Tree increase in Australia
When Europeans first arrived in Australia, most of  the land had been kept clear or lightly timbered by "firestick farming".
Some environmental groups are calling for a stop to all tree pulling in the belief that thick timber was the natural state for most of Australia.
In many areas of Australia trees will eventually overtake the land if they are not kept in check by either regular ploughing, very frequent  fires, high stocking intensity or tree pulling.
When trees become very dense they crowd out light for grasses below the canopy and compete with grasses for moisture.

 Land with-out a healthy cover of perenial grasses is at risk of erosion, possibly salinity (see Salinity articles) and can not support animals that rely on grasses and grass feeding insects for food.

 Click on the links below to read about evidence that these areas of Australia were either clear or lightly timbered when explorers or surveyors first arrived in Australia. Numbers on the map match the numbers on the links.


   1  Binnington (1997) - White Cypress Pine, Tambo area

 "With current proposals to reserve 15% of the area of pre-European vegetation types there is concern about how to interpret the mixed cypress pine ecosystems - because of management changes white cypress pine forests currently cover a greater area than before European settlement." (see Appendix 3 for photo).









 2 Neldner et al. (1997) - Cape York Peninsula, far north Queensland

"Data are provided that demonstrate the conversion of some grassland types to woodlands in the last 30 years, and it seems probable that the change is a result of altered fire regimes.  Even if adequately reserved, appropriate fire management is required to maintain the grasslands of Cape York Peninsula."









 3 Reynolds and Carter (1993) - Mitchell grassland/gidgee

"Surveyed an area aggregating 5.97 ha in Central Western Queensland (315 respondents).  Major findings were:
11% of the area of affected properties had been "lost" due to the invasion of woody weeds.
55% of respondents said their naturally timbered area had thickened up and this confirms the drift of grasslands towards woodlands."
[compare Mitchell's (1848) sketch of Salvator Rosa National Park with the recent photograph - Appendix 3]









 4 Burrows (1996) - Gidgee, Longreach

Compared 13C values in surface litter and soil organic matter in two adjacent soil profiles (a) under Mitchell grass (Astrebla spp.) grassland and (b) gidgee (Acacia cambagei) juveniles at Strathdarr, Longreach (see Box 1). The 13C values at depth in (b) reflect that of the soil in the open grassland, supportive of grazier contention that gidgee has `recently' invaded.
[see (v)]










 5  Eric Rolls (1981) - Pilliga Scrub

"The [Cypress] pines came up ten thousand to the hectare.  `One year the stockmen saw the little pines just up to the top of the horses `hooves', one man told me.  `The next year the pine tops brushed their boots as they rode.  And a year or two after that - those old stockmen used to ride at ten past ten, knees cocked up from the saddle like wings - well they had to jam their knees in hard behind the pads or the pines would have pushed them backwards out of the saddle.  Soon they just mustered their stock and got out.  There was no room for grass to grow'."









 6   McCallum (1999) - Moorrinya National Park, Aramac

"Extensive changes in the area of Mitchell grassland have occurred with the woody plant cover (boree, gidgee, blackwood) increasing by 31.8% over the period 1951-1998" [Based on aerial photo interpretation and ground measurements]










 7   Fensham (1998) - Fitzroy Basin, Central Queensland

"Preliminary analysis of the aerial photo comparison suggests substantial thickening has occurred in uncleared remnants in Central Queensland between the mean dates of the earliest photos (1955) and the mean date of the most recent photos".  [Tree cover on 7 M ha had increased by > 20% - Rod Fensham pers. comm.].









 8 Fensham and Fairfax 1996 - Bunya Mountains, Queensland

"The physical setting of 61 grassy bolds on the Bunya Mountains in south-eastern Queensland was surveyed during 1995, and a further 73 balds were assessed from aerial photographs taken in 1951 and 1991.  About 26% of the area of balds existing in 1951 had been invaded by forest in 1991.  The extent of the invasion was generally higher for balds surrounded by eucalypt forest than balds surrounded by eucalypt and rainforest or rainforest only."








 9 Jacklyn (1998) - Victoria River District, N.T.

The photographic record was utilised "to show that the vegetation has `thickened up' on Bradshaw Station (Victoria River District, N.T.) since 1933.  Interestingly, this trend is also seen in other similarly paired photographs assembled by Darrell (Lewis) from locations right across the VRD."



Bradshaw Station 1933




Bradshaw Station 1995












 10  Russell Turkington (1900) - Brisbane Valley
Click here for photos









 11  Charles Bean (1911) - Bourke area
(Quoted from "The Delicate and Noxious Scrub" by James Noble)

       Charles Bean was a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald from 1908 onwards. He mentions in his writing coolibar trees increasing on the black alluvial soils near the Darling River at Bourke. In the red soil country away from floodplains, he referred to "........pine-trees, forests of which had appeared mysteriously in part of the country we passed through."









 12  Royal Commission (1901) - Cobar/Byrock

"Generally speaking it was originally open box-forest country with currajong and an occasional pine tree upon it.  The overstocking of the country, coupled with the rabbits, prevented the growth of grass to anything like its former extent, and so causes a cessation of bush fires which formerly had occurred periodically.  This afforded the noxious scrub a chance of making headway."









 13   Robert Peacock (1900) - Coolibah experiment farm, western NSW
(Quoted from "The Delicate and Noxious Scrub" by James Noble)

          "Upon the red country the pine scrub, box-seedlings, and budtha have taken complete possesion, to the thorough exclusion of even the worst grasses."









