Sunday 7 February 2010

Burn-offs? A load of bull, apparently

It's hard to believe, but it's a whole year since the dreadful fires in Victoria, and the papers are full of stories by the survivors, describing what is almost indescribable. The image that's stuck with me is fire pouring across the ground like a liquid. It's hard to make any comment that doesn't sound trite, about something so elementally terrifying.

Fire is of course an intrinsic part of the Australian environment, to the point where a number of plant species rely on it for reproduction - but it's still alarming for a first-timer to come across burn-offs crackling away untended for miles along the road, as I did on my '05 trip to the Northern Territory. It seemed to clash with the signs about preventing fires - "We like our lizards frilled, not grilled" - but the idea behind cool burns is to keep the undergrowth down, so it doesn't fuel the hot burns that will kill all the vegetation, trees included. It was certainly impressive to see how soon the cycads put out feathery green leaves, and gum trees started sprouting from the bases again.

Not everyone, though, thinks that something the Aboriginals have done for thousands of years is such a good idea: there wasn't even agreement amongst park rangers on my most recent trip to the Territory. And at Coodardie Station, they don't do it at all, arguing that their cattle trample the grass into a mulch that's less flammable and also protects the soil moisture from evaporation. It's worked for them for 45 years - and for the ground-nesting creatures that flourish there.

Salt of the earth people, these holistic pastoralists: we had a lovely home-cooked lunch on their wide, shady veranda before standing in the back of the ute for a bouncy tour of the property, and an introduction to their prize-winning Brahman cattle. There was a docile bull snoozing on their lawn as we ate, and Clair told us how an 8 foot* python grabbed her Jack Russell one night, and when she pulled him out of the snake's mouth, it came after him again. Nice.

* Although it's form for the Aussies to appear laid-back about stuff that shocks tourists - snake or crocodile length, flood depth, etc - I note that despite having been metric for years, in these cases they always use imperial measurements. Bigger numbers, see.

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