What is a grassland?
Grasslands are natural ecological communities dominated by grasses and with no or only sparse tree or shrub cover. They are dominated by a range of grass species but contain a diversity of other herbs. Grasslands are among the most species rich plant communities in Australia.
Secondary or derived grasslands are those in which the woody species (trees and/or shrubs) have been removed, leaving only the native herbaceous ground layer.
What is a grassy woodland?
Grassy woodlands are communities that have trees in the overstorey that are widely spaced, not overlapping; shrub cover is sparse. The predominant vegetation is grasses; herbs or forbs may be highly diverse.
Native grasslands and grassy woodlands are disappearing!
Early explorers described a carpet of native grasses and colourful flowering herbs, with or without an open canopy of trees, covering much of temperate south-eastern Australia. Temperate native grasslands and grassy woodlands extended from south-eastern Queensland, through eastern New South Wales, Victoria, and into South Australia and Tasmania. Grassy ecosystems, including native grasslands and grassy woodlands, were likely to have been the dominant vegetation communities of the sub-humid zone, between the high rainfall coastal strip and the arid inland.
Since European settlement much of the area of native grassland and grassy woodlands have been significantly modified by changes to species dominance caused by agricultural practices and introduction of pasture species and weeds and lost due to cropping and development, resulting in direct loss and fragmentation. Grasslands were very attractive for agriculture and are now considered to be the most depleted Australian ecosystems. Many of their component plant and animal species have become extinct and many more are now rare or threatened with extinction.
Where did they go?
The arrival of Europeans heralded major change for our grassland communities. The introduction of sheep and cattle changed the grazing patterns and processes and disturbed the ecology of grasslands. Later the introduction of fertilisers and exotic pasture plants, introduced to "improve" the pastures, and introduction of species that became naturalised further changed the growing conditions and competitive relationships between plants. In some areas grasslands were removed by the plough to make way for crops. With the advent of towns, cities and transport links, grasslands became a dwindling resource, particularly in urban areas.
Not much is left!
After 200 years of European settlement, the vast majority of lowland grasslands and grassy woodlands in south-eastern Australia has been lost, either by complete removal or severe modification. Only a very small percentage of the original area remains in a largely undisturbed condition, where the vegetation structure and species composition is more or less intact.
Much of what remains is found in small isolated patches, fragmented and vulnerable to invasion by exotic weeds, accidental disturbance, unsympathetic land management and development. Many grasslands are found along railway lines, in travelling stock reserves, in cemeteries and in 'back paddocks' - they have survived mostly by default, rather than deliberate protection. If this had happened to our tropical rainforests or the Great Barrier Reef, there would be a public outcry. But there has been no outcry over the loss of native grasslands. By the 1980s the native grasslands of south-eastern Australia had been developed almost out of existence.
In the ACT many areas of grassland and grassy woodland were previously ear-marked for future urban development, ensuring they remained undeveloped until required. However, pressures and conflicting requirements have arisen, as the awareness of their ecological significance has increased, legislative provisions implemented to protect them, while Canberra continues to expand.
What you can do?
The involvement of the community is critical to contribute to advocacy, education, conservation and restoration projects and to maintain pressure on local, state and federal governments. With your help we can turn things around. FOG recognises that the organisation is strongest when it is represented by members with a range of skills and interests, who work together to achieve the vision and goals of the organisation.