Box-Ironbark Forests

Mal McKinty (bio)


“The magnificent virgin forests of Red Ironbark, Grey and Red Box, and White Ironbark, which formerly clothed the ranges in the vicinity of all northern district mining towns, have all long since disappeared. In the early days the miners and others removed trees as they saw fit, without let or hindrance, taking the best trees and those nearest the scene of mining operations. Gradually inroads were made further and further into the bush, until finally all accessible trees were completely removed. Trees were cut at all heights from the ground; only the best part of the tree was utilized - perhaps only one length of sleepers or one length of mine timbers removed - and the rest left to rot and constitute a serious fire hazard. About this time the bark of the Red Ironbark was harvested for tanning purposes, and thousands of splendid trees were killed by stripping for the tanning market, the whole of the timber, as a rule, going to waste. Some idea of what the original forests must have been at one time can be gathered from the fact that millions of sleepers of Box and Ironbark were removed from these forests during the last century, whereas now hardly a tree can be found which is large enough to convert to this use. Bealiba forest alone supplied all sleepers for the construction of the Maryborough-Donald, Creswick-Daylesford, Ballarat-Buninyong, Hopetoun, and Lubeck and other railway lines, besides furnishing all the requisite mining props and panelling for the surrounding mining population. The wholesale destruction of the forests was accomplished before any attempt was made to exercise control over the timber-getters. It was not until some 25 years ago that any degree of forestry control was exercised.” 1

Victoria’s major contiguous areas of Box-Ironbark forest are found on the undulating foothills on the northern side of the Great Dividing Range between the Wimmera River in the west, the Goulburn River in the east and extending onto the northern plains. Outliers occur in north-eastern Victoria, on stony soils in the Werribee Gorge, Brisbane Ranges, Pyrete Ranges and Aireys Inlet, as well as in the Christmas Hills and in the mixed forests of East Gippsland.

The forest type occurs on sites characterized by poor soils and low rainfall. Growth under such conditions is extremely slow, rendering the resultant timber hard, dense and durable. Although the topography is somewhat subdued, the principal tree species are generally confined to specific parts of the landscape, generally mixed, but occasionally in pure patches. Red Ironbark ( Eucalyptus tricarpa) is found on the higher, less fertile, stony ridges and upper parts of the slopes - and was indicative of an auriferous country; White Ironbark or Yellow Gum ( E. leucoxylon) occurs on the lower slopes of the ridges and on flats; Grey Box ( E. microcarpa) is found on the better soils of the alluvial flats and in the gullies; Red Box ( E. polyanthemos) chiefly occurs on the ridges while Yellow Box ( E. melliodora) is confined to the best soils at the bottom of the gullies; Long-leaf Box or Applejack ( E. goniocalyx) is on the slopes of the ridges; and Red Stringybark ( E. macrorhyncha) is found on the higher ridges. A detailed analysis of the Box-Ironbark forest type and its uses and management in Victoria can be found in Silviculture Reference Manual No. 4 – Box-Ironbark in Victoria's State Forests.

While these forests formed part of the larger economic zones exploited by Aboriginal Australians, colonial-era writers recorded several particular uses of Box-Ironbark species by Aborigines, including: steeping the blossoms of Red Ironbark in water to produce a sweet beverage; using ironbark wood for canoes, boomerangs, spears, throwing sticks and shields; and using the bark of box trees for the construction of huts and as a medium for ceremonial sculptures. 2

In the early stages of European settlement of the colony of Victoria, and although extensive grazing leases were delineated, the environmental impact of the pastoralists on Box-Ironbark forests was relatively benign and the amount-of timber harvested was comparatively negligible. But, following the discovery of gold in 1851, the massive influx of migrants from all over the world created a huge demand for timber and bark for buildings, domestic firewood, ‘cradles’ and puddling machines, and derricks and mine props as well as fuel for steam engines which denuded their surrounds of useful timber. Their demand for food caused the development of intensive agricultural practices, all resulting in the clearing of the forests in the vicinity of the Ballarat, Castlemaine, and Bendigo goldfields. Charcoal production also commenced as forges proliferated on farms and factories, and mining turned to heat-treatment of the ores.


