The grassy woodland reserves of the northern ACT are the most extensive and significant in south-eastern Australia; they are to Canberra what the rainforests are to Cairns. The scattered trees of the woodlands are continuous with the treeless grasslands, where conditions don’t favour tree establishment. This natural spacing of the trees, majestic old Yellow Boxes and Red Gums, gives them their characteristic deep spreading crowns and short trunks.
A great arc of this habitat once swept from southern Queensland to South Australia, including the lowlands around the site of the future capital. Early accounts speak of riders passing through flowering grasslands, high as the horses’ bellies, with quail and small marsupials including bettongs bursting from underfoot. Flocks of brolgas, bustards and emus abounded. But the rich deep soils attracted attention from the start of European settlement and pastoralists quickly spread over them with herds and flocks. Farmers provided sheep and cattle with permanent water supplies and, without moving their stock on to fresh grasslands, soils became bare and weeds grew. Feral species interrupted the balance of native animal populations, fire regimes were profoundly altered, and chemical fertilisers have all continued to modify the grassland habitat.
It is no coincidence that most of the ACT’s threatened plants and animals rely on these grassy habitats. Only tiny scattered scraps remain – Mulligans Flat and Goorooyarroo nature reserves being the largest – and last moment intervention in the ACT has been needed to save them from urban development.