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June 24th 2017 print

Roger Franklin

Grubs, Greens and Fire

The recognition that man's thumb exerts a considerable weight on the current ecological scale is anathema to those who promote the myth of "wilderness", that toxic manifestation of green romanticism. In the 1860s, remarkable Victorian bushman and naturalist Alfred Howitt knew better

uruba IIIThere are ecological threats and, if you compile news bulletins for the ABC, there are threats of an entirely different variety. Take CO2, for example, which AM on Friday mentioned as placing red gums in dire peril, albeit at some undisclosed distance of years to come. Listen to the item here and learn how, were you to cultivate those trees in greenhouses gassed-up with 800ppm carbon dioxide — twice current atmospheric levels — they won’t do so well, being prey to leaf-eating bugs and hungry koalas. The item concluded, as you might expect, with the plea that much more research is needed. Keep those grants coming!

The curious thing about the ABC’s decision to showcase this particular prophecy of red gum doom is that a prime and undisputed cause of the trees’ woes has been known for quite some time. Alas, the cause and solution aren’t palatable to those who prefer to fret about a trace gas in unworldly concentration, rather than the real damage done by greenish policies that prevent prophylactic burning, thereby promoting both the worst kind of bushfires and insect populations that would otherwise have been suppressed by the drip torch and controlled flames.

More than that, the recognition that man’s thumb exerts a considerable weight on the current ecological scale is anathema to those who promote the myth of “wilderness”, that manifestation of green romanticism which insists large tracts of the bush remain as they were before humans set foot on the continent. Lock up the bush, the eco-zealots insist, and Nature will make everything pristine once more. Given at least 50,000 years of active Aboriginal stewardship and the subsequent impact of white settlement, radically altered land use and feral species, nothing could be further from the truth. The only beneficiaries of sealing national parks and state land are rabbits, foxes, cats, dogs, pigs, deer, horses, not to mention cape broom, chinese honeysuckle and a veritable United Nations of invasive weeds.

Bushman and naturalist Alfred Howitt, the man whose considerable achievements included retrieving the bodies of Burke and Wills, knew as much in the 1860s, when he began to suspect that the end of Aboriginal “fire-stick management” had led to plagues of  caterpillars. Howitt wrote:

These instances show how the occupation of Gippsland by the white man has absolutely caused an increased growth of the Eucalyptus forests in places. I venture, indeed to say with a feeling of certainty, produced by long observation, that taking Gippsland as a whole, from the Great Dividing Range to the sea, and from the boundary of Westernport to that of the New South Wales, that in spite of the clearings which have been made by selectors and others, and in spite of the destruction of the Eucalypts by other means (to which I am about to refer), the forests are now more widely extended and more dense than they were when Angus McMillan first descended from the Omeo plateau into the low country.
 
I have spoken just now of the destruction of the Eucalypts by other means than the hand of man, for clearing his holdings, and the following are the facts I have gathered concerning the subject:
 
About the year 1863-64 I observed a belt of Red Gums which extended across the plains between Sale, Maffra and Stratford were beginning to die. Gradually all the trees of this forest, as well as in other localities, perished. At that time my attention was not drawn to the investigation of the cause. Later, however probably about 1878, I observed the Red-Gum forests of the Mitchell River Valley to be dying, just as those at Nuntin and elsewhere had died years before.
 
I then investigated the subject, and found the trees were infested with myriads of the larvae of some one of the nocturnal Lepidoptera. These devoured the upper and under epidermis of the leaves, thus asphyxiating the tree.
 
Some 75 percent of the forest died that year, and subsequently almost all the surviving trees died also. Since then I have observed the same larvae at work, some of which, when kept until they had passed through their several metamorphoses to the perfect insect, were pronounced by Professor McCoy to be examples of Urubra lugens (pictured above). Whether this insect has in all cases been the agent in destroying the Red Gums I cannot affirm. Probably not wholly, but I am satisfied that the greater part of the Red Gum trees which have died in Gippsland from obscure causes have been killed by its agency.
 
The inference may be drawn from the above observations of forests having been killed by infesting insects, that each species, will have attached to it some particular insect which preys upon it rather than upon any other Eucalypt…
 
…I have said that in my opinion the increased growth of the Eucalyptus forests since the first settlement of Gippsland has been largely due to the checking of the bush fires year by year, and to the increase thereby of the chance survival of the seedling Eucalypts, and to the same cause we may assign the increase of the leaf-eating insects which seem in places to threaten the very existence of the Red Gum.

Howitt wrote those words in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Yet here we are, getting on for 140 years later, and an observant bushman’s analysis and warning remains largely unheeded. If only he had blamed global warming, his paper might today not be so nearly forgotten.

