HERE IS A DISTURBING STATISTIC FOR YOU!
According to the Australian Museum, since 1788, 90% of Australia’s temperate woodlands and 99% of Australia’s temperate grasslands have been destroyed or degraded through human intervention. This underscores the disastrous contribution made by Australians to the biodiversity crisis.
Highfield Farm & Woodland is 840 acres – two-thirds of which is remnant temperate woodland and one-third remnant temperate grassland. In both habitat categories, biodiversity has been degraded through decades of clearing, over-grazing, fertilizer use, cropping, the cessation of Indigenous Cultural Burning, and the introduction of exotic pasture grasses and weed species.
As custodians of this tiny part of Australia’s land mass, we take seriously our obligation to protect, enhance and restore the important natural biodiversity that remains – not just in our conservation area but in our grazing paddocks as well.
It is estimated that Kangaroo grasslands once covered 70% of Australia. While it is a widespread grass that is also found in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, it is largely missing now from grazing land, although you might see it growing on roadsides next to grazing land. In his book Dark Emu, Bruce Pascoe refers to archaeological evidence that Kangaroo Grass and other grasses were ground into flour for breadmaking 30,000 years ago.
WHY IS KANGAROO GRASS IMPORTANT?
Kangaroo Grass is a C4 (which means drought tolerant), summer-active perennial grass. It has deep roots and, as such, aids in keeping the water table low and salinity at bay. When grazed, these deep roots break off and add to the storage of soil carbon.
Kangaroo Grass is totally adapted to Australia’s naturally slightly acid soil – changing the pH of the soil by the common agricultural practice of adding lime can kill Kangaroo grass and other important native grasses like Microlaena or Weeping Grass which we also have in abundance here at Highfield Farm.
On an aesthetic front, Kangaroo grass is extremely beautiful.
While it is actively growing, it is a beautiful combo of purple and green. When the seeds become mature, the grasses turn an incredible pinky orange. Thirteen species of butterfly rely on Kangaroo Grass.
Themeda triandra is not endangered as a species, but it does grow in Temperate Grassland communities – plant communities that are declared endangered in the Australian Capital Territory and threatened in Victoria.
Kangaroo Grass was named as such as it proved to be popular food for kangaroos, who, in turn, provided some fertiliser for the plant. This role is now played by our sheep.
While Highfield Farm’s grasslands continue to be grazed by our livestock, we have implemented strategies to regenerate native grasses. Strategies we use to maintain our Kangaroo Grasses are NOT applying artificial fertiliser or lime and paddock division so grasslands can be rested for longer periods. We also graze our Kangaroo Grass before they flower in November and in late autumn and early winter. Since coming to Highfield Farm in 2008, we have seen the dramatic expansion of our Kangaroo Grass.
Kangaroo Grass can get a build-up of dry matter underneath the grasses, and it is recommended that slashing or cool burning be used to remove some of this material from time to time. Overcrowding can lead to the stand gradually dying. We will be looking into conducting a cool burn to maintain this important habitat by seeking advice and leadership from Indigenous practitioners.
‘HORSES FOR COURSES’ OR DORPER SHEEP FOR NATIVE GRASSLANDS
In the agricultural literature, there is the occasional comment that goes something like this, ‘you can’t fatten sheep on native pasture’. This has not been our experience at all, but to explain, I will talk a little about our sheep.
We raise Dorpers. They are a meat breed developed in South Africa for harsh, dry conditions. We deliberately chose Dorpers because of our poor soils and in recognition that climate change is a fact and that we will experience hotter, dryer conditions – conditions that Dorpers do well in.
When we first got our Dorpers, we had plenty of uninvited comments – “Dorpers? They just run to fat”, and, “Dorper meat, yuck, it’s too fatty”.
Again this has not been our experience at all, in fact, our grass-fed Dorper Lamb has been awarded for two years in a row by the Delicious Produce Awards.
And here is another observation pertinent to these critiques of Dorper lamb and the ‘uselessness’ of native grass pasture. During the drought, we were having trouble feeding all our lambs. We were generously offered agistment not too far away at a friend’s place. She had plenty of feed in paddocks of mostly rye grass. We were so grateful we could keep our animals alive.
When it came time to process the lamb, we were very surprised. The meat from the lambs grazed on ryegrass looked totally different to the meat from lambs grazed on our diverse native grasslands. It was terribly fatty! Not only was there loads of visible fat on the outside of the loin chop (for instance), there was none of the characteristic marbling of the meat, and the meat had an unpleasant fatty mouth feel. It just didn’t look or taste like our lamb.
This made me reflect on the comments we received when we first bought our sheep. It seems that those comments were at least partially true – indeed, if raised on a mono-culture or introduced grasses, Dorpers did run too fat!
But here is the thing, there are ‘horses for courses’, and the kind of course where Dorpers perform is native grass pasture! AND, you can fatten Dorper Sheep on native pasture, we do, and it doesn’t ‘run too fat’, and it wins awards!
EMBRACING OUR KANGAROO GRASS
We will continue to embrace and care for our Kangaroo grasses. Indeed, we will work towards expanding them as part of the mix in our native grass pastures. And we will keep enjoying them for their beautiful colour in the paddock and the myriad butterflies they sustain.