Call for Indigenous burning program used on remote cattle station to be adopted elsewhere

20 March 2020

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AUSTRALIA – A not-for-profit land management group in outback Queensland is calling for an Indigenous burning program it runs to be adopted in other parts of the country.

The Southern Gulf Natural Resource Management Group (NRM) started the program to conserve the endangered Carpentarian grasswren, which lives in old tussocks of spinifex grass.

For the past three years, a helicopter has been dropping embers into remote landscapes to start a series of small fires before the grass dries out.

“The logic of our fire management program is to break up those fuel loads, to get a patchwork of old and not-so-old spinifex,” Southern Gulf NRM CEO Andrew Maclean said.

“We often hear about the benefit of introducing fire regimes that traditional owners would’ve implemented before European settlement, and I see this project as doing just that.”

The local Kalkadoon people in north-west Queensland have been using the technique, known as mosaic burning, for thousands of years.

William Donovan from Calton Hills, the Kalkadoon-run cattle station that is hosting the program, said the technique was used by traditional owners across northern Australia and it was still essential today.

“It controls wildfires, lightning strikes, and if anyone chucks a match on the side of the road too,” Mr Donovan said.

“It freshens everything back so next time you get good rain through that country it will come up.”

Indigenous burning to stop wildfires

University of Queensland researcher Steve Murphy has been mapping and tracking the impact of fires across northern Australia, including the burning program on Calton Hills.

He said the success of the Southern Gulf program was dependent on long-term measures, but the early signs were promising.

“In the old days, when Aboriginal people were living right across the landscape, they were using fire all day and every day for all sorts of reasons,” Dr Murphy said.

“Things are really on track to avoid the large-scale fires that we’ve seen on Calton Hills and elsewhere, that we’ve seen in the past.”

Dr Murphy said mosaic burning could be applied in other parts of the country that were subject to catastrophic fires earlier this year.

“Effective fire management doesn’t happen in just one year. It takes annual investment in prescribed burning and fire management over the long-term to avoid those catastrophic fires,” he said.

“We absolutely need regular investment, every single year, in fuel management and fire management and again that’s representing what Aboriginal people would have done in the traditional economy.”

Burning to save valuable pasture

Lloyd Hick from Thorntonia Station, north of Camooweal in north-west Queensland, joined in the program this year.

He said he was hoping to promote the growth of young spinifex grass, which was a popular pasture for his cattle.

“After a 10-year period after being burnt it gets really hard, spikey, and unpalatable for cattle,” Mr Hick said.

“We try to get a fire through the spinifex whenever we can just so we don’t get a huge build-up of fuel load, because we don’t want big hot fires. That’s no good for any of our environment.”

Mr Hick said the devastating fires in New South Wales and Victoria were a wake-up call.

“We need to learn something from that,” he said.

“We just got shown what can happen and will happen if you don’t do some sort of burning in those areas.”

Key points:

  • A land management group adopted an Indigenous burning program to conserve the endangered Carpentarian grasswren
  • Now there are calls for the burning program to be used elsewhere in Australia to prevent catastrophic wildfires
  • One north-west Queensland station says it’s also a good way to promote the growth of young spinifex, which cattle like to eat
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