Highlights of the 2021-2022 MIREN survey in Kosciuszko National Park, Australia

In the summer of 2021-2022, RCAAE members Keith McDougall and Neville Walsh led the fourth survey of roadside weeds in Kosciuszko as part of the global MIREN-initiative. In Victoria, a similar resurvey of roadsides was undertaken by RCAAE members John Morgan, James Shannon, Zac Walker and Alex Blackburn-Smith.

The following text written by Keith McDougall discusses the highlights from the Kosciuszko surveys. More information on the MIREN surveys can be found at https://www.mountaininvasions.org/

Genevieve Wright, Neville Walsh and I set out in early December to commence the resurvey of MIREN road transects. This was the fourth survey of the permanently marked plots, the first being in 2006 – 07, four years after the largest wildfire in living memory in the park. The potential perils of the survey were many – for instance, the park is home to four of the 10 deadliest snakes in the world. However, apart from the effects of increasing age in the steep terrain (the mean age of the surveyors was 61), our biggest fear was anaphylaxis, for Neville from a genus of native daisies called Cassinia and for me from the ferocious Jack Jumper Ant, which in the four surveys has stung me twice, both at site AT7. We survived.

You would think that after three surveys of the same transects over 10 years, there would be nothing left to discover in subsequent surveys, but that was not the case, and our discoveries again highlight the value of this sort of work. Kosciuszko National Park was certainly different this time and so botanical surprises were not entirely unexpected. Firstly, a decade long drought had broken in February 2020. Plants that had gone to ground (as seed) during the dry years may have had an opportunity to flourish, as might species that like disturbance from fire. A wildfire since our last survey, mostly on New Year’s Day 2020, may not have burnt as much of the park as the one in January 2003 but it burnt with a speed and ferocity never seen before. Some direct effects of the fire were immediately evident. Part of one road plot had been submerged in a landslide (the result of a subsequent deluge of rain on the fire scarred soils) and part of one plot in natural vegetation had been washed away, leaving a ditch half a metre deep.

The dead stems of 2 m tall Conyza sumatrensis (an annual non-native daisy) were a feature of many burnt natural vegetation plots – it was rarely recorded in previous surveys but its seeds were clearly present and ready to take advantage of disturbance. We recorded Trachymene composita in our plots for the first time. It is a curious biannual native herb, which appears after fire and can grow to 2.5 m tall. After a couple of years, it disappears again until the next fire, which may not be for many decades. We were especially concerned for the MIREN mascot plant, Poa mireniana, a species discovered in the 2011 – 12 survey. All of its populations were burnt and it had grown in areas with the most severe fire. However, it was great to see that it had recovered well and increased in cover.

New discoveries were also made on transects that were not burnt in 2020. Two highly invasive non-native grasses, Nassella trichotoma and Eragrostis curvula were recorded in road plots of Kosciuszko Road for the first time. The single plant of Nassella was removed and park staff will try to remove the Eragrostis, which was sadly too abundant for us to tackle. Both of those species were already known in the park (from lower elevations) but we also recorded two non-native species that had not been recorded in or near the park before: Plantago coronopus and Xanthium spinosum. The populations we found appear to be the highest recorded in Australia (with the Plantago usually found near the coast). We pulled out all of the Xanthium plants (carefully – it is a vicious species). It was an excellent example of how non-native plants can jump to a mountain site rather than move slowly along the road. The roadside verge where it was growing had recently been reshaped with imported gravel, clearly from a lowland area containing Xanthium seed.

Juvenile Xanthium spinosum plant growing in imported gravel on a road verge in Kosciuszko National Park

Our most important find was in an unburnt native vegetation plot, where we located a small population of the critically endangered orchid, Pterostylis oreophila. This was the first new record in almost 20 years and brings the number of extant populations in New South Wales to three.

A flower of the critically endangered orchid Pterostylis oreophila

Climate change: Are mountain plants too inflexible?

A new paper published in the Journal of Ecology finds that alpine plants display relatively little variation within their species. This paper, lead by Christen Rixen from the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF in Davos, Switzerland, is a collaborative effort between scientists in Australia, New Zealand and China, and includes RCAAE researchers John Morgan, Susanna Venn and Adrienne Nicotra. This finding that species display little variation could put them at a disadvantage when it comes to climate change, as more variable generalists growing at lower elevations could respond faster and better and push out the specialists.

