Sylva Anew: A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber in the Bottle Creek Estate

John Taylor
Jane Lennon

Bottle Creek is in the upper reaches of the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. The Clarence catchment sweeps south from the Queensland border with the Great Divide on its western edge, a land of steep-sided basalt capped ridges and rolling hills, steep in the west and gentler in the east, intersected by streams and floodplains. Rainfall is generous, supporting subtropical rainforests edged with hoop pine on the wettest ridgetops and valleys, and wet sclerophyll forests of flooded gum and blue gum and brush box. There are extensive areas of dry sclerophyll forests on the rolling hills with spotted gum, tallowwood, ironbarks, grey gum and white mahogany. Forest red gum grows throughout the floodplains. It is a beautiful country, rich in resources which were harvested by the Githabul people who lived there for eons.

The Upper Clarence is remote and access over the ranges is difficult, but eventually the white man came in the mid-nineteenth century to harvest red cedar and graze cattle and dig for gold in the western parts. From the beginning of the twentieth century settlers started to convert the wild lands into farms and villages. The clearing of the forests for settlement supported a sawmilling industry, but large areas of forest were reserved from clearing, so that while the permanent loss of forests to create farms could recall John Evelyn’s concerns as expressed in Sylva, a substantial proportion of the original forests remained. With the more productive forests on the ranges and many uncleared areas amongst the farmlands, the sawmilling industry thrived for many years after settlement. The Upper Clarence landscapes of farmland, forested slopes and ridges and trees along streams and in paddocks are attractive, even arcadian.

Dairying was the settlers’ major activity and for decades the towns and villages prospered but it was hard work. The slopes and hills are not well suited to dairying and winter droughts, summer heat and the distance from markets gradually led to farmers moving out of dairying and into growing beef, with a concomitant loss of people and the shrinking of towns and villages which began in the 1960s and continues today. The timber industry also ran down as large areas of State forest were made into national parks and high-quality logs on private property became scarce.

To this point the story is one of removing the forests and replacing them with farms and villages, creating a landscape in the Upper Clarence little changed for almost 100 years. But in the 1990s this changed dramatically with the arrival of Managed Investment Schemes (MIS) led by forestry companies buying and leasing farmland and planting of thousands of hectares of eucalypt plantations. The story of the ideology and politics that led to the creation of the MIS schemes and the manner in which the companies used the tax concessions offered and operated the schemes, and the involvement of the banks, is long and complex, too long and complex for this paper. At its root was the aim of reducing Australia’s dependence on timber imports, and the neoliberalism that governments have practised for the last 40 years meant that the solution was placed in the hands of the private sector, which only needed the right financial incentives.

The resulting scheme was initially wildly successful. The tax concessions offered by the government and marketing by the MIS companies and financial advisors resulted in a flood of money coming into the sector. This had to be spent quickly on acquiring land and planting trees. It transformed the Upper Clarence as the grassy landscape of the farms became a darker green and the land once again supported forests. The regional replanting was driven by the high capability of the land for tree growing and the moderate price of land. However, distance from markets is a great disadvantage for the Upper Clarence and this appears to have been ignored by the MIS companies. Perhaps in this establishment phase everyone was making money, and no one needed to think about what would happen when time came to harvest and sell the large quantities of wood growing in the young plantations.

All this is so removed from seventeenth century England that it is difficult to wonder what John Evelyn would have made of landscape change of this magnitude over such a short period of time. In Australia there were critics who thought that the MIS schemes were undesirable and carried high risk. And they were right; when the Global Financial Crisis hit the banks closed the forestry companies, and receivers began the long process of disposing of the companies’ and the investors’ assets by selling the land and plantations back to farmers. Most of them harvested the plantations—though some farmers simply pushed them over and burnt them— and returned the land to growing grass for beef cattle. This process is continuing now. In a few places where superior species, spotted gum and blackbutt, were planted the stands have been thinned and retained, but no one is persevering with a second rotation and so the landscape is changing again, from forest to grassland, in one of the more remarkable series of land use changes seen across an Australian region.

