1830's and Before - Forests Prior to Colonisation

Ian Hastings, 2018 (bio)

"With this “Victoria’s forestry heritage” website and, indeed for any other ‘heritage' documentation, it can help in understanding the ‘now’ and future options and directions if there is some idea of what has been inherited. From a forestry perspective, there is the question of the condition and nature of the native forests across Victoria up to and at the time of European settlement."

Part One

Part 1 – Their Original Condition and Nature

With this “Victoria’s forestry heritage” website and, indeed for any other ‘heritage' documentation, it can help in understanding the ‘now’ and future options and directions if there is some idea of what has been inherited. From a forestry perspective, there is the question of the condition and nature of the native forests across Victoria up to and at the time of European settlement.

The area and distribution of the various forest types has reduced significantly, largely as a consequence of land clearing for agriculture and urban development as European settlement proceeded. Woodgate & Black (1988) report … “In 1869, the total area of forest in Victoria was 19,983,000 hectares, representing 88% of the State. By 1987 this area had been reduced to 7,965,580 hectares (35% of the State) comprising 7,045,003 hectares on public land and 920,577 hectares on freehold land”. But how different, in terms of floristics (species composition) and structure (size ranges, age classes, tree density and spacing) were the native forests prior to European settlement, compared to now?

There are many writings, reports, interpretations and considered views about the pre-settlement condition and nature of Victoria’s native forests – too many to carefully read and digest in a reasonable time. Two particularly interesting sources of information on this challenging topic, with some divergence in interpretations and views, are Hateley (2010) The Victorian Bush: its original and natural condition and Gammage (2011) The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia. Both authors cite many reports, journals, logs, sketches, paintings and maps prepared by early explorers, surveyors, settlers and travellers and other more recent writers, which indicate a very wide variation in the early descriptions of native vegetation, particularly its structure. Some, for example, describe open woodlands and forests with grassy patches on both plains and hills; others describe thickly-timbered ranges and more open-timbered flats; some describe land looking like a park; and many report and comment about Aborigines managing the land with fire.

I suspect that readers of this article and other more authoritative publications, including Hateley (2010) and Gammage (2011), will make their own interpretations and judgements about the pre-settlement condition and nature of Victoria’s native forests and how these might influence their thinking about their current and future management. As Hateley (2010: pp 185-186) reminds us: “Our understanding of their (native forests) dynamics is limited because we have only been here for a short time in ecological terms. ... Material gathered to produce this account (Hateleys’ 2010 publication) spans a limited time, about 200 years. This is not long enough for us to have a record of the possible disruptive events and the natural changes that explain the ‘original and natural condition’, and therefore to understand how forest and woodland ecosystems operated before settlement. At best we can use these early descriptions of forests and woodlands as a guide in conservation of biodiversity”.

In terms of floristics, the documents cited by both authors mention the names of many trees, shrubs and grasses: such as … “specimens of light woods … a species of sassafras … Eucalyptus … Exocarpus cupressiformis … a species of Mimosa … a species of Banksia … Casuarina equisitifolia … the timber Stringey Bark and fine Gum … and a description of Manna tree”. However these references, through no fault of the authors, at best provide some qualitative/subjective information - that is open to interpretation - but very little that is quantitative/objective about whether there has been any significant change (such as loss, reduction, shift in distribution) in the floristics of Victoria’s remaining native forests. Perhaps the reality is that there are few sound rigorous botanical – ecological records and information on native vegetation floristics dating back to the time of European settlement to reliably and accurately describe what, if any, floristic changes might or have occurred.

Hateley (2010), Gammage (2011) and others provide considerably more information about the structure of a wide range of native vegetation types than about their floristics. These include what are now often referred to as native grasslands, open grassy woodlands, woodlands, Mallee, box-ironbark, river red gum forests (riverine flood plain and plains woodland), low-open forests (trees less than 10 metres tall) and open forests (trees 10 to 30-metres tall) – collectively known as dry sclerophyll forests, tall open forests (trees over 30-metres tall) – known as wet sclerophyll forests, and cool and temperate rainforests.

To indicate the considerable variation in descriptions of Victoria’s native vegetation, below are just a few of the numerous examples from the wide range of reports from the early- to mid-1800s:

  • “In 1824, William Hovell reported moving suddenly from grass into tangles of undergrowth and fallen timber piled higher than his horses” (Gammage 2011: p6)
  • “Omeo’s historian wrote - When the first white men came to the Omeo Plains all the best country was treeless. On the lower foothills which bordered the plains, there were large gum trees, standing singly, and odd clumps of sallywood …. northward and almost to the tablelands, about six miles away, the gum timber was dense, and known as ‘The Forest’”. (Gammage 2011: p8)
  • During the Hume & Hovell 1824 exploration from Lake St George (NSW) southwest into Victoria, Hume described the red-gum forest at Albury: “The country all around us has a very fine appearance. In some places there is not more than half a dozen trees in a hundred acres (forty hectares)” (Hateley 2010: p19)
  • In late 1839, surveyor Charles Tyers was instructed to survey a route between Melbourne and the South Australian border across south west Victoria, and reported:

-- near the Maribyrnong River: “… country …. open and nearly destitute of trees. The few we met with were stunted oaks and Banksias” (Hateley 2010: p35)
-- heading north from Penshurst, first five kilometres: “open forest of eucalyptus, banksia and light wood”
-- for ten kilometres after it was: “open forest of stunted banksia, wretched soil and grass” until they “came upon plains on which there were very few trees” (Hateley 2010: p42)

  • Alfred Selwyn, appointed to lead the Geological Survey of Victoria in 1852, described box-ironbark forests in his 1853 report and map, consisting mainly of: “… bold, rocky, scrubby ranges and gullies, thickly timbered and of more open timbered flats” and “… the map shows that there were extensive areas of grassy plains and open woodlands, but that forests on the ridges were not open and park-like” (Hateley 2010: pp 83-84).
  • Wilde (1988: pp 3-4), in writing about the forests at the time of early European settlement in the Warragul, West Gippsland area provides a description: “If we wish to imagine the Warragul area before the arrival of Europeans we have to conjure up an image of forest. There were thousands upon thousands of acres of it, rolling from south of Mt Baw Baw and the foothills of the Dividing Range, across what is now known as the Gippsland Corridor, and up over the abrupt, sharply dissected little mountains of the Strzelecki Ranges. …. The land selected was covered with dense undergrowth of scrub comprising hazel, musk, ferns and blanket wood, interspersed with a number of huge gum trees or else mixed with countless numbers of young gum saplings.

In terms of the structure of the native vegetation, numerous statements from shortly after European settlement describe the size (diameter/circumference and height) of forest trees; a few examples, the validity of some of which is questionable, include:

  • Explorer Thomas Mitchell in 1836 in the Hotspur area of western Victoria, referring to “stringy-bark”“Some of the trees we measured were 13 feet (four metres) and one as much as 14 ½ feet (4.4 metres) in circumference and 80 feet (twenty four metres) was no uncommon height” (Hateley 2010: p44)
  • In 1857, the Apollo Bay Company Snell prepared logs for the Williamstown Railway jetty: “The logs were blue gum, 76 feet (twenty three metres) long and 15 inches (thirty eight centimetres) square with no blemishes. They were cut from trees measuring more than 300 feet (ninety metres) in height and 4 feet in diameter at the butt. The mill was also cutting myrtle and blackwood trees 100 feet (thirty metres) tall and 3 feet in diameter”. (Hateley 2010: pp53-5)
  • Griffiths 2001 (Ch 2, pp 18-22) lists reports and claims of several very tall standing and fallen Mountain Ash trees in the Yarra and Latrobe River catchments with heights well over 300 feet (some claimed to be over 400 feet high), and the so called ‘Thorpdale Tree’ in the Strzelecki Ranges measured by qualified surveyor George Cornthwaite in 1881 at 375 feet (114 metres) high.

While Gammage (2011) provides his and others’ interpretations on several inter-related anthropological, cultural and ecological themes, two key contentions he makes are of particular interest with respect to what Victoria’s native vegetation might have been floristically and structurally up to the time of European settlement: 

  • The land looked like a park:
    Many early reports and descriptions from European explorers and settlers referred to open grasslands, open woodlands and forests with grassy understorey, and plains with very few and widely-spaced trees. Surveyor Charles Tyers, returning across south-west Victoria towards Dunkeld, after marking the Victorian – South Australia border reported: “this is by far the best I have seen since leaving Melbourne .. it more resembles a gentleman’s park in England than what is generally termed the bush in Australia ... besides possessing good water and timber” (Hateley 2010: pp45-46). On the back cover of Gammage (2011) it is stated: “Across Australia, early Europeans commented again and again that the land looked like a park. With extensive grassy patches and pathways, open woodlands and abundant wildlife, it evoked a country estate in England”.

    However, there is a risk of over-generalisation and extrapolation from the early reports cited by Gammage (2011) and Hateley (2010) that the descriptions of ‘park-like’ applied extensively to all native vegetation types across Victoria at the time. Indeed Hateley (2010: p46) clarifies that “The ‘gentleman’s park’ that impressed Tyers was the red gum woodland growing extensively around Dunkeld”. Further, descriptions of other native vegetation types in the reports from the early to mid-1800s mentioned above, indicate much higher densities of understorey and tree layer which do not fit the description of ‘park-like’. 
  • Aborigines managed their lands, predominantly through the use of fire lit by them or by lightning:
    The term ‘fire-stick farming’ is used by many writers (eg Jones 1969; Curr 1883/1968 ) to describe Aborigines deliberately lighting fires to create habitat for food plants and animals. Gammage (2011: p2) states… “The chief ally was fire. Today almost everyone accepts that in 1788 people burnt random patches to hunt or lure game. In fact this was no haphazard mosaic making, but a planned, precise, fine-grained local caring. Random fire simply moves people’s guesses about game around the country. Effective burning, on the other hand, must be predictable. People needed to burn, and to plan and space fires appropriately. Of course how a pattern was made varied according to terrain and climate: heath, rainforest and Spinifex each require different fire”.

