Burnt beyond repair: Why our wildlife and forestry may never recover
By Professor Roslyn Gleadow
With much of the eastern seaboard now on fire, we have been forced into unchartered waters when it comes to the potential loss of biodiversity. Now the bushfires ripping across Australia’s Alpine region threaten to merge into megafires, displacing and killing more of our wildlife and their native habitat to a point beyond recovery.
The size and ferocity of these fires has shocked us all, and we grieve with those personally affected. We also grieve the loss of native habitat, animals, vegetation and possibly entire ecosystems - the ripple effect of this continuing tragedy.
Extreme fires have caused the potential loss of entire populations of native and ancient forest and fauna and plant species. There is a fragile interplay in the survival of our forest and fauna and our native wildlife who live side-by-side. A loss of habitat and food sources will have detrimental effects for native populations of animals, insects and bees, some of which are already endangered and rely on very specific plant species and habitats to survive and thrive.
Sure, Australia has always had fires and the bush is very resilient. The bush can recover from very hot fires. We saw that after the Ash Wednesday* fires. For example, at Angahook National Park the trees and understory, and rare orchids flourished after the fires.
What is different about the current fires is their size, ferocity and frequency. Animals can sometimes escape to neighbouring regions and seed can for example blow in to aid recovery after the fire season is over. But this time, with much of the eastern seaboard on fire, that is not going to happen.
The frequency is also a real worry – some of the Alpine country is burning for the third time in 20 years. Alpine country is adapted to being burnt every 50-100 years. Snow Gums in the Alpine region probably may not survive this latest assault, having already endured the devastating 2003 fires that swept across the region.
In NSW, we are seeing some forests burn for the first time destroying ancient trees that have been around since the Gondwana Times. There are only 100-200 individuals of ancient Woolemi pines left anywhere the world. Whether they will survive is unknown. They may escape this time, but their long term survival is unlikely in a future with more frequent and severe fires. This is not just a loss of individual plant species – it a loss for the richness of our landscape and the animals that live in them.
Parts of other vegetation might regenerate, some might not. To lose a species is to lose something unique and native to Australia, and the ripple effect could be irreversible.
Some populations of plant species in Gippsland may have been completely burnt out to the extent they will never grow back. Gippsland was home to a large isolated crop of a wild relative of the grain crop, Sorghum - the world’s 5th most important crop.
Many of the wild relatives are conserved in the Australian Grains GeneBank but this, the most southerly mainland population, is not conserved off site. There have been reports the entire area has been burnt and while it might recover, it illustrates the vulnerability of so many species. This example highlights the importance of the seed banks in collections such as the international Millenium Seed Bank at Svalbard in Norway, and the tragic economic loss if we lose these important wild relatives.
There are also huge immediate economic losses on local agriculture. The confronting images of dead cattle and sheep are distressing enough. Further stock losses will arise through the loss of feed – both grass on the ground and loss of crops for hay, silage and grain. This will affect food prices and availability. Fire has also destroyed many vineyards. Which vines regenerate and which need to be replanted remains to be seen but smoke in and of itself is bad for grape quality. Agricultural products make up about 15% of Australia's exports: beef, wheat, are in the top 10 of exports and wool, non-beef meat and wine are in the top 20. These will all be impacted by the fire crisis with long term implications for the local communities and the Australian economy.
The unprecedented extent and frequency of the fires has not just ushered in a ‘new normal. This is just the beginning of a change that no one wants to see in their lifetime – we will see further destruction until the cause of global warming is properly addressed.
If we, collectively, do not make an effort to reduce emissions and tackle global heating head on, a poor ecological future awaits.
Professor Roslyn Gleadow is a plant biologist in the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University. She studies the effect of climate change on food security, with a focus on plants that make cyanide as a herbivore defence, examining the issues from the molecular through to the ecosystem, and even global scales. Professor Gleadow is also President of the Global Plant Council.
Read more of Roslyn’s commentary at Monash Lens