I don’t do trail documentation very often when I go riding, but I got some lovely photos one morning late last summer and thought some people not on the Horse Forum (where this was originally posted) might enjoy seeing this.
So sit back, and have a vicarious ride in Australia, complete with some natural history.
I wanted to take the camera (iPod) out on the horse this morning to photograph the valley floor with the Christmas trees in full bloom, and to take photographs of a follow-on trail not hitherto photographed for my journal.
As it’s quite a production to do a ride photoessay, I won’t be taking my camera more than once a week, and probably far less. Still, in 2019, I do want to document all the rest of the trails we regularly ride, and also explore a few new ones.
This is on the sand track behind the house. It’s late summer here, and you can directly compare this with photos taken midwinter in the same location, in this post:
Notice there are two dogs in this photograph. Our Jess is in the background, and Max is in the foreground. He is our neighbours’ stock dog, and occasionally turns up to play with Jess. This morning, I was woken by the two dogs thundering around the house and growling playfully, as Kelpies will. Their games include lots of speed racing and egging each other on.
The next couple of photos are looking left and right into the bushland. We burnt this section of valley floor nine months ago, for fuel reduction and to maintain a mosaic landscape for biodiversity conservation. It’s coming back nicely, and is very green considering it’s midsummer, which in our Mediterranean climate means drought.
You can still see the charring on the eucalyptus trunks, and tea-trees with dead tops re-sprouting from their bases. The bush grass always regenerates from its tough subsurface structures, and thrives with the extra nutrients provided by the ash. You can also see eucalytpus seedlings here, bright green and barely nine months old. Fire causes a lot of sclerophyll seed to germinate, as it signals the availability of nutrients, space and light post-burn.
Sclerophyll literally means hard-leaved, as adaptation for drought tolerance typically results in comparatively hard leaves with waxy coatings. These coatings are flammable, as are the volatile oils many sclerophyll species (eucalyptus trees, tea-trees etc) produce in their leaves to deter grazing, which can easily stress plants in a harsh environment. In environments where water and minerals are more abundant, plants can more easily re-grow leaves, and aren’t forced to protect them chemically.
When vegetation is flammable, it is prone to wildfires through lightning strike. As fire is inevitable in such plant communities, much of southern Australia’s current natural vegetation has become gradually fire-adapted.
Aboriginal Australians have been on this continent for over 60,000 years – nearly twice as long as people have been in Europe. They began “firestick farming” – using small, frequent low-intensity fires, both to prevent devastating wildfires, and to promote high populations of animals they could eat. The Australian sclerophyll has been co-evolving with Aboriginal fire regimes for at least 35,000 years. The Aboriginal people continually burnt small patches of land to create vegetation mosaics that included old, dense, unburnt vegetation for shelter, freshly burnt ground with new shoots to attract grazing mammals, and everything in-between. We try to do the same.
Tim Flannery and various other Australian ecologists think that the post-colonial exit of Aboriginal Australians and their fire management from the countryside is a major factor in the wave of Australian mammal extinctions, and in a resurgence of devastating large-scale wildfires.
In the photo above, you can see what happens if a fire develops hot patches. (Ours did, because the tea-tree flat on the left hadn’t been burnt in over 20 years and was long overdue. Generally, we try to do cool burns, like the Aboriginal people did – but since only a relatively small area of our property burnt hot, it wasn’t a huge problem for the local ecology.) The eucalypts on this section of the track experienced a crown fire, which cooked their smaller branches and branchlets. When this happens, eucalypts sprout new branches, called epicormic shoots, through the bark, from dormant buds kept in reserve for such occasions.
If anyone is interested in the burn we did last autumn, there’s photos and a story here:
So, back to the trail: This is the south gate into an adjoining property, where I have permission to ride.
This is the same neighbours who own that block also own Max. I was hoping he’d come with us on the ride so I could drop him back, but he went back to our house instead. He appears to have made his own way home today.
Next we’re through the gate, heading east. I’m not back on the horse yet, because I’ve just done up the 8kV hot wire that protects the gate from stock – not something you should do off a horse’s back.
The next set of photos are of the valley floor at the neighbour’s place. Summer-green bush grasses predominate that area, and it’s really pretty to ride in, on the well-formed animal trails. The introduced pasture is mostly brown this time of year. We met about a dozen kangaroos on our meander through today, in three batches, but the iPod was in my pocket each time, and they were gone by the time I had it out.
Here’s the Christmas trees (Nuytsia floribunda). These are hemiparasitic trees that draw sap from surrounding grass roots etc, and they also cut telephone cables. Aboriginal people used to make a mildly alcoholic drink from the blooms steeped in water. These trees are completely spectacular this time of year.
It’s party time for nectar-feeding insects when these trees are in bloom. You can spot some bees in this close-up.
If you’d like to know more about these trees, there’s a wonderful short article on them here: https://www.australiangeographic.com.au/blogs/wild-journey/2017/05/australias-giant-parasitic-christmas-tree/
Next, we came out of the bushland, onto a narrow strip of pasture by the side of Verne Road (to the right, behind a strip of bush). This time we turned left.
Yesterday, we’d turned right, so I took a shot facing backwards as well, to show the alternative route!
It’s so hot I’ve sweated onto the saddle! I’ll have to give it some more leather dressing to prevent trouble. In this weather, I’m not going to stop sweating anytime soon, especially when I have to wear a winter trail vest with pockets for carrying the iPod safely.
