Box 1. What are travelling stock reserves – and who owns and manages them in NSW?
Over 160 years ago, a network of Crown Land areas in NSW was set aside to walk stock between properties and to markets. These corridors comprise two distinct components: the usually wider and at least partially fenced travelling stock reserves (referred to in this article as TSRs); and, more linear travelling stock routes (usually along roadsides). As such, the combined TSR system provides corridors useful to stock as well as corridors for biodiversity conservation (e.g. Breckwoldt 1990; Dennis 1992).
The management of these areas is vested in local Rural Lands Protection Boards (RLPBs). The TSR network, covering 600 000 hectares (NSW RLPB 2001), is in effect a chain of reserved land acting as refugia for many plant and animal species, wildlife corridors, seed orchards for revegetation activities, and often contain remnant vegetation from a number of the most threatened ecosystems in NSW.
Permits are required from RLPBs for walking or grazing stock in TSRs, establishing apiary sites, and for use by recreational and sporting groups. Authorized uses of TSRs include walking, running, horse riding, picnicking, fishing, swimming, and pedal cycling.
Rural Lands Protection Boards
There are 48 RLPBs in NSW, each of which is a statutory body, fully funded by ratepayer contributions, established to implement the Rural Lands Protection Act 1998 and the Stock Diseases Act 1923. The primary aim of the RLPBs is to protect rural lands through the management of TSRs, animal health, pest animal and insect control, stock movement, stock identification, and natural disaster relief. Landholders in each RLPB area nominate and elect the eight directors (local landholders) to be their representatives for a 4-year period. Directors meet regularly with RLPB staff to review management policies and discuss operational requirements.
While the management of TSRs and reserves is only part of the Boards’ responsibilities, RLPBs are to develop a TSR Management plan for all TSRs under their care, control and management. The content of these plans must include: the management of travelling stock reserves for the benefit of travelling stock; the adoption of appropriate stocking practices; the conservation of wildlife and their habitats; and, the protection of reserves against the diminution of water quality.
Box 4. Travelling stock reserves’ Rangers tell their own story about improving the condition of grassy understoreys
Valuing the native species:
Allan Scammell, ranger with the Hume Board based in Albury, is responsible for about 4000 hectares of TSR land, and is highly motivated to manage these areas and to regenerate native vegetation:
I could see that land in the TSRs had unique and different ecosystems to the surrounding farmland, even though it took me a little while to recognize the value of it. Going back 20 years or so I initially thought that these lands were degraded, but I was thinking in terms of their capacity to grow clover and these “nice grasses” like they grow next door. And then over time I have come to appreciate that native grasses have their own value.
Allan points to differences in the native grass species growing in different reserves.
We've got Redleg Grass and a lot of Plains Grass, a Stipa, and wallaby grasses. But then on the ones more to the east we've got Microlaena, which can provide really excellent grazing opportunities if it gets going through the summer. It actually likes to be grazed; while Kangaroo Grass, which is on some of the reserves, doesn't stand the grazing quite so well. Then there's the Flax lilies and Glycine is a legume we commonly find.
Peter O'Shannassy, ranger for the Murray Board, considers his most important species are Redleg Grass, Curly Windmill Grass and Wallaby Grass:
Redleg has quite a tough butt and it's a good grazing grass at certain times, but you can only take it so far and the stock won't eat it because that butt becomes quite unpalateable later in the season after frost.
Michael Mullins has spent his entire life in the Deniliquin area and has worked for the last 20 years as a Ranger for the Riverina Board. He is aware that one of the main concerns in TSRs is that much of the native understorey has been depleted:
There's still some there, and the TSRs certainly have a lot more understorey than private land, but not as good as you would like. The regeneration that takes place naturally is more the dominant species such as Black Box and Grey Box and there are some shrubby areas. Quite a lot of areas have perennial natives grasses such as White Top and Windmill Grass, but many areas, such as around watering points, are dominated by annuals such as Wild Oats, Barley Grass and Annual Rye Grass.
