ANCIENT PADDOCK TREES

Those amazingly large trees you see dotted across farming landscapes? They are the remnants of formerly treed landscapes cleared for grazing and cropping. Some of the largest scattered trees you see in paddocks are hundreds of years old. These are referred to as paddock trees or scattered paddock trees.

Scattered paddock trees are called ‘keystone structures’. Like the keystone in an arch, they keep the arch strong and resilient.  Remove the keystone, and the once strong and stable arch weakens and falls. So it is with removing the keystone paddock trees resulting in drastically reduced biodiversity of farming land.

When you see an old paddock tree, you are looking at both a reservoir and supporter of abundant biodiversity and a massive contributor to ecosystem health. Research has also shown that large old paddock trees support more native birds and bats than individual trees in a woodland or forest. Insects and reptiles take advantage of the cracks in the bark and fissures in the trunks as the trees get older, and many birds and mammals rely on the different types of hollows that develop in ancient trees to nest and breed.

Old paddock trees provide stepping stones for small birds and mammals, such as squirrel gliders, to move through the landscape. Little birds will only fly 30-50 meters without coming under threat from predators.

Dog sitting under young tree sapling

Livestock Guardian Dog Orsa using the shade of a young paddock tree planted about 6 years ago.

Underground, the roots of ancient paddock trees help to prevent salinity and erosion. Ancient paddock trees are stores of massive amounts of carbon and reservoir of minerals that have been leached deep into the soil profile. When ancient paddock trees shed limbs, these otherwise hard to reach nutrients are made available closer to the surface as the fallen timber decays. Fallen timber from ancient paddock trees provides perch and pounce hunting platforms for many endangered woodland birds, such as the Hooded Robin.

Of course, large paddock trees also provide shade and shelter for farmers, livestock and working dogs. We have all often viewed large numbers of sheep or cattle crowded under the few trees left in farming landscapes.

Small tree fenced for protection

A newly planted baby paddock tree with a durable guard. In the background, you can see the many other paddock trees we have planted. Many now host nests made by small birds.

And an often under remarked ‘value’ of paddock trees is their sheer stoic beauty. Ancient paddock trees are an indelible representation of that iconic Australian landscape we all think of.

And yet, when you look at an ancient paddock tree, you are looking at a tree (research indicates)  that will most likely be dead in 40 years time, taking with it its important role in the ecosystem and a whole raft of biodiversity.

There are so many threats to our ancient paddock trees. Clearing of ancient paddock trees, particularly in cropping areas, continues. Soil compaction and over fertilization by the livestock that so eagerly seek their shade reduces the infiltration of rain and raises the toxicity of the soil. Many ancient paddock trees are also just nearing the end of their long lives.  Some are affected by dieback when overly prevalent insects, no longer controlled by birdlife, attack the leaves. Others are affected by spray drift and stubble burning.

In a grazing paddock, ancient paddock trees cannot successfully reproduce. Any seedling that may emerge is quickly grazed off, or, if it gets to any sort of height, it can be destroyed by livestock nibbling or rubbing the still vulnerable trunk.

In the era of climate change and the extinction crisis, paddock trees and the biodiversity that relies on them need our help. Thankfully agencies such as Local Land Services and Landcare are providing incentive grants to support the protection of old paddock trees and the planting of new ones.

PLANTING NEW PADDOCK TREES

So far, thanks to partial funding from these agencies, we have added about 100 new paddock trees to our paddocks and protected some of the truly ancient and vulnerable individuals.

It is never just enough to ‘plant a tree’. The right tree has to be planted in the right place to enable it to provide maximum benefit. Priority has therefore been on planting endemic species such as Blakley’s Red Gums, Red Box and the previously logged-out Yellow Box. We plant the trees 30-50 meters apart, making sure to link the existing old paddock trees with the trees in our conservation area by planting new trees.

Man watering a small tree with dog

David watering in a newly planted baby paddock tree with the help of Luca. Next step? The protective guard will be erected.

And, to protect them from being damaged by our sheep and cattle while they are little, we provide durable tree protectors in the form of a round of sheep mesh and sturdy pickets.

Yesterday we planted ten more new paddock trees, and a further 20 are to go in later in winter, bringing the total to around 130 by the end of winter.

Already, the first paddock trees we planted eight years ago are providing shade and shelter to our livestock, nesting places for little birds and insects. These most senior of our new paddock trees are already providing flowers and nectar for honey-eaters and pollinators. And they are providing a much more attractive landscape for us to enjoy.

Our plan is to keep adding new paddock trees and to keep linking ancient trees up with their new recruits each year, adding to the ecosystem values of paddock trees and further enhancing the biodiversity in our paddocks.

FURTHER READING

  • Lindenmayer, D, Mcbeth, S, Smith, D and Young, M. Natural Asset Farming, CSIRO, 2022
  • Lindenmayer, D, Michael, D, Crane, M, Okada, S, etal. Wildlife Conservation in Farm Landscapes, CSIRO, 2016
  • Lindenmayer, D. What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife, CSIRO 2011

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