Creswick Nursery and plantations 1926, first established by John La Gerche. PHOTO: State Library of Victoria

After the great slaughter of trees

After the great slaughter of trees

You are standing on the embankment of James Wheeler’s timber tramway, constructed in the 1880s. It took around 30 years for his sawmills to eat their way through the Wombat Forest from the north. From the west, it also took Henry McGie, a Ballarat sawmiller, three decades to get here.

Considered the father of Victorian sawmilling, McGie trained two generations of sawmillers. He set up his last mill in the next valley to the east on the Loam Creek. Their private thoughts when the centuries old trees came crashing down are not preserved, but publicly they took pride in their work. James Wheeler requested a reduction in licence fees on account that his mills prepared the land for agriculture. During the great boom of Melbourne in the 1880s, Wombat Forest Messmate stringybark was a mainstay for housing construction, providing framing timber and flooring that is still in place today.

But there were also warnings around that time. John La Gerche, a forester who was one of the first to experiment with tree plantations in the ruined forest around Creswick, had been a sawmiller. He saw the need to put forestry on a sustainable footing and abhorred “the great slaughter of trees” that resulted from poorly regulated access to the forest. In 1899, the Royal Commission on the State Forests and Timber Reserves in Victoria declared the Wombat “a ruined forest.”

At first the colonists missed their English oaks, ashes and maples, but they soon realised that for every possible use there was an Australian native tree that was just as good. The tall trees with the grey brown stringy bark are Messmates (Eucalyptus obliqua). An early forester declared the Messmate stringybark “as good as an English oak,” but instead of taking more than a hundred years to reach a decent size, the messmate would reach a similar size in a good location like this in a mere 30 to 40 years. They can grow to 70m high in the damp, sheltered gullies of the Wombat Forest.

The surrounding forest was last logged in 1998, but by then harvesting close to creeks was no longer permitted. Many of the larger trees in this gully are in the range of 70 to 80 years old. This age range is confirmed by the size of the soft tree ferns near the creek which grow 2.5 to 5cm per year and the tallest specimens are around 3-4 metres tall.

Another important timber tree in this valley is the Blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon). These are the trees with the rough black bark, often covered in moss and lichen. Blackwood is a famous furniture timber known for its rich brown to chestnut colours and smooth glossy finish. The suitability to steam bending further enhances its usefulness as a furniture timber.

Fortunately, valleys like these are now protected as more and more people realise that humanity’s future is closely linked to the fortunes of our natural environment. Timber production is increasingly moving to plantations and recycled timber is in high demand. Voluntary organisations such as Wombat Forestcare not only advocate for the protection of the Wombat Forest, but also add to scientific knowledge through citizen science projects.

The legacy of nineteenth century logging is still with us today; for instance, deep hollows required for large species such as the Greater Glider and Powerful Owl rarely develop in trees less than 150 years old. What will this valley look like in 50 years time?