I acknowledge the Taungurung people, custodians of the land where I live and work. I pay my respects to their Elders past, present and emerging.

The Gobur landscape today still supports pockets of native grassland where kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) thrives.

Perhaps the single biggest ecological shift in Australia’s recent history has been the loss of fire as a regular landscape process. Much has been written of late about how Traditional Owners used, or didn’t use, fire to manipulate the landscape. While it’s important to retrieve and relearn as much as possible, whatever we do learn will be applied to a very different landscape than the one encountered by Europeans 200 years ago – the balance has well and truly shifted.

What we must do, is bring fire back into the landscape in a thoughtful, deliberate way, with one eye on risk and another on opportunity. There are people among us that are learning by doing and are happy to share their experiences.

The Burge Family Reserve is a 40 ha Trust for Nature property in the Gobur district, with a local Committee of Management. Much of the property was historically cleared of the woodland it supported. Today it’s a patchwork of trees and native grassland.

Old growth Yellow Box, White Box, Grey Box and River Red Gum, along with extensive native grassland, characterize the Burge Family Reserve.

At Burge, we’ve had the good fortune to be able to work together with local CFA, members of the Taungurung Land and Waters Council, the Euroa Arboretum, landholders and Trust for Nature, to reintroduce fire back into native grassland, where it’s been absent for perhaps 150 years.

With the help of a small, dedicated Committee of Management, ‘cool burns’ have been reinstated in the reserve and the neighbouring Billy Goat Hill property – at least a little bit. The purpose of our burns in kangaroo grassland is to keep the inter-tussock spaces open and reduce introduced grasses, so that small, herbaceous grassland natives like lilies, orchids and daisies can also flourish. Fire in this landscape can have multiple uses, but it’s primarily the species diversity in the grassland that we’ve been trying to influence.

Autumn burning

Since cool burns were reintroduced to Burge in 2015, Autumn has been the most common burn season at Gobur, mainly because it’s so much more predictable than Spring burning (though, I’m writing this at the start of an almost unprecedented third La Niña event in a row – perhaps we need to rethink predictability in the age of anthropogenic global warming). One aspect of Autumn burning is that the inter tussock spaces created are then available for Winter and Spring germinating exotic grasses like Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus), silver grass (Vulpia) and sweet vernal (Anthoxanthum odoratum). And that’s exactly what happened after this seemingly successful May 2015 burn – the burn removed almost all of the dry thatch and over Winter and Spring the weedy grasses filled the fire-created gaps, leaving a more weedy grassland than before.

Spring burning

Then, at exactly the same site, eight years and one pandemic later, we burnt at the same location, but this time in a wet Spring. Whilst you’ll recognize some of the faces, the burn was completely different. It’s mid-September – notice how much more green grass there is. Not visible is the wet soil that elevates humidity close to the ground. The kangaroo grass had begun sprouting green shoots and many of the weeds had emerged, creating a lush, green patches between the drier tussocks. So what happened?

Experience cool burn practitioners will say that every burn is different – there are numerous variables that contribute to the outcome. The key is to know your goal.

As our mentor Phil said, as long as it’s done safely, cool burning isn’t trial and error, it’s just trial, because at every burn, you learn!

This project is supported by the Victorian Government through the Community Volunteer Action Grants (stream 2) program.