Climate change affects plants: warmer or wetter summers, for example, could enable them to grow faster and reproduce more successfully. While this may seem like a good thing, the reality is more complex and the implications are far from clear. That’s because not all plant species are equally adept at exploiting such changes to their growing conditions. Experts fear that generalists and common species will benefit most and so displace rare species and specialists adapted to inhospitable habitats (see also Plants are conquering Europe’s summits at an ever faster rate).

In the study, the researchers examined ‘traits’ in 66 plant species. These are characteristics that can vary among individuals of the same species, such as the plant’s height. Such traits also perform important functions in the natural world. For example, taller specimens benefit from more sunlight and produce more biomass.

The researchers suspect that plant species with a high level of trait variation are generally better able to respond to changes in their environment since whatever form the change takes, some specimens will already be adapted to cope with it. 

Fieldwork in the Australian Alps. Photo: Christian Rixen, SLF

Rixen and his colleagues examined seven selected traits for each plant species (including height, leaf area and whether the plant produces flowers) as well as the distribution of the species along elevational gradients on mountains in China, Australia, New Zealand and Switzerland. The analyses paint a consistent picture in all the regions investigated:

  • Plant species that prefer to grow at lower elevations display great trait variation.
  • Plant species found at all elevations also exhibit great trait variation.
  • Species that favour very high elevations show little trait variation.

So, if variation is indeed a key factor for rapid and successful adaptation to climate change, then alpine specialists run the risk of falling behind and being squeezed out by more ubiquitous species and generalists.

Christian Rixen and his colleagues are continuing their research with long-term observations of alpine flora in Switzerland and worldwide. However, as well as observational studies, complex experiments are needed to find out whether their basic hypothesis is really correct. In a few years’ time, the results will show whether high trait variation is indeed a success factor for adapting to climate change.

The paper can be found online at https://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1365-2745.13848

The text in this post has been reproduced from the SLF press release for the paper which can be found at: https://www.slf.ch/en/news/2022/02/climate-change-are-mountain-plants-too-inflexible.html#tabelement1-tab2

Are you interested in studying with the Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology? New PhD scholarship opportunities now available

Applications for PhD scholarships (via La Trobe University) are now available. If you are keen to study in the Australian Alps with one of our Researchers,  then visit the University scholarship webpage for applications for any project, allocated on the basis of merit. These scholarships are available for domestic students only and should be developed with a prospective supervisor:

Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarship, Scholarships, La Trobe University

Applicants must be available to commence their degree between 1 February and 30 June 2022 on a La Trobe campus (note: advertising for the 2022 mid-year round will commence in March/April 2022.)

In addition, there are Dennis McDermott Scholarships also available:

Dennis McDermott Research Scholarship, Scholarships, La Trobe University

La Trobe University Research Equity Scholarships, Scholarships, La Trobe University

  • Up to three Dennis McDermott scholarships will be awarded to Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders

Please contact Assoc Prof John Morgan (J.Morgan@latrobe.edu.au) should you require further information on these opportunities. Please note: applicants from domestic students for PhD scholarships are due 31st October 2021.


Student Experience: Iris’ Alpine Studentship

by Iris Hickman, RCAAE summer student 2020/21

My interest into alpine ecology began at university, when one of the subjects I was taking at La Trobe University (BOT2PDE) delved into the factors influencing the distribution of alpine flora and the inter-relationship between species distributions and the environment. I found these interactions and the unique alpine communities it produced fascinating. However, I was shocked to learn that it was heavily threatened by climate change, anthropogenic activities, invasive species, and changes in fire regimes. Learning about the experiments that researchers conducted to investigate these threats in my lectures intrigued me, and I sort to learn more about the alps through the eyes of an ecologist. This led me to volunteer with RCAAE researchers in summer 2020 to learn about the work they conduct in the Victorian alps. There I assisted the 2019/2020 student, Nina Kerr. This fieldwork ended up being one of my most memorable volunteer experiences and ultimately led to me applying for the 2021 alpine studentship.