NOTE: The perils of CO2 notwithstanding, red gums — among the most aggressive and invasive of eucalypts — might not be anywhere near in so much peril as modern science assumes, as David Joss explained in the July, 2010, edition of Quadrant.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online.

Comments [10]

  1. Adellad says:

    Oh Mr Franklin, Rousseau would be spinning in his grave – how could you imply that our original invaders were anything but masters of ecology, sustainability (sorry diprotodont), cosmology, anthropology and all other ologies? We have so much to ;earn from them – OK, except for dying of tooth decay or skull fracture (if you are a woman), but they are mere irritants, to coin a famous wise-guy’s words.

    • Adellad says:

      diprotodon (spellcheck gave me the unwanted “t”) and “learn.” I did not appreciate that on this site, comment is final, so second chances!

  2. en passant says:

    Once more the Iron Law of Unforeseen and Unforeseeable Consequences applies.

  3. Geoff Sherrington says:

    There is a large gold mine at Lake Cowal in central NSW. After we had found early exploration promise about 1980, we noted the presence of the river red gum and notified some Canberra regulators. I helped host a couple of them to the site proposed for open cut mining. They asked to inspect the red gum problem before permitting mining, so we showed it to them. One old tree was the sum total, that they duly inspected, cogitated in triplicate and passed.
    You have to ask yourself if the inspection exercise, four people for a day plus travel, was a superb example of the bureaucracy putting lead in the saddle of fast moving industry.
    Since then in general the saddles are seeing more and more lead. It is a disgrace, I tell you, a bloody disgrace.
    Geoff

  4. Ian MacDougall says:


    Given at least 50,000 years of active Aboriginal stewardship and the subsequent impact of white settlement, radically altered land use and feral species, nothing could be further from the truth. The only beneficiaries of sealing national parks and state land are rabbits, foxes, cats, dogs, pigs, deer, horses, not to mention cape broom, chinese honeysuckle and a veritable United Nations of invasive weeds.

    I could not agree more.
    According to paleobotanical research into the sediments of Lake George, NSW carried out by Gurdip Singh et al, the Aborigines were possibly here in Australia about 140,000 years BP. Their ‘firestick farming’ apparently changed the landscape out of sight, from one dominated by the casuarina species to one dominated by those of eucalypts. (Amongst the gum trees, speciation has apparently been rapid and very fluid.)
    This is further evidence, as if any were required, that the ABC should be closed down, asset-stripped and the remains sold off to the highest bidder. Also Chris Masters and his ilk should be tried by the Federal Parliament sitting once again as a court, and given long prison terms for the damage they did to the Bjelke-Petersen regime, and to everything that was right and proper in the Queensland of yore.
    Otherwise, where will all this end?

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/research-suggests-first-nations-peoples-were-farming-up-john

    • Jody says:

      I don’t think there would be a ‘highest bidder’ for the ABC.

      • paul says:

        The blissful blend of the notion of the wilderness, an ecological paradise wisely over seen by the great nations of pre-European Australia, (or the great indigenous nations of just about any pre-Euopean peoples..as long as they are not white) is irresistible to fluky, modern progressives.

        Add to that mix the complete occupation by progressives of academia, all levels of public services, most professions, most of the media, and even many of the privileged, overpaid , and very often stupid robber barons of the corporate world, and we have a major bushfire on our hands.

        My generation brewed this little lot for us, and it has been 50 years in the making. God help us all.

        • ianl says:

          http://joannenova.com.au/2017/06/weekend-unthreaded-167/#comments

          See #6

          My only comment added to this – the various ALP State Govts have sufficient Constitutional freedom to persist with, and increase, the destruction they are currently driving. None of the three Govt tiers are now in any way accountable to the respective electorates for policy.

          BTW, Gurdip Singh was a very prolific physical scientist and included deep geological knowledge as well as botany and geography. I suggest people read his actual publications rather than regurgitating someone else’s cherry pickings. As a typical example, try http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-185X.1988.tb00629.x/full. This example puts the last glacial epoch in true perspective as far as global vegetation changes are concerned. The only irritation, as usual, is the paywall rubbish.

  5. Lawrie Ayres says:

    Where are the historians to correct Carr and his media acolytes? Why do they not use the diaries of the early explorers to banish these myths perpetrated by environmental activists and liars?

  6. Keith Kennelly says:

    Paul the list of people you detailed are the Managerial class defined by James Burnham in his books ‘the ManagerialRevolution ‘ 1941 and the ‘Machaeviallians’ 1946.

    The only label you have that’s not quite accurate are the ‘Stupid Robber Barons. They are now managers of the corporate conglomerate sand big business.
    They are opposed by wage earners and entrepreneurs.

    Read him. To me he’s made sense of the world we now know.