The MIS schemes were never going to be commercially sustainable in the long term because the prices paid for wood by processors are simply too low; one company admitted that it was using new investors’ money to pay returns to older investors because timber sales did not produce the returns forecast in the prospectus. In the Upper Clarence, the long distance to markets for pulpwood, the main product, reduced the returns even further. The other market is for woodchips to generate electricity at sugar mills, which has even lower returns but is attractive to farmers because it removes almost all the tree and makes conversion to pasture easier. It would be an interesting study for an economist to work out the quantum of benefits the government and the nation received in return for the revenue foregone in the generous tax concessions give to the MIS investors.

We bought into the Upper Clarence in 2007 at Bottle Creek, with the aim of growing a commercial crop of eucalypts. John the retired forester had had little contact with practical forest growing for many years but retained a deep attachment to forests, and it was judged to be good to have a project to keep one busy in retirement. We also believe that there is a growing disconnect in Australian attitudes and discourse dealing with harvesting natural resources: while Australians enjoy a standard of living that is one of the highest in the world, and consume a lot of resources, they don’t want those resources, especially wood, some minerals and perhaps fish, to be harvested in Australia. But they also have no intention of reducing their consumption of these resources. We thought that we should grow some useful products for which there is demand in Australia, contribute to the economy, and earn a return on our investment of money and labour.

Figure 1. Making a hardwood plantation: above, September 2009; below, April 2015. Photos: Jane Lennon.

Bottle Creek is now just a locality, but in a reserve on the main road there is evidence of the school, tennis court and hall which were there from about 1910 to 1960, when the valley was more closely settled with dairy farmers. Our thirty hectares of land is gently undulating and has a frontage to Bottle Creek and about 12 ha of remnant native forest (spotted gum, white mahogany, ironbark, tallowwood, a multi aged stand last harvested about 40 years ago) and about 15 ha of cleared land. By 2009 a cottage had been built and 12 ha of plantation established, using advice from the forestry companies and the contractors who were establishing thousands of hectares of plantations for them. We have 10 ha of spotted gum, a superior species in all respects in this region, and the remainder Sydney blue gum in the low areas because spotted gum is frost sensitive. The site was prepared by clearing isolated trees and ploughing and preparing a planting line of bare soil. Trees were planted at 1200 stems per ha and nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, zinc and boron were applied. The plantation is now thinned to about 400 stems per ha and pruned to 5m as we aim to produce poles, though Sydney blue gum is not a favoured pole species and these stems will have to be marketed as sawlogs. Thinning has been hard work and because the plantation is small, and the work was done a little at a time. It was not possible to sell the wood, and so it is wasted, lying on the ground rotting, and creating a fire hazard. But the trees are growing well and, fate willing, harvest will be in about 10 years’ time and will be financially rewarding (depending how we cost our labour).

We have sold the right to graze under the trees to a local farmer, so there is a small annual income to help pay the rates and insurance.

Figure 2. The forester in ‘the woods around the mansion house’, July 2020. Photo: Jane Lennon

This region is not as fire prone as southern Australia, but we have an annual slashing program and have done fuel reduction burning in the native forest and some open grassy areas. There is a substantial firebreak around the cottage. There are guidelines for burning under spotted gum plantations, but they are based on burning the grass under the trees, not the fuel which accumulates as the result of thinning and pruning, so we have not attempted this. In last year’s serious fire season, a large bushfire was moving south towards Bottle Creek, but an easterly change sent it away from us. It has impressed on us the need for more fuel reduction and fire readiness work.

Mistakes were made – the initial planting by a contractor was done very roughly (the workers were paid piece rates!) with subsequent high mortality and we had to replant the 2000 gaps. We are now at the stage of thinking about marketing the wood (the pole market is strong and treatment plants are reasonably close) and about logging and extraction. But we realise that in the establishment phase we concentrated solely on getting the seedlings into the ground and growing, and made no provision for access roads and log landings and turning circles for the large machines and trucks needed to harvest and transport the wood. Some expert help will be needed to plan how to get logging equipment into the plantation.

