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How majestic giants were lost to support Melbourne’s boom. Mitchell Toy March 8, 2021
When a Victorian forests inspector led a team deep into uncharted woodland in 1872, what they found would change Melbourne and the state’s forests forever.
Timber being cleared in Victoria and, right, forestry enthusiasts at the base of a tree near Healesville in the early Twentieth Century. Picture: State Library of Victoria
In 1872 William Ferguson made an astounding discovery in the forest east of Healesville.
The Inspector of State Forests in the young Colony of Victoria was leading a team deep into uncharted woodland where logging saws had not yet reached.
Something appeared over the ravine ahead.
A European settler might have thought, seeing this strange shape from a distance, that an industrial bridge had been built across the vast gap between the hillsides.
It was not a sight to be expected in an area yet untouched by English speakers.
As Ferguson and his party got closer, the extraordinary truth became clear.
A huge tree, larger than anything the men had ever seen, had fallen across the ravine.
Blackened by a bushfire from God-knows-how-long ago, the monster tree was five and a half metres thick near its base.
Ferguson and his team began the task of measuring this incredible specimen.
The measuring of a giant tree at Neerim in the late Nineteenth Century. Picture: State Library of Victoria
When they finally managed to work along the whole trunk with tape, they came to the astounding figure of 435 feet — 132.5 metres — in length.
That was enough to declare it the tallest known tree in the world.
But at the extreme end the decaying trunk was still one metre wide, and splintered where it fell.
That meant a decent part of the tree’s top had been snapped off.
Ferguson estimated that, when it stood, this incredible tree was more than 152 metres tall. It remains, according to many, the tallest tree ever recorded in history.
The tree would have stood taller than an MCG light tower by 67 metres, or 10 metres shy of the Melbourne Arts Centre spire.
It was about the height of a 30-storey building, and after its documentation became known as the Ferguson Tree.
The valleys of Gippsland were full of this type of giant tree, the Mountain Ash or Eucalyptus Regnans.
They were straight as an arrow and branchless for hundreds of feet above the forest floor.
The trees were perfect for logging.
A family rests atop a giant fallen tree trunk at Ferny Creek, about 1910. Picture: State Library of Victoria
Logging in the late Nineteenth Century near Foster in South Gippsland. Picture: State Library of Victoria
The needs of a growing colony were put before ecology in the late Nineteenth Century.
The ferocious expansion of farming land and logging for timber saw a huge swathe of Mountain Ash forests cut down, along with huge specimens from other species.
Many of the majestic trees, some of which may have been living for more than 400 years, were lost as more wood was needed to support booming Melbourne.
The logging of old-growth forests for timber continued for decades, drastically reducing the numbers of the giant Mountain Ash, which also suffered in bushfires, especially the 1939 fires.
Many of the places that had once been home to old-growth trees such as Mountain Ash became plantations for timber mills, often containing a single species of tree.
Now, the felling of centenarian Mountain Ash would be considered ecological vandalism.
A Mountain Ash named Centurion, near Tahune Airwalk in southern Tasmania, is now the tallest tree standing in Australia, and is considered by some to be the second tallest living tree in the world at almost 100 metres in height.
An etching of a logger next to a giant log in a Victorian forest about 1890 and, right, a logger working on a tree. Pictures: State Library of Victoria
Residents next to a giant stump near Foster, South Gippsland, about 1907. Picture: State Library of Victoria
The world’s tallest living tree is an American redwood in California, named Hyperion, which stands at 115.5 metres tall — almost 40 metres shorter than the Ferguson Tree.
Hyperion was discovered only in 2006 despite being an estimated 600 years old, and its exact location has not been widely publicised for fear it will be damaged.
But Mountain Ash is still considered by many to be the largest tree species is the world, even though no living specimen is the tallest.
The claim by Ferguson to have found the huge tree near Healesville was contested, but is widely regarded as a credible report from a forestry official.
Echoes of the giant Gippsland specimens remain.
A plaque near Thorpdale in Gippsland commemorates one giant Mountain Ash that stood 114 metres tall; it was measured after being cut down by a land owner in 1884.
There are still plentiful Mountain Ash trees in the Yarra, Otway, Dandenong and Strzlecki Ranges in Victoria and some areas of Tasmania.
They are most well known at the Black Spur where they grow dozens of metres tall by the roadside.
The trees are estimated to grow about one metre per year, keeping hopes alive that the forest giants may one day reach the same height as the Ferguson Tree.
* There is a problem with the picture of the "logging men" standing at the end of the logs at Foster. These are old logs that have been on the ground for quite some time. They are weathered, have no bark, and have many splits in the ends from drying out over time. They appear to have been cut for the track to pass through, and may have been already fallen with the timber of too poor a quality to be used.
* The needs of a growing colony were put before ecology in the late Nineteenth Century. Nothing has changed.
* It would take a lot of hippies joining hands to "hug a tree" 84ft in circumference.
* I hope that the lumberjacks of today are okay having seen these photos of old big trees that were cut down.
* If you don't harvest them they just fall down anyway. It is a bit of a furphy saying the aboriginals managed the bush with burning. They might have started the fires but not having any fire fighting equipment the fires just kept burning to the coast. More luck than good management. The Black Spur should be harvested because a lot of them are starting to fall that were planted after the 1939 bush fires.