Shaun Learmonth, born and bred on the Mallee and now also working for the Riverina Board, is aware of the importance of the natives in the pasture.
A lot of your copperburrs, different Stipas, a small amount of Whitetop, Curly Windmill Grass, stuff we call Cannonball which is another type of Copperburr – work with your saltbushes that come on each year. I've heard stories that the country going from Conargo and Wanganella to the north had a lot of Bluebush and Old Man Saltbush and Ruby Saltbush that has been virtually wiped out for some reason. I'm not sure what caused the change.
Improving the perennial sward
The penny dropped for Allan Scammell when he started to notice that some reserves weren't very productive through the winter period but after a couple of wet summers about 10 or 12 years ago they were green all summer.
That allowed us to run a lot of stock on the native grass those summers. So I thought that stuff's got real value. And we started to realize that it was all about timing the grazing to reduce exotic annual grasses that are winter growing, and protect the native perennials which are summer growing.
When you’re in the old cycle of “graze versus bare”, the ground is bared in summer and the first thing that gets a go on with the first rain in Autumn is all your weed species, and they’ll end up being dominant. The exotic annuals basically all strike from seed in the autumn and then they dominate through the winter, get a growth spurt in spring time and set seed, and then their cycle ends. So the trick is to time your grazing, graze them heavily in early spring so they don't become too dominant through the mid to late spring. And we try and stop as much seed set as we can. By that time it's warm enough for the native perennials to start firing up and then they’ll take over. Then if you can maintain a good sward of your native perennial tussocks during summer, you tend not to get nearly so many weed problems the next year. Even if there's no summer rain there's usually enough carry-over soil moisture from the rain in winter–spring to trigger the perennial natives and they’ll seed very quickly. So the idea is that if you've got a really lean season like that, you don't overgraze them so you get some good seed set. Don't bare it out in summer – just in spring, to stop the exotic annuals seeding and dominating. Then over the years you’ll get a shift toward natives.
For the very best sites, basically what we've tried to do is just have them closed up. A couple of them have been on really fertile flood plain and we've had to give them a crash graze. But most of them – especially on the western side – are more of a drier climate and we've left them closed up pretty much. And we’re just watching what happens there. We’re finding that if you've got a fair base of native grass like your wallaby and spear grasses, the natives will eventually crowd the weeds out. I suppose the only thing you've got to be a bit cautious of is that the spear grasses, or even Kangaroo Grass, don't become totally dominant, preventing some of the lilies and other things that might be there to come through. So once it's more established – I'd say after 4, 5 years, it's probably time to start giving it a seasonal graze, open it up.
Peter O'Shannassy explains further the theory and practice of high impact grazing early in the spring.
In spring, animals will target that sweet green grass but the impact on the natives won't be too bad because most of them tend to grow later in the season than the annual grasses. This gives you a window of opportunity to have an impact on the annuals that you don't really have anywhere else in the season.
Another refinement is to first halt the grazing earlier to wait for the shorter term natives to get established a little bit. This protects any native annuals or short-term grasses like some of the wallaby grasses whose flowering and seeding occurs at a similar time to those annual weed grasses. Then you can reintroduce the grazing just prior to the seed set of the Barley Grass and the ryes. In that window of opportunity when you take the cattle off the first time, most of your forbs will flower and you’ll get your little saltbushes and your little yellow burr daisies flowering. You start to get better biodiversity by doing that.
The thing is, if you really push stock, they’ll eat everything, and sheep are the worst. They’ll eat right to the ground and will even pull roots out. But if you can halt it when you've either got natives developing or during summer when the perennials have still got that good butt left, that adds greatly to your next season's production. If we can leave a bit of that dry matter on the grasses at the end of summer, it can shelter any new seedlings for next spring and it also retains moisture. So that's what you've got to try and retain at the end of your summer grazing, at least enough ground cover to shelter that soil.
Michael Mullins. While a long-term ranger, Michael has only been managing the perennial sward for the last 3–4 years, the drought years, and so is yet to see progress from his grazing manipulations. But he likes to look at it in terms of the question of whether you apply set stocking or a more controlled grazing system.