Iris Hickman looking out at Mt Feathertop and the Razorback

The 2021 studentship was adventure-packed right from the beginning and began with me taking on a seed dispersal project. This involved reconstructing seed traps from a previous researcher (Lauren Szmalko) and hiking them out to eight sites across the Bogong High Plains. I then monitored them regularly throughout the flowering season to collect data on how alpine wind dispersed plants disperse throughout the landscape. I became excellent at identifying wind-dispersed alpine seeds! I also assisted with monitoring rare and threatened flora, including the cute hemiparasite Euphrasia scabra, which very small population was severely affected by the 2019-2020 fires. I helped collected data on species range shifts, changes in phenology, soil surveys, fine-scale tundra patterns, among other things. Some of the data I helped collect contributed to one of the longest running ecology projects in Australia. I helped reconstruct these transects using hand drawn maps with landmarks instead of GPS points, it was like a treasure hunt!

Recording cute alpine plants along a transect

We hiked up several mountains to survey sites, including Victoria’s highest mountain Mount Bogong, and explored different systems, including snow-patches and significant wetlands. I met with other alpine researchers and liaised with Parks Victoria and the Falls Creek Environmental Officer. It was a great networking experience, and I really enjoyed the sense of community that we all shared working in the alps. I was also lucky enough to be able to do side trips to the Eastern Alps where we camped out in remote montane forests and woodlands in the Cobberas. On these trips I assisted in post-fire monitoring and horse damage assessments with Dr James Shannon for Parks Victoria. I experienced first-hand the devastating damage caused by pigs and horses. However, I was able to gain insight into what most of the Australia alpine region typically consists of, which includes the most beautiful Eucalypts with milky white bark, such as E. pauciflora, E. delegatensis and E. dalrympleana.

Our daily afternoon stop after fieldwork, where we enjoyed the fantastic view of the Cobberas range, and our favourite mountain, The Pilot.
Lunch under snowgums after fieldwork

I also had time to myself to go camping and hiking to explore the walking trails of the Bogong High Plains. Fortunately, we experienced one of the best flowering years, due to the La Niña. The seas of Craspedia species were breath taking.. I was captivated by the beauty of the Australian alpine landscape, diversity of plants, the rarity and specialisation, and their ability to cope with extreme weather.

Seas of Craspedia gracilis flowering
Weekend off to camp under the stars at Mt Fainter

The experience with RCAAE gave me insight into what it was like as a researcher and led me to begin a mini-research project on the influences of elevation on the functional traits of high mountain shrubs. The studentship not only allowed me to deepen my knowledge in plant ecology, vegetation monitoring and field-based research but also allowed me to contribute to the conservation and long-term monitoring of one of Australia’s most vulnerable ecosystems. The experience was greatly influential on me, and I am grateful to have had this experience. Now, I am enrolled to complete my Honours in 2022 on a Mountain Summit Ecology project.

Why should we care about snow in the mountains?

Mountain regions worldwide are the water-towers of the Earth.  The Australian Alps produce over half of river flows in the Murray-Darling Basin which contain > 45% of Australia’s irrigated production (which is valued at more than $10B per annum). In addition, reliable winter snowfalls contribute >65% of the annual precipitation of the region, and the mountains host more than 2.5M visitors annually, with three quarters of tourists visiting the snowfields in winter, contributing roughly $960M annually in revenue for Victoria alone. Spring snowmelt into high country aqueducts and dams represents Australia’s largest energy store in the form of hydroelectricity. These local and regional economies can only exist because of a climate that produces regular snowfalls, and a mostly intact, adapted and resilient alpine environment. The alpine environment regulates water flows, controls soil erosion and provides habitat for many endangered and threatened plant and animal species. Indeed, the ecosystems of the Australian Alps are one of 11 Australian centres of plant diversity, one of 187 global biodiversity hotspots and they even include a RAMSAR listed site, Blue Lake, in Kosciuszko National Park.  Alpine ecosystems – from bogs and fens to snowpatches – and some of their unique species (like Australia’s only hibernating alpine animal, the Mountain Pygmy Possum) rely on snow for protection from frosts and strong winds, for insulating soils, providing a steady water supply and as a cue for phenological events. Some species, like Snow Algae, even rely entirely on late melting snowpack as a habitat substrate.

It’s difficult to imagine the Australian Alps without snow. But predictable snowfalls and lasting snowpack are already dwindling, and a projected 30-70% decline in annual maximum snow depth relative to 1990 levels by 2050 (under a low-emissions scenario) seems likely. The ability of the Australian alpine environment to function properly without reliable snowcover and a lasting snowpack is unknown. Surprisingly, studies of snow ecology in Australia are few, and we do not have a good understanding of how, where or when snowpack interacts with vegetation or drives soil water content across the alpine landscape and, in turn, how this affects alpine plant growth in the months following snowmelt. But thankfully, that’s about to change.

