Amberfield Grasslands burn

 

Matt Tudor stands surrounded by grasses in the Amberfield Grasslands Reserve, Craigieburn, in Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung country. In his hands he holds a wand attached to what looks like a jerry can – the apparatus is known as a “fire bug” and its design is informed by the firestick, a traditional tool used by Indigenous Australians.

Matt has visited these grasslands tens of times in the eighteen months he’s been contributing to its management as a team leader in Merri Creek Management’s ecological restoration team. He’s seen the place change through seasons and years – and he’s seen how the grasslands respond to the program of annual ecological burning, which we deliver on behalf of Hume City Council.

“That’s the part I love,” says Matt. “You can stand in one spot and look at how the land has responded to the burn you did last year, and then turn your head and see the part we burned the year before that, and the year before that. You see three examples of what fire can do over time, right in front of you.”

After months preparing permits, consulting with neighbours, preparing fire breaks, monitoring the biomass (or “fuel”) of the vegetation, liaising with Council and watching the weather, Matt’s supervisor Chris Geary gives the go-ahead. Two of Matt’s crew are stationed in a tanker to the north and two more with a hose to the west.

You might imagine the moment as tense, but according to Matt, copious preparation results in a calm feeling among the team, who have done this plenty of times before (aside from new team members, who “might be a little nervous”, he says).

Matt and Chris’s team are smack-bang in the middle of burn season: the elusive time of year when it’s just cool enough and just still enough between the dry of summer and the wet of winter, to use fire to return balance to the landscape and to ensure it can operate effectively as habitat for the creatures that call it home, including the vulnerable Golden Sun Moth.

“Fire is a reset button that can take Country from being weed-infested back to a blank canvas – where everything begins to shoot again,” says Matt. “I love going back to the land a week or so after a burn – everything’s so fresh. It might still be black and charred, but a fraction green. All those seeds that are present might have been there for a really long time just waiting for a fire.”

While Wurundjeri Woi-Wurrung people have been using fire to manage country for tens of thousands of years, Merri Creek Management Committee began doing ecological burns 30 years ago. Ecological restoration Program Manager Michael Longmore says that while ecological burning was being practiced by conservationists in more remote settings, carrying out ecological burns in urban settings like the grasslands along the Merri Creek, was new.

“At the time, the Western academic world was just starting to recognise grasslands –­ like those that persist along and around the Merri Creek ­– as ecosystems, as well as the ecological requirements of those grasslands. We were starting to understand that burning had been a part of how grasslands have persisted for tens of thousands of years.”

 Backburning at Amberfield Grasslands

 

The function of the Amberfield Grasslands as habitat for the Golden Sun Moth, among other creatures, is at the forefront of the team’s minds as they watch the flame gather momentum. The moth, named for the golden shimmer on the underneath of females’ hindwings, was recorded here in 2005, when urban sprawl saw the surrounding landscape marked for development. Habitat for the Golden Sun Moth has suffered ongoing destruction and fragmentation and the Amberfield Grasslands were set aside in 2008 as an offset reserve.

Golden Sun Moths have a fascinating life cycle, the adults living for only two days and having no mouths. With no ability to feed and such a tiny lifespan, finding suitable breeding grounds is both imperative and urgent.

Golden Sun Moth (Photo L Gibson)

“Golden Sun Moths like grasslands where the soil is exposed,” says Matt. “The males are flying around looking for mates and the females stay close to the ground, walking more than flying, looking for somewhere to lay their eggs,” says Matt.

Females lay their eggs at the base of tussocks and the larvae develop underground, so having access to exposed tussocks is critical to the survival of these moths.

“When we burn, we’re removing all the accumulated dead foliage and bringing the soil back. Light can get in and water can get into those inter-tussock spaces where all the interesting little wildflowers grow.”

At the end of the day’s work, Matt Tudor and his team leave the burn knowing that the next time they visit, the scene will be entirely different. The smoke will have cleared and new life will be finding its way. Perhaps a newly emerged Golden Sun Moth will be making its way from its earthy depths into the space between the tussocks, where the sun now reaches.

 Merri Creek Management Committee has completed 14 ecological burns in the 2024 season, contributing to increased health of habitat not just for the Golden Sun Moth, but for the many creatures that call these places home, including the Growling Grass Frog.