Using natural sequences to rehydrate and regenerate the landscape
Applying Natural Sequence Farming techniques reduces the erosive capacity of water and allows natural rehabilitation and regeneration to take place. (Source: The Mulloon Institute).
So what’s this Natural Sequence Farming all about?
Soils for life enrolled in the four day course run by Tarwyn Park Training to learn about this landscape management technique. And we think they’re on to something…
Unlike many may think, NSF is not just about putting in ‘leaky weirs’ and fixing stream erosion. It is a whole of landscape approach focused on managing the movement of water and nutrients from the highest peaks to the lowest floodplains. It is a way to increase productivity by rehydrating and regenerating the landscape based on natural processes unique to Australia.
Peter Andrews, with Stuart Andrews and Duane Norris.
Why unique you may ask? Because the Australian landscape is unique. It is an old continent. It is a flat continent. We do not have towering mountain peaks or open river deltas or the widespread seasonal extremes of freeze and snow melt. Australia evolved without hard-hoofed animals – no herds of bison nor deer here – but at one point in history the continent was productive enough to support megafauna and thrive.
In his youth, Peter Andrews observed some of the modern extremes of our country, such as fire and drought, and watched with a naturally curious mind how the landscape responded. He has spent the rest of his life observing, researching, trialling and developing management techniques that replicate natural processes and the ancient natural science of the Australian landscape. He has fought to get national recognition and wider adoption of these techniques for many years to halt and reverse the widespread landscape degradation across Australia.
Using NSF practices, The Mulloon Institute is implementing a floodplain-wide restoration project, incorporating 17 land owners and 23,000 hectares along the Mulloon, Reedy, Sandhills and Shiel Creeks between Bungendore and Braidwood in NSW. The Mulloon Institute hosted Tarwyn Park Training, with course presenters Stuart Andrews and Duane Norris, for a four day hands-on course at Duralla, one of the properties within the Mulloon Community Landscape Rehydration Project.
“The first thing you have to do is teach your mind you can do it. The rest is easy.” Stuart Andrews
Course participants were fortunate that, for the first time, Peter Andrews also attended the Tarwyn Park Training course for its full duration, willingly sharing his knowledge at every opportunity.
Over the duration of the course we were confused. We were challenged. Then we learnt. Then we wondered why all land managers aren’t applying these techniques…
SLOW THE FLOW
The first day was a bit of an Australian history lesson, from how the landscape functioned before the arrival of human beings through to present day farming practices.
“The things this old landscape can teach us…” Peter Andrews
We learnt about the vast floodplains and unique vegetation that covered much of the country and the patterns of the movement of water which enabled the landscape to stay hydrated and fertile. Australia typically did not have wide open river systems, but chains of ponds at all levels in the landscape, densely surrounded by vegetation. The rivers on the flats were edged with nutrient-rich vegetation and actually sat higher than the level of the floodplain (have a look – you can still see this formation in many places today). This gentle curve meant that during any flood, water would gently spill over the edges and spread across the floodplain. In drier times, vegetation would still keep all surfaces covered. Australia doesn’t have river deltas such as those seen in many countries around the world – the system would keep the moisture in the landscape, supporting highly productive vegetation.
When Europeans first came to Australia, understandably, they saw this lush, fertile landscape and proceeded to graze it with numbers of sheep and cattle that have not been seen since.
Course participants walk along the eroded creekline.
Unfortunately the downside of this exciting production was the damage caused to waterways. The sensitive vegetation was stripped bare and soils exposed, enabling erosion by wind and rain and removing the resilience of the river to hold on to or slowly release water in response to weather conditions. European land managers also began the “plumbing and drainage” system that would influence water and landscape management for many years to come, clearing wetlands and opening flows, draining wet areas across the country.
Although there are many land managers and projects working hard to protect and restore the waterways and damaged soils, the system has never fully recovered and river, gully and soil erosion and nutrient loss is widespread across Australia.
Then began our lesson in reading the landscape and the natural patterns of movement of water. There was a lot to take in and new terminology – steps, flow-lines, recharge and discharge areas, soil hydraulic pressure, choke points, de-energising, water-on-water, ‘a stepped diffusion system of broadacre hydroponics’…
It began to make more sense when we headed out into the paddock to walk along the heavily incised river running through Duralla. We identified and discussed repeating patterns in the movement of water, natural and man-made landscape formations, their impacts on the movement of water and nutrient and what could be modified to start rehydration and regeneration.
It was a lot to take in and a number of students whose properties didn’t have a river or floodplain were beginning to wonder on how it would all apply to them.