Led by Dr Susanna Venn and Dr Adam Miller (Deakin University), with collaborators at the Australian National University, RMIT University and the Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology, La Trobe University, a new research project funded by the Australian Research Council and partners (alpine ski resorts, alpine nurseries, Parks Victoria and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne) will investigate how the Australian Alps will fare with declines in snowcover. Titled “Mountain champions: building resilience into alpine environments for a low-snow future”, the Research Group will assess whether alpine species have the regeneration and adaptive capacity to thrive under new climates, as well determining their tolerances to the extreme temperatures they will face in the future. The research also aims to determine which areas of the alpine landscape are most at-risk of collapse without snow.  The project kicks off in 2021 (with post-graduate student and volunteer opportunities) and we look forward to working with our partners to help better understand “ice ecology” and to map a brighter future for our snow-covered ecosystems. Stay tuned for updates.

Snowdrift at Mount Hotham, spring 2020

Dingoes in the Victorian Alpine Region

Zali Jestrimski, a La Trobe University Student, on her undergraduate research project investigating Dingoes in the Victorian High Country.

When Dr John Morgan suggested an undergrad research project on dingoes in the alps, I was thrilled.  The idea was to use trail cameras at the Mt Hotham Alpine Resort – which had been set up to monitor foxes, cats and deer – to try and quantify the number of dingoes in the area. There was also the added bonus of assessing whether areas with dingoes had fewer feral animals. Dingoes have been a passion of mine for some time, and I know quite a lot about their behaviour from my time as a volunteer at a dingo sanctuary in Melbourne. But it was also apparent to me that we know relatively little about dingoes in the alps, and I was keen to improve that knowledge.

Zali and alpine dingoes at a wildlife sanctuary, with her recently published research paper.

There is a misconception that there are no pure dingoes left in the Victorian high country. However, genetic studies prove otherwise and it was not surprising that the trail cameras at Mt Hotham have detected the species in the vicinity of the resort.

For my research project, I wanted to study the activity patterns of dingoes near Mt Hotham as there was nothing known about this. Where were they? When did they move about the landscape? In addition, studies elsewhere have shown that dingoes likely suppress cat and fox numbers, and may even affect the behaviour of Sambar deer. Could I observe fewer ferals where dingoes were present? While my study is a small one, and much more work needs to be done, I think I found some very interesting patterns.

In the vicinity of Mt Hotham, there were several dingoes observed over a two year period using the trail cameras to document their occupancy, including young ones. This suggests that dingoes are resident and breeding there. I found that there were less cats in locations with dingoes – although it’s hard to know if one is directly responsible for the other. I observed that dingoes do overlap with both foxes and deer but that the ferals tend to be active at different times to that of the dingoes.  Are they avoiding the dingoes?

Dingo capture by trail camera, near Mt Hotham

I hope this research is the start of an improved understanding of dingoes in the alps, as well as the role they play in this ecosystem. You can read about my work in The Victorian Naturalist 137: 96-104.

Summer Studentship Experience

My Summer Studentship Experience, by Nina Kerr

I initially applied for the RCAAE summer studentship for the 2018/19 season. I was not successful that time around so instead, I used that summer to experience the Victorian Alps for my first time, by working for an environmental contractor eradicating Hawkweed (Pilosella sp.) near Falls Creek. One benefit of staring at the ground all day is that you quickly become familiar with the shapes, colours and distributions of different plants even without knowing all their names. I was blown away by the diversity of plants and keen to learn more about alpine ecosystems. The following season I reapplied and was excited to be accepted into the RCAAE studentship for the 2019/20 season.

Before going, I had mentally prepared for some things I would experience during the weeks ahead: learning lots of new plant names, the volatile weather, long days, data entry and working solo at times. Something which I had not foreseen was the widespread and devastating bushfire season of Summer 2019/20. Little of Australia escaped impact from these bushfires and we were no different. At the start of the season it was uncertain whether we would be able to go at all. Luckily, Falls Creek escaped any physical impact and I was able to spend 7 weeks there on and off. However, several active fires surrounded the region at times and the smoke haze was an eery reminder of the reality of the situation. Other subalpine alpine areas were not so fortunate, and we were able to witness the impacts of the fires at Mt Buffalo. Clearly fires are becoming more frequent in this region and it is a real challenge for those managing and protecting the natural assets of the park.


