Dryland farming observations from the Bruce Rock trip – inc ReVisioning the Drylands and Ribbons of Green

When we drove out to Bruce Rock and back the other weekend. it was a chance for me to reconnect with the Western Australian wheatbelt after many years away. To see a little bit of what’s been going on out here, what the place feels like nowadays, and to make it more than just something I read about every few days.

It was flowering time for the canola, so I was expecting the usual patchwork of fluorescent yellow amongst paddocks of oat-green and wheat-green that I see on our regular drives through the western edge of the wheat-sheep belt. It caught me by surprise a little when there was no patchwork. Fields out this way are a lot larger. So we often saw canola from our road to the horizon in several directions. Or wheat, or oat, or even occasionally lupin. I can’t always tell the grains apart, and definitely not at this season, so I wasn’t surprised at lack of variety there but it did surprise me to see lupin and other legumes so rarely given that I thought canola was a once-in-six-years crop as regards rotation. Perhaps I’m outdated there. The scent of the canola pollen was overpowering. Friendly and pleasant – I like the smell of canola and other flowering brassicas in the sunshine, it’s a warm cheerful smell I’ve always found a bit homey. But it was strong enough to set up an ache in my sinuses that has them tingling even now in memory – and I’m not normally prone to hay fever.

I also didn’t notice as many sheep as I might have expected on the drive. I don’t know how many to expect, but the crop to animal ratio seemed high. A chance conversation with an old war vet in Bruce Rock confirmed that conditions had been dry in autumn and a lot of stock had been sold off waiting for the rains to arrive.

I was particularly alert to wildflowers along the road verges, that being one of the reasons for the trip. So this had me watching the landscape carefully for signs of landcare and vegetation corridors. It was interesting spotting the farms which had put some time into landcare and those who hadn’t, often next to or opposite one another. You’d cross a stream, and one side of the road would have little bands of replanted natives carefully placed at the curves of the stream where they’d prevent erosion, with wide gaps between plantings where animals could easily access the water down slow slopes – and on the other side of the road the stream would be weed choked with ragged crumbling banks. Some farms were using swales to steer water and prevent hillside erosion near streams, though not apparently for additional plantings nor water capture. I did see one property I think west of Quairading that caught my attention as we drove past at speed. They were clearly actively using swales in conjunction with planting to do something (though exactly what wasn’t clear at 100 km/h). They had a little sign up tacked to the fence which said something along the lines of ReVisioning the Drylands, but I haven’t been able to find anything further out about them. I’m assuming a permaculture influence there, or at least awareness of alternative water management techniques given what it looked like as I passed.

Most of our drive east was along the Great Southern Highway. I was watching the road verges and casually assessing for vegetation corridor potential, knowing that it’s the road verges in the wheatbelt where a lot of our thousands of species of spectacular wildflowers have been able to survive. This highway’s verges were pretty erratic in quality though. It seemed to very much depend on the farm, and change every time we hit a new property. Some had verges more than a metre wide with fairly thick vegetation, others had the fence almost to the bitumen with little more than bare soil and rocks between, and then there was every grade between that. Coming back west we travelled the Great Eastern Highway, and that was strikingly different. Long, long sections of well established and reasonably wide corridor. You could see it had been re-established by the ages and types of the species present, but also re-established long enough ago that the corridors should be working as corridors. Several of the better stretches had Ribbons of Green signs up. I’m having trouble finding info on Ribbons of Green now. I remember the project, vaguely, it’s in a patch of my memory that implies I knew about it (and therefore it existed) before people started widely using the Internet which is probably why I’m not finding much on it now. Government funded through some department – Main Roads? I’m also seeing references to it being a partnership between Greening Australian and Alcoa, so maybe corporately funded. I’d love to find maps of where the Ribbons of Green work was done and find out if any further study’s been done of the corridors.  I did come across one report from 2001 by Curtin University’s School of Environmental Biology that compared the corridors to nearby remnant vegetation.  At any rate, looking at the difference between the two highways now it’s clear that the work was valuable. The difference is dramatic. That doesn’t guarantee habitat use and recolonisation, of course, but a corridor that isn’t there can’t be used regardless.

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