Soil Savers – Maisie Fawcett and Judge Stretton.

Soil erosion was identified as an emerging problem across rural Victoria almost immediately after the gold rush of the 1850s.

The Royal Commission of 1897-1901 into the destruction and wastage of Victoria’s forests also identified the importance of protecting soils and forested water catchments.

In 1917 an Erosion Inquiry Committee was formed by the Minister for Public Works, but little seemed to come from its deliberations.

The State Rivers and Water Supply Commission (SRWSC) established its own River Erosion and Flood Protection Branch in 1931 to carry out minor river stabilisation works.

Soil erosion came into very sharp focus during the droughts of the 1940s across the Wimmera and Mallee deserts where the sand from bare paddocks drifted across railway lines, roads and into irrigation channels. And huge dust storms were common.

As early as 1922, the Forests Commission had taken a strong interest in the protection of soils and water on forested catchments as well as private land. Specialist nurseries at Macedon, Creswick, Mildura and Wail near Horsham grew plants for country landholders to help restore the land.

But the problems in the northwest were only the tip of the iceberg. Laanecoorie Reservoir on the Loddon River had been reduced by 47% of its capacity within 50 years because of siltation.

The Victorian State Government was slow to act, but finally in 1940 the Soil Conservation Board (SCB), headed by Chairman H G Strom was created.

One of the first issues that attracted the attention of the newly created board was the degraded condition of the alpine regions of northeast Victoria and parts of Gippsland.

The Alps had been grazed under Crown Land licences for over 100 years, but heavy stocking, particularly by sheep, together with the impact of the 1926 and 1939 bushfires had caused significant damage to the fragile alpine vegetation.

The soils became exposed to the harsh winter climate and without the protection of the ground vegetation, wind and rain battered the soil, washing away the material between the remaining tussocks. By 1940 some of the elevated areas at Mt Hotham and Mt Bogong were reduced to open gravel beds.

It was during this period when Stella Grace Maisie Fawcett stood out in the emerging science of alpine ecology and soil conservation. Her work revolutionised farming and grazing practices throughout Victoria’s High Country for decades to come.

Mr Charles Tate Clark, who was a member of the SCB, approached Professor John Turner from the Botany faculty at Melbourne university in 1941 and arranged for Maisie to undertake ecological studies into the effects of soil erosion in the Hume Reservoir catchment.

Living alone at Omeo, she monitored vegetation plots in two eroded areas which Turner had already marked out and fenced to exclude rabbits and stock, at nearby Mt Mesley

Maisie covered long distances on horseback, investigated gully erosion and tested introduced grasses and fertilisers in pasture experiments.

At the same time, she slowly, and somewhat begrudgingly earned the respect of the alpine graziers she worked alongside. They referred to her as “the washaway woman”.

Erosion on the Bogong High Plains posed a siltation threat to the new Kiewa hydro-electric scheme. So in January 1945 Maisie fenced a large area on the upper slopes of Rocky Valley catchment that contained moss beds, snow grass, heath, scrub and woodland — and marked off reference plots of vegetation inside and outside the fences.

Each summer a research team which included Sophie Ducker, Ethel McLennan and Nancy Millis, measured the vegetation plots. They stayed in the convivial surrounds of Rover Scout Hut and Maisie and her colleagues signed themselves into the logbook as the “High Plains Plant Hounds”.

Maisie Fawcett finished her work at Bogong in 1949 when she was appointed to a lectureship at the University of Melbourne.

Maisie married fellow botanist Denis Carr in 1954 but immediately ran into the archaic rules of the time where married women were not allowed to be employed by the Victorian Public Service. These rules remained in place until the 1970s.

A work around was required. Maisie Fawcett’s personal file holds the letters between the Soil Conservation Authority and the Public Service Board arranging an annual extra emolument to be paid to MISS Maisie Fawcett employed as a Temporary Typist rather than MRS Stella Carr, who held a M.Sc. in Botany (1936). This is the reason she is often found in references under two personas.

She published her early alpine research using her preferred name of Maisie Fawcett, but after marriage she published as Stella Carr.

Her landmark work, which found that excessive summer grazing was detrimental to native vegetation and encouraged soil erosion was finally published in 1959, cowritten with John Turner, and published in the Australian Journal of Botany.

Earlier In 1946, Judge Leonard Stretton, who is better known for his inquiries into the 1939 and 1944 bushfires, conducted a Royal Commission into forest grazing and the system of licences.

Stretton’s inquiry was at the urging of the Forests Commission which had been expressing strong public concerns, from as early as 1932, about the impacts on upper water catchments of grazing and burning by lease-holder cattlemen.

Stretton wisely identified the inseparable trinity of Forest, Soil and Water, where each one is dependent on the other.  Destroy the soil and you destroy the forest and the water.

His typically concise 30-page report controversially found that grazing:

  1. is harmful in mountainous forest lands.
  2. accelerates soil erosion, and in some cases affects water catchments.
  3. had been a regular and recurrent cause of forest fires.

Needless to say, alpine graziers didn’t agree with these findings.

Stretton recommended that all grazing licences be managed by the Forests Commission rather than the Lands Department. Furthermore, he was particularly harsh on some graziers, and recommended even stronger measures be instituted where it was shown they could not be trusted. 

Among his recommendations, was stronger controls on soil conservation on all land, which ultimately led to the formation of the Soil Conservation Authority (SCA) in 1950. The Forests Commission, which had considerable experience in soil stabilisation works, was a strong advocate of the move.

Maisie Fawcett worked closely with Judge Stretton and became the Soil Conservation Board representative, and sole woman, on the Bogong High Plains Advisory Committee, which from 1946 determined the permissible number of cattle and the length of their stay each summer.

Under these new policies the number of cattle in the mountains above 4500 feet steadily dropped from 9000 in 1950 to about 3000 in 1970.

In 1955 grazing ceased altogether at Mt Bogong, followed in 1958 by Mt Loch, Mt Hotham and Mt Feathertop.

The soils and vegetation slowly began to recover.

But the issue of alpine grazing refused to go away and in May 2005, the Victorian State Labor Government made a surprise announcement to end all cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park. Grazing in State forest could remain. The decision brought Victoria into line with NSW which had banned alpine grazing in Kosciuszko NP nearly 30 years earlier.

However, alpine grazing remains an emotional and controversial debate, with strong opposition from powerful environmental groups up against the counter arguments from mountain cattlemen and some rural communities.

Published on Facebook 3 March 2022

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