The reluctant tree cutter

September 30, 2022

By Tony Rinaudo

An avid bird watcher, Gianni D’Ortenzio was thrilled to purchase a block of land with dense stands of naturally regenerating trees in Everton Upper, North East Victoria, in 2021. The property ‘didn’t have a tree on the block in 1973’ according to the previous owner. Proving to be unprofitable for wine grapes, the vines were pulled out and sheep were grazed on the property for some years. Over time, trees began recolonizing parts of the farm.

Gianni applied for the Bush for Birds grant, a fund which supports landholders to create and improve habitat for the critically endangered Regent honeyeater and Swift Parrot. However, he nearly turned down the grant when told that he would get best results by cutting down some of his beloved trees! Fortunately, he persevered and came to better understand the dynamics of bush regeneration, biodiversity and intelligent intervention. It was the subtle questioning of environmental consultant, Andie Guerin that helped Gianni ‘see’ his environment differently. Andie asked if a stand of Alpine Grevillias flowered, to which Gianni responded ‘yes’. But when asked if they attracted birds, he had to admit that they didn’t. There was too much competition, too much stress between the densely populated Grevillias for them to produce bird attracting nectar. Steps needed to be taken to improve habitat for birds. It was a steep learning curve.

Despite his farm sporting dense thickets of regenerating trees, he realized that very few birds were actually coming to his land! The trees were most likely germinated in-situ from windblown seed originating in the neighbouring flora reserve. Interestingly, many of the trees occur in straight lines corresponding to the edges of former vine terraces where they were likely trapped, eventually germinating.  Despite giving the appearance of a healthy, emerging forest, the high density of the trees resulted in severe competition for water and nutrients and the trees simply didn’t produce much bird and insect attracting nectar. This competition combined with heavy shading inhibited nectar producing shrubs from taking root – shrubs which encourage the Regent honeyeater, swift parrot, and other woodland birds to visit. In fact, the ground was largely bare beneath the trees. Additionally, the competing trees grew tall and spindly and had not formed hollows necessary for attracting nesting birds.

Image: Self-sown stringy bark trees growing very close together, presumably where seed got trapped on the edges of old terraces.

Gianni notes “It took a while to get my head around cutting down trees but the whole notion is that trees need water and space to grow and you need big trees for nesting sites. The whole area where we have undertaken this ecological thinning looks so much better and I have been very pleased with the results.” Gianni either shredded the trunks, creating a mulch layer which conserves moisture and provides a favourable environment for trapping and germinating seeds, or places them strategically on dam banks and bare soil. He calls the method “Farmer Managed Accelerated Maturation”, an acknowledgement that people can play a positive role in enhancing and speeding up biodiversity outcomes. Gianni greatly appreciated the expertise and enthusiasm offered by environmental consultant Ian Davidson, NECMA staff, Andie Guerin from the Regent Honeyeater Project, Landcare facilitator Alandi Durling, winemaker John Brown and others had given him the confidence and support to tackle the project.

In addition to thinning excess trees, Gianni is actively protecting and planting rarer species. Box trees are favoured because of their strong flowering characteristic. Stringy barks, which tend to overrun the property are more heavily thinned. Young native Cyprus trees get a heavy beating from browsing kangaroos, so they are protected with tree guards, and the parasitic Cherry Ballard which provides edible fruits for birds are protected wherever they occur. Various wattle species, five species of native peas and many native grasses have returned. The approach includes eliminating invasive species such as wild lavender which otherwise inhibit recolonization by desired species. While the focus is on restoring locally indigenous species, Gianni has his eye on the future as well and so has planted Iron bark, which doesn’t occur naturally in Everton, but it is more likely to survive and thrive in a hotter, drier climate.

Image: Untouched, dense tree stand in the background contrasts with the thinned stand in the foreground. Thinning reduces competition amongst remaining trees for light, water and nutrients. Thinning also allows remaining trees to grow faster and produce nesting hollows more quickly. Culled tree trunks and branches are shredded and spread as mulch, helping ground cover plants to colonize what had been bare ground.

This story holds some significant lessons for revegetation and biodiversity in Australia.

  • We tend to not believe what we see, and to see what we believe. In this case, Gianni saw ‘more trees’ as ‘better’. While this trait may help society to function and allow a shared comprehension of how the world works, it can inhibit necessary innovation in a rapidly changing world. It is very important for us to question and test our cherished assumptions and to be open minded enough to experiment, observe, learn as we go and make necessary adjustments along the way. When you think about it, was anything of note ever achieved by repeating what everybody else is doing? Can we be more willing to try new approaches, to treat ‘failure’ as simply a lesson in what not to do next time and as a stepping stone to doing things better?
  • There is an African proverb which says, ‘if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together’. We all need support, advice and encouragement and the more so when we set out to do something different to the norm. We also need people who will respectfully challenge our cherished assumptions about how the world works. There are plenty of doubters and too many are ready to criticize anybody who steps out and does something different to the norm. Can we be more willing to reach out for help, and slower to criticize people doing things differently?
  • While it is clear that nature has an inherent ability to self-heal, society tends to take one of two extremes – on the one hand thinking the best solution is to leave nature to its own devices, a process which could take decades or even centuries, and the other, to think nature is incapable of self-healing without full human intervention requiring expensive, technological fixes. Gianni’s intervention clearly demonstrates the integral role humanity can play in shaping restoration through working with nature instead of ignoring it on the one hand or fighting against it on the other. The result has been a clear speeding up natural succession and increasing biodiversity in a timelier manner.
  • Targeted, evidence-based interventions from government and private actors can be very effective. The Bush for Birds Project was supported by the Northeast Catchment Management Authority (CMA) in partnership with Trust for Nature through funding from the Australian Government. In view of Australia’s recent damning ‘State of the Environment Report’, one wonders what the next report could look like if such enlightened approaches were scaled up and applied to the myriad environmental woes Australia faces.

An irony in this story is that had not Gianni been under the protective cover of the Bush Bird Grant, his actions in thinning trees would have been illegal! When native regrowth reaches about ten years of age, Australian farmers lose the right to clear or manage those trees. These well-intentioned policies aiming to protect trees on farmland could well be having the opposite effect. Such policies can actually act as an incentive for farmers to clear young native regrowth before it gets too big, in order to retain their property rights and future management flexibility. Are we adult enough to have an intelligent conversation about what steps should be taken so that both the environment and the landholder benefit?

Above: Nature can selfheal if given a chance and the pace of succession and the degree of biodiversity can be enhanced. Here windblown seed of a variety of trees, shrubs and ground cover plants have germinated on Gianni’s farm. Judicious selection and thinning can enhance biodiversity outcomes relatively quickly, signaling a key role for intelligent human intervention.

The 2021 Australia State of the Environment report was sobering. Overall the state and trend of the environment of Australia are poor and deteriorating as a result of increasing pressures from climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, pollution and resource extraction. If we continue business as usual we can expect ongoing species extinctions and deteriorating ecosystem conditions which reduce our environmental capital on which current and future economies depend

There are lessons and applications in Gianni’s story for all of us – whether we oversee public lands, commercial farmland a private bush block or our own back yard. My call to action is to see these principles applied on a much larger scale.