Red Ironbark near Rushworth
Source: FCRPA

During the decade following the discovery of gold:

“a remarkable change of scene took place, as thousands of people of all nationalities flocked to the richly auriferous box-ironbark region and the forests became alive with mining communities living in small towns and villages composed largely of tents, huts and shanties. … At this time and for several decades later the exploitation of the forests was virtually uncontrolled and the fine virgin stands of prime timber were ruthlessly exploited to provide timber and fuel for the mining industry.” 4

This loss of forest areas prompted Conservator of Forests, GS Perrin, in his annual report to Parliament on 30 June 1890 to write:

“The auriferous lands now unalienated, and to a great extent unused, are of the utmost value to the scheme of general forest conservation throughout Victoria. These lands occupying, as they do, large areas in the neighbourhood of cities with large populations are most valuable. As the lands are taken up by the farmer and the progress of agriculture goes on throughout the country timber must become scarce. Many of these areas comprise the habitat of probably the most valuable timber we possess – the ironbark. This tree is not only useful for mining, but it is also valuable for coachbuilding, and might be used largely in railway construction and many other industrial purposes. It is a singular fact that the ironbark is invariably associated with auriferous lands, the ironstone ranges of our mining centres appear to be the home of this most excellent timber tree. Here, then, we have whole districts in the immediate neighbourhood of Sandhurst, Maryborough, Talbot, Heathcote, Chiltern, Inglewood, and other places where the ironbark luxuriates and grows by millions. The Forest Department should secure all the valuable timbered ranges, now covered with a grand crop of ironbark and other valuable timber in the neighbourhood of the places mentioned.”

“Box-Ironbark forests and woodlands once covered three million hectares of northern Victoria, prior to European settlement. Since then, 83% of the original Box-Ironbark vegetation has been cleared. Today only 496000 ha remains – most of that (372 000 ha) is on public land.” 3 “Most of the better land in the region was alienated from the Crown prior to 1900 and has been cleared for agricultural purposes leaving the forests confined to areas of poorer soil unsuitable for farming. In consequence, the forest areas are now found scattered through the region in fairly-compact blocks of various sizes interspersed with cleared farm lands, which project into the forests in places where valleys and flats of better quality soil occur.” 4

It was not only for the mining industry that the Box-Ironbark forests were exploited. The hard, dense and durable properties of the timbers found many other applications, as described in the extracts below from a catalogue published in 1894 illustrating the economic woods of Victoria. 5

Red Ironbark:

“is considered the strongest wood in our colony. It is much recommended for railway sleepers, and extensively used for underground mining work. It is very extensively employed for the handles of axes and other implements by Victorian manufacturers. One of the hardest and heaviest of our native woods. It possesses great strength and tenacity, and has a close and straight grain, on which account it is highly useful to the coachmaker and wheel- wright for the poles and shafts of carriages and the spokes of wheels. Its greasy nature also renders this wood very serviceable to the millwright for the cogs of heavy wheels. It is also valuable for many purposes in ship-building, and constitutes one of the most imperishable of our timbers. The bark is capable of being converted into a coarse paper.” 5

By the 1920s, this species also found application in furniture, jetties and other heavy construction work. Oil was produced from the leaves. And, as noted by the Forests Commission in 1928, “the bark of the Red Ironbark was harvested for tanning purposes, and thousands of splendid trees were killed by stripping for the tanning market.” 1

Red Box:

- was used by wheelwrights for naves, felloes, and spokes. 5

By the 1920s it was also being used for mine props, sleepers, poles, beams and timbers for heavy construction, coach and wagon frames, turnery and cabinet work, house blocks and paving blocks. Oil was produced from the leaves and it was found to be valuable for apiculture.

Yellow Box:

“timber of a light colour and greasy nature, which is remarkable for the hardness and closeness of its grain, its great strength and tenacity, and its durability both in the water and when placed in the ground. It is largely used by coachmakers and wheelwrights for the naves of wheels and for heavy framing, and by millwrights for the cogs of wheels. In shipbuilding it has numerous and important applications, and forms one of the best materials for treenails, and for working into large screws in this and other mechanical arts.” 5

By the 1920s, the uses of Yellow Box had expanded to include sleepers, poles, piles, heavy construction, fuel, and oil from the leaves. Its value for apiculture is such that it has been reserved from timber production since the early 1980s.