LET ALL PLANTS GROW
“Read what the plants are telling you. If there’s a problem and you’re not allowing repair plants to grow, it [the whole system] will go backwards.” Stuart Andrews
It’s difficult to question paradigms when they are so heavily ingrained – and indeed legislated. Peter Andrews has received much criticism for his acceptance and active use of ‘weeds’ and willows in his NSF system, and on day two we were asked to listen with open minds as we learned about the role and importance of all vegetation in the landscape.
Plants are engineers in the landscape, as well as indicators. They control areas of moisture recharge and discharge, moderate temperature, build fertility, produce oxygen – just to name a few. The human need to label plants, combined with the conflicting views of native and introduced species has perhaps taken us away from looking at the plants for what they are – just grasses, trees, herbs and forbs and an indicator of a particular condition in the landscape.
For example, thistles put down tap roots to break up compacted soil, draw nutrients from deep below the surface and add organic matter, Patterson’s Curse (or is it Salvation Jane?) improves soil pH, blackberries and willows stabilise eroded gullies and riverbanks, producing a tangle of roots and biomass to slow fast moving water, trap sediment and create the condition for higher order species to establish. If this is their natural role, what happens if we continue to remove them without changing the condition in which they established?
“Inedible plants won’t grow in their own residue.” Peter Andrews
We were advised to try letting these indicator plants do their work on degraded areas of our properties, by letting them finish their growth cycle, then slash or mulch them and leave the residue where it falls. This would maximise performance of the plants’ roles and the return of the nutrients they provide back into the soil.
Peter gave an interesting explanation as to why willows have so successfully colonised gullies and riverbanks, and how important he believes it is to leave them there to do their job. He proposes that the degraded situation in which willows establish to heal did not occur in the old Australian landscape, hence, no native tree exists to perform that role. Food for thought perhaps? Of the dozens of weeping willows that were planted on Tarwyn Park to stabilise the riverbanks, they have almost all been choked out by casuarinas which were able to establish in the more stable root balls of the willows. A natural sequence without further human intervention.
Stuart and Duane instruct participants on how to use dumpy and
The practical work began in the afternoon and we were surprised to find ourselves up on the top of one of the many hills overlooking the floodplain. We learnt that the peaks are the ‘accumulation zone’, and due to the continuing force of gravity, we should manage the landscape to ensure that we maintain sufficient fertility at heights, as it will constantly be pulled downslope.
Some of the ways of doing this include planting vegetation, which also encourages stock, birds, insects etc to go up and leave fertility deposits, or even just leaving heaped piles of composted material on a ridgeline to let the fertility leach out.
To speed up natural process and ensure that enough moisture is retained at high levels to maintain and move the spread of nutrient, we brought in the heavy machinery to exaggerate and replicate natural formations. Participants learned to identify ‘steps’ in the landscape, where the best place was to create contour channels and how to use dumpy and laser levels to mark out a contour.
We marked out locations and Stuart commenced work with the backhoe and tractor to develop a system of contour channels and ponds that would draw excess water away from a rapidly forming erosion gully across the side of the hilltop, down through a series of ponds to encourage the water to move into the soil profile with excess able to spill out over the ridgeline as well as spread further around the contour.
Now that we could see some of the techniques in action, our understanding was certainly on the up and we left at the end of a long day buoyed and excited to keep learning more.
CAREFUL WHERE THE ANIMALS GO
On day three Duane and Stuart reinforced the importance of stock management in relation to landscape regeneration and rehydration. Since these hard-hoofed animals are now a vital part of Australian agricultural production, it is our responsibility to manage them to ensure that they do not continue to damage or disturb critical stages of landscape development.
“There’s always an opportunity to learn something more.” Martin Royds
There was some discussion about rotational/holistic planned grazing and how it could be used carefully within the NSF system – further reiterated by successful regenerative farmer Martin Royds, who though he has been applying NSF practices for over eight years, had enrolled as a participant on the course. Stuart cautioned that holistic planned grazing is a useful tool, but does not consider everything in the Australian landscape, for example, heavy animal impact is not always beneficial in riparian zones or after significant rainfall events, so it must always be managed with in the holistic context of healing and rehydration first.
Course participants discuss the design and location of the pond.
Duane reiterated that the aim of management should be an ever-expanding spiral of increasing fertility, that at the end of each season there is more carbon in the system (in the soil and biomass) than there was previously. We should be cognisant that the Australian systems and seasons are different to that of many other continents, and that rainfall is our trigger event rather than, for example, the northern hemisphere seasonal shifts through autumn, where much organic matter falls to the ground, followed by a freeze, then the season of growth.
Back up on the hill we finished off the previous day’s contouring and ponds, where it became clear how important it was to have a solid understanding of water movement and how much careful design and specific tried and tested practices underlie NSF techniques to ensure no further damage occurs. A wrong placement or incorrectly formed spillway can easily lead to the formation of a new erosion channel.
