Prior to European settlement, the vast volcanic plain grasslands of western Victoria would have been a spectacular sight. They once spanned about 300 km from Melbourne to Portland. Now less than 1% of these grasslands remain, which makes it challenging to conserve and restore them. Remnants often exist in small, isolated patches and are prone to weed invasion. Restoration is limited by the availability of seed from healthy populations.
Over the past 10 years, however, reliable techniques have been developed to restore native grasslands.
I met David Franklin at Greening Australia’s Seeds for Success forum, held at La Trobe University in July 2015. David lives in Chatsworth and for the last 8 years has been working on restoring native grasslands. Chatsworth is located near the middle of the Victorian volcanic plains, and the region has some spectacular remnant grasslands, mostly occurring on roadside reserves.
I got in touch with David and visited his property in November 2015 to learn more about what he does.
Hi David, thanks for catching up. Let’s start with a bit about yourself and how you got into the industry?
Thanks John. I’ve been in here in Chatsworth nearly all my life – I was about 5 years old when we came. This is a family farm, a soldier settlement my father was allocated after the Second World War. We ran a medium-fine wool merino sheep flock and also did some cropping.
I started a native plant nursery about 25 years ago after the wool boom crashed. This was before Landcare took off, and I was just selling to farmers for windbreaks (trees and shrubs). But I always concentrated on local indigenous plants of this region. I started selling a few and it just got bigger and bigger. Then when the Landcare groups came along, I produced a lot for Landcare.
Were you involved with Landcare?
Yeah, around this time I actually started a Landcare group here in Chatsworth, and we had about 15 people in our group. Over a three year program, we got about $80,000 in funding from the government to revegetate watercourses and badly eroded hills. They’re all full of trees now and it has completely changed the landscape – that’s going back 15 years or more.
And so my nursery supplied a lot of these small Landcare groups who were applying for funding before the Catchment Management Authorities (CMAs) came along. In its peak, about 10 years ago, my nursery was growing 300,000 plants a year.
Around this time there was a lot of burnout in the Landcare groups – trying to take on too much – and from then on, most of the plant orders came through the CMAs. With the recent budget cuts from state and federal governments, it’s all turned full circle now, and there’s hardly any orders coming through.
So when the nursery started to die down, I had some spare time to learn more about the roadside reserves. I’ve always had a bit of an interest in the roadside grasslands because we’ve got really terrific remnants right out the front here, right to Woorndoo and Wycliffe, and all around this region. So in the autumn I’d muck around trying to propagate some of the grassland species, and in the spring-time I’d learn how to identify the seed from the flowers. You’d have to keep going out there and peg some of the species. This is because you can identify them when they’re in full flower and they look beautiful, but if you go back 2 or 3 weeks later they’re all shrivelled up and I’d say, ‘what was that?’. It was an interesting learning curve.
How did you get interested in direct seeding?
In 2004 I got involved with the Grassy Groundcover Research Project – this was a 3 year research project with Melbourne University and Greening Australia, run by Dr Paul Gibson Roy. They had funding to establish 15 research sites in Victoria to see if they could turn completely altered agricultural land back into native grasslands. This was done by trialling different methods of site preparation and direct seeding techniques to establish a native grassland with a mix of different species.
My farm was one of the sites, and I also grew plants because each site needed access to a seed production area. We initially collected seed from the roadside remnants. This seed was used to grow plants in poly boxes, and the seed collected off these plants were used in the research project. We also used this seed to set up some beds where we could grow more plants for seed production. Having a seed production area really took the pressure off the wild populations. This was a really thorough research project and I’ve learnt so much from Paul.
I’ll always remember when he told me about the scalping. In the first year of the project, there were these 1m by 1m plots with different treatments, including scraping off the top 6 inches of soil. This was fine by me, but in the second year Paul said “This time we’re going a bit bigger. We’ll get a grader in and scalp half a hectare.”
I said “What?”
He said “We’ll scalp half a hectare and mound it up on the side.”
I was looking at him incredulously and he’s looking at me and he’s smiling. As a farmer, the worst thing you could do to grow a crop is remove the nutrient-rich topsoil.
And I said “Yeah right-o, I’ll go along with it.”
Now I think it’s just so logical when you’re growing native plants: by scalping the topsoil you get rid of all the weed seed and also you get rid of the nutrients that the native plants don’t want.
What did you do after the research project finished up?
I then started working for Greening Australia on a contract basis, growing seed and direct seeding, as well as maintaining the machinery. This was led by Rod White, who is the Grasslands Restoration Officer at Greening Australia. We’ve been getting some great results, and that’s been going on for the past 8 years.
With Greening Australia I’ve worked on the Alcoa project called Moolapio, in Geelong. They had to get equipment there for sowing, and they needed help to grow seed. So I built a decent transporter trailer to carry a 3-tonne tractor and a seeder. Last year we took the tractor and seeder to Tasmania for a week, and also went down to Bairnsdale. This year we’ve been up to Euroa, and we’ve also worked at the Western Water Treatment Plant at Melton.
Over the past 3 years, we’ve done some seed growing and direct seeding work with the duplication of the Western Highway between Ballarat and Beaufort. We sowed 4 ha there this year. I grew some plants for seed here in the nursery in boxes, but I was also going up there each year in summer and collecting local seed to do the job.
A lot of these jobs are limited by the amount of seed you can collect, and you need to do some forward-planning for a couple of years to be able to restore a few hectares
At my property I have the machinery to sow large areas of seed. I can also grow a lot of seed here in the nursery and in the farm’s in-ground seed production areas. I’m currently growing 25-30 species on the farm. I’m all ready to do more if we could just get the funding.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this interview, where David shows me around his property and I learn about some of the projects he’s working on.
If you would like to learn more about David’s work you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org