Re-surveying long-term plots in grasslands in Pretty Valley.

An experience I was humbled to be a part of was helping resurvey long-term ecological monitoring plots. This took us to some amazing subalpine and alpine grasslands and snow patches from Falls Creek to Mt Bogong. One survey took us to the Mt Fainter grassland, where the wind and rain were so strong over the saddle it threatened to rip the data sheets from my clip board. Thankfully, these transects were efficient to reconstruct as the pegs were still standing and the bearings to locate them were true. For the last couple of transects the rain stopped, a little sun came through the clouds and we got some spectacular views.


After completing some of these long-term monitoring plots, I gained a serious appreciation for simple and robust methodology that can be repeated over decades. Although the humble stake is a common friend among ecologists, I was still impressed to see the red gum pegs standing in snow patches after 40 years, as the seasonal snow-pack has the force to drag down-slope any object sticking too far out of the ground.

It was easy to feel inspired up in the Alps. I met so many different people including researchers, land managers and other students who shared an abundance of knowledge and an incredible passion for understanding and conserving this complex landscape. Experiencing the process of research has got me excited for post-grad research with honours and I know I will be able to apply many lessons and practical skills I gained last summer.


Burnt vegetation at Lyrebird Plain, Mount Buffalo

What the heck is a Caltha Herbland?

By Alex Blackburn-Smith, currently doing her honours with the Research Centre for Applied Alpine Ecology at La Trobe University

The Caltha introloba Herbland Community is one of the rarest and most specialised vegetation alliances in alpine Australia, yet we know very little about it. Indeed, for 40 years, no-one has been quite sure how to classify them. Are they associated with Sphgnum bogs? Snowpatches? Are they wetlands? The rarity of Caltha Herblands has been recognised enough to list them as a threatened communities under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (1998), and they have further protection under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999) through their association with Sphagnum Bogs (listed as endangered under EPBC) and Snowpatches (critically endangered under EPBC). Yet, while Caltha Herblands are a form of wetland, and while they do commonly occur in areas of late snow lie, and while they are typically surrounded by sphagnum or bog vegetation, Caltha Herblands are a separate vegetation unit. A base study of where they are and what’s in them is critical for their management.

herbland in cloud

Caltha Herbland in low cloud on Mt Nelse

So, what are they?

Caltha Herblands are semi-aquatic, sparsely vegetated, short alpine herb fields that occur on a rocky/gravelly substratum called a ‘pavement’. They rely on a constant water source, either a ground water source, such as a spring or ground seepage, or a water course such as a creek.


caltha in snowmelth

Alpine Marsh-marigold, Psychrophilia introloba (formerly Caltha introloba), in flower during snowmelt

Where are they?

Whilst restricted to the Bogong High Plains in Victoria, Caltha Herblands are found in a range of different landscape setting – from steep slopes under snowpatch vegetation, to relatively flat slopes beside creeks. At least 98 patches of Caltha Herbland community have been identified across the Bogong High Plains, from the northern to southern end, both above and below the tree line.

white rocks creek caltha herbland

Caltha Herbland next to White Rocks Creek

mt cope

Caltha Herbland surrounded by Sphagnum near Mt Cope

What’s in them?

Some of the rarest alpine herbs and forbs in Australia! Key species include Psychrophila introloba (formally Caltha introloba – the species from which the community gets its name), Oreobolus pumilio, Drosera arcturi, Juncus antarticus and Celmisia sericophylla are the most common of the rare species across Caltha Herblands. Some sites contain species such as Oreomyrrhis pulvinifica, Plantago glacialis and Parantennaria uniceps which are all endangered species in Victoria and restricted to Caltha Herblands.

species in caltha herblands

Why so important?

Not only do these communities contain a whole host of listed and vulnerable species, the total area that this community takes up within Victoria is thought to be less than 2 hectares. Further, we believe that the substrata on which this community lies is a periglacial relic or fossil periglacial feature. The origin of these pavements is hypothesised to be from freeze/thaw erosion and weathering action during a past cold climate period. If this hypothesis proves correct (further study is needed to attempt to determine this), then these communities have heritage significance as well as geological and geomorphological value.

rare plants

Cushion of (A) Juncus antarticus, (B) Plantago glacialis and (C) Oreomyrrhis pulvinifica growing on a pavement.

