SEEING the trees, forest and the occupants – natural synergies at work.

By

Carol Lynn

 

We deal with numerous complexities, many of our own making.  We have come to believe in our ‘managements’, but some turn out to be mismanagements. 

 In Australia, a few of those were the introduction by immigrants of rabbits (becoming a plague in past centuries and then requiring the use of poison and introduction of viruses along with other methods to ‘manage’), prickly pear and lantana that invaded large areas, foxes (imported for so-called ‘sport’) and cane toads (now an expanding threat to wildlife and pets), all of which required further ‘managements’.

We have come to believe that ‘management’ of the environment is our right without question.  However, lessons are sometimes learned too late until observed in retrospect.  The devastation of Earth’s flora and fauna is fast becoming one of those ‘mismanagements’ that portend present and future problems.  Complex solutions are attempted to make provision for our ever-increasing populations (see World Population Clock online, racing to keep up with recording the increases).

But down at ‘grass roots’ level, those who have lived according to inherent instinct and the practice of centuries play their part in the simple synergies of time from which we can learn if we but understand them and consider wisely.

It is quite obvious that our water does not originate at the tap nor our food at the supermarket.  As we have become remote from their origins, so we sometimes lose sight of important factors in food production. Food cannot be produced without the basics of water and good soils.  In the cycles beyond time moisture rises, clouds (so often drawn to hills) condense, rain falls to earth.

We need to consider the multiple factors in Earth’s provisioning

Water has a power of its own….even raindrops impact upon contact.  Its passage proceeds downhill, carrying and depositing nutrients on its course.  How fast it proceeds depends upon the slope and inhibitions to the speed generated.  Water continues to stream from uphill catchments long after rain ceases if there is sufficient ground cover to steady its impetus.  Water’s power can be and is an agent of erosion.  Water and wind erosion are primary causes of land degradation.  Human activities have increased the global rate of erosion by at least 10-40 times.  The future will depend ever increasingly on the quality of soils and their water retention capacity, with global warming also an issue.

Northern China’s Loess (‘loess’ is packed silt) Plateau was cited as one of the worst examples of erosion.  (Past slogans reflected the ideas of ‘move hills, fill gullies, create plains, destroy forests, open wastelands’…National Geographic September 2008).  The accumulations of silt (up to hundreds of feet deep – approximately 640,000 sq. km.) had been swept in for eons from across the deserts to their west.  The edges of terraced fields collapsed down steep gullies, polluting river systems.  Other villages, which followed suit and intended to produce grain from every available scrap of land, found similar problems.  Rain sluiced away nutrients and organic matter in the soil.  Fertility and productivity decreased, centuries of deforestation and overgrazing resulted in a degenerated ecosystem.  By planting trees and employing other methods, a portion was reclaimed in Watershed Rehabilitation projects.

Australia is a land of contrasts, as Dorothea Mackellar so aptly wrote in her famous poem “My Country”….’a land of droughts…..and flooding rains’.  If rain is abundant, particularly after recurrent drought cycles have dried the earth and its particles or decreased ground covering plants, water’s path is therefore more vigorous and it leaches nutrients from the soil and creates erosions.  If its passage is slowed by healthy grasses, plants, bushes and trees, whose roots contain and hold the soil in adverse circumstances, it does less harm and soaks into the earth, replenishing the water table on its way and depositing needed nutrients to sustain growth and needed renewals.  The plants filter water on its way and trap surface washings of fibre and debris, steadying water’s passage.  Each component that steadies the watershed permits benefits in varying ways. If water traverses denuded ground, erosion results.

We have fragile soils in our varied landscapes in Australia too.  Every factor that increases or replenishes soil nutrition is important , particularly with global warming prospects and the cyclical droughts that the country experiences, especially with increase in population.  Since the introduction of imported farming practices with the original arrival of immigrants from UK and other countries, vast areas were cleared for farmland – often from boundary to boundary, in many areas with only fringing trees – no real protection for livestock or soils.

Deforestation is one of the main causes of erosion and the most effective method for erosion prevention is to increase or conserve vegetative cover on the land, providing beneficial microclimates.  Urbanisation denudes the land of vegetative cover and causes changes in water flow with road building and can increase erosion effects in flooding events.  (It was estimated (in 2008) that about 75 billion tons of soil was being eroded from the land:  13-40 times faster than natural erosion).  A simple barrier to downhill progress of soil illustrates.

A barrier can halt the downward passage of soil. Trees, rocks, plants, grass, washed leaf litter, debris and fibres all help slow the movement

The availability of healthy soils for production and their nutrition is obviously an important issue now and for the future.  Agricultural land diminishes due to many pressures: expansion of human populations, mining leases, degradation of soil structure, lessening of soil nutrients, use of heavy machinery and vehicles compacting soil structure, loss of nutrients from successive and intensive croppings and changes in weather and those wrought by floods and drought.

