Restoring landscapes across the Mount Alexander Region

Aboriginal land management prior to 1788

Posted on 21 May, 2020 by Ivan

We received a terrific article from Nalderun (a local service that supports the Aboriginal Community, lead by Aboriginal people) about Aboriginal land management prior to 1788 and the impact it had on the landscape. It makes a sobering and informative read, and gives us insight into what the landscape might have looked like before the changes that have taken place over the past two centuries. 

Aboriginal land management prior to 1788

During his explorations in the 1830s and 40s Major Mitchell saw park-like landscapes, sparsely studded with trees, with very little under-storey scrub. Writings, paintings and survey plans by early European explorers and settlers show more open forest and more grassland than in the same places now. What was then grassland has become eucalypt forest, as fires and harsh clearing of land led to denser growth.

Researchers believe that before 1788 people used fire to create and maintain the park-like landscapes, judiciously burning at the right time and the right intensity according to weather and need. Their cool, slow-moving fires produced grass, tubers or foliage matched to the animals (including humans) that thrived on those particular foods. The fires reduced fuel, ensured biodiversity and abundance, regulated plant and animal populations and located vegetation predictably and conveniently. Bush adjacent to grassland provided shelter so animals could retreat if threatened, but it also enabled people to use fire to drive their prey to the waiting hunters.

The mosaic of cleared land patches in between forested areas would have taken centuries of detailed planning to set up. So it was vital that every generation understood how to maintain the pattern. It became enshrined in the Law, a meeting of ecology and religion, which ensured undeviating commitment to this very intricate management of the land. The basic principles were used Australia-wide, whatever the fertility of the soil and natural vegetation of the land. Local conditions such as rain, wind, temperature and aspect influence the timing. There is not one rule for all!

Current burning practices emphasising only hazard reduction mean that many species are not given time to replenish before another threat arrives, whether fire, predator, pest animals spoiling feed, or logging. Catastrophic bushfires such as happened last Spring and Summer were unknown before European settlement. Last December (2019) some properties in the Hunter Valley in NSW were saved, arguably because of previously conducted cultural burning on their land.

Hopefully controlled burns and the methods of land management in use up until less than 250 years ago will one day be used together to make a safe, abundant and sustainable environment for all – humans, plants and animals.

Nalderun is a service that supports the Aboriginal Community, led by Aboriginal people. Many people and organisations in the Mount Alexander Shire contribute to Nalderun; the name is a Dja Dja Wurrung word meaning ‘all together’.

More information can be found at

There is also an excellent video below, which highlights the return of the traditional planned burn in Central Victoria, courtesy of the State Government of Victoria. 





2 responses to “Aboriginal land management prior to 1788”

  1. Kate Roberts says:

    Many thanks for this article, Ivan and great to see the video.

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