Heritage Council of Victoria includes ‘Maisie’s Plots’ in the Victorian Heritage Register

The Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology recently supported a nomination to list ‘Maisie’s Plots’ as Sites of State cultural significance due to the important role they have played in the science of alpine ecology. The Heritage Council of Victoria has now included ‘Maisie’s Plots’ in the Victorian Heritage Register pursuant to the Heritage Act 2017. ‘Maisie’s Plots’ are two non-contiguous areas of land about 1 km apart that have been used for long-term ecological monitoring and experiments since the 1940s. The Rocky Valley Plots were first sampled in 1945, and the Pretty Valley Plots in 1947; they have been sampled every 5-10 years ever since. The next sampling occurs in January 2023.

About Maisie Fawcett, and the history of her high country research

Stella Grace Maisie Fawcett (later Mrs Maisie Carr; 1912-1988) was a botanist and ecologist born in Melbourne. 

Fawcett’s High Country studies commenced in 1941 – during the Second World War! In 1940 the Soil Conservation Act established Victoria’s new Soil Conservation Board (SCB). At the time the members of the Board were very concerned about condition of the Hume Catchment, particularly the high plains, much of which had been burnt in 1939, and which was used extensively for free-range cattle grazing. Today the damaging impact of cattle grazing on the ecology of the High Country, including patterns of soil erosion, is well understood. But in the early-mid twentieth century, there was little scientific evidence to conclusively demonstrate this. More research was needed to protect water catchment areas and dams so that siltation did not become an expensive problem for government water projects.

The SCB instigated an investigation into soil erosion and ecology of the High Country in 1941 in collaboration with Professor John Turner, Head of the School of Botany at the University of Melbourne. He selected eroded areas near Omeo in the Hume catchment area for research. He needed a skilled ecologist to undertake the fieldwork. At this time, the High Country was a remote and rugged part of Victoria: some areas were only accessible on horseback and communication by telephone was limited. Given these difficult conditions, it was initially thought that a man was best suited to the job of conducting the research.

It was wartime, however, and male ecologists were in short supply. The SCB arranged with Professor Turner for Maisie to undertake an ecological survey of Hume Catchment. At the time Maisie was a post-graduate student, but Prof. Turner convinced the Board that she could capably undertake the work. This was initially via a research grant to the Botany School, but in 1944 Maisie was appointed as the first research officer of the Soil Conservation Board. She extended her activities to cover all the High Country in the Hume Catchment, including the Bogong High Plains.

From September 1941, Fawcett moved to Omeo. As part of her pasture regeneration studies, she had large areas fenced to exclude stock on the steep eroded slopes of Mt Mesley and Mt Livingstone. In these exclosures she recorded vegetation changes and also stream flow and siltation rates. Fawcett travelled extensively on foot and horseback across the hilly Hume Catchment area becoming familiar with the Alpine environment and its particular ecology. Being a city-bred woman, a scientist, a representative of the University and the SCB was not easy in a rural community. Fawcett overcame entrenched conservative attitudes, wartime shortages, physical exhaustion and challenging terrain and weather conditions. 

During her time at Omeo, Fawcett became aware that soil erosion in the Bogong High Plains to the northwest of Omeo could potentially threaten the Hume Catchment, including and the new Kiewa hydro-electric scheme which had been under construction since 1938. In 1944 Maisie accompanied members of Board to assess obvious deterioration of grazing values and incidence of erosion on the Bogong High Plains. On Maisie’s recommendation, and at the request of the SCB, the State Electricity Commission (SEC) fenced the Rocky Valley and, later, the Pretty Valley experimental monitoring sites on the Bogong High Plains. This arrangement (i.e. two study areas) was necessary so that soil and vegetation measurements could be made over the full range of plant associations on the Bogong High Plains.

Rocky Valley Plots

The large fenced exclosure at Rocky Valley was established in 1944-45. The exclosure included the headwaters of a first order stream and its associated peatland vegetation, and various other vegetation types such as heathlands and herbfields. The fence excluded cattle, and the nearby unfenced control areas allowed cattle to graze freely. Within the exclosure, 500 m2 permanent sample plots with permanently marked transect lines were established in open heathland, closed heathland and herbfield. Similar sample plots-with-transects were established within comparable vegetation types in the unfenced, control area.

Rocky Valley Plots
Left: View north-west along deer-proof fence, erected in 2019 along original,1940s fence line. Fenced, (Ungrazed) plot to the right. Source: https://rcaae.org/2019/05/09/protecting-the-past-by-ensuring-its-future/
Right: Pool in mossbed/peatland within the fenced (ungrazed) plot, in 1982. Photo: Colin Totterdall, CSIRO.

Pretty Valley Plots

In 1946 Fawcett selected land for sites on the edge of Pretty Valley (a grassland area). The exclosure was fenced in 1946 to exclude cattle, along with an unfenced control area in which cattle could graze. The Pretty Valley plots were established because the type of grassland present there was not well-represented at Rocky Valley. Permanently-marked transects were established in the exclosure and the adjacent unfenced area.

Fawcett’s investigations and findings were not always welcome. She criticised the cattlemen’s frequent burning of vegetation. That said, Maisie slowly and consistently won the respect of cattlemen, of SCB members and others by speaking not only from her love for the High Country, but from the clear, uncluttered evidence that the land itself was revealing.  In 1949 Fawcett became a lecturer in systematic botany and ecology at the University of Melbourne and continued her research at the Alpine plots. Fawcett’s findings – that summer grazing was detrimental to the sustenance of native vegetation and encouraged soil erosion – were published in 1959, co-written with Professor Turner, in the Australian Journal of Botany. Her classical observations of shrub ecology were published in 1962 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria.  The Rocky Valley and Pretty Valley plots have been monitored ever since. The compelling evidence provided by these long-term, longitudinal studies, and Maisie’s ecological insights, contributed to the controls on grazing that commenced in the 1940s, further restrictions on grazing in the 1980s following the establishment of the Bogong National Park, and the cessation of all licenced grazing in the Victorian Alpine Park in 2005.

Pretty Valley Plots. 
 Left: Interpretative Signage, 2022. Source: Heritage Victoria. 
Right: The plots in 2009 (Note burnt vegetation). 
Source: https://rcaae.org/

Maisie’s Legacy

Maisie’s Plots are thought by many within the scientific community to be one of the foundations of Australian ecology. The plots at Rocky Valley and Pretty Valley were among the first such exclosures in Australia. They are one of the longest running ecological experiments in Australia. They are amongst the longest continual grassland monitoring projects in the world. Prior to the 1940s there had been only a handful of exclosure projects in Australia. When most of Australia’s few ecologists were male, Maisie Fawcett undertook ground-breaking ecological research into plant-environment relationships that revealed unequivocally the damaging effects of cattle on the vegetation and soils of major Australian water-catchments. Maisie Fawcett was a gifted scientist and pioneering ecologist who grasped opportunities that took her to the forefront of her field. ‘Maisie’s Plots’ contributed to early, foundational scientific assessments of the significance of the Australian Alps and land-use therein. The vegetation in and around the plots continue to be studied by new generations of scientists and are yielding new information about the ecology of the Australian Alps.

Maisie Fawcett on her horse ‘Sheila’, Bogong High Plains, 1949.
Source: https://www.tern.org.au/share-tweet-decades-of-data-sustaining-the-australian-alps/