SWIFFT Seminar notes 22 October 2020

Native grasslands 
video conf 22 oct 2020 intro

SWIFFT  seminar notes are a summary of the  seminar and not intended to be a definitive record of presentations made and issues discussed.

This SWIFFT seminar was conducted online via Microsoft Teams (159 participants) and streamed live via YouTube (107 views).  SWIFFT wishes to acknowledge support from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, Victoria in organising the seminar and thank speakers for their time and delivery of presentations. Thanks to Michelle Butler who chaired the session from Ballarat and acknowledged the Elder’s past and present on the lands covered by the meeting.

A special thank you to Amos Atkinson who acknowledged the traditional lands covering the seminar across Victoria. Amos affirmed his people’s connection to Country and welcomed us to the home of the Dja Dja Wurrung people.

Key points summary

J Morgan intro

Is disturbance switching a useful restoration tool? 

  • Temperate grasslands have a disturbance requirement for the maintenance of species richness (doing nothing is not an option).
  • Passive recovery of native species is slow, suggesting recovery is limited by agricultural land-use legacies.
  • Active restoration in the form of seed addition + disturbance switching will likely improve restoration outcomes for endangered grasslands.

View notes


Chase and Brad intro

Two ways of knowing natural temperate grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain

  • Prior to European settlement grasslands were looked after for thousands of years by First Nations people.
  • There is a relationship with the spiritual, social and physical perceptions for survival and knowledge of Country. Landscapes are living and breathing and part of Indigenous people’s well-being.
  • By respectfully engaging traditional and western approaches in projects the outcomes will far exceed what could have otherwise been achieved.

 View notes


Amos and Nathan  intro

Returning Dja Dja Wurrung to the landscape 

  • Returning Dja Dja Wurrung to Country means bringing people back and restoring the all the plants, animals, spiritual connections, cultural practices and the rights of traditional owners to make decisions about their land and their resources.
  • A key enabler in the Self Determination Reform Strategy is to prioritise culture in programs such as Djandak Wi.
  • The Dja Dja Wurrung have entered into a Recognition and Settlement Agreement 2013 with State of Victoria.

View notes

Emily intro

Fat-tailed Dunnarts of the Victorian grasslands

  • Grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems on the planet, with less than 1% of Victorian's grasslands remaining.
  • The Fat-tailed Dunnart is the only small, ground-dwelling native mammal to persist in Victoria's grasslands.
  • Not a single individual, scat or nest of a Fat-tailed Dunnart was found in one year of surveying from what was once Victoria’s stronghold for this species.


List of speakers and topics

Is disturbance switching a useful restoration tool? - Dr John Morgan, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution | La Trobe University 

Two ways of knowing natural temperate grasslands of the Victorian Volcanic Plain - Chase Aghan - Project Officer (Forest, Fire and Parks) for Wadawurrung Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation and Dr Brad Farmilo - Senior Scientist & Plant ecologist,  Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research (DELWP) 

Returning Dja Dja Wurrung to the landscape - Nathan Wong, Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation  and Amos Atkinson, Project Officer with Dja Dja Wurrung

Fat-tailed Dunnarts of the Victorian grasslands - Emily (Millie) Scicluna - PhD Candidate, La Trobe University 



Speaker summaries are adapted from presentations and are not intended to be a definitive record of presentations made and issues discussed.


Is disturbance switching a useful restoration tool? 

Dr John Morgan, Associate Professor, Department of Ecology, Environment and Evolution | La Trobe University 

John’s presentation focused on disturbance switching from sheep grazing to fire in managing grassland and grassy woodlands.

John spoke about the commonality between the higher quality native grasslands, these are grasslands which have had some degree of burning over many decades, either without or very little grazing by stock.

Grassland ecology

Regular burning is almost critical for the survival of many native grassland plants. Without burning, native species can be swamped by competitive grasses. After an Autumn fire event many of the native grassland species resprout and flower during the Spring and persist as short stems between fires.


Morgan 1 in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

Native grassland can respond to burning because many of the plants in native grasslands live below ground in the form of tubers and root stock. Source: J. Morgan presentation to SWIFFT.


Morgan  2 in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

An example of a native grassland species (Featherheads) Ptilotus macrocephalus which has the form of a below ground tree. Sparse leaf form and flowering stem (left) and an extensive below ground root system (right).  Source: J. Morgan


Biomass removal

John spoke about the benefits of regular burning in reducing biomass and creating gaps between the grasses which promotes a diverse number of species to co-exist and flower on a regular basis. Prior to European settlement grassland biomass reduction occurred through indigenous burning and through digging and grazing by native fauna.

