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The Delicate and Noxious Scrub: CSIRO Studies on Native Tree and ShrubProliferation in the Semi-Arid Woodlands of Eastern Australia

The Delicate and Noxious Scrub: CSIRO Studies on Native Tree and ShrubProliferation in the Semi-Arid Woodlands of Eastern Australia

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The Delicate and Noxious Scrub: CSIRO Studies on Native Tree and ShrubProliferation in the Semi-Arid Woodlands of Eastern Australia

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Aug 1, 1998


Semi-arid woodlands are an important part of the Australian landscape and they have been the focus for scientific research by CSIRO since the 1960s. This book reviews that research and sets it in a historical perspective. It examines the development of pastoral science, with particular reference to the farming frontier in western New South Wales, as well as research conducted by CSIRO over the past thirty years aimed at helping manage increasing shrub densities while improving productivity. The author discusses past, current and future research directions and looks at how management perceptions and approaches continue to change as understanding of ecological processes and new strategies evolve.

Aug 1, 1998

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The Delicate and Noxious Scrub - JC J.C. Noble



Scrub proliferation has long been a problem in many semi-arid regions across Australia (Fig. 1) and substantial research has been conducted over the past thirty five years, the results of which have been widely published. This publication however would not have eventuated without the generous support of the Australian Pastoral Research Trust which has provided valuable funding specifically aimed at promoting the results of research undertaken by CSIRO. While the CSIRO research program has provided a framework on which to structure this review, due recognition must also be given to research undertaken by others such as Queensland Department of Primary Industries personnel located at the Charleville Pastoral Laboratory over past years.

It rapidly became apparent however, that in order to place this research in some logical context, there was a need to first review what is currently known about the principal reasons for the problem arising in the first place. Accordingly, a significant part of this document has been devoted to reviewing the historical ecology of the so-called ‘woody weed’ problem, as well as related socio-economic aspects. While there was a need to make such a review as comprehensive as possible, it was important that it also be easily read by anyone involved or interested in land management in semi-arid eastern Australia.

Because of the inherent complexity of these shrub woodland communities, there are no simple solutions or management prescriptions for overcoming many of the problems faced by pastoralists and conservation managers. However, it is timely to collate and summarise progress after what has been a major research effort and to highlight new insights which might be usefully incorporated into future management of these important and extensive plant communities.

Figure 1: Areas where increasing scrub is a problem throughout the arid and semi-arid rangelands.¹

Several CSIRO Divisions have been involved in scrub research during the past three decades. This review however, focuses primarily on projects undertaken by scientists initially based at the Rangelands Research Centre at Deniliquin, New South Wales. This research evolved in the late 1960s at the then Riverina Laboratory when it was part of the Division of Plant Industry, before it became the Rangelands Research Centre, initially of the Division of Land Resources Management and later, of the Division of Wildlife and Rangelands Research. After closure of the Deniliquin laboratory in 1990, research continued from Canberra as part of the Division of Wildlife and Ecology’s National Rangelands Program.

Studies were conducted over a wide range of field conditions and woodland communities and their successful execution is attributable in large part to the active support and encouragement of numerous graziers throughout eastern Australia, many of whom have been personally acknowledged in Appendix (ix). In recent times, much research has been undertaken in productive collaboration with New South Wales and Queensland government agencies and commercial institutions.

Over the years, a large number of technical and other support staff in CSIRO have devoted much of their working lives to providing enthusiastic, skilled assistance with various research projects, often under arduous conditions and usually in remote locations. This document would not have reached even an embryonic stage without the highly professional, and productive, research effort put in by numerous scientific colleagues in CSIRO over the past thirty years. I would also like to acknowledge the intellectual and physical support provided by many non-CSIRO scientists, both inside and outside Australia, who have actively collaborated in this research. Various agencies willingly helped at important times, especially during large-scale prescribed fires and the support of Dick Condon (then Western Lands Commissioner in Sydney), John Malcolm (WLC, Buronga), Guy Dumbleton (WLC, Condobolin), John Roberts (WLC, Balranald) and Ross O’Shea (then NSW Department of Agriculture, Bourke) particularly, together with numerous volunteer bushfire brigades, is gratefully acknowledged. Tony Grice (then NSW Agriculture, Cobar and now CSIRO Tropical Agriculture, Townsville), and Paul Jones and Will Muller (Queensland Department of Primary Industries, Charleville) provided valuable and enjoyable research collaboration.

