Down to 1%: Victoria’s native grasslands all but gone

Feather heads are native to Victorian grasslands.
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Victoria’s native grasslands are critically endangered, yet little is being done to protect them. Leah Wong reports.

Grasslands are one of Victoria’s most concerning ecosystems because only 1 per cent of native grasslands remain, Macedon Ranges Shire Council says.

Macedon environment coordinator Michelle Wyatt said the scale of the loss was hard to understand.

“Some people even say 0.1 per cent of grasslands are left. They’re highly threatened and hard for the public to identify and connect with sometimes,” she said.

To an untrained eye, they look like grass, but actually, they’re native grass. They’ve got native wildflowers through them in spring, and they’re actually quite beautiful. But people don’t really know that they exist.

Before colonisation, grasslands covered more than a third of Victoria, according to the June 2020 Victorian Auditor-General’s Office audit.

Down to 1%: Victoria's native grasslands all but gone
Macedon Ranges Shire Council Environment Coordinator, Michelle Wyatt. Picture by Leah Wong.

Ms Wyatt last month made a submission to the government’s Inquiry into Ecosystem Decline in Victoria.

Parliament’s Environment and Planning Committee has been reviewing and evaluating the measures taken to restore the state’s declining ecosystems and biodiversity, including the sufficiency of laws protecting grasslands in the inquiry, which began in October 2019. The inquiry’s report has been scheduled for September 30.

Victoria is the most land cleared state in Australia, according to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, which released its Protecting Victoria’s Environment – Biodiversity 2037 plan in 2017.

The plan revealed that despite native vegetation regulations slowing the rate of land clearing since 1989, every year the quality of the flora decreases by around 4000 habitat hectares.

Down to 1%: Victoria's native grasslands all but gone
Grassy Plains Network member, Danielle Thynne. Picture by Leah Wong.

Grassy Plains Network member Danielle Thynne said the state government’s penalties for removing native vegetation were too low in cost and were ineffective.

“Anyone can pay money. Developers have got billions of dollars, they don’t care because they’ll pay it and claim it back on tax,” Ms Thynne said.

“But if it came up to, ‘If you’ll do this, you get six months jail’, I think that’ll hit home a little bit more, and they’ll rethink what they’re doing.

“Being taken away from your lifestyle and your own passions, I think that makes people stop. And if it just makes them stop and think, that’s a start,” she said.

Down to 1%: Victoria's native grasslands all but gone
Native grasslands on Victoria’s volcanic plains are critically endangered. Picture: greeningaustralia.org.au.

Because of Victoria’s economic development and growth, two-thirds of the state’s native vegetation had been cleared, the June 2011 Victoria’s Native Vegetation Management framework for action revealed.

Ms Thynne said it was very difficult to change the common perception that grasslands were a fire hazard that should be removed from housing areas, making it harder to persuade others to preserve native vegetation.

“Trying to convince people that it’s important, it’s part of our history, it’s protecting our future and for our future children, is quite a hard level,” she said.

“If they’re removing the vegetation, it’s going from its remnant state. If in removal or translocation, all those plants die and that’s it.”

“Anything from a particular area, there won’t be that prominence anymore, there won’t be that history—it’ll just be wiped out.”