The Box-Ironbark forests around places such as Bendigo, Castlemaine, Rushworth, Heathcote, Maryborough and St Arnaud are the signature forests of the goldfields. Unique to Australia, and valued by local communities, the landscapes of the region have inspired poets, writers and artists, both past and contemporary.
In pre-gold rush times the forests were dominated by large, broad-crowned and widely-spaced trees abundant with hollows. Aboriginal people had their own names for these trees, for example, Red Ironbarks were known as yeeripp by the Djadja Wurrung. The forests provided the indigenous people with plentiful supplies of wood, plants, and minerals: the limbs of ironbarks were commonly used for making wonguim (boomerangs); the bark of box trees was used for constructing willams (bark huts); and Box bark and coloured ochres were used for ceremonial purposes. The numerous animals inhabiting the timbered areas were hunted for food and their skins.
Many of the trees were old, and from the gold rush onwards most were cut down. James Arnot gave an account of his first Sunday wood-gathering expedition, on the Castlemaine Goldfield, in which an 80 foot eucalypt was felled:
What a splendid crash these mighty giants of the forest come down with. Only the branches were used, cut into logs about eighteen inches long and the leaves collected for ‘bush-feather’ bedding. The trunk was left where it fell.
Before long, Arnot complained at having to go as far as two miles from camp in search of firewood. Another gold seeker at Bendigo, Alec Finlay, observed that:
The hills on each side of the gully which might have been called thickly timbered (less than two months before), are now cleared a considerable distance up for firewood, and trees are barked for miles around for the closing in of chimneys, securing sides of tents and covering the mouths of holes from the wet.
Today the forests of the goldfields have totally different treescapes. It is difficult to imagine trees that could have measured two metres across the base because all that you can see now are clumps of trunks. Or is it? Cut off near the base for firewood, each forest ‘giant’ has since coppiced – it has grown new shoots from its underground rootstock. Because the old tree stump has rotted away, the new growth appears to be separate trees (sometimes of up to 20 trunks) but they all come from the same surviving underground base of the tree, which could have started life hundreds of years ago. Each clump is a ghostly impression of its original self, with the ancient rootstock hidden but alive.
The coppice regrowth trees tell a remarkable story of survival, transformation and regeneration. They form both relic and evolving forests and are, in a sense, archaeological features produced by human activity during the gold rush. The trees form part of cultural landscapes that also contain the material evidence of abandoned gold mines, earthworks, bush tracks and hut sites. As the government wanted to retain possession of its gold bearing land, and it was necessary to ensure supplies of timber for mining needs, many forests survived and now mark the known goldfields of the nineteenth century – they form the basis of today’s parks and reserves system. The landscapes and sites, associated with many former gold towns and settlements, form a region of strong historic character and interest.
The forests are a challenge to modern land managers (Parks Victoria and the Department of Sustainability and Environment) because in their evolving form they have a reduced capacity to support bird and animal life; the trees, largely slow-growing hardwoods, are sometimes illegally harvested for firewood; and surrounding communities have traditionally relied on timber for their livelihood.
Conservation and enhancement measures are being discussed, in the hope of producing large trees. The significance of large old trees to conservation is that they can – because of bark density, increased flowering capacity and multiple nesting hollows - support higher numbers, and a richer variety, of species. A strong sense of spirituality and wonder, both about the modern world and the vast forests of the pre-European Australia, is often associated with large trees.