Red Stringybark:

“hard and easily split into shingles, palings, and rails, and much sawn into weather-boards and scantlings for rough building purposes. The bark is more lasting than that of E. obliqua(Messmate) for roofing.” 5

In the 1920s this species was considered one of the best woods for making charcoal. It was also used in furniture making.

In 1928, the Forests Commission maintained that two of the most valuable hardwoods the State were Red Ironbark and Grey Box, they being highly valued for their durability, especially in the ground, and on that account being in demand for piles, poles, sleepers, posts, bridge timbers, and all heavy constructional work. 1

“After the felling of the virgin stands, the resulting slash and waste was disposed of by burning and following these operations seedling regeneration developed over extensive areas and a second crop thus became established. Coppice growth arising from the stumps of the virgin stand also formed part of this crop.” 4 For the dominant Box-Ironbark species, seedling establishment is uncommon for various reasons and the species mostly regenerate vegetatively - by re-sprouting (coppicing) from a cut stump or a burnt trunk. 6 By the 1950s, from trials and observations of the establishment of seedling regeneration of Box-Ironbark species it was concluded that successful regeneration required a combination of good site quality, large canopy openings, a good ground coverage of grasses and low vegetation, favourable rainfall and the exclusion of browsing or grazing – a conclusion perhaps exemplified by the development of regeneration along roadside strips and farmland where stock are excluded. 7

“After little more than twenty years and when the new crop had reached dimensions that could be converted to mining timbers and fuel, fellings were carried out in a face in order to supply once again timber and fuel to the mining industry. In a short space of time vigorous coppice arose from the newly felled stumps and so a third crop became established. This crop developed naturally without any silvicultural treatment and ultimately suffered the same fate as the previous one.” 4

“A new phase of exploitation opened up in the 1890s when, with the rapid expansion of the railway system into rural areas of Victoria, a great demand arose for heavy construction and sleeper timbers for the railway tracks. Sleeper hewers began to operate throughout the length and breadth of the forests and it was this activity which brought about the first real efforts to control utilization in these forests.” 4

For forty or more years from the 1880s, the forests between Rushworth, Heathcote and the Goulburn River (the then-named Warrowitue and Moormbool Forests) were exploited for mining timbers, firewood, sleepers and poles. Between 1896 and 1900, an average of 50,000 sleepers were cut each year from these forests leading to the Conservator for Forests (Perrin) advocating the exclusion of sleeper hewers from the Box-Ironbark forests as they used potential sawlog quality trees, thus depriving sawmillers of a resource. 6Regulations to give greater control were progressively introduced although the initial steps in 1885 entailed merely the issue of a licence for a fee which permitted the licensee to cut timber for any purpose for a period of three months.

Despite recognition of the importance of the timbers of the Box-Ironbark forests to the community, the relentless alienation of land for agricultural purposes continued. H. Mackay, Conservator of Forests in 1909, wrote:

“In connexion with the diminished supply of our most durable hardwoods, I must call special attention to the fact that by the alienation three years ago of about 30,000 acres of Moormbool forest, between Heathcote and the River Goulburn, we have lost the best part of the most valuable reserve in Victoria for the production of sleepers, beams, and piles. The young belts of timber in this reserve had been carefully protected for 25 years, and when its alienation was discussed the local residents sought, and expected to get, only 7,000 acres. They were permitted to get more than four times this area, despite strong protests from this Department, and repeated assurances to myself that no really good timber would be sacrificed. … Already, the greater part of this once valuable forest is ringbarked, and the extensive belts of young spar and pole trees are dying or dead. Meanwhile, the State is called upon to expend large sums in costly plantations which cannot for 50 years at least replace what has been so wantonly destroyed.” (Department of State Forests Report for the year ended 30th June 1909) Between about 1906 and 1927 timber harvested from this area was transported on tramlines operated by the McIvor Timber and Firewood Company. (See ‘The Warrowitue and Moormbool Forests’ on this website.)

