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The History of Native Grasses

Grasses are the most important plant family, both agriculturally and economically, in the world. There are about 10,000 species of grass in the world which occupy about 20 per cent of the earth’s land surface.

Native grasses appeared in Australia between 130 and 170 million years ago and have evolved with grazing animals. They need to be eaten to retain their vigour and productivity, and unlike broadleafed plants, their growing points are at the base of the plants, out of reach of the teeth of grazing animals. Grasses recover from grazing by sending up new tillers, while broadleafed plants have to form new shoots when their tips are removed.

Australian explorer Edward John Eyre wrote about the open grasslands of the Mid-North in his journal during his travels through the area in 1840. He describes the Hill River near Clare as “a fine chain of ponds taking its course through a very extensive and grassy valley, but with little timber of any kind growing near it.” He had traveled from Auburn through to the Hutt River north of Clare on that day, and wrote “our whole route today has been through a fine a valuable grazing district, with grass of an excellent description, and of great luxuriance.”

The grasslands of Australia were also highly valued – Fred Turner, the Government Botanist in New South Wales, wrote “I can conscientiously say that no part of the world possesses richer and more varied pasture vegetation than Australia, and if careful attention is given to it, and judicious stocking is practices, the grasses and other herbage will maintain their vigour and economic value indefinitely.” (Turner, 1921).

For more than 100 years, native vegetation was the basis of Australia’s grazing industries. But heavy grazing practices, along with drought and the introduction of rabbits changed the diversity of the grasslands and caused a dramatic decline in native pastures.

Pasture improvement through the use of legumes and superphosphate fertiliser was encouraged by mechanization and there was a rapid expansion of ‘improved’ pastures following World War 11. Native pastures were completely ignored during this time, and were usually classed as useless in terms of animal production, particularly in areas where they could be replaced by high-producing introduced pasture species.

By the 1970s, few producers could recognize the native species present in their pastures. If a grass was widespread, or unpalatable, it was assumed to be undesirable therefore a native grass, but if it was leafy, productive and palatable, it was viewed as a ‘good’ grass - an introduced grass.

Little research about native grasses has been carried out in the past 50 years in Australia and their vital role in soil protection, by providing ground cover and excellent drought persistence has gone largely unacknowledged.