If you’re fascinated with maps, you can work out where we are on this map of yesterday’s ride – I’ve not put this route on the map, but it’s easy to figure out.
We’re now headed back north on the eastern edge of the same bushland remnant we came through the middle of.
The next photo is heading east, with a view of the surrounding countryside. If you click to enlarge this one, you should be able to see one of the neighbours’ Angus herds where Sunsmart’s ears are pointing, against the edge of the woods. You can also see how effective the introduced African dung beetles are at breaking up large herbivore dung! There haven’t been large native herbivores in Australia since the extinction of the Australian megafauna around 50,000 years ago, so special dung beetles were needed.
In the next shot, you can see the neighbours’ homestead and farm buildings through the gap in the trees. This is where Max and his family lives. Neighbour Noel used to ride as well, and admits to hurting himself when doing something stupid on a horse in his twenties after watching The Man From Snowy River. These days, he flies an aeroplane he built himself. Much safer!
A few photos of heading up the raceway by the roadside. Note the Australia strainer assembly in the fence, and also, once again, the magic the African dung beetles wreak on the cow manure. At the moment, in the heat of the day, it takes these beetles less than 10 minutes to spread a pile of cow manure or horse droppings far and wide, and this is important, because it stops the Australian bushflies from breeding. We always have a plague of these flies in spring, because the African dung beetles can’t produce large enough numbers of themselves until the weather gets really hot. Right now, we’re 99% bushfly free, which is great, because these critters sit on the eyes, in the nose, on your lips and anywhere else they can sip moisture off a body, unless you shoo them constantly, and of course, the livestock can’t do this.
This is at the exit gate, from which point we take a roadside firebreak trail home:
And this is the Hound of the Baskervilles! It’s worth enlarging this shot. Complete fluke!
Jess always gets excited when I get back on the horse after going through a gate, and barks a lot to encourage us to hurry up.
Here she’s being encouraging again…
The roadside trail home:
This is the neighbours’ bull paddock, for bulls not currently running with herds:
I thought I’d get a nice shot of them for @Knave especially, as she appreciates good cattle. These are Angus pedigree bulls. The neighbours just had a bull sale, of two-year-old pedigree bulls bred up especially. It’s a sideline they are hoping to develop. The sale went well, so they’re encouraged to continue the venture.
The freeze branding on these indicates that they are pedigree stock.
Here’s a machinery shed in the bull paddock, and another Australian strainer assembly, built from local bush poles. The ceramic insulators running inside the fence carry a 9kV line, to keep the stock off the fences.
I made a feeble attempt to be arty with this photograph!
Today. we had a lot of practice riding at a walk with completely loose reins, whenever I was taking photographs! It was a leg-steering practice drill.
This is an Australian “cocky gate” – our north-eastern entrance gate:
A cocky gate is a loose section of fence between two strainer posts, that you drag around. The loose end has a narrow post attached via wire loops to the strainer post. We’ve dropped a big log in front of our cocky gate so people can’t use it to drive vehicles onto our property. There’s just enough room for a horse, or pedestrians. The log is hollowed out from past bushfires, which is typical for Australian eucalypts, and also one of the main ways in which wildlife shelters are created in the sclerophyll bushland. Many mammal and bird species use tree hollows for shelter and nesting, both in standing trees and in fallen old logs.
We’re now on the section of our property we call “The Common” – 8ha of undivided pasture, and 50ha of bushland conservation remnant to the south of the pasture. This is where the cattle hang out most of the time, although they do come in to crash graze the two western paddocks of 2ha each as well.
This area gets winter waterlogging, as you can tell from the paperbark trees and the reeds in this section of the land. Don Quixote and Mary Lou sheltering sensibly in the shade of a paperbark tree:
Four Simmental crosses under one year old, and four Friesian steers around two years old:
Sparkle is in the background, in the last photo. Sunsmart and I are headed for the equine group, where Nelly and Benjamin come to greet us.
The bay with the blaze is Julian, the chestnut to the left is Chasseur, and Romeo is having breakfast in the garden at this time. Aren’t these paperbark trees amazing? They can fall in a storm and then keep growing anyway, with a horizontal section of what used to be the upright trunk.
My horse is asking, with his ears, “Are you getting off?” When he’s not very sweaty and we return from a ride via the Common, I often just leave him with his buddies, and walk the few hundred metres back to the house.
And aren’t his buddies enchanting!
We’ve untacked, and Sunsmart gets straight down to morning tea.
And I really couldn’t help myself, I just had to take lots of photos of this lovely bunch of animals resting in the shade:
Much nicer than standing on your own in a sand yard for 15 years, isn’t it, Julian!
A few more group photos to finish. Benjamin knows he’s extra cute:
He’s a true dun, which is the typical colouration of wild donkeys. You can see how well he blends into the vegetation with his colour.
The paperbark trees are named this way for a reason. The bark sheds off in sheets like thick paper. I used to write little letters to my penpals back in Europe on this bark, when I first came to Australia as a kid.
A snoozy Nelly:
Chasseur and the two “new” donkeys:
Chasseur turned 25 late last year, and is looking great. He’s also the horse that most resembles his French grandmother, who was my first horse.
That’s this mare:
You can really see the resemblance, and I hope Chasseur gets to be as old as Romeo! In which case, we’d have at least another nine years with him.
And a group shot to finish for today – with the tack lying in the foreground!
Phew! Next time I’m riding without the camera, or this will start costing me sleep!
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this vicarious horseback tour of a little bit of Australia.