“From 1900-12 mining timbers, fuel and railway sleepers continued to form the bulk of forest produce and conversion was almost entirely in the hands of licensed operators. … From 1912-15 there was a sharp decline in the mining industry and a corresponding fall in the demand for mining timbers. This decline continued until the 1930s but some deep mines at Bendigo and elsewhere continued working during this period.” 4


This webmap of the distribution of Box-Ironbark Forest across Victoria is based on information from DataVic.


This photo gallery is built upon photos obtained from Vicflora.
Photos are available under Creative Commons Licence - CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Click on any photo for a larger image and slideshow.

1 Handbook of Forestry in Victoria. Forests Commission, Victoria (1928) .
2 Box-Ironbark Forests and Woodlands Investigation Resources and Issues Report. Environment Conservation Council (1997).
3 Box-Ironbark Forests & Woodlands Investigation. Final Report. Environment Conservation Council (2001).
4 The box-ironbark forests of Victoria, Australia. FCV Bulletin No. 14 (1961) 
5 A descriptive catalogue of the specimens in the Industrial and Technological Museum, Melbourne, illustrating the economic woods of Victoria. Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria (1894)
6 Box-Ironbark in Victoria's State Forests. Silviculture Reference Manual No. 4. Fagg, P. & Bassett, O. (2015).
7 Management of the Dry Sclerophyll Forests in Victoria. 2. Box-Ironbark Forests. Paper presented to an Institute of Foresters conference in 1987. 8. Forests Commission, Victoria (1978). Victoria’s Forests and Man. Kellas, JD (1987).
8 Victoria’s Forests and Man. Forests Commission, Victoria (1978).

See also: The Bendigo Forests, 1991

Perrin introduced supervised thinning of regrowth stands in 1891, using labourers and licensees to produce mine props and firewood. 7 By 1917, upwards of 8000 ha of Box-Ironbark and River Red Gum regrowth forests had been treated by thinning.

“In an endeavour to build up a healthy forest and repair the damage resultant upon the ruthless exploitation of the timber in past years, advantage has been taken of the fact that all the valuable species have regenerated through vigorous coppice shoots. Regeneration from seed is usually difficult to obtain, especially in the case of the Red Ironbark, but where seedling reproduction does result it is in all cases favoured before coppice growth. The form of the improved forest varies with the condition of the original unimproved stand, but generally speaking will consist of Coppice with Standards [seedlings]. In Maryborough Forest District, owing to the proximity of the forest to what has always been a busy town, the forests have been so badly damaged that the improvement work consists practically of a clear felling. In Dunolly and Bealiba forest there are often a sufficient number of healthy trees in the original stand to give the necessary density of stocking without the aid of any new coppice growth.” 1

“In all operations the most valuable species, Grey Box and Red Ironbark, are given preference over the others. The initial treatment of an unimproved stand is carried out either by the Commission's employees or under licence by a contractor, the work in the latter case being strictly supervised by the forest officer. In both cases the trees to be left standing are marked by the forest officer, these being trees of the best species which are considered thrifty and which seem likely to develop when the stand is opened up. The timber removed by this improvement felling is utilized for whatever purpose it is most suitable, telegraph poles, posts and firewood being the chief products. All felling is done by axe and the cut made as close to the ground as practicable to encourage good stool growth and to minimize the danger of injury by wind. The number of standards left per acre depends entirely on the condition of the original stand. All operations subsequent to the preliminary treatment are carried out by the improvement gang employed by the Commission. After the initial cutting, there comes a heavy coppice regrowth, a certain proportion of which will be required to complete the restocking of the area. In the year following the felling, and preferably in autumn, the area is worked over, and all coppice from stools not required for restocking is knocked out.” 1

Kellas in 1987 reported that: “Thinning has continued, depending on labour, funding or timber demand under working plans initiated in the late 1920s and 1930s with approximately 1,000 ha per year being treated currently. Re-thinning of previously treated areas commenced by 1937.” 7 The thinning practices during the 1920s were aimed at leaving only the best trees with ample growing space.

