By Adrian Marshall

    They can flash past as fenced-off strips along railway lines, or as an unmown patch near a sports field. They can look like curiously unoccupied paddocks between big industrial blocks or beside the freeway that suddenly give you the feeling of openness, the expanse of what might have been here before the city was.

    They can stand as vast derelict places where button quail might explode from the long grass as you push out into the emptiness. Sometimes – rarely – they are celebrated with a sign or with a sculpture, say the silhouettes of kangaroos.

    They are grasslands, and they were once everywhere.

    Impacts of settlement

    Grasslands once covered almost a third of Victoria. The mostly treeless plains on heavy clay soils extended from the Yarra River – Birrarung – to the South Australian border. Rich in plants and animals, they have been Country for First Nations people for tens of thousands of years. Out near Little River there’s a stone circle that could be the oldest astronomical structure on the planet.

    Colonial settlement changed everything. Pastoralists made fortunes grazing sheep but the sheep compacted the soil, caused erosion, brought weeds, ate everything, destroyed and changed the grassy plains forever.

    Indigenous dispossession meant traditional burning practices stopped. The settlers killed the small grassland mammals like bandicoots and potoroos, and the big game birds. Australia leads the world in extinctions.

    Cropping “improved” the soil with fertiliser and suddenly the weeds grew better than the native species and smothered them.

    Grassy ecosystems collapsed.

    An ecosystem on the brink of extinction

    Victoria’s grasslands are listed as critically endangered, and it is illegal to clear them without permission. They are as close to extinction as an ecosystem can get. Only maybe 1% remains, and most of that is in poor condition. The good patches are incredibly precious.

    Growling Grass-frog

    Many endangered plants and animals call grasslands home: critters like growling grass-frogs, striped legless lizards and golden sun-moths, plants like the spiny rice-flower. The Sunshine diuris, which now lives on in one last patch of remnant near the St Albans railway line, was once so common it was used for wedding bouquets.

    Grasslands face many threats: urban development, farmers switching from grazing to cropping, rubbish dumping, weeds and ferals.

    Lack of management is a major threat. Grasslands are not like forests. Leave a forest alone and it gets better, leave a grassland alone and it gets worse. They need regular biomass removal to clear out dead grass, open up the grassland so sunlight and water can get down to the biodiversity between the tussocks. That’s why fire is so important.

    Grasslands need care

    More than anything else, grasslands simply need care.

    But they can be hard to love. From the roadside they can look like brown, boring, weed-infested, snaky fire traps. Often people don’t know what they are looking at. They go unseen, unsightly gaps where the buildings aren’t.

    You need to get to know a grassland. Go in spring, walk in and look down. Suddenly you’ll start to discover the lilies, daisies, peas and orchids that grow between the tussocks of grass. The knee-high world will become a place to explore. You’ll hear the breeze rustling the grass, the insects chirruping and birds twittering.

    Even better, go on a tour. Councils and organisations like the Grassy Plains Network and Friends of Iramoo run events in spring. They are great events for learning and exploring.

    Paramount Grassland in Derrimut

    Melbourne’s west is a grassland stronghold

    Some of our best remaining patches of grassland are in Melbourne’s west. Places like Evans Street Grassland in Sunbury, Truganina Cemetery, and Paramount Grassland in Derrimut, are living museums of what once was. There are dozens of others too.

    Friends groups and community members can make a big difference. You can help protect and care for these local treasures. Even telling people That’s a grassland! helps. You can encourage local government and Parks Victoria to put more time and care into their management.

    Reach out to your local council or contact the Grassy Plains Network ( to find out more.

    Wildflowers at Evans Street Grassland, Sunbury

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