Welcome to the Nunniong plains near Omeo, VIC. Beautiful one-day road trip around natural reserves, plains, hilltops, historic sites and wonderful views all around. As we were approaching the end of the track, these plains near Ensay North caught my attention.
The poplars following the creek and the typical colours of the fall offered something beautiful, untouched and mystical, like coming straight from a fantasy book. On the right, the remains of an old farm visibly abandoned a long time ago added to the atmosphere of time standing still. The plains in the background presented a clear view of the topography of the land, rounded hills with soft contours, up and down, and up and down, like the flow of a soothing music. And the dark forests on top of the hills added to the contrast of colours between the golden plains and the blue sky.
If you look closer, you’ll notice that the forest patches only occur on some steeper inclines, and everywhere else is bare. These may be the scarce remains of a once flourishing ecosystem, spared possibly because it may have been too costly or too risky to conduct excavation / clearing activities and convert the woods into pastures for grazing animals. There may be other reasons of course.
From an aesthetic standpoint, I find those landscapes beautiful: the contours, the colours, and the sense of space and freedom that emanates from unobstructed views. From an environmental standpoint however, I see desolation.
On the Importance of Trees
Trees are an incredibly important part of the ecosystems. In addition to being majestic and beautiful, they perform many functions:
- provide food and habitat for many species of birds, mammals, insects and fungi, therefore supporting biodiversity;
- stabilise the soil with their root system and so prevent erosion and retain nutrients from being washed-away by wind and rain;
- play a crucial role in the water cycle through absorption via their roots and transpiration via their leaves to form clouds and increase precipitation, which is why extended bare areas are subject to droughts and become desertic;
- shed twigs, leaves, seeds and other materials that feed the microbial life and create more soil and biomass;
- interact with the atmosphere, sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2) and releasing oxygen (O2);
- moderate temperatures, providing moisture and cooling the air in hot weather and sheltering from frost and wind in cold weather.
Impressive list, isn’t it?
We encourage anyone to plant trees. In their backyard, in the neighbourhood, in reforestation areas… If restoring habitat for wildlife, try to favour native species adapted to the local climate. If trying to condition the soil, then deciduous species might be more suitable. Whatever the species you select, it is best to water and mulch your tree seedlings when planting them, if you can. This will give them the best chances of survival. You can also try to protect the young seedlings from possums, wallabies and other wildlife by placing a net or tree guard around them.
The wonderful thing about permaculture is that it can regenerate degraded landscapes while creating access to food, water, energy, shelter, etc.
Let’s take an example of what we could do in practice with the landscape below. Almost completely bare but with beautiful contours that we can use to collect, slow, spread and sink water to rehydrate the valley. The dashed turquoise lines in the second version represent the natural flows of water based on the visible gullies. If positioned at strategic points on the trajectory of the gullies where slopes become gentler (8% or less), dams can collect gravity-fed rainwater and distribute it evenly across the valley via swales on contour. Then, trees and shrubs can be planted on the swale mounds and recreate an ecosystem. The below is only an example to give an idea of possible water collection points and some may be more suitable than others.
On hilltops, the best option would be to reforest to then allow the fertility (“mined” by tree roots) to sip-down to the slopes and plains thanks to gravity. Crops could be planted on gentler slops below the trees, and grazing pastures with grasses, forbes and legumes could be sown at the bottom.
If you wish to see how it works in practice, I find this video from Geoff Lawton really well done. He goes through the permaculture property purchase checklist and then explains how proper design can regenerate degraded landscapes: https://permaculturenews.org/2013/04/12/free-permaculture-design-videos/
In the picture below, we can also see severe erosion of the creek bed, which is another sign of landscape degradation. The soil crumbles and washes away, removing valuable nutrients in the process that will end-up lost in the oceans. By planting trees and plants that stabilise the soil and retain nutrients, further damage can be avoided. Bamboos, willows and certain long-grasses are good examples although native species can be preferred in some instances.
Some man-made structures called leaky weirs can also slow the water during a storm event and allow the lower slopes to be rehydrated. If you’re interested in learning more, you can research Peter Andrews and Natural Sequence Farming.
Up to you now. Can you see the natural contours of the land and water catchment area? Try to spot the gullies that will drive rainwater, and where you could possibly dig a dam.