The Myth of the Ancient Red Gum Forests

Former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr is fond of writing, in support of his very public appeals for river red gum national parks along the Murray River, that up to 80 per cent of the river landscape has been cleared. The clear implication is that whole forests have vanished.

His friends at organisations like the National Parks Association and the Wilderness Society have lent him plenty of support. Almost every press release from them has managed to claim that the forests growing along the river were “the last remaining red gum forests on earth”.

Both of these scenarios are myths.

For a start, there never were any other red gum forests on earth, although the species is now grown in large plantations on every inhabited continent on the planet. The existing forests are the only ones Australia has ever had and there is not a scrap of evidence anywhere that they have diminished in size. If anything the reverse is true. The early settlers did not clear them in the manner implied by Bob Carr, for the very simple reason that river red gums grow into forests only on suitable flood plains. Before river regulation flooding was a regular occurrence, rendering most of the forested areas unsuitable for cropping, the main reason any clearing ever took place. There are unquestionably more trees in these forests than ever before.

It is instructive to read accounts by the first white people to explore the Murray landscape. The first to see it were members of the 1824 Hume and Hovell expedition. Here is how William Hovell recorded his first impressions of the country near where Albury now stands:

The timber near the River is Blue Gumb (as Hume assures me), But the Timber at a distance from the river were the soil is not so good, is Box tree, but the whole is very thin, in many parts there is little more than sufficient to give it a handsome appearance.

—and where they crossed the river, a little upstream:

The country all around us has a very fine appearance, in some places there is not more than half a dozen trees in a hundred acres.

Further downstream Joseph Hawdon, who drove the first mob of cattle from near present-day Howlong to Adelaide, saw more of the river. He arrived at Howlong from Melbourne and gave the following description of the Ovens River near Wangaratta:

The country on the right bank of the Ovens is well adapted for grazing stock. Down the river are extensive plains about ten miles in length, more adapted to grazing sheep …

Hawdon’s description of the Murray (then known as the Hume) landscape echoes Hovell:

The immediate banks of the Hume are well adapted for grazing stock, at least on the flats, and around the broad lagoons that join the river, some of which extend as much as three miles. Here also is a large plain, nine miles broad, called by the natives Oolong; the cattle appear to be very fond of grazing upon it …

The country is much superior about thirty miles up the river, a great proportion of which is good arable and grazing land …

We then proceeded due west along extensive plains …

On ascending a tree at the edge of an extensive plain …

The last two quotes describe country along the Goulburn River near its junction with the Murray. They found a forest there:

Leaving the men to water the stock, Mr Bonney and I rode back about a mile when we found the junction of the Hume with the Goulbourn, the former flowing from the north-east and the latter from the east. This junction occurs in about Lat. 36 and Long. 145. The country is quite flat and heavily timbered.

This is precisely where the first timber mills in the Echuca region were located.

Continuing with Hawdon’s account we read the first written description of the Echuca district:

We here fell in with a tribe of natives, consisting principally of old men, women and children: they were much alarmed on seeing us, but as open plains were on both sides of the creek [that is, the Campaspe River] they could not easily make their escape.

After passing for fifteen miles across extensive plains, we again fell in with the river …

The appearance of the country is perfectly level, there being a succession of plains, here and there intersected with a narrow belt of pine trees.

Our first eight miles were through bushy scrub, full of a small description of kangaroos and emus; after which we again entered upon extensive plains.

By now the expedition is near today’s Cohuna. Hawdon and his friend Charles Bonney climbed a hill, named Mount Hope by Thomas Mitchell in 1836:

From this eminence we had a most extensive view: to the eastward plains spread out as far as the horizon; to the southward also more immense plains, here and there intersected by belts of trees, which in wet seasons mark the water-courses, and skirted on the horizon by a small and barely discernible range of hills; to the westward we again beheld boundless plains; and to the northward a dead-level black forest.

That “black forest” is still there. Today we call it the Gunbower-Perricoota-Koondrook state forest, one of the largest river red gum eco-systems on the Murray. Curiously, Hawdon says it was black. Perhaps he was looking into the sun, or was it that black box predominated?

The country ahead of him is largely similar so we will leave Hawdon here to continue his journey and look at the experiences of the next traveller along the Murray.

Charles Sturt, who had named the Murray in 1830, wanted to establish if the Hume was the same river. In 1838, just a few months after Hawdon, he too assembled a mob of cattle near Albury, also bound for Adelaide, but unlike Hawdon, who tried unsuccessfully to cross Victoria diagonally and had to keep returning to the Murray, Sturt followed the north bank of the river as far as where the Edward River leaves the Murray:

From this junction [with the Ovens River] we gradually advanced upon a region of reeds and swamps but even in the midst of these the grassy flats, though more heavily and more closely timbered than similar spaces on the rivers to the northward, were luxuriant and extensive.

In 1841 the squatter Edward Curr explored the area now occupied by the Barmah Forest:

Looking around, on one side of us we saw extensive reed beds intersected by the Murray, which (an unusual feature in colonial rivers) flowed here almost without banks, and on the level of the plain. The other half of the circle was occupied by open, grassy forest land, which extended we did not know how far ...