During the Economic Depression of the 1930s many thousands of men throughout the State were unemployed. In order to give temporary relief and to stimulate economic recovery, government funds were made available to employ men in the forests and in other public works. Thousands of men at a time from the unemployment pool were given forest work in relays, and the Box-Ironbark forests received their share of this labour force. These men lived in relief camps in the forests and performed thinnings and improvement works, converting the felled material to fuelwood. Large quantities of fuelwood were produced in these operations and almost half of it was bought by the Government and distributed free to the unemployed in the city and country. Returns from these sales accounted for more than half the costs of the work and thus many thousands of acres of forest were silviculturally treated at low cost. 4 Relief camps were set up near Bealiba, Castlemaine, Chiltern and Rushworth.

The Depression also brought about a partial revival in mining with a renewed demand for mining timbers, and in consequence of this and the activities of the relief gangs, many parts of the forests once again became hives of industry, but on this occasion utilization was rigidly controlled. 4

Manpower and coal were in short supply from 1941. Most of the coal produced was channelled to the war industries and wood fuel replaced coal to a large extent as the source of power in most other industries, and even in locomotives of the Victorian Railways. To produce the fuel required, vast areas of overstocked forests were thinned out to the great silvicultural benefit of the stands concerned. This work was carried out by licensed operators, and also by forest camps of interned aliens which operated throughout the war years. Prisoner-of-war camps were also established in the forests with the prisoners engaged in thinnings, improvement fellings and conversion of the felled material to fuelwood. The alien and prisoner-of-war camps were located in remote parts of the forests, which in normal circumstances would not have received silvicultural treatment for many years ahead. An aftermath of the war was the emigration to Australia from war-torn Europe of displaced persons of many nationalities. They were required to work for the Government for two years before becoming eligible to enter civilian life, and for several years after the war many were posted to the forest camps lately vacated by internees and prisoners-of-war where they carried on the work of forest improvement and fuelwood production. 4



Yellow Box near Graytown
Source: FCRPA

During the war also, most of the available liquid fuel was channelled to the Armed Services. The balance was quite inadequate for industrial and civilian requirements. To meet this emergency, liquid fuel was drastically rationed and the motors of commercial vehicles and many private cars were converted for operation by ‘producer gas’. Thousands of tons of charcoal for this purpose were produced annually in the forests. The materials for charcoal burning consisted of dry wood, lying on the ground or in standing ringbarked trees, and wood converted from thinnings and improvement fellings and allowed to dry or partially dry in stacks. The wood was burned with reduced air supply in iron retorts, frequently made from old boilers, or pits, the work being performed by both departmental and licensed operators. 4 Charcoal kilns operated by the Forests Commission were located at Dunolly, Ballarat and Bendigo. 2 Charcoal production from these forests ceased in the 1950s.

During the 1950–1980 period, apart from firewood, the main focus of the local timber industry became production of posts, strainers, sleepers, shed poles and round rails for horse and cattle yards. Following that period, demand significantly decreased for round timbers due to the increased availability of treated pine. 6 The forests were nevertheless still under intensive use, albeit for a greater variety of purposes:

“Timbers from trees felled during current thinnings are in strong demand because of their durability for fence posts and railway sleepers, and their high calorific value as firewood. When the box and ironbark trees are in flower, bees from thousands of hives are used to harvest the large quantities of valuable honey and wax. Flowers on the trees and shrubs attract a large population of birds. These forests are popular with naturalists and sightseers, especially in late winter and spring when the weather is finer and warmer than in southern Victoria.” 8

Sawlog production from the Box-Ironbark forests fluctuated after the 1980s, depending on availability of timber and markets for the finished products. Production of all wood products declined significantly in the 2000s following the reduction in land potentially available for sawlog production as a result of Government acceptance of Environment Conservation Council recommendations in 2001. As an outcome of those recommendations, of the total area of some 427,000 ha of land remaining in public ownership in the Box-Ironbark regions of the State, 120,950 ha is designated as State forest, from which hardwood timber may be produced from suitable areas subject to prescriptions designed to protect and improve environmental values. 3 Most of the sawn timber being produced from these areas is kiln-dried and used for a variety of value-added purposes, including furniture, flooring and window frames. Offcuts are sold as firewood. 6