Increasingly, it has been found that the attempts to maximise agricultural production using pesticides, artificial fertilisers and heavy metals are deleterious.  A change to organic methods in some areas has proven the benefit of sufficient healthy nutrients and soil cover to maintain and renew soil health, as they are beneficial to soil micro-organisms, which in turn benefit the soil.  Introduced stock must be treated with strong chemicals in order to accord with regulations for sale…the chemicals pass through their systems and contact the earth with their fæces.  When heavy clumping is seen (as in the sheep fæces below) it is evident that they have infestations.

Poisons such as 1080 (banned elsewhere) are still used by some farmers to kill rabbits and foxes despite the knowledge of its dangers (poisons and pesticides pollute water and soil – and are carried by rain runoff – harming the soil microbes as well. Runoff can kill fish and aquatic life and pollute water sources).  Wildlife are also at great risk (especially raptors) from the contaminated carcasses as are domestic pets.

What we have added in our attempts at ‘management’ we might wisely begin to question.  What we believe we can arbitrarily exterminate or eliminate from the inheritance of environment must be questioned.   The inheritance of centuries has quietly worked without our intrusions in ways that we must come to not only understand but to realise and appreciate.  There is no doubt that we must provide for our increasing populations but in what ways we do it will determine so much of the future, ours and the living wealth which is not ours but must be safeguarded for future generations.

There was an infamous incident, for instance, which was rightly questioned despite obtuse insistence where to bolster the ‘excuse’ for ‘culling’ (killing) kangaroos in Canberra, it was stated that counting kangaroo pellets (droppings/ fæces) would be an estimate to the numbers to kill.  But, if you will forgive the ‘vision’, we might well take a more vibrant and closer look that is a little more informative about the ‘issue’.
 

AN EXAMPLE OF NATURAL SYNERGY:

Soils, as mentioned, make their way downhill.  Various factors determine the erosive or beneficial containments of passage.  Whilst we conduct our lives with our focus, the natural order long established in the synergy of native residents takes place.  To our detriment we remove factors that have worked long before we entered the country.  The environment needs to be understood far better than the concreting of whatever we can manage and that includes our thinking processes and expedient judgements.  Seemingly simple factors can have a marked difference on the environment.  Soil structure for instance is benefited by those below our very feet that we don’t often see….

After heavy rains, in particular, earthworms (the ones who survive – some drown) and other soil dwellers forge upwards, seeking both passage to nutrition and ground cover above – they favour ground hugging growth and grasses and fibrous cover.  Their upsurging tunnels aerate the soil and are so often seen next to kangaroo pellets (droppings), which provide both soil nutrition and fibre.

Kangaroo pellets are steady release nutrition and their residue of fibre both holds available moisture close to the earth and assists in ground cover.   (Fæces from introduced stock such as cattle or horses tend to blanket cover where they drop and suppress immediate areas.)

An experiment, soaking kangaroo pellets, showed the steady release of nutrients and that the resultant residue of fibre still retained moisture, beneficially.

Following droughts and after rains, ground cover needs nutritive elements to restore and to grow.  Both nutrition and fibre are available from kangaroo pellets, so often in the areas where it is most needed, including areas fenced off from introduced stock.  Where washings/watersheds occur, there is often a cover of fallen eucalypt leaves, which are suppressive to growth.  As kangaroo droppings so often wash to the same areas, they assist plants’ renewals.  Some native plants cannot tolerate artificial or foreign fertilisers.  Kangaroo pellets consist of the very substances processed through their systems which benefit their surroundings.

In pasture areas, cockatoos and galahs gather to dig up the small bulbs that proliferate in season.  As they dig, often on the kangaroo pellets, they provide entry for fertilising, for assisting the grasses in aeration and seeding potential.  Synergy at work, naturally.

Native grasses have been recognised for their benefits – including survival in adverse conditions.   Whilst the prior emphasis has been on ‘pasture’, kangaroos access the areas often excluded and fertilise not only the native grasses, but all the plants which help to prevent erosion and they also fertilise the wildflowers and trees.   Apiarists move their hives to take advantage of the flowerings in season.  Honey production also provides a healthy bee population, essential to pollination and our food production.
 

BUSHFIRE PREVENTION:

Australia is prone to regular bushfires.   A very interesting study by Daniel T. Nugent, Steven W.J. Leonard and Michael F. Clarke : http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR14052 (Department of Zoology, La Trobe University, Bundoora, Vic, Australia), published by CSIRO Publishing “Wildlife Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/WR140520) and also written up in News in Science (/science/news/?site=science_) (by Anna Salleh (http://www.abc.net.au/profiles/content/s2193248.htm?site=science)(Monday, 24th November, 2014). Her article states: “Ecosystem engineers Australia’s superb lyrebird clears litter and seedlings from the forest floor, reducing the likelihood and intensity of bushfires, new research suggests”.

The in depth study, led by Daniel Nugent, found that the areas with lyrebirds (who scratch litter on the forest floor in their basic search for food) “had on average 25 per cent lower fuel loads, equating to 1.6 tonnes per hectare less fuel”. The researchers plugged the fuel load figures into a Forest Fire Danger Index model to predict the intensity of fire that could occur under different weather conditions.  They found that in the areas frequented by lyrebirds in the study, there was a significant reduction in predicted flame height.  “The lyrebirds were essentially reducing fuel loads to the extent that it was very unlikely that a fire would be possible,” said Steven Leonard. “Our hypothesis is that they are protecting their favoured habitat – not necessarily consciously, but there’s a feedback going on.” (Article by Anna Salleh).
 