We then moved down to the ‘production zone’, lower down the hillside into a badly degraded erosion gully. Building on the explanations of slowing the flow and de-energising the erosive capacity of water, we also saw the potential advantage of a blackberry, using a well-established bush as the foundation of a bank to pond water at the base of the gully. As blackberries don’t like to be waterlogged, the change in hydrological function over time would also see these plants be succeeded by higher order species.
“If it looks like it’s going to cost a lot of money, you’ve probably got it wrong.” Peter Andrews
Back up the gully, we identified the right locations for other interventions (now unsurprisingly also occupied by a blackberry or other coloniser plants). Using available natural materials – logs, rocks, spoiled silage – and the help of local NSF consultant and practitioner, Cam Wilson, we began to form another series of ponds down the steep slope. Cuttings of poplar were planted in the structure which would form a living bank (plants as engineers!).
TO FILTER IS A MUST KNOW
Peter Andrews oversees installation of an erosion gully structure.
After the moments of confusion in the early days, by the last day all of the course participants were clearly enthused and actively discussing what they were planning to apply on their properties ranging from smaller ‘lifestyle’ blocks to larger productive cattle and sheep farms.
The earlier raised concept of nutrient movement was discussed in detail, with Duane, Stuart and Peter each providing different examples of how, through the forces of gravity and water, nutrient always makes its way down through the property. We also discussed the implications for salt-affected landscapes with advice and guidance on how to control the movement of salt and minimise salinity with the increased water tables.
The aim of NSF is to maximise how much fertility is accumulated on the peaks, make the most of this fertility in the middle level production zones and then maximise the use of any remaining nutrient or moisture on the flats or before it leaves your property. These resources can be converted into biomass on the lower flats, where it can be harvested and returned to the peaks to start the cycle all over again.
This understanding and management of the landscape in thirds – upper accumulation zone, middle production zone and lower filtering zone – will result in increased productivity across the whole landscape. In floodplains this pattern repeats, the filtering zone becomes the accumulation zone for the next cycle.
Even though there may be the perception of a loss of productive area if trees are planted in upper reaches or gullies or waterways are fenced off, the increased moisture and available nutrient spread across other zones will substantially increase the productivity of these areas, resulting in a net productivity increase overall.
Accurate placement of structures to de-energise runoff
allows vegetation growth and rehabilitation.
Our final practical work had us repairing smaller headwall cuts in the same gully with more handmade structures – surprisingly simple once we knew what to do. The group then moved on the lower third measuring out the final distribution channel. This was designed to capture any runoff from the upper systems and distribute it widely across the lower levels.
The elegance of the design, combined with the understanding of the erosive powers of water and how to stop this, mean that the combined structures have an unlimited capacity to handle the flow of water. If designed and implemented correctly the structures will not fail even in significant flood conditions. The rehydration and regeneration process will begin after the first rainfall event.
“I hope that you take from this workshop enough confidence to try something. Even if you just try it on one part of your property, the results will motivate you to do it everywhere.” Stuart Andrews
As we packed up at the end of the course we were all keen to return after rain to see how the whole system worked. The Mulloon team promised to send course participants photos, and they’ll be posting them on The Mulloon Institute Facebook page.
The course contained so much more than outlined above, but we hope it gives an indication of what you might encounter if you want to repair and rehydrate your landscape and are willing to consider with an open mind what may currently be seen as an unconventional approach. We must hope that it becomes more mainstream in the future.
The Tarwyn Park Training meme provides us with the reminder of what’s important, and as Stuart says, “if you’re out in the paddock and are doing things that tick off against the four points of the meme, you’re heading in the right direction”.
Slow the flow
Let all plants grow
Careful where the animals go
And remember, to filter the flow is a must know.
Course participants after four days of intensive learning.
Megan Andrews, Duane Norris, Peter Andrews and Stuart Andrews.
This enlightening course would not have been possible without the obvious efforts of Peter Hazell, Project Coordinator, and the rest of the hosting and participating team from The Mulloon Institute. Our thanks also to the wonderful hosts and caterers at Tombarra, the delightful location where we were all housed and fed. Thank you!
For the many who had witnessed some of the history of Tarwyn Park and the Andrews family through the ABC’s Australian Story episodes, it was heart-warming to see Peter and Stuart working together to share their important knowledge, supported by the clearly very committed and knowledgeable Duane Norris. All of the participants felt privileged to be a part of this experience.
We wish the best to all on their future regenerative journeys.
Keep an eye out for the additional Natural Sequence Farming courses Tarwyn Park Training will be carrying out additional courses at Duralla over the coming year on the Tarwyn Park Training and The Mulloon Institute Facebook pages.
View more photos from the course in our Facebook gallery.
Please note that the information presented above should not be seen as a substitute for specific professional advice and that regulations exist regarding where and what kind of structures can be placed in rivers or creeks.