Over the two years I spent in partnership at Edah Station in the Southern Rangelands, the four directors developed a core belief that a successful pastoral practice producing sheep would be in part defined by our ability to assist in the regeneration of the ecology of the Southern Rangelands: and central to the ecology is the return of the perennial grasses.
Some of you might have seen a few episodes of Australia Story on ABC TV about Wooleen, a station in the north east of the Murchison and followed the story on social media. The Pollocks have committed to the rehydration of their land by using different filtering and banking techniques that slow down the water as it flows over the land during rain events.
In terms of a return of the grasses over several years the results have been really encouraging, only a few weeks ago, there were excited facebook reports about the reported sighting of respectable clumps of kangaroo grass (themada triandra). This has led to another problem, the explosion of the kangaroo population. As there is no effective (legal) way to keep kangaroo numbers under control, the Pollocks have opted for a policy of allowing wild dogs to operate on the property in an attempt to stop the destruction of new growth. But as Australia Story revealed, this policy has put the Pollocks at odds with those pastoralists trying to make a living with small stock as well as those people invested in the industry that has grown around the baiting, trapping and destruction of dogs. It’s a wicked problem.
My connection with grasses unfolded slowly over time at the station. At its heart is the discovery of a plant not often sighted in the Midwest, a perennial grass that might once have been a sustaining force for the Rangelands in the time BS (Before Sheep).
Native millet – Panicum decompositum- had come to my attention via several sources as part of an investigation into bush foods in the region. It holds a starring role in Bruce Pascoe’s book Dark Emu as he investigates Aboriginal land management techniques in pre-colonial days using the diaries of early European explorers as primary source material.
Bruce’s book and Bill Gammage’s tome – The Biggest Estate on Earth had completely upended my understanding of pre-colonial Aboriginal life. These grasses, especially those active over the summer months held the soil together and provided food for animals and humans. The aboriginal people used fire and harvesting methods to maintain that ‘park like’ appearance that so enchanted the Europeans.
Rangelands scientists today have come to the same conclusions about the vital role grasses play in the health of the ecology. A perennial clump over summer allows twice to four times the amount of rain to penetrate the soil and massively increases the ability of land to hold carbon.
But the extensive, rich grasslands that both authors describe are currently in short supply in the Southern Rangelands, so for me, these histories remained more conceptual than real.
Dr Hugh Pringle, a Rangelands ecologist and hydrology expert led us to this seed. He was doing an autumn tour of pastoral properties, including Edah, to train pastoralists in techniques laid out in the principles of EMU (Ecosystem Management Understanding). Basically teaching managers in land literacy, to enable better erosion control and regeneration.
One day Hugh and Geoff drove out to a spot on Edah’s eastern boundary that Hugh had identified as a point of interest from satellite images. Back at the ranch Hugh seemed stunned – he had discovered a creek line that held a treasure trove of rarely-sighted perennial grasses in unusually high numbers.
Later, Geoff drove I out there and I in turn was enchanted by the sight of rich clumps of familiar and unfamiliar grasses, and beside myself when I realised the most handsome of these was the native millet. I had heard about it and seen pictures, but I had never seen it in the flesh and it was spectacular.
The plants had fresh, lime-green strappy leaves and graceful drooping heads of grain. In full seeding mode, the heads stand up and spread out to create golden brown TV antennas. When ready to disperse, the masthead snaps off easily to tumble with the wind - throwing out the little seeds along the way.
Actually seeing the native millet was a revelation: the size and vigour of the plants coming at the end of a long, hot summer fed an imaginative re-visioning of the Badimaya country – the (mostly) annuals and few perennials that could be seen across the station were pale imitations of this magnificent grass.
Bill Gammage makes a detailed study of the paintings of early arrival colonial landscape artists to back up his thesis supporting the notion of Aboriginals as the original agriculturalists. According to Bill, by the time the Heidelberg School was taking hold of the public imagination with its now iconic paintings of golden paddocks bathed in late afternoon sun– the damage had been done.
Because Perennial grasses don’t do golden summers – many of the perennials active in warm weather hold the colours of green, purple and brown through the heat of the summer, that’s the pleasure and the point of them – the ‘golden’ carpets beloved of Arthur Streeton and his ilk would have been introduced grasses, annuals like wild oats, that die in summer (albiet in an attractive golden way) and leave the soil vulnerable to the elements..
I took the seed home and tied it up in a sheet. The next day I was amazed by the amount and size of the reddish-brown seed that dropped to the cloth: it seemed to me I was finally looking at what must have been a rich source of tucker in the old days. I would imagine that finding the local yams would have the same impact. Recently, the Wajarri mob from Bundiyarra Corporation in Geraldton located a yam plant on Meeberrie station in the Byro plains in the Northern Murchison area. Gulyu is a type of bush potato vine with corms similar to sweet potato that grows on clay pans – I never came across any at Edah.