But we were just then intent on sheep-feed and not on scenery; so, after a brief delay, we remounted and rode over a plain of couch grass of some length, and on through a narrow opening in the reeds …

Some fifty yards off, amongst the reeds, however, was a gnarled and spreading gum tree, from the branches of which a view of the neighbouring country might be obtained. To this solitary old giant we accordingly forced our horses, with considerable difficulty, and clambering up its short trunk took our seats amongst its branches some forty feet from the ground, whence we were enabled to overlook the country for a considerable distance round, and discuss its capabilities at our leisure. A sea of reeds, of several miles in extent, as far in fact as the eye could reach, met our view on two sides, flanked by some grand old trees, amongst whose branches no doubt, long generations of Blacks had hunted the opossum and flying squirrel …

Note that Curr says the Murray was flowing through a plain. On a map of Curr’s Tongala run bound into his book, the grassy forest land to which he refers is shown as “open forest of box”. Not red gums—box trees, though there is no doubt from Curr’s writing that he knew the difference and red gum trees did exist in the area.

One year after Curr arrived, a neighbour moved in across the Murray and founded Moira station. He was Henry Sayer Lewes, a well-educated Englishman who was in partnership with Charles Throsby, a well-known landowner near Mittagong. In 1883 he forwarded a submission to a New South Wales government inquiry into public lands, telling parliament about the conditions he found when he first occupied Moira. Of the river flats in front of his homestead he wrote:

The low tract between the plains and the river Murray, now being flooded, was mostly clear swamp, where afterwards it became covered in impenetrable reed beds. The small strips of plain near the swamp were covered with mesembryanthemum and salt-bush. The higher plains were entirely bare of any vegetation whatever but occasional salt-bushes. The box forests skirting the plains had here and there a few tufts of dry grass, which might have been in the same state for years.

The “low tract between the plains and the river” is now covered in trees—the Moira forest. Many of the box trees to which he referred are still to be seen dotting the plains. In 1861 he noted in his journal:

Left Moira where I had resided since the 15th August, 1842; having seen what was then a barren desert, heart-breaking to look upon, transformed into well-grassed plains, the pasturage on them thickening from year to year as the grass seeds continued to be trodden into the ground by the cattle and sheep, and “bush-fires” carefully guarded against.

There is nothing in his submission to suggest that he cleared any of the land on Moira.

Writing from the paddle-steamer Lady Augusta on her maiden voyage up the Murray in 1853, the then governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Young, told his Victorian counterpart, Charles La Trobe:

The river for 40 miles approaching Swan Hill, and for 20 miles beyond it, presents the most singular aspect which it is possible to conceive—a vast plain of reeds, without visible high land of any kind, or trees; the river-course perfectly safe, open, and deep (3 and 3½ fathoms); occasionally a fringe of high trees, and then another vast plain, entirely bare and open, with large lakes.

This section of the river too is now densely populated with red gums. Hawdon mentioned that the reeds along this part of the river made good forage for his cattle.

Land was certainly cleared but not to anything like the degree claimed by Bob Carr and others. Most of what was cleared in the mid-Murray was scrub—saltbush, acacia, cotton bush and other shrubby species. The trees, mostly box, were largely retained for their shade. The land was cleared by selectors, not squatters, as part of the conditions set by the government of the day for the purchase of their land. Clearing was considered a virtue because the aim of the land selection acts was to promote the production of food for the growing populace.

From the Murray, Sturt forecast:

The flats, which extend to some distance on either side of it on its upper branches, are rich in soil and are better adapted for cattle than for sheep. Many fine stations might indeed be formed even to the junction of the Delangen [the Edward River]; and, as in the cases of the Morumbidgee and the Macquarrie, I have no doubt the settlers, as they want pasturage, will push down to them.

His soon-fulfilled prophecy about the formation of stations shows that he knew the squatters were not interested in clearing.

Edward Curr confirmed it:

this country possessed from the first, over a great portion of its area, the inestimable advantage of being ready for immediate use without the outlay of a sixpence. The absence of preliminary outlay will be particularly noticed by those who remember that many lands in Tasmania cost the early colonists, with prison-labour as high as £40 an acre to clear before they could be thoroughly fitted for the plough. In the category of prime country ready to hand, and formerly condemned as useless, must be included much of the district now known as Riverina …

The early squatters were attracted to two things: permanent water and ready-made pasture. As Sturt prophesied, they quickly took up the river frontages and prospered, partly because they were spared the cost of clearing.

But why did the above observations not include descriptions of red gum forests along the river? Very simply because they were not there.

Elsewhere in his Recollections Curr wrote that there were very few kangaroos or emus along his section of the Murray. The Aborigines lived mostly on fish and possums. He also wrote that the grass on the river flats was thick—up to a foot deep.

River red gums will only germinate in full sun, which is the reason for using gap-clearing silviculture. Here’s how Howie Marshall, a respected amateur botanist and expert on the Barmah Forest, puts it:

See the red gum seed is like pepper and if it drops down within the weeds and grass three feet high the sun can’t get at it. It can get wet but it can’t take off. If you graze the weeds and grass down, away it goes.

In other words, any of the tiny red gum seeds which fell on the river flats that Curr found so attractive as dense, ready-made pasture could not have grown until grazed by his sheep.

The red gum forests are thus very largely a product of white settlement and in particular of grazing by the squatters’ livestock. Most of the riverside landscape, far from being cleared by white settlers, has been invaded by trees which have grown into forests in less than 200 years.

David Joss, a former long-standing rural newspaper journalist with a passion for local history, lives at Mathoura in south-western New South Wales.

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