The difficult thing about set stocking is that the animals will eat all the things that they like, shifting the composition of the pasture to the less palateable species over time. But if they’re going through on a front and there's a bit mob of them, they eat everything – and then there's a rest period and the plants have a chance to seed. Now we are trying to apply that process even more intentionally by even closer timing of our grazings if we can. We don't really want the reserves to be subject to annual leases, having stock in their all year. You've got to be careful about grazing your natives when they’re actively growing and are about to seed. You would try not to graze them then. Most of our natives are summer growing. We can get good summer storms here. We haven't had it yet, but what I'm looking out for is having an area of native grass that is about to seed so we can try and protect it, even if we use only half the reserve, or only one side of the road one year.
Shaun Learmonth, similarly restricted by drought conditions, is also looking forward to testing his view that:
It comes down to managing the competition for resources between the annuals and perennials; knowing what pieces of your stock route are more annual and what are more perennial and when stock are moving through. If you've got an annual piece (especially on your sandhills, annuals like your Crowsfoot if you've had a good year) you'd let ‘em crash graze that during winter and spring and hopefully you’ll get them moving over the top of your perennial dry stuff that hasn't sprouted yet.
Getting stock when you need them
Peter O'Shannassy points out, however, that the most difficult part of the process is having the stock there when you need them.
Because these are travelling stock, we don't just snap our fingers and they turn up. We actually have to go out and find them sometimes. If it's a good season, you’ll have annual grasses coming out your ears and you've got no way of controlling them because the landowners have all got their own grass. So you end up having to go out and beg, borrow and steal some cows from somewhere to get them on the reserve. Especially if you are in the middle of a 3 or 4-year plan to do this targeted grazing on a specific reserve and you've already invested a lot of time and effort.
It's the last couple of years that have been the most difficult, since stock numbers have crashed across the State, in fact right across Australia, and also since the general switch to cropping. I find it far more difficult to find a mob of cattle when I need them to do a job. We’re alright, but it's going to be a short season and people will be very cautious about restocking. With the price people are paying for their stock, they are also not too keen on having them wander around the road.
But at those times when its dry everywhere and you have too much stock, you won't do too much damage if you keep the stock moving, it's as simple as that. Native grasses and forbs will handle a graze as long as they are not decimated. You’ll have areas that you have to sacrifice, where they camp and around water points. But it's amazing, some of those areas become your best forblands. When they really get hammered like that, you can turn a grassland into a forbland quite easily, just by continually overgrazing. Lots of daisies. Another thing that will come up quite thick if it is in the area is Swainsona. If you've overgrazed a perennial pasture and there was some Swansonia there before, you’ll find that even though you've wrecked most of the perennial grasses and they've gone, Swansonia and other forbs will come up really thick, expecially on that heavier clay country. And another one is the small native Glycine that will come up.
Michael Mullins points out that in a drought, the farmers either get rid of their stock or put them on the road,
Actually, very few put them on the road. And in this last drought, they drastically cut their stock numbers, some by possibly two-thirds. So then when you get a good season, no-one's got stock to put out on the road because stock numbers are right down. Because of the winter rain, the Barley Grass this year is particularly bad. We've brought the numbers of stock up now but it's already too late. It's already seeded. So you don't want to encourage too many people coming in or it’ll get eaten out. We've had to actually close the stock route, which has never been done before.
It's the seasons that rule. The management might have a fair part to do with it but the seasons is the thing that you have no control over – and that has the most dramatic effect than anything. Last year there was a lot of Patterson's Curse and Rye Grass and not a lot of Wallaby Grass, so the Wallaby Grass didn't really get a chance to seed down as well as it has in other years. This year there's not much Pattersons Curse but lots of Barley Grass. It's just a matter of when the rain event is and when the species germinates. The seed will still be waiting there for the right season. That's why some years you get a lot of wildflowers but other years you won't. The seed’ll still be there. You can't manage the seasons. If you get wet summer but dry other times, it’ll favour your natives. But this year it was the other way round and favoured the weeds. It is interesting but it makes you pull your hair out too in these areas to the west where rainfall is more unpredictable. You've got to take it as it comes really.