 14  Royal Commission (1900) - P.J.Kelly of "Booroomugga",            east of Cobar
(Quoted from "The Delicate and Noxious Scrub" by James Noble)

              ".................nineteen years ago it was beautiful open box country, with some large pines on it. It commenced to deteriorate twelve years ago, and is now scrub country, with pine, budda, yarran, and box seedlings on it."









 14  Royal Commission (1901) - John Quinn, a grazier from a property near Nyngan.

        "....... I first commenced to travel extensively over that country in July 1864, and a large area of it was entirely unstocked. There was a very large area of that country  which comparitively speaking, was open forest country, so open that you could see cattle fully 2 miles away if they were with-in that distance of you. The country remained like that until about 1874, when it became pretty well all taken up. I think that A.G. Jones was one of the first to go to that locality when he took up Glenariff. Poplin Bros. took up Coolabah and Hines took up Mulga. After that the country became stocked, bush fires were less frequent. Previous to that every summer large bush fires swept through all that country, and that tended to keep down the scrub and undergrowth. But when the country became stocked, the bush fires were less frequent, the scrub began to grow and increase to an enormous extent, and so a large area of the country became useless, and was ultimately abandoned."









 15  William Carron (1848) - Tam O'Shanter Point
(Quoted from "The future Eaters" by Tim Flannery)

Some of the best evidence for Queensland comes from Tam O'Shanter Point, North Queensland, which William Carron, botanist to the ill-fated Kennedy expedition, described in 1848:

"The open ground between the beach and the swamp varied in
width from half a mile to three or four miles. It was principally
covered with long grass, with a belt of bushy land along the edge
of the beach."

Today, the vegetation is dense rainforest with emergent eucalypts.









     Central/Western Queensland

 16  (i)     Walker et al. (1981) - Dirranbandi area

"Accounts of the poplar box region by early explorers indicate that the dominant trees had a spacing of between 50 and 100m with little understorey (Leichhardt 1847)" [Contrast with much higher poplar box densities present today].









 17  Sir Thomas Mitchell (mid 1800's) - Sydney
(Quoted from "The future Eaters" by Tim Flannery)

"Kangaroos are no longer to be seen there (Sydney); the grass is choked by underwood; neither are there natives to burn the grass.......(and that)........the omission of the annual periodical burning by natives, of the grass and young saplings, has already produced in the open forests nearest Sydney, thick forests of young trees, where formally, a man might gallop with-out impediment, and see whole miles before him."











 18   Lunt (1998 a, b) - Southern Victoria

"Post settlement changes in vegetation and land use were examined in a reputedly undisturbed woodland remnant at Ocean Gove, southern Victoria, the site of earlier ecological studies.  The vegetation has passed through at least three structural phases since European colonisation:  an open grassy woodland dominated by Allocasuarina and Eucalyptus species and Banksia marginata with few shrubs; an open scrub of Acacia pycnantha; and a closed scrub of Allocasuarina littoralis which now dominates the reserve.  Tree and shrub density has steadily increased from perhaps less than 20 trees/ha in the early 1800's to over 3000 trees/ha in 1996.  Vegetation changes in the past 200 years can be attributed to the long-term absence of fire.  The abundant recruitment of Acacia species in the mid-to late 1800's may have been a rapid response to the curtailment of Aboriginal burning, and the more recent invasion of A. littoralis a longer-term response to fire exclusion" (Lunt 1998a). "The dramatic increase in the density of A. littoralis from 911 trees/ha in 1971 to 3565 trees/ha in 1996 was associated with a continued decline in the once dominant eucalypts, especially E. ovata" (Lunt 1998b).









 17  Joseph Banks (1770) - Botany Bay
(Quoted from "The future Eaters" by Tim Flannery)

When Banks reached Botany Bay he described the land as 'cliffy and barren without wood'. Where Kurnell stands today, he recounts watching from the Endeavour as Aborigines retreated up the hill and hid among the rocks. The dense vegetation growing on the spot today would obscure a party of hundreds before they had retreated a few metres from the shore.









 19  Joseph Banks (1770) - Bulli, north of Woolangong
(Quoted from "The future Eaters" by Tim Flannery)

On 27th April 1770 the Endeavour  passed close by the shore near modern day Bulli, just north of Woollongong. Banks ....wrote:
        " The country today again made in slopes to the sea.......The trees were not very large and stood separate from each other with-out the least underwood; among them we could discern many cabbage trees .........but nothing else which we could call by any name. In the course of the night many fires were seen."
              I had this discription in mind when I (Tim Flannery) stood, on a hot February day, atop the look-out at Bulli Pass. Below me stood a magnificent patch of temperate rainforest which stretched for several hundred metres out from the escarpment edge, towered over by magnificent cabbage palms. Beyond it stood a dense and tall forest of eucalypts, their crowns extending unbroken to the expanding urban sprawl and strand vegetation at the ocean's edge.
It seemed inconceivable to me that the open woodland which Banks described was the same place that I now saw. But then I took a path that dropped off the escarpment, and I began to examine the forest in detail. Most of the rainforest trees were small, the only very tall species being the magnificent cabbage palms. High up on their trunks they bore the unmistakable signs of fire. Yet it was clear that fire had not touched the rainforest for many years. Finally, I came a solitary, ancient eucalypt, standing among the smaller rainforest plants. All that was left of the original trunk was a charred stump a metre in diameter. But from its base two suckers had sprouted. Now they had reached a diameter exceeding that of the original stump itself. Clearly, this was a last survivor of Banks' open woodland "without the least underwood". As remarkable as it seems, the altered regime of the last 200 years had seen rainforest and dense eucalypt forest establish on what in Bank's time was clearly an open woodland.