* Firewood for life! Would have been an honour to cut it down
* These magnificent mountain ash trees are very fast growing for a hardwood tree, and will reach 100 metres in 100 years given the right conditions.
The area around Walhalla was clearfell for mining timbers around 1900 and is now magnificent bushland which you would say is virgin bush if you didn't know otherwise.
The forests need to be burnt regularly at the right time of the year, to keep the undergrowth clear, and the rest needs to be selectively logged to give the best trees the right conditions to flourish. Many of Victoria's tallest trees were killed in recent very hot bushfires.
This is not good stewardship of our bush, and I will say again that the Aboriginals had it right, and we need to return to the management that they proved correct over thousands of years.
This is a renewable resource that managed correctly will provide valuable timber along with jobs, and at the same time minimize wildfire risk.
We will then have good-looking forests, not the fire-ravaged and wildlife decimated areas we see now that aren't much use for anything..
* Setting fire to the bush to flush out animals for food is not management in any way or form, it was simply an easy way to feed the family. My great great grandfather wrote about it in a series of articles he wrote in the 1930's just before he died. He spent a lot of time seeing it given his childhood best friend was Aboriginal. Nomadic wanderers were able to live that way for hundreds of thousands of years simply because of the extremely small number of them and the extremely large size of Australia. Setting fire to something and having your ancestors come back through there 80 years later wasn't really a problem at the time. Now that we have filled the country's best arable land with people and housing, some think its a good idea to go back to setting fire to anything that might annoy us in any way or form. It's little wonder that we continue to have so many native species on the point of disappearing altogether when we have an aversion to undergrowth. Animals have predators, in some cases many depending on where they sit in the food chain. Of course being human and at the number one position means we don't have to worry about anything eating us. Animals, who have many natural and introduced enemy's use that undergrowth to survive.
Take a look at Australia on Google Maps. Tasmania is great to look at, you can see the entire left hand side has been left basically untouched. Then you can see the massive scar from Launceston to Hobart where people have flattened anything that stood. The Wimmera in Victoria is another of interest, you will struggle to see a tree with Google Maps, yet back in the mid 1800's it was all scrub and host to huge assortment of native animals. Not now, a machine called the "stump jumper" was invented in the late 1800's that allowed almost the entire Wimmera to be reduced to dirt.
* It didn't work like you say in Gippsland last fires. Millions of animals and birds(more than 4 fried chickens, and the trees are coke.) perished and some species may be on the verge of extinction. Back in the mid 1800's as you claim, there wasn't the amount of scrub as there is now. My ancestors brought hundreds of head of stock through the bush from NSW to East Gippsland in 1845, which would not have been possible if it was as overgrown as it is now.
* I’m no adherent to the AGW religion, but I strongly believe we can make the world a nicer place if we plant lots and lots of such trees. A long term fix maybe. But when you look at “the garden state” and its streets and parks full of majestic trees, check the archival footage of Melbourne a 100 years ago and you’ll see they were just saplings and the people who planted them had vision. There is much marginal farmland around the country that could be repurposed into growing trees native to the area and returning some tree cover to Australia. At the end of the day wood is carbon. And we all know or should know where trees get that carbon from. A simple, elegant and worthy project.
* Light Railway Research Society of Australia specialises in railways serving a variety of industrial uses, including forestry, sugar, mining, piers, factories. As well as Light Railways magazine, it has published several books. In Victoria, forestry dominated. Most were narrow gauge, many were wooden-railed and horse drawn. Many were short lived as one allocation was cut out, and a new one was taken up. The famous high lead wasn't far east of Melbourne: an aerial ropeway slinging freshly-cut trees from the logging site for transport to a mill. The excellent period documentary hasn't reached Youtube. LRRSA looks at the whole context of the logging industry, including social conditions and the bad bushfires of 1926 and 1939. During my 1950s and 60s school years, most school furniture was made from mountain ash. Alas, not valued, scrapped, and replaced with plastic. They would be collectors' items today.
* Stop logging East Gippsland.
* No! Don’t stop it, there are too many trees already
* ‘regnans’ must be spelt with a small ‘r’ not a capital. Genus is capital but species is not. Both genus and species should be in italics also. These are the rules of bi-nomial nomenclature.
* If the trees grow one metre per year, then the trees that are estimated to be 400 years old would be 400 metres high. Something doesn’t add up in this article.
* Maybe they get to a point where they just can't grow any more but do grow a metre a year?
* They reach maturity and slow down maybe. Reading this article is very interesting but makes me feel a bit sad for what has been lost.
* some times they grow a metre in height and other times they grow a metre in girth. depends on the season.
* There are so many of them, more should be cut down for firewood
* Great idea, cut down native bush that filters the air we need to live to burn it and create more pollution.
* We have plenty of trees, so a few less means nothing
* How strange that we were talking about these colossal and awesome expressions of nature only yesterday with my elderly folks. What a shame so many were taken. A reminder that we've come a long way I suppose. There are some whoppers also in Bunyip.
* Eventually they fall down, as evidenced by the tree described in the article. They are a fast-growing eucalypt and a valuable resource if managed.
* If they are not taken they fall over just like the one at the start of the story.
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