This study

I’m currently undertaking an Honours Research project that has three aims:

  • To describe where Caltha Herblands are found within the boarder alpine landscape;
  • To determine the species composition and distribution within, and between, Caltha Herbland sites, and;
  • To determine whether they are static or dynamic systems.

Currently, this study has finished the field work phase. Abiotic, including slope, aspect, size, degree of rockiness, soil depth and water cover, and floristic data has been collected from 19 sites across the Bogong High Plains. Eight of these sites have long-term data which will enable us to look at any broad vegetation change that has occurred over the past 40 years.

collecting data

(Left) A typical floristic quadrat, (Right) Re-surveying in a long-term data site

mt nelse snow patch

Re-post from the Mountain Journal: Fires and snow gums. To keep these forests we need less fire.

We are sharing this post on about fire impacts on the high country treeline from the Mountain Journal. The original post can be found here.


Featured Image -- 697

Fires are still burning out of control across much of the Australian High Country. Yet we are already well into the blame game, where some people and groups are blaming environmental activists and/ or The Greens party for ‘stopping’ fuel reduction burning and hence making the fires worse. While this is not true, this resonates with certain anti green and conservative demographics (check here for an alternative view of the conversation).

There is no doubt that fuel reduction burning has a role to play in how we manage forests and other landscapes. The problem is that it is often seen as a ‘one size fits all’ tool that will reduce fire intensity in all environments. But in reality, it works well in some ecosystems and is counter productive in others. This is a subtlety that is lost on the ‘fuel reduction is the answer’ boosters.

The argument that we need to increase fuel reduction burns in snow gum and true alpine environments is already caught up in the broader land management debate, and will continue in the coming months. So it’s worth taking a good look at what science says about the value of fuel reduction in our high mountain areas.

Snow gums are the quintessential alpine tree of the mainland, generally growing at elevations between 1,300 and 1,800 metres asl. Wildfire has devastated large swathes of snow gum habitat in the last few decades, with significant fires in the Victorian High Country in 1998, 2002/3, 2006/7 and 2013. Over 90% of the Victorian distribution of snow gums has been burned at least once since 2003. Each of the large fires of the last 15 years has overlapped to some extent, leaving thousands of hectares of snow gums burned by wildfire twice, and sometimes three times.

Much of Kosciuszko National Park was burnt in 2003.

‘Fire has always followed fire’


Fire at Precipice Plain, VIC Alps, Jan 2020



Early European occupation of the mountains was based on the widespread use of fire to clear land. This broad acre approach to burning was at odds with First Nations careful, localised use of fire. As noted by Philip Zylstra (Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions, University of Wollongong):

‘British graziers … cleared country using fire. The Snowgums tell the story: a seven-fold increase in fire scars when the invasion came’.

This use of fire has continued today, but does it reduce the flammability of the mountains? Philip points out that fuel reduction only brings a short reprieve:

‘Recently, I looked at every fire mapped across these mountains for nearly 60 years, and I found one thing in common from the foothills to the peaks: fire has always followed fire. For a couple of years, it brought quiet, then the undergrowth made the forests up to eight times more likely to re-burn for the next couple of decades until it self-thinned. So why did anyone burn it if this was the result?’

Keeping fire out may be the solution in snow gum forests

One significant piece of research that should inform our understanding about fire on snow gum forests looked at the impacts of fires on Lake Mountain and the Buffalo Plateau. The report How snow gum forests and sub-alpine peatlands recover after fire was written by Fiona Coates, Philip Cullen, Heidi Zimmer, James Shannon. They used the long unburnt Baw Baw Plateau as an example of what these systems could be like in the absence of fire events.

They found that:

  • Even areas that have been subjected to hot and very destructive wildfire, such as on the Lake Mountain plateau during the 2009 Black Saturday fires, can be expected to recover – provided we can keep fires out of these systems. However, this will take time. For instance they suggest it will take the forests at Lake Mountain at least 70 years to return to pre-fire structure. No specific management needs to be undertaken to aid this process beyond excluding fires
  • The researchers repeatedly note that there are serious doubts about the value of fuel reduction burning in these forests. They note that low intensity fires negatively impact on tree resprouting ability
  • Repeated fires change the character of snow gum forests, creating a multi stemmed forest of shorter trees. That is, forests get denser, with more of a ‘Mallee’ aspect to how the trees grow. They call this ‘potentially irreversible degradation of stand structure’, which has already happened to the extent that old growth snow gum forests are now rare. They note that the traditional open forest structure of snow gum forests will not be able to develop if there are repeated fires, as the result over time will be that forests will become dominated by lots of small stemmed trees rather than a ‘traditional’, open snow gum forest
  • Repeated fires can also inhibit the ability of trees to store carbon above the ground.
  • They say that ‘fire exclusion is imperative to preserve landscape quality and representation of long unburnt snow gums’
  • They recommend that current ‘fire and cattle exclusion policies’ at places like Mt Buffalo and Lake Mountain be continued. They note that cattle grazing can drive the creation of multi stemmed trees, in the same way that fire tends to, again driving the forest towards a multi stemmed and immature form. Exclusion of cattle is also very important for recovery of burnt areas of peat land
  • Older, more open snow gum forests are better at collecting water and ensuring regular run off, retaining soil moisture and snow accumulation.


