Liz Bateman & Richard Hobbs began planting trees on their 500 acre dairy property at Bemboka about 20 years ago. To provide shade for their cattle they planted a number of individual eucalypts in each paddock, adding to the few large remnant eucalypts scattered across the farm.
About five years later they embarked on a much bigger, ongoing planting project, starting with the revegetation of Pollack’s Flat Creek which flows through their property and is part of the Bemboka catchment. Liz and Richard noticed the healthy condition of the creek higher in the catchment which was still well forested. Where it crossed their land it was rocky and barren.
“We both did lots of bushwalking. You notice the diversity in the bush. It’s such a perfect system and you know how it makes you feel. We watched and noticed what was working well in the bush and it made sense to try and make this happen along the creek.”
Liz and Richard were also concerned about water quality. “We were moving the dairy herd across the creek most days and they were making a mess of it. Not only were the banks bare and rocky, but the water was dirty. We source our water from the creek and there are farms downstream and we didn’t want to keep polluting it. We were able to get some funding for fencing, water troughs and about 200 trees. Once we had the fences in place along the creek we thought we might as well plant more trees so we applied for more funding and kept going”.
Willow Gem now includes multiple, substantial tree plots across the entire farm, with groundcover, understorey and canopy species. These provide shade and shelter not only for cattle but for other animals which are returning to the area, like birds and wallabies.
For Richard and Liz, the tree plots are also a way of managing their land well with fairly low maintenance. “Once you’ve planted your tree plots with hardy trees suited to the area, they look after themselves. You have to get used to it not being all neat and tidy, the ungroomed look, but if you can then it isn’t hard to manage. Controlling blackberries and maintaining fences are the main issues.”
They have also left an area of the farm to regenerate back to dry grassy woodland. Management of this area is easier than other parts of the farm, with blackberry control, wattle thinning and the occasional short grazing period for their steers. This area already has an excellent ground cover of native grasses, dominated by kangaroo grass and weeping grass, a shrubby understorey and a canopy of redgum, bluebox and applegum. As Richard says, “With labour and time always an issue, you have to be realistic about how much land you can actually farm. Areas that are mostly looking after themselves, those with good native groundcover and few weeds, can be set aside as a good way to manage the land”. These areas increase biodiversity, can provide wind shelter for stock and for pasture in neighbouring paddocks and be used for occasional grazing.
The decision to put environmental works high on the priority list is a difficult one given the financial and time pressures of farming. In spite of this, Richard’s view is that “life happens quickly and trees grow slowly. If you wait until you have enough money and time to put trees in on your farm then you won’t see the benefits. We’ve appreciated the work that Jock Waugh (Vegetation Recovery Officer) has put in to get the tree plots on the ground. My advice is to take what help you can get and plant trees now. We’ve never regretted any of the tree plots we put in.”
Part of their motivation for planting trees is that Liz and Richard want to leave the land in a better state than when they began farming. Richard believes it has been worth putting time and money into planting trees because they are likely to be his greatest legacy. “If you think about what will be left to show when you’re gone, it’s most likely going to be your tree plots, not your sheds and buildings.”
Apart from the environmental benefits, the trees give Liz and her family great pleasure. Liz’s favourite birthday activity each winter is to go for a walk through the tree plots with Richard and their two children, Jack and Eleanor.
Liz and Richard would have liked to have done even more by now but deregulation of the dairy industry in 2000 meant less financial certainty which affected their ability to plan ahead, and particularly to embark on more tree planting projects. Ideally they would like to have a tree plot in each paddock. This would mean about 15% of the farm would be returned to trees.
Deregulation and the drought finally led to the decision to sell their dairy herd in 2009 and they now farm only beef cattle, which Richard describes as “a lovely but expensive hobby. In the Bega Valley it is extremely difficult to make money from beef farming, so to survive you really need another source of income”. Without the time commitment of dairying, Liz has been able to work off the farm. This, combined with the good growing season means they are both feeling ready to launch back into planting trees. “We’d like to be able to put in a small plot each year from now on.”