Several organisations have contributed substantial funds and materials supporting CSIRO research over the past thirty years, particularly the International Wool Secretariat (formerly the Wool Research and Development Corporation), the Australian Pastoral Research Trust, the National Soil Conservation Program (Natural Resources Management Strategy), the Bushfire Council of New South Wales and Monsanto (Australia). Several libraries and librarians, particularly Margaret Hindley and Inge Newman (CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, Canberra), but also Ros Dorsman (Bathurst City Council Library) and Pat Wilson (CSIRO Animal Production, Blacktown), have provided invaluable assistance in obtaining innumerable, often obscure, references. Permission to reproduce satirical cartoons shown in various Figures was kindly granted by the proprietors of the The Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald. The photographs shown in Figure 11 were reproduced under the Bicentennial Copying Project by permission of the State Library of New South Wales while the remaining black and white and colour photographs were taken by the author except where acknowledged. Sandy Smith, Liz Poon, Gil Pfitzner and John Ive (all at CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, Canberra), together with the photographic services of the National Library of Australia, have provided valuable assistance in the preparation of numerous figures and photographs. I am indebted to Sandy Smith and Rhonda Dunlop for their expertise in organising the layout of this publication prior to printing. I am especially grateful to Mandy Martin for graciously allowing me to reproduce one of the paintings shown in her recent exhibition, Tracts: Back O’Bourke, as a cover illustration. I thank also Peter Lynch (Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, Canberra) for his assistance with publication arrangements and Roxanne Missingham (CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology, Canberra) who provided invaluable help in preparing the index.

Finally, several people including Alan Bailey and Rawleigh Smith (both NSW Land and Water Conservation, Dubbo), Stephen Barlow (Land Titles Office, Sydney), Walter Berry (NSW Land and Water Conservation, Cobar), Dick Condon, Geoff Cunningham, Helen Jeuken (Bathurst District Historical Society), Ian McTaggart (CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory, Geelong), John Vercoe (CSIRO Tropical Beef Centre, Rockhampton), Milton Moore, Ted Moore, and Jock Robertson have all helped me during my searches for often elusive historical detail. A number of people including Nick Abel, Joel Brown, Peter Bryant, Greg Campbell, Dick Condon, Guy Fitzhardinge, David Freudenberger, Tony Grice, Graham Harrington, Ken Hodgkinson, Neil Inall, Allen Kearns, Les Le Lievre, John Ludwig, Ted Moore, Robyn Turner, Brian Walker and Allan Wilson have read earlier drafts of this monograph and offered valuable comments. While their suggestions for improving the text are gratefully acknowledged, the usual caveat applies in that responsibility for any omissions, or erroneous commissions, remains mine alone.

National Rangelands Program

CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology


Eastern Australia

1. After Castles (1992)



During his visit to the Antipodes in 1871, Anthony Trollope noted the distinction made by Australian settlers between ‘bush’ and ‘scrub’ – .… Woods which are open, and passable – passable at any rate for men on horseback – are called bush. When the undergrowth becomes thick and matted so as to be impregnable without an axe, it is scrub.² The Rev. J.E. Tenison-Woods later described how .… The vast plains of the interior are however covered with trees, and when these grow in thickets they go by the colonial name of ‘scrubs’. He also noted though the difficulty in applying such a general term when describing Australian vegetation. .… In reality the word scrub is an incumbrance because it confuses by classing under one term the most diversified features. Still as it is employed everywhere in the colonies I suppose we must put up with it and try to render its ambiguity less misleading by descriptive explanations.³

In semi-arid rangelands, scrub undergrowth, or just plain scrub, are terms invariably applied to vegetation dominated primarily by shrubs and small trees, usually in mixtures of different species.⁴ In Charles Bean’s evocative portrait of the ‘delicate scrub’ in the West Darling region written nearly one hundred years ago, problem shrub species such as hopbush, emubush and wild fuchsia were described in almost lyrical terms -.… the emu-bush, which droops like the bunch of an emu’s tail⁵ and is very good fodder – as the rabbits have found; .... and the wild fuchsia, whose flowers, full of honey, the sheep at any rate think to be good; of the hopbush,⁶ which is good for yeast; .…⁷ Only budda⁸ was perceived in a rather negative light although even it was grudgingly recognised as having some value as soil cover (Fig. 2⁹).