Impact of fires on the upward spread of snow gums

Fires impact on mature trees and the resulting growth of seedlings may mean that snow gums start to colonise adjacent alpine vegetation.

David Turner, in his research carried out for his Masters of Environment thesis (School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne) titled Treeline physiognomy following wildfire in the Victorian Alps, Australia investigated snow gum seedling establishment above the treeline after fire.

He found that new seedling growth was greater after fire compared to locations long absent of fire. ‘Model probabilities estimate a 22% chance of seedling establishment four metres above treelines that are burnt, compared to only a 1% chance in unburnt locations’. (He does note that the number of seedlings, which was modelled to increase after fire, is controlled by the amount of litter and competition found at the site. Low levels of litter and competition facilitate maximum seedling growth). 

One significant outcome regarding frequent burning showed that optimal tree ages that influence seedling establishment were found to be between 24 and 42 years of age. If climate change subsequently reduces fire frequencies to less than (for example) every 20 years, then seedling numbers may actually fall.

Repeat burn times that outpace snow gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora) reaching their optimal reproductive maturity age may subsequently have dramatic effects on the Victorian treeline.

His research suggests that the Victorian treeline physiognomy has slightly changed due to the 2003 alpine fires. 


Climate impacts

Sadly, the fact is that climate change is making fire seasons worse. As noted by the Victorian government’s report ‘Climate Science Report 2019’,

‘There has been an increase in dangerous fire weather and the length of the fire season across southern Australia since the 1950s. Fire weather in Victoria is largely measured using the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). This index estimates the fire danger on a given day based on observations of temperature, humidity, wind speed and fuel (based on factors including recent temperature and rainfall). Although considerable year-to-year variability also occurs, there is a trend in more recent decades towards a greater number of very high fire danger days in spring’.

So, regardless of how we manage forests with regards to fuel reduction treatment, we will be facing worse and longer fire seasons. It would appear that one key strategy will be to keep fire out of snow gum woodlands wherever possible, so these systems can age and become less fire prone.

Regular and repeated fires kill snowgums. So if we want to see snow gum forests continue we need less fire, not more, even low intensity fuel reduction burns. According to research by Tom Fairman, Associate Professor Lauren Bennett and Dr Craig Nitschke, of the University of Melbourne:

‘We found that the lignotuber continued to re-sprout very well after one fire, but after two and three fires, the number of new sprouts significantly declined. The level of whole-tree death (that is, the stems and lignotuber dying) was fairly low following one and even two, fires; however, after three successive fires, on average half of all trees in our plots were dead. In some plots, this figure was as high as 80 per cent of all trees’. (source).

A study in the journal Austral Ecology provides the most comprehensive analysis ever performed of the fire history of forests in the Australian Alps. This is a significant piece of work because it says that unburnt forests are less fire prone than those that have been recently burnt.

This has implications for how we manage these forests and woodlands. The current widely held assumption is that by reducing fuel loads, fire reduces the flammability of most eucalypt-based forests.

The study, by Dr. Philip Zylstra of the University of Wollongong (and available here) says:

‘The study provides an evidence base for fire management in the Alps that is based on observed reality rather than theoretical concepts.

‘Throughout the period for which fires have been consistently mapped across the Australian Alps National Parks, they have been smaller and less severe in long unburnt forests’. This is consistent across the five broad forest formations that cover the Alps’ (these forest types are Tall Wet Forest, Open Forest, Subalpine Forest and Woodland, Dry Open Forest and Low, Dry Open Forest).