In his research paper, Daniel Nugent mentioned the factor of flame height, which relates, as he said, to both fire intensity and severity.  Leaf litter on a forest floor contributes to the spread of fire.  He also mentioned that “previous studies have found that a range of different animal activities can reduce fuel loads and inhibit the speed of low-density fire” (citing the great bowerbird, malleefowl and burrowing betongs as “they could have similar effects on the fuel complex.”)

Kangaroos and wallabies (and to some extent emus) create trails through the very areas where so many fires begin (with lightning strikes etc.), the forested areas from which introduced stock are excluded, as kangaroos and wallabies seek shelter there. 

Kangaroos also seek shelter for sleeping spots beneath trees, clearing around the base, the trunks of which, if set alight by leaf litter, lead to the serious escalations of fire known as crowning.

Kangaroos clear areas around the base of trees as they shelter, thus providing a firebreak where it is most needed to help halt crowning fires in treetops

Unlike quadrupeds, which follow narrow tracks, their sharp hooves indenting the earth, following in line and keeping to the same pathways, creating erosion (particularly when it rains with water flowing down their tracks), kangaroos’ tracks and pathways are spread out and do not impact the earth heavily – they often move on their hands, tail, then feet motion, clearing leaf litter as they move.                                                                        

Kangaroos spend a lot of time getting around in this mode, other than hopping. When they do bound, or hop, their traces are spread out, as opposed to those of quadrupeds.

SHEEP INSTIGATED EROSIONS

A comparison (below) of adjacent areas – leaf litter on the forest floor beside the clearings of kangaroo movements along a trail, the clearer area not always traversed but showing the benefits.

Echidnas do scratch about in the forested areas, often in more localised spots, seeking termites, but each clearing of debris assists and they often turn their attentions to the fallen logs, another aid in clearing some fire hazards.

Emus assist by following the kangaroo trails.

When containing fires, except for the fiercest, firefighters use a simple technique of limiting ground spread (which then can spread to bushes and trees) by raking the leaf litter away from combustible trees or stumps.  The Fire Service view is often to manage areas by controlled burnoffs, in the interest of prevention, having fought dangerous battles to halt fires and save lives.  Bushfires are at their most destructive when they run rampant.  Any preventative measures that can hinder their starting must be considered.  Wildlife play a part in that prevention, and to whatever degree it assists, their contribution should be realised.  They become the immediate victims of bushfires too.  The human factor is too often a major contributor to the seriousness of bushfires, with increased human habitation close to forested areas also involving risk.

PROMOTING TOURISM:

We need the education provided by careful observation to understand the benefit of all those who contribute to the environment, in ways about which we are perhaps ignorant.  We all entered this land as ‘immigrants’ at various times in its history.  Its uniqueness sets it apart and if the spirit of the land is to exist into the future, we must consider very carefully how we are living in the present and the effects of decisions that are being made, by us or by those whom we appoint to act on our behalf.  We cannot buy back animals whose death we have caused, nor re-create the part that they played.  We need education to interact with the world around us in ways other than those involving acquisition or short term self interest.  There is so much yet to learn and  if we destroy those from whom we could learn, we and our descendants will pay the price.

We ‘use’ the image of our kangaroo to show a forward moving nation, with strength, freedom, spirit and pride, but we need to grant greater respect to those we use so readily as an image….to ensure that the ones on whom we model that image do have a future.

PROMOTING STRENGTH:

PROMOTING TRADE:

PROMOTING ‘IMAGE’:

AND THEN…..THERE ARE THE GENTLE ONES……..part of the synergy and true spirit of the country, who deserve to be treated far better than they generally are and understood with respect.

COMMUNICATION:

In our reliance on what we have constructed, we have moved in many ways to the belief of our superiority.  Yet each species has its' own innate ability to exist, from which we can learn about our total environment.   All communicate, and it has been said that it would be good if we could talk to our animal co-inhabitants.   Some scientists now study animal communication, but mostly this has involved teaching some species to use our methods.  Only if we observe, listen and establish trust and respect can we learn what we are missing.  We must not expect them to conform to our ways, as they have their own. 

In my co-residence alongside kangaroos and others, they have given me many insights.  A rescued male kangaroo who was used to being shot at nearby, when I rescued him, stopped in the midst of understandable defensiveness, considered, understood this was different and took my hand in both of his (so like ours) and licked it because I had helped him.   A female (supposedly ‘wild’) kangaroo, came in the midst of freezing weather to sit and look at me, eloquently and trustingly, asking without words and knowing I would understand that she needed help.   As I recently passed by a small family group (all ‘wild’) to whom I would sometimes utter my version of kangaroo sounds, this time not doing so, the big male looked directly at me and volunteered his language.   He has repeated that.  It was no ‘accident’. 

We need to co-operate in the SYNERGY of the environment in respecting all life forms who are contributing far more than we perhaps yet realise, something they do simply by being themselves.