Box 5. Changes to the travelling stock reserves since management improvements
Most of the rangers who have carried out selective grazing for a decade or so in many reserves are reporting that treatments are improving in condition.
Peter O'Shannassy reports that, although formal monitoring has only to date been carried out on the higher quality reserves, all the reserves treated in the Murray Board area have shown an improvement, especially in terms of native species richness and cover. Peter suggests that some of his ‘medium’ reserves have now shifted to ‘high’ due to his strategy of targeting five reserves out of the 40 or so rated as medium and working on those for a few years, keeping the already higher condition ones in good condition by allowing grazing for only very short periods of time or excluding it entirely for the vulnerable times of year.
All reserves showed improvement in richness, cover and tree health in 5 years, quite marked improvement on some of them. The only one that didn't improve at all in tree health is believed by the ranger never to have had trees on it and was a natural grassland originally.
I copped a lot of complaints for the first few years that I was here. People were convinced, because the reserve was bare, that I'd overgrazed it. What they didn't realize was that it was bare because I'd taken all the annuals out and the natives just hadn't recovered yet. But those same reserves that would have been classed as low conservation areas 10 years ago, most of them are high now. I've made mistakes on reserves. I've overgrazed them at the wrong time and it's taken a long time for them to recover, but after 10 years of targetted grazing things have improved. We've fluked a few good years in there where it has worked out perfectly and all of a sudden you've got a 50% reduction in your annual weed and a better then 50% increase in your natives. Droughts, in some cases have worked in our favour where the stock numbers have been available, but it can be as simple as that, as simple as getting it right in one season.
This is why it is important to take new rangers into the field and explain why you've made the decision you've made. Quite often it will appear ridiculous to them that you’ll say “No, leave them here and flog it right out”. They’ll look at you like you've lost the plot because it doesn't seem like the right thing to do and you might get a lot of complaints for doing that. But you will achieve what you want to achieve. And if they don't see those decisions made, then it's very difficult for them to be game enough to go out and do it themselves. There's no way you can write down exactly when to do something, considering the high amount of variation.
Allan Scammell is continually surprised by the recovery occurring on some of the Hume board reserves,
even those that have really been grazed hard over a number of years. Now we’re starting to change the management, it's quite amazing what is starting to come back very, very quickly. A lot of the lilies, they come back pretty quickly; Chocolate Lily, Vanilla Lily and Onion Orchid are probably the main ones that I see (Fig. 5). Today I saw an area of fern I hadn't seen before – then there are the everlasting daisies and the burr daisies. On sites where we’re getting some of the White Box regeneration, we are finding little saltbushes, orchids and things that you would not imagine could have survived considering the use the sites have had over the time. I think lack of cultivation is the secret. If the land has never been cultivated, I think there's a good chance of getting it back, but once it's cultivated, its chances are much reduced.
[ [Orchid in grassland – to be inserted in Box 5] Leek Orchid (Prasophyllum sp.) at Bundure travelling stock reserve (TSR), an extensive grassland near Jerilderie. Rangers report a distinct increase in Lilies and daisies in TSRs subjected to strategic grazing, even in plant communities where low levels of protective cover are a natural feature. (Photo, Ian Davidson.) ]
Michael Mullins from the Riverina board cites the annual forbs as being the plant group that is probably the most resilient, without intervention, along with the wallaby grasses and some of the stipas.
But we have not had any good seasons, due to drought, since I began this approach here. Also, I know that some species such as the saltbushes are hard to get back in, probably because there's no seed source there to bring them back. So seed sources can be a probem. To counter this, we’re looking at trialling how to improve some of our isolated patches of Kangaroo Grass, north of Moama. We’re considering scalping weedy areas and placing seed bearing Kangaroo Grass hay on them.