The study looked at fires in five key forest types in the Alps and assessed how fire frequency changed over time. To take the example of snow gum woodlands, after a fire passes through, they are unlikely to burn for 6 years after fire, then more flammable until 25 years old. However, ‘forests older than this are 2.3 times less likely to burn than younger forest’. A similar pattern can be observed in the other forest and woodland types.

Ben Keaney, in his PhD research titled Bogong Moth Aestivation Sites as an Archive for Understanding the Floral, Faunal and Indigenous History of the Northern Australian Alps  noted that climate change is already impacting on the mountains, and could drive forests into a more scrubby, flammable form, and that this has implications for land management practises like fuel reduction burning:

‘Structural change of the vegetation due to human induced climate change is a real threat to sub-alpine ecology. Pryor (1939) described the possible extent of high country degradation from burning as two extremes, that is a slightly damaged forest that is more or less undisturbed, to a barren waste of eroded mountains with a sparse cover of plants. This is poignant as a prediction for the natural land managers under the effects of anthropogenic climate change, where the flammability of the forest can drive ecological change of vegetation away from a forest form into a scrub form, a point that should be taken to account in the prescription of fuel reduction burns. Predictions of the effect of climate change on the ACT include fires with higher intensities, with reduced inter- fire intervals and that are more prone to spread (Cary, 2002)’.

The take home message seems to be that if we can reduce the frequency of fire at a landscape level in these ecosystems through the juvenile ‘danger’ period when there is a lot of vigorous re-growth, they become less fire prone after a period of 14 to 28 years (depending on the forest type). This means that older forests should be left alone rather than burnt to reduce fuel load, and younger forests should be encouraged to mature rather than being treated with fire to keep them permanently in a juvenile/ more flammable stage in their growth.


This forest (Mountain Gum?) near Lost Plain had a light fire through it in 2019. It cleared out the understory and moved into the canopy in some areas

Implications for fire management

What are the implications for fire fighting in the alpine country? The key message is that we need to keep fire out wherever possible. Locking in more intense fuel reduction regimes are unlikely to make snow gum forests less fire prone, for the reasons outlined above.

1/ More fire fighting resources. Most fires in the Alps start as a result of lightning strikes – that is they start small at a specific point. The aim must be to hit these fires while they are small.

This requires additional fire fighting resources at the state level to tackle these fires as soon as possible, before they grow and become difficult to contain. DELWP and Parks Victoria firefighters are well trained and equiped to fight these fires and do a great job of tackling them. But we clearly need more firefighters.

As one example of how the system gets overwhelmed: on New Years Eve 2019/20 a lightning storm passed over the Victorian Alps, starting many fires. DELWP and PV crews quickly mobilised to put these fires out before they grew, but some more remote fires were not able to be contained and subsequently grew into large blazes (such as the fire at Mt Tabletop near Mt Hotham, which eventually joined with other fires started by lightning and is now more than 42,000 hectares in size).

Stay governments should consider increasing the number of remote area fire fighters for the next fire season.

2/ Minimise burning for asset protection. There are various human settlements in alpine areas, which need to be protected from fire, especially the ski resorts. Doing fuel reduction burning is sometimes used as a last resort before fire fronts hit. The longer term implications of this need to be considered. Fire breaks are widely used in the Alps to limit the movement of fire. Research should be carried out to determine the relative value of fuel reduction, use of fire breaks, and other asset protection work around human settlements.

3/ Consider the development of a volunteer remote area fire fighting force. The Country Fire Authority (CFA) and Rural Fire Service (RFS) do a remarkable job of protecting land and community from fire. While they are primarily responsible for fires on private land, they are often active in fighting fires on public land. But their equipment  (trucks) is often too heavy for deployment to remote areas with rough tracks and they are not directly trained or resourced to work in remote areas.

Is it time to develop a new fire fighting force that is specialised in remote area fire fighting? It could be part of RFS/ CFA or be a new stand alone entity, and would work closely with public land firefighters who are already doing this work. They could be trained in the same way that PV and DELWP prepare their rappel and hover exit crews (specialist firefighting roles performed in remote locations).

There has previously been a similar group in Tasmania, called the Smoke Walkers. The Smoke Walkers were volunteers, mostly bushwalkers, who were deployed to remote areas in Tasmania’s World Heritage Areas in instances where lightning had started fires that had not yet turned into major blazes.

In light of the scale of this summer’s fires, this is an idea that needs consideration in NSW and Victoria. A proposal can be found here.