Save the Snake, Graze Some Bush?

WHILE some armchair environmentalists believe that burning bush is bad for biodiversity, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting otherwise.

Ongoing research at Sydney University by a group lead by Rick Shine suggests Australia’s most endangered snake would benefit from more controlled burns.

Researcher David Pike, at his Sydney University home page, goes as far as to suggest that:

“Following European settlement of Australia, the amount of vegetation (i.e., canopy shading) in many habitats has increased. The most likely causes for this change are the prevention of natural disturbance events, such as wildfires, and the cessation of aboriginal fire-stick farming, which aboriginal peoples used to effectively managed habitat for wildlife and food plants. In more recent times vegetation has encroached upon crucial habitat for the broad-headed snake, which is already restricted in distribution. This has caused a decrease in the amount of suitable overwintering habitat, and potentially has contributed to a range-wide decline.”

There is also evidence to suggest a decline in populations of grassland birds in Australia’s extensive rangelands due to the encroachment of native woody weeds onto these grasslands.

The Australian Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts, Peter Garrett, recently gave the Victorian government an exemption under the relevant federal legislation so it could undertake control burns to prevent further loss of life during the recent horrific Victorian bush fires.

Professor Shine and his group acknowledge that controlled burns can be expensive and dangerous to implement, and propose that in such situations “foresters might clear overhanging vegetation in areas known to be important to the snakes.”

There are alternatives, grazing with the right species of livestock avoids the risks associated with burnings and can keep vegetation in check.   Now what are the chances of permission to control graze to increase biodiversity?

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Notes

The photograph of the snake is republished, with permission, from http://www.bio.usyd.edu.au/Shinelab/students/davidpike/david.html

Endangered snake needs burning to survive: scientists.  ABC News Online,  http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090324091207.htm

Permission for the Victorian Government to Burn Bushland, http://www.environment.gov.au/epbc/notices/pubs/statement-of-reasons-vic-bushfires.pdf

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16 Responses to Save the Snake, Graze Some Bush?

  1. Ian Mott March 27, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    Very interesting.

    Some time ago, on a learning curve far below, I planted a load of trees on some former banana land. It was a complete waste of $40,000 because the site had splendid blackbutts around it which would only have needed a good fire to regenerate the lot as a regrowth forest at a fraction of the cost to the tax revenue base.

    As part of this wasteful plantation folly I had a team of neighbours who supplemented their doles and pensions by doing a hand weeding around each tree. We decided to maintain high grass and weed cover between the trees to reduce the amount of damage inflicted on the planted trees by wallabies.

    But the team was most reluctant to come back for a second day because the first day revealed 2 adult and 3 juvenile Death Adders who had discovered that the edge of the little cleared area around each tree was the perfect place to wait for a feed of antichinus, rat or bird. The little man made gap in the vegetation was the perfect habitat as they could warm themselves up faster in the little clearing at sunrise and catch prey earlier than these species expected snakes to be active.

    They also had a large number of such similar hunting spots within their territory and, of course, they thrived, at a density of Death Adders (1 to 0.6 of a hectare) that is rarely replicated in nature. In fact, the whole patch was “snake central”.

    The lesson? Man is part of the landscape and is capable of enhancing ecological values.

  2. Louis Hissink March 27, 2009 at 5:42 pm #

    Ian,

    Reminds me of an episode years back at Faraway Bay when it was being built – Black Jack, a Murchison region aboriginal and a matye of the owneers, went to the fridge for another round of beers, and failed to return. Investigating his absence, it was found he was frozen on his feet, at the base of which was a death adder, minding it’s own business. It too decided that Humankind makes wonderful preying fields, especially when it could hide under the outdoor refridgerator. The warmth of the compressor helped its mobility no end, one suspects.

    Snakes cause strange reactions among Aboriginals and BJ was essentially a whiteman in his attitude and habits.

    Oh, as it’s a tourist venue and public liability being what it is, Dennis the Death Adder had to be desptached. Snakes in the camp laundry (hiding in washing machines) also added excitement.

  3. jae March 28, 2009 at 3:53 am #

    That looks like one mean snake. I would not help save him! 🙂

  4. John Costello March 28, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    Obviously an argument against more controlled burns! How is it that you Aussies don’t end up all eaten by sharks and crocks and done in by death adders? (Simley face icon.)