In Dark Emu, Bruce refers to explorers Sturt and Mitchell who both note prodigious quantities of grain– mainly the millet - being harvested and collected across acres of open country. Bruce’s research had lead him to conclude that the domestication of grain happened first in Australia and that 4 -5000 years ago an Aboriginal woman was arguably the first in the world to make bread from the seeds of the perennial grasses.
Before I came across the native millet I‘d been experimenting with edible Acacia seeds. I had read up about the Acacia seed as human food –you can hear about that in the first podcast of this series.
But my ahha! moment about grains actually came about through the agency of a plant called purslaine. This is a fleshy succulent plant I knew as a weed but had never thought of as potential food until my sister put me onto a sweet little book produced in Melbourne called The Weed Forager’s Handbook. At that time, early in 2016, we’d had a number of summer storms and the area around the homestead compound was bursting with plant life, including a lot of purslaine. I started harvesting the leaves and introduced it as a salad vegetable at the dinner table.
Then the purslaine went to flower and seeded, producing neat little capfuls of tiny sticky black seeds. The leaves had a limited shelf life, but the seeds – had I the patience and knowledge could be roasted, stored, ground into paste and used to sustain life well past the rains. And grass seeds grow, and can be encouraged to grow in large, open, easily accessible patches. THIS was the point of the fire regimes – to maintain open ground where grasses could flourish while keeping thicker bush around the edges where animals could find shelter. Kangaroos become easier prey and the true food for the day – grass grains - could be easily gathered and tended.
Back to the millet: In a funny coincidence, at about the time I was collecting the millet seed, I learned that Bruce Pascoe himself was going to be in Geraldton as a guest of our yearly Big Sky Literary Festival. I arrived at the Festival site on a Saturday morning in May armed with my copy of Dark Emu and a jar of seeds. Bruce signed my book and we had a great conversation about the potential that native grasses had to be grown as a regenerative, healthy and highly adapted food crop in arid Australia.
Bruce mentioned that he and his wife have been at work trying to find the most efficient way to separate the kangaroo grass grain from the awn so as to be able to grind it into flour. I had already been gathering Kangaroo grass (Themada triandra) seed from the plants that flourished up and down the creek behind the homestead but this was the first time it dawned on me that this grass didn’t just feed roos and sheep and hold the soil together but was also a possible food source for people. (Gurandgi Munjie: fb page for the bushfood Bruce Pascoe project)
I had been visiting the Kangaroo grass plants regularly over the summer to see what the growing seed heads looked like. It took a visit by another boffin, David Blood, to show me which part of the plant was the actual seed and more observation time to realise that this seed, when ready in April and May, dropped to the ground forming a kind of loose fluffy mass that could easily be picked up.
The issue now is how to grow the grass. My Geraldton expert at the Drylands Permaculture Nursery tells me that kangaroo grass has a dormancy period of a year before it will sprout. In fact, many natives, and grass seeds in particular seem to have many built in delaying tactics to help them along an evolutionary path. So far Julie at the Permaculture nursery and I have not managed to raise a single plant of the Panicum decompositum. The good news is that a nursery South of Perth has raised four plants from these same millet seeds – so someone knows something….
Momentum for the introduction of perennial grasses in agricultural and pastoral businesses continues to grow. Farmers across the Midwest are embracing the practice as a way of growing green cover for the soil and fodder for stock throughout the long summers.
I heard that a local Walkaway farmer, Grant Bains was the man to ring if you wanted to sow perennial grasses in the Midwest. Grant has adapted his seeding machinery to cope with the very small sized grains from the imported panica varieties that are flourishing in the Midwest. They are mostly South African varieties, currently grown and supplied from Queensland. His business grows every year and more and more farmers invest in seeding paddocks with the perennials.
Grant is interested in turning his hand to growing the seed himself for the local market and was keen on the idea of using a local native variety - but pointed out that getting enough seed might require many years of research, one, to get it to grow and two, to select it for yield. The challenge is on!
There is a buzz across the arid areas of Australia to do with native perennials and yams as well as ecologically regenerative farming and land management techniques.
It seems to me that Wooleen Station has found a path to redemption. By slowing down the flow of water over their land – and controlling the grazing pressure – they have been able to see the return of the native grasses . It seems to be true that if the right conditions are created the perennial grasses will start to appear because the seeds still exist in the land….but ‘right conditions’ requires work. Ecological restoration takes equipment, material, land-reading knowhow, trial and error, financing and many people-hours to achieve. The Pollocks have done a sterling job at Wooleen Station – over years they have managed to both stay afloat financially and turn the land towards health – no mean feat in these tough times in the Murchison region.
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A list of perennials that grow across arid inland areas in Midwest WA: Eragrostis dielsii | Austrostipa elegantissima | Eulalia aurea: silky browntop | Erachne: wanderrie grasses for stock | Chloris truncata windmill grass | Enteropogan ramosus (curly windmill) | Dicanthium sericeum (Queensland bluegrass) | Eriachne flaccida (claypan grass erosion control) | Chrysopogon fallax (ribbon grass, golden beard grass, palatable)