waste and inherited pollution: the Bitterfeld Syndrome
8. Uncontrolled urbanization: the São Paulo Syndrome
9. Overdevelopment and expansion of infrastructure: the Los Angeles Syndrome
10. Mining and prospecting: the Katanga Syndrome
11. Soil and land degradation through tourism: the Alps Syndrome
12. Land and soil degradation as a result of war and military action: the Scorched Earth Syndrome"

In our area of Australia it is probably fair to say that there is some evidence of land degradation from the first 4 'soil diseases' although practices generally are now not too extreme in the overall landscape.

In 2011 the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) based at Gland in Switzerland published a paper titled 'World Heritage Desert Landscapes: Potential Priorities for the Recognition of Desert Landscapes and Geomorphological Sites on the World Heritage List'. On page 3 of this document was included the following figure, which was in turn sourced from the paper: Goudie, A.S. 2002. Great Warm Deserts of the World. Oxford University Press, Oxford

What we found of great interest from the above map was that Australia, whilst being the driest occupied continent on the Earth, does not have any areas that are classified as 'Extreme arid'.