  5. Ian Mott March 28, 2009 at 10:14 am #

    We kept a nine foot python in our banana shed to keep the rats down. Well, he started out nine foot and went to 11 foot by the time I left home. My old man was an accomplished snake tamer but I could never get the right pressure on the stick when donging them on the head to show them who is boss so I splattered more heads than I tamed. [warning, do not try this at home]

    My brother recently had a python curl up in the folds of his blankets on a colder wet night. And the “odd couple” spent a few hours fighting in their sleep over the covers. The snake was heard to ask if he would still love her in the morning but she didn’t even wait around for coffee. My brother blamed it on the beer.

    So, as you can see, John, we’re superhuman, except for the greens, of course, who are prone to inbreeding and substance abuse. Thats why they all live in cities. They wouldn’t survive long in the real environment. And if we are out in the bush with a greenie we always let them lead the way and show off how they know the latin names of various plants. It is tedious but it serves a worthwhile purpose.

  6. janama March 28, 2009 at 10:36 am #

    sharks and crocs aren’t really a problem john – you don’t have to outswim them, just have to swim faster than the pommy backpacker

  7. jae March 28, 2009 at 12:14 pm #

    You guys will not be popular with the Tourist Bureau! I used to think that I would like to experience Australia. 🙂

  8. Green Davey March 28, 2009 at 2:11 pm #

    Rick Shine is real ecologist. He looks at the evidence, not the ideology. Pity there aren’t a few more like that in our universities and government departments.

  9. spangled drongo March 28, 2009 at 5:25 pm #

    As a foolish dweller on the top of a 45 deg. mountain escarpment in forest, fuel reduction burning is what I survive by. Even so, I have to be ready to light up and back burn at a moment’s notice and have no fear of official consequences.
    I have found that with good cool FRBs many reptiles survive.
    The other day I thought I had a 20 foot python but on closer inspection it had a head at both ends.
    I departed with a quick “cop ya later”!

  10. Ian Mott March 28, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    Jae, you would be most welcome here any time.

    Spangles, have you had any reptiles trying to come inside for the winter yet?

    Usually around Easter we get a visit by a Night Tiger or two and discover discarded skins from the annual moult in the mesh of screen doors and vent gratings.

  11. spangled drongo March 28, 2009 at 8:15 pm #

    Ian, there are a few around and as we always seem to have mice [we don’t have a cat] the snakes are always happy to come inside if they get the chance.
    There was a Taipan on the porch a while back yet I always thought they were a flood plain snake. The carpet snakes are always in my shed and I had a Stephens Banded Snake wrapped around my lathe spindle!
    Most of them are great egg eaters especially the red bellied blacks and they would be just the thing for Jae to control the Canada Geese at La Guadia with.
    I’ve got a few I can spare.

  12. Ian Mott March 28, 2009 at 10:44 pm #

    By golly, Spangles, thats an excellent bit of lateral thinking. But being warm blooded they may not be much use outside midsummer. Best dump a load of tyres there and the foxes will move in and finish the job.

  13. Larry March 29, 2009 at 4:39 am #

    I’ve repackaged some of the info in this blog thread, and put it into a newsgroup within a social networking site, free-association.net. The headline is:
    Saving Nate the Snake.
    At the moment, free-association has a relatively small number of active members. And they are all accustomed to my odd sense of humor. By the way, free-ass falls into the not-safe-for-work category. Anyway, here’s a link to that posting.
    http://tinyurl.com/c99eke

  14. spangled drongo March 29, 2009 at 11:33 am #

    Didn’t think of that old tyre and fox trick, Ian. Very good!
    Matter of fact I’ve got a few of them I can spare too.

  15. Ian Mott April 2, 2009 at 11:11 pm #

    What, foxes or tyres?

  16. spangled drongo April 3, 2009 at 12:17 pm #

    Ian,
    I trapped 15 beautiful european red foxes last year and I couldn’t tell the difference in the local population. I then shoot ’em and drape ’em over the “fox rock” for the eagles.
    Terrible waste of a pelt.

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