10 Nov 2020


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Meet George, Peter and Chris from the Bega Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) Cultural Burning Team.

During winter 2020, the team conducted small patch burns on Aboriginal land at Tura Beach. 

Known as forested ‘sand-ridge Country’ the area includes an old-growth canopy of large old bloodwoods, blackbutt and silvertop ash eucalyptus and a dense shrubby understory. 

The forest understory here is very dense and overgrown and hadn't been burnt properly for a very long time. As a result, thick, tall-growing native bracken fern dominates the understory, reducing native plant diversity and causing extremely high fuel loads. 

The aim of these first burns is to ‘reset’ the Country so that in future it will be ready for a regime of more Traditional cultural burning. George, Peter and Chris share why this work is so important…

What does cultural burning involve?

Chris: When we do a burn we do all the prep work first. We'll clear around the trees and down to natural Earth. When we do our burn, it doesn't impact any of the trees. The trees might have nesting birds and our prep work ensures the fire won’t go up and destroy the tree, the canopy, the nest or any such thing. We try to keep it as cool as possible - that's the significance of a cultural burn. We don't burn the whole bush at once, We'll burn sections that we've cut out. So, we might do a burn in one spot, but leave the next block. Then when we put fire on that block the spiders, insects and animals can just shoot straight across into the next block. They're safe and they're not getting burned. And then we just go through and gradually do a nice slow burn. After the burn, you can actually just sweep the top of the soil, put your hand down on it and it's nice and cool. That's what you want. You don't want it scorched so that nothing's going to come back. We want the natural grass coming back, which brings in the little bandicoots and potoroos. 

How is this process different to hazard reduction burns?

Peter: The way we burn, we don't burn through right to the soil. We always burn at the right time and season, so that there's moisture in the soil. It's not just burning all the leaf litter and creating fire-driven plants that aren't meant to be in the soil here. Through cultural burning, we create a nice mulch layer after we burn. It's basically a sponge of fertiliser. When it does rain it filters the water through to the plants that are meant to be in that Country, creating native grasses and shrubs.

What result have you seen so far?

George: If you walk around you can see little scratches and digs where wallabies, kangaroos and even potoroos have come in and started having a feed and even rub ash on themselves to get rid of the fleas and ticks and whatnot. Just to see potoroos here is pretty excellent. Even the people living nearby said they haven't seen many animals in this area, so it was good for us to see something come back after our burns.

Chris: The very next day after one particular burn we spotted a potoroo, a near endangered species, on the sensor camera back in the area having a feed. It feels magnificent giving back to all Mother Nature's creatures that have been here for thousands and thousands of years. It's indescribable to be honest, a really good feeling.

How does it feel to care for Country? Why is sharing this knowledge so important?

George: It makes us feel really proud and happy. It's part of our culture, looking after our land. We call it our mother because she looks after us and we've always looked after her from the time of creation. It's hard to describe the feeling especially when you haven't been able to do it for over 200 years. And it's hard to get the knowledge too and put it back into the land. But now things are changing and, as a crew, we thank Uncle Victor Steffensen and his two elder mentors for their help and knowledge. 

Peter: Our culture has always been looking after Country. As we would say - Our Earth is our mother. We come from the Earth. We're linked to the Earth. We’re linked to the animals, to the ocean, to the rivers. Everything we do is for the Earth and it’s a good feeling to get back on Country because that linkage is what we've been missing. It makes us feel good cause we're actually teaching that culture. And that's what our culture is. We're walking libraries and passing knowledge and teaching culture to the next generation is so important.

What next? What happens after a burn?

George: We'd usually leave a spot for two years. We burned this spot this year, so we won't burn it next year. We'll assess it and have a look at it. Depending on the assessment, we might leave it five years, but no longer than that, because we don't want that fuel building up like it has in the past.

In between, we'll come back and monitor and document the different types of plants and animals that have come. We’ll document how much change there’s been in the ecosystem compared to hazard reduction burns. It's mainly about collecting a lot of data and proving how different and how beneficial cultural burning is for the land.

Cultural burning is an Indigenous land management technique used for tens of thousands of years across Australia.

With the generosity of our supporters in Australia and across the world, WWF-Australia is working with Indigenous organisations like Bega LALC to support cultural fire management as we work towards our bold vision to Regenerate Australia.

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