Other common shrubs such as the turkey bushes¹⁰, turpentine¹¹ and punty bush¹² are often found growing with taller shrubs such as budda which, in favoured areas, frequently develops into a small tree. Small trees such as white cypress pine and mulga, can also contribute to the ‘scrub problem’ when stands become excessively dense.

With the wisdom of 85 years’ hindsight, it is easy to see how such optimistic perceptions of the utility of these shrubs as forage plants were fundamentally flawed. Despite Bean’s undoubted abilities as an observant and articulate correspondent, he was neither trained botanist nor rangeland ecologist. In 1909 he was commissioned by The Sydney Morning Herald to write about ....life on the fringe of settlement in the west of New South Wales. Using indelible prose, he described how the country looked after one of the most significant, if not pivotal, periods in Australia’s pastoral history.

The development of rangeland science in Australia is a recent phenomenon. No major research programs of a multi-disciplinary nature were undertaken in Australian range-lands prior to the 1970s. This is despite the scrub problem being of serious concern throughout the semi-arid woodlands of eastern Australia (Fig. 3) for most of this century. In one study commissioned by the New South Wales Western Lands Commission, it was estimated that around 30 million hectares, or 25% of the State’s area, was either affected by, or susceptible to, problems caused by increasing scrub.¹³ Since the mid-1960s, largely because of anxiety voiced by pastoralist organisations who first brought this issue to CSIRO’s attention, native shrub proliferation has been the subject of a major research effort involving several CSIRO Divisions.

This monograph describes the sequence of events leading to the establishment of the 1900 Royal Commission and its final conclusions in relation to the ‘noxious scrub’ problem. The evolution of scientific research in semi-arid eastern Australia and the results emanating from multi-disciplinary research, primarily by CSIRO in western New South Wales, are then reviewed in three phases. The first decade (1965-74) covered ecological studies of individual shrub species and shrub communities; the second (1975-84) concentrated mainly on testing certain shrub control options while research during the third phase (1985-94) aimed at developing integrated shrub management systems based on two or more treatments. Finally, case studies are presented as examples of how integrated shrub control systems might be applied on a practical scale before outlining areas requiring further research.

Figure 2: Distributions of some problem scrub species throughout Australian rangelands.⁹

Figure 3: The distribution of semi-arid woodlands in eastern Australia.¹⁴

‘The Great Central Scrub’ -

An Early Warning

Although Bean had little to say about unpalatable shrubs becoming increasingly abundant in many places after only two decades of European pastoral settlement, he did mention coolibah trees increasing on the black alluvial soils near the Darling River at Bourke. In the red soil country away from floodplains, he also referred to .... pine-trees, forests of which had appeared mysteriously in part of the country we passed through.¹⁵

While the first report of shrub ‘invasion’ in the Western Division occurred in the 1870s,¹⁶ the earliest references demonstrating official concern about widespread expansion of white cypress pine are to be found in the Votes and Proceedings of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly published in 1881. These contain reports by several surveyors asked to record the extent of the scrub problem which was then appearing in many parts of the western slopes and plains.¹⁷ This early pre-occupa-tion with ‘the pine problem’ was also recorded eleven years later by Samuel Dixon.¹⁸ By 1900, Robert William Peacock, Manager of the Coolabah Experiment Farm, had broadened the suite of problem scrub species – ".... Upon the red country the pine-scrub, box-seedlings, and budtha (sic)¹⁹ have taken complete possession, to the thorough exclusion of even the worst grasses."²⁰

The central portion of the Western Plains of New South Wales is an extensive geographical region bounded by the Macquarie, Darling, Murrumbidgee and Lachlan rivers. It also has the dubious distinction of being the first pastoral zone in European Australian history to exhibit problems resulting from widespread scrub proliferation, or more specifically, pine-scrub (Fig. 4). The historian, James Jervis, has described the development of what he called ‘The Great Central Scrub’ (see colour plate) as a .... curious result of the occupation of the Western Plains country.²¹ Why it appeared curious to him is uncertain given that he recognised that a reduction in the frequency of bushfires through overgrazing was the principal factor responsible for increasing pine density. By 1887, he claimed that a block of country stretching 250 by 200 miles (320 x 400 km) had been thus over-run and although large sums of money had been expended in attempts at clearing pine over large areas, some pastoral stations were eventually abandoned.