    Again, there is arguably a risk of misinterpreting and over-generalising or extrapolating that Gammage’s (2011) references to Aboriginal use of fire applied extensively to all native vegetation types, in particular to what we know as tall open forests or wet sclerophyll forests and to rainforest.Interestingly, Gammage (2011: p166) states: “Mountain Ash needs fire every 400 years or so, yet it is the most flammable eucalypt. Whole forests rage with a ferocity none can fight and few survive. Almost certainly people managed Mountain Ash in winter: they lived on the coast in summer (ch 9). Perhaps for generations they winter burnt to keep edges back and clearings open, sensibly beginning when a forest was young. Yet a winter cool-burn could not ensure enough heat for those wet forests to kill and replace themselves. That needs a dry summer, yet it was done”. I suspect that this view by Gammage (2011) about Aborigines applying fire in Mountain Ash forests may generate a range of views by different readers.

In contrast to these two ‘themes’ and contentions in Gammage (2011), Hateley (2010) presents some different interpretations, as follows …. “An understanding of the ‘original’ vegetation communities before they were altered by the activities of early settlers is the foundation of current approaches to land management with the implication that they were then in a ‘natural’ condition. ... However, what do ‘original’ and ‘natural’ really mean? Some forests and woodlands were in a state of flux well before European settlement. They were not necessarily idyllic and pristine and in some static balance. In some areas they were dead, and biodiversity depended on that. ... Our understanding of their dynamics is limited because we have only been here for a short time in ecological terms” (Hateley 2010: p185).

Griffiths (2001) in his book Forests of Ash also discusses Aboriginal inhabitation of the wet sclerophyll Mountain Ash forests across Victoria: “The forests of ash were probably not permanently occupied by Aborigines but visited seasonally – briefly in winter for lyrebirds and principally in the summer by hunting and foraging parties. … Aborigines probably did burn the margins of the wet sclerophyll forests and may have maintained clearings and pathways in forest areas (particularly along ridgetops), but it seems unlikely that they systematically burnt the mountain forests in the ways they did the drier forests and plains”.

In his ‘Synthesis’, Hateley (2010: p186) states: “I conclude that Victorian Aboriginals did not have such a major effect on our forests, compared with the plains and woodlands, which undoubtedly bore deeply numerous signs of their traditions, hunting and gathering, arts and craft and general land management. In contrast the mountain forests of Victoria seem to me to have been mainly shaped by drought, fires caused by lightning, winds, hailstorms, snowstorms – in other words extreme weather events – and by medium-term climatic cycles”.

More recently, Egloff (2017), in his article Lightning strikes: rethinking the nexus between Australian indigenous land management and natural forces, provides a viewpoint not too dissimilar to Hateley (2010) when he states: “Close examination of other kinds of cultural causes for fire and smoke, as well as an assessment based upon bushfire incidents in south-eastern and south-western Australia, suggests that there is a likelihood that at least some, if not the majority, of the ignitions attributed to Aboriginal agency were caused by lightning strikes.” He continues: “The implications for researchers are apparent in that they no longer can rely on generalised interpretations of the colonial record but must validate assumptions concerning the use of fire by Aboriginal people and be particularly careful when those notions are applied to guide contemporary fire management practices”.

The foregoing range of views and interpretations are offered for consideration and evaluation by anyone interested in the sustainable social, economic, environmental and cultural future of Victoria’s forest ecosystems.


Curr, E.M. (1883/1968). Recollections of squatting in Victoria, then called the Port Phillip district (from 1841 to 1851). George Robertson, Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide (1883); Adelaide, Libraries Board of South Australia (1968).
Egloff, B. (2017). Lightning strikes: rethinking the nexus between Australian Indigenous land management and natural forces. Australian Forestry, 2017, Vol 80 No 5, pp275-285.
Gammage, Bill (2011). The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Allen & Unwin, 434 pp.
Griffiths, Tom (2001). Forests of Ash: an environmental history. Cambridge University Press, 227 pp.
Hateley, R.F. (2010). The Victorian Bush: its ‘original and natural’ condition. Polybracta Press, Melbourne, 207 pp.
Jones, R.M. (1969). Fire-stick farming. Australian Natural History. Vol 16: pp224-228.
Wilde, Sally (1988). Forests old, pastures new. Shire of Warragul, Warragul, 328 pp.
Woodgate, P. & Black, P. (1988). Forest Cover Change in Victoria 1869 – 1987. Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands, Victoria.