establishing a baseline for landscape improvement

image from the Jillamatong Workshop

Participants working on their ecological literacy on Jillamatong, near Braidwood NSW, 13 November 2013.

Our land management practices influence the state and functioning of the landscape. History can show us many cases of how ecological function has been changed and often degraded by our practices, affecting the health and productivity of our land. What’s your property’s story? How do you know where you are now and how would you like your future chapters to read? These are some of the questions we pondered at last week’s Soils for Life workshop.

Our first workshop – building on the Demonstration and Field Days we’ve been running throughout the year – was hosted on 13 November by Martin Royds and Patricia Solomon on their gorgeous property Jillamatong, just outside of Braidwood NSW.

The VAST-2 Framework

The workshop aimed to help participants know what to look for to better understand their land and to demonstrate a tool – the VAST-2 (‘Vegetation Assets, States & Transitions’) framework - to establish a knowledge baseline for landscape improvement.

The VAST-2 framework is one tool that can be used to monitor and measure your landscape. This particular framework also looks at the history of the landscape, for example, back to white settlement, in order to understand how productive the landscape may have been and it’s previous form. This isn’t necessarily in order to try to return it to such a state, but helps to determine how your landscape became the way it is and to measure how your management decisions influence it into the future.

Jillamatong’s Story

Ecologist and workshop presenter, Richard Thackway, introduced the VAST-2 framework and then interviewed host Martin Royds, to find out Jillamatong’s story. Martin discussed the history of Jillamatong as he was able to ascertain from speaking with a local historian, people whose family had previously owned the land, and his own family history.

An example of the types of practices that historically influenced the Jillamatong landscape, and indeed many parts of Australia, include:

  • Early shepherding, with no fences or fixed water points (Australia used to sustain significantly higher sheep numbers than today)
  • Ringbarking of trees
  • Rabbit infestation
  • Regular burning-off to encourage green-pick in native plants
  • Introduction of fencing, limiting access to certain parts of creeks/rivers
  • Dam construction and set-stocking

Martin also discussed the practices his family had applied since buying the property in 1952 and since he started working there in 1985. Over the years, many of these practices had reduced the healthy ecological functioning of the Jillamatong landscape.

Martin’s own vegetation management and grazing practices changed significantly in the mid-1990s when he adopted Holistic Management, which resulted in significant improvements to soil and vegetation health, but which Martin only has selective documented ‘evidence’ to substantiate.

The Jillamatong landscape

Establishing a baseline for landscape improvement

Richard presented how a structured framework would have enabled Martin to document and demonstrate the landscape improvements since the mid-1990s, but also how he can take a baseline from today to monitor and measure changes into the future.

For those of us still developing our ecological literacy (the ability to understand the natural systems that make life on earth possible) and learning what to look at that land management practices impact, the workshop provided a useful tool and framework.

When looking at the soil, key areas to look at are:

  • hydrological status (eg. how much moisture is there?)
  • physical status (eg. how much decomposing organic matter is present? Root depth?)
  • chemical status (eg. what are mineral and nutrient levels? Any deficient/in excess?)
  • biological status (eg. are there signs of life - worms, fungi etc?)

In monitoring your vegetation, areas of focus are:

  • fire regime (eg. regular burning off or occasional bushfires?)
  • reproductive potential (eg. are plants able to go through their full lifecycle and spread seed?)
  • overstorey structure (eg. density, height, protective cover)
  • understorey structure (eg. density of groundcover, amount of bare ground, height)
  • overstorey composition (eg. species diversity)
  • understorey composition (eg. species diversity, perennial and annual)

The VAST-2 framework presented on the day provided a model by which all these factors could be rated and scored and then assessed against a scale. The scale presents the state of the vegetation from a natural unmodified state to modified and degraded to modified and managed. This can be used as a baseline to measure improvement against, or an ongoing monitoring tool to give a consistent way of assessing the impact of your land management practices on the landscape as a whole or just for specific paddocks or areas.

Measurement does not need to be complicated and scientific. Notes in your diary, aerial photos, rainfall records, fixed-point photos or transects – but it’s about what you look for and linking it to practices that you are applying.

Images from the workshop

What did we see?

Our field trip into Martin’s paddocks provided a lot of evidence of the impacts of his land management practices, which could easily be assessed. His current practices include time-controlled planned grazing, slowing the flow of water with leaky weirs and contouring, composting/applying compost tea and no use of chemicals (read his case study here).

Pastures are wildly diverse, with over 80 species of perennials, annuals, herbs and forbs identified. Martin is not concerned with occasional ‘weed’ species – particularly after noting that his cattle sometimes actively select these plants, likely for some mineral or nutrient they required.

The ground was spongy underfoot – even right up the ridgeline, where many of us would be used to seeing hard exposed ground. Decomposing plant litter was visible in the top layer of soil. Martin’s demonstration with a penetrometer (a tool to measure soil compaction) clearly demonstrated the difference between the resistance of the hard soils over the fence outside his property and the smooth easy penetration in his own carbon-rich soils. A great indicator of soil health, such soil structure allows easy root growth and access to moisture and nutrients.

Martin pointed out the contour channels he had installed to help manage the more recent rainfall patterns of very heavy rainfalls then long periods of dry. The visibly greener, richer pastures in the moisture- and nutrient-rich soils below them clearly demonstrated that this technique was working.

Martin also pointed out where his practices had been detrimental to the landscape. An area of dead trees above one of the weirs in the healed erosion gully was a sign of too much salt in that part of the landscape. Martin learned to change the way he let water flow through the channels to manage this, now ‘pulse-feeding’ the water through.

Are your practices making a difference?

The most important factor in monitoring and measuring the affects of your management practices on the landscape is that it gives you the flexibility to adjust your practices based on sound information. Any landscape management should be responsive to changes in season, weather, resources, etc.

Regular measuring and monitoring of practices and the landscape allow for informed decision making to lead you more effectively towards your goal and to help you know when you get there. The ‘Adaptive Management Cycle’ shows how this can work.

image of the adaptive management cycle

During the afternoon session we were fortunate to learn further from the experiences of our Panel – representatives from the local Catchment Management Authority, soil microbiologist Walter Jehne and successful regenerative farmers including Martin, David Marsh and Charlie Massy, who had previously performed a historical review and baselining activity on his Monaro property to inform his management decisions. The wonder of these farmers is that they are all willing to admit to their mistakes and are always open to learning more. Adaptive management in practice!

Keeping such records are useful not only for informing your own land management practices, but also, they gives you evidence if you want to share your successes, apply for funding to extend them across your property – or in the case of Soils for Life, it gives us great evidence to help encourage other farmers and land managers to adopt regenerative practices – that results are real and anyone can adopt them.

Thanks to our gracious hosts, attending panel members, the support of Southern Rivers CMA, Upper Shoalhaven Landcare Council and to the excellent catering by The Albion in Braidwood for making the day a success.

Have a look at more photos from the day.

Soils for Life supports the aim of many land managers – to build a productive, profitable and resilient landscape that can be passed on to the next generation in a better condition – and we saw that this workshop introduced a tool could be helpful in informing decisions to get there. What do you think? Leave a comment below and tell us what sort of workshop or resources would help you on your regenerative journey.


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