Precise explanations for the rapid development of pine-scrub before other problem shrub species became apparent in this particular region of the Western Plains, are difficult to provide although it is tempting to speculate. Several researchers²² have pointed to the importance of episodically ‘wet’ periods, especially when above-average rainfall and favourable soil temperatures enable the germination and seedling establishment of a wide range of shrub species. Differences in germination capability between different scrub species, and their interactions with different soil types, are the most likely reasons for the rapid increase in pine density.

The germination capacity of seed of the native fuchsias, all belonging to the genus Eremophila, is highly variable due to several factors including low viability and insect damage.²³ Germination of seed within the characteristically hard woody fruits of these species is further inhibited by the inability of moisture to penetrate this woody tissue until it has decomposed sufficiently. Accordingly, considerable time would be required before sufficient stocks of fertile and readily germinable Eremophila seeds had built up in the soil seed-bank. Subsequent heavy rainfall sequences would then promote both widespread germination and ‘big bang’ seedling recruitment.

Figure 4: LANDSAT scene of the Western Plains region of New South Wales taken on 20/1/73 showing the boundary between the Western and Central Divisions, particularly east of Nymagee. Clearly visible paddock fencelines in the Western Division reflect variable scrub cover due to differences in past land use, especially grazing histories. The scrub appears as dark areas, especially between Cobar and Nymagee. The dark area west of Mount Hope is primarily mallee showing a recent fire scar.

1. Mount Hope, 2. Nymagee, 3. Cobar, 4. Western/Central Divisions boundary.

In contrast, a mature tree of white cypress pine not only produces abundant quantities of viable seed, but such seed also germinates readily once it has been shed from the cone. The western slopes of the Central Division, as well as the plains situated in the eastern portion of the Western Division, comprise a zone where rainfall and light-textured soils coincide to ideally suit pine regeneration. Because these areas were already used for pastoralism during the early settlement phase of the 1860s to 1880s, they were the first to experience a major reduction in fire frequency as settlers actively discouraged fires ignited by remaining Aborigines and by lightning. The rapid increase in domestic livestock numbers also reduced fuel availability, or at least increased fuel patchiness, thereby decreasing the potential for any fires to spread widely. This modification of the original fire regime by European settlers therefore encouraged regeneration by fire-sensitive species such as cypress pine.²⁴

Foresters have pointed out that pre-European stands of cypress pine were not dense single-species forests similar to those now found throughout central-western New South Wales but were more often open woodlands interspersed with eucalypts.²⁵ The sequences of wet years experienced during this period (and later during the 1952-56 and 1973-74 periods), coupled with widespread ring-barking of the eucalypts, encouraged widespread germination and establishment of ‘wheatfields’ of pine tree seedlings. In the Central Division, stands ranging in density from 900,000 to 3,250,000 saplings per hectare were recorded with 125,000 trees per hectare commonly encountered twenty years after germination.²⁶

During the early settlement phase, cypress pine stands were perceived by the Government as constituting a valuable timber resource for building purposes because of the wood’s resistance to termite attack. Legislative constraints were accordingly imposed restraining settlers from cutting pine in the Western Division. When giving evidence to the 1900 Royal Commission inquiring into the condition of crown tenants in the Western Division, George Frew of Central Block C Station, c. 70 km south of Cobar, attributed much of the pine-scrub problem to bad legislation, specifically the Pine Protection Act passed in 1882. This legislation imposed a penalty on lessees, and a forfeiture of their blocks and all improvements, if pine under 12 inches (30 cm) at the butt was cut. ".... Hence all my country is now covered with pine, and its carrying capabilities reduced by one-half. In my own case, I would not have settled in the district had I thought I would have been prevented from

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