After the plantation is harvested the chances are the site will be returned to pasture, as the owners will be very old and will sell the property. The market-places little value on plantations, maybe the opposite, buyers would subtract the cost of removing the trees from any offer. Unfortunately, the whole MIS saga, the low returns from timber and the general lack of knowledge of commercial tree growing in the farming community means that only a few of the many plantations established by the MIS will be retained as forests.

So our intervention of introducing productive tree crops into the agricultural landscape will last about 20 years, an immensely satisfying and enjoyable venture and a lot of hard work with many valuable non-financial returns, but when viewed in the long term, a minor perturbation in the Bottle Creek landscape.

But there is one other venture on our land which will persist. Bottle Creek is a small but beautiful tributary of the Clarence. We are about 20 km upstream of the big river and the creek with remnant vegetation of tall river oak, with a few rainforest trees, vines, eucalypts and bottlebrush (the origin of the creek’s name?). In a few places clearing had gone to the water’s edge. With some grant assistance we removed lantana and camphor laurels, fenced a 15 m wide strip on each bank and planted 600 trees and shrubs, and we continue to plant to fill holes and replace plants eaten by marauding cattle in drought years. All this has produced very satisfying results: dense native vegetation, stable banks, filtered run off, more birds and the creek more beautiful. It is interesting that this endeavour, funded by government, is aimed at conserving water and vegetation and wildlife and will produce no economic return, reflecting the current position in Australia that natural ecosystems are to be conserved and extended and enhanced but not harvested – that was something that we did during settlement of the continent and in the twentieth century but not in the twenty-first.

John Evelyn was spurred to write Sylva by the devastation of forests and the waste of wood he saw in the English countryside in the seventeenth century. In the Upper Clarence clearing for settlement removed large areas of productive forest and no doubt some of the wood was wasted, but large areas of forest were reserved on public land and many other forests exist on private land. Settlement was an express policy of the government and part of a national movement to settle people on the land and make productive farms

Less native timber is available now in the upper Clarence due to some state forests being made into national parks and constraints that have been placed on harvesting on private property – both express government policies. But it means that the shortage of timber that Evelyn could foresee in seventeenth century England does not apply here – the forests and the timber are there, a change in government policy could make it available again, though it is hard to see that happening.

The remarkable MIS schemes that saw thousands of hectares of farmland reforested and then harvested and returned to farms will in our judgement have resulted in only a small increase in the area of forest where new owners decide to retain plantations of desirable species such as spotted gum and blackbutt for at least a pole or sawlog rotation.

From our cottage we have followed the changes in our local landscape and agree with John Evelyn – ‘to prevent the destructive razing, and converting of Woods to Pasture: No wood of two Acres, and above two furlongs from the Mansion House, should be indulg’d.’

About the Authors

John Taylor is a forester by profession, and has managed the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne and the Brisbane City Council parks and gardens, was president of the Australian Garden History Society and is an avid gardener in Brisbane and tree planter in Bottle Creek.

Jane Lennon AM is a geographer by training with a PhD on cultural landscapes. She had had a long career in heritage conservation, founding member of Australia ICOMOS, and pines for a greater public understanding of the connection of ecosystems in this continent.

Further Reading

Jane L. Lennon, ‘The Planted Landscape: forest transformation in the Upper Clarence catchment, northern NSW’, In Australia’s Ever-changing Forests Proceedings of 9th National Conference of the Australian Forest History Society, 2015, Mount Gambier, South Australia,

I.D. Abbott and J.L. Lennon, ‘Professional conscience vs popular consciousness – Changing management of scenic rim forests in NSW’, In A Forest Conscienceness: Proceedings 6th National Conference of the Australian Forest History Society Inc, Michael Calver et al. (eds), 2005.