Morgan 3 in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

A summary of 30 years research - influences on native grasslands with a regular <3 year burning. Source: J. Morgan in presentation to SWIFFT.


Managing native grasslands across different land tenure

John made reference to the fact that many of the high-quality native grasslands are confined to linear roadside reserves which have benefited from regular burning with minimal stock grazing. The problem which needs to be addressed is management of native grasslands on private land and public land blocks, many of which have little or no history of being burnt.

Morgan 4 in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

Native grasslands have had a significant reduction since European settlement. Many remnant grasslands have little or no history of being burnt since European settlement. Source: J. Morgan in presentation to SWIFFT.


Grassland management in Northern Victoria

John spoke about the management of remnant native grasslands in northern Victoria, particularly previous farm blocks which are now managed for conservation.  John pointed out that many have had sheep grazing for over a Century which has led to a particular type of native grassland where many species have disappeared but some have benefited.

Management theory has often relied on maintaining the status quo when new grassland blocks are obtained. If a paddock has been grazed by sheep for decades yet still contains native grasses should we continue the same regime or should we try to improve the grassland by switching the way grazing is undertaken? Change the season or duration of grazing to try and promote more diversity of species.

Case studies on the Volcanic Plains

John referred to some of the long-running research projrcts on the Volcanic Plains near Birregurra, Darlington and Hamilton which looked at switching grazing regimes to determine if gains could be made to improve native grasslands.

Changing the duration of grazing
Morgan 5 in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

The above graph depicts a grassland which has been grazed for over 100 years and has been part of an experiment where the grazing duration has been manipulated.

No grazing = negative outcomes for both native and exotic species.

6 months, 9 month and 12 months grazing = no significant change

Overall, experimenting with different grazing regimes has not been proven to provide better outcomes for grassland conservation. Source: J. Morgan in presentation to SWIFFT.


The need to improve native grasslands

John spoke about the need to actually improve grasslands and restore species like grassland daisies and grassland orchids. Clearly, just changing the duration of grazing does not lead to substantially better outcomes. Switching disturbance from sheep grazing to other forms of disturbance has been the subject of more recent research. Switching from sheep grazing to fire or slashing or other means.

Case study – Wannon Water Reserve

John spoke about research which involved shifting from sheep grazing to burning. The study site has been grazed for over 100 years and although still containing some native grasses many of the species have disappeared. Trials of Autumn burning have been carried out on an annual basis and a biannual basis since 2012. A series of permanent monitoring plots were established at the start of the burning trial program.

John pointed out that many of the species, including some endangered species are now more obvious at the site but he uses two measures to determine if the grassland is getting better, 1. Native species richness and 2. Native species cover.

Species richness
Morgan 6 in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

Eight years of data on species richness from annually burnt grasslands (blue)  and biannually burnt (red). John emphasised climatic events can also have a significant bearing on grassland condition, e.g. 207 - 2018. Burning has had little impact on driving exotic species down. Source: J. Morgan in presentation to SWIFFT.


Species cover
Morgan 7 species cover in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

There is no clear outcome which indicates native species cover has improved. There was up to a 20% increase in native species cover after 4 years but seasonal climate variability has a greater influence. Native species cover does not provide the full picture as an increase in cover may be due to one species. There is no clear indication that exotic species cover has declined due to the burning regime. Source: J. Morgan in presentation to SWIFFT.

Combining the results from species richness and species cover it becomes apparent that seasonal climate variability and the timing of rainfall plays a major role. Switching disturbance regimes does not yield immediate change, it is a slow a long-term process.


John spoke about some of the reasons why more species did not benefit from the burning regime. With species being lost due to long-term historic grazing the upright plants have most likely been wiped out and the soil seed bank lost. 

Morgan 8 growth form in presentation to SWIFFT on 22 October 2020

After 100 years of grazing the stem leaf only type of plants and shrubs would have been wiped out. The main plant form surviving would be the flat rosette form plants.

Many of the seeds of grassland species don’t persist long in the soil. E.g. seed from grassland daisies only last have a maximum of about 5 years.


Positive outcomes when applying seed

John referred to research now published in Restoration Ecology; Land‐use legacies limit the effectiveness of switches in disturbance type to restore endangered grasslands. Jodi N. Price Nick L. Schultz Joshua A. Hodges Michael A. Cle