“A Million Wild Acres”
Ever heard of the Pilliga Yowie? The Pilliga Forest, with its vast and unusual semi–arid woodlands spanning over 3000 square kilometres, is said to be the home of this Big Foot kin. Seekers are drawn from across the globe in search of this mystical (or is that mythical?) creature.
Yowie’s aside, the Pilliga Forest has been long recognised as one of the most important areas for biodiversity in eastern Australia, home to at least 300 native animal species and over 900 plant species. It is a vast unusual western woodland characterised by native white cypress and iron bark forests, broom bush plants and vivid spring flowers.
Pilliga (or Billarga) is a Kamilaroi word meaning swamp oak. It was used back in the mid 1800’s as the name of one of the original grazing runs, near where the town of Pilliga now stands. Occupying about 500,000 hectares between the Namoi River in the North and Warrumbungle Ranges in the South, the Pilliga comprises the largest remaining area of native forest west of the Great Divide.
The current forest structure is a product of the history of settlement in the area. European settlers started arriving around the early 1830’s. These settlers established grazing runs throughout the forests, which then comprised a few well-scattered large trees over a grassy understorey. Aboriginal burning and grazing by Kangaroo Rats had kept the forest floor clear of regeneration until that time.
The introduction of Cattle and Sheep resulted in significant ecological changes. The soils deteriorated and the mix (and grazing quality) of the native grasses changed. The 1870’s and 1880’s produced a prolonged drought that saw most of the grazing runs abandoned. Then, during the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, there was a succession of good seasons and, in the absence of grazing pressure and regular burning; massive regeneration of native cypress and eucalyptus took place across much of the Pilliga.
The spread of rabbits to the area in the early 1900’s prevented any further regeneration events in the Pilliga until the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950’s. With the demise of the rabbit, a new pulse of young cypress and eucalypt seedlings was able to get up and away. The success of the Cyprus regeneration, whilst welcome, represents a management challenge. Many hundreds of cypress seedlings can be present on each hectare, and competition between densely growing stands can result in ‘lock ups”- where growth is nullified as all available light, moisture and nutrients are expended solely on survival. To ensure forest growth and future sawlog supply, these stands must be thinned out, a job that is carried out manually, using brush cutters.
The cypress regeneration from the late 1800’s forms the basis of the timber industry which operated from the Pilliga until 2005 when the industry was greatly scaled back and much of the forest was “locked up” by the NSW government for environmental conservation. Prior to this the 1950’s and subsequent growth was managed to provide a sustainable supply of timber to industry for generations to come. In 1999, there were over 150 jobs dependant on the timber resources of the Pilliga and the industry provided the backbone of many small communities on the fringe of the Pilliga.
Between the 1920’s and mid 1990’s, over 5 million railway sleepers were cut from ironbark grown in the Pilliga. Ironbark is still used to produce fence posts and drops for electric fencing systems, where the non-conductivity of its heartwood provides a unique advantage.
Fire plays a major role in the ecology of the forest with many plant species depending on fire to regenerate. However in unfavourable conditions fire can be extremely intense, spread very quickly and threaten nearby properties as well as laying waste to entire ecosystems. If intense fires occur less than 15 years apart there can be a loss of plant and animal biodiversity. The magnitude of historical Pilliga bushfires correlates extremely well with the El Nino Southern Oscillation phenomena, with El Nino (dry) years having the most severe fires.
In 1997 a major fire burned close to 1,435km² of the forest. An extremely dry winter and spring in 2006 saw a number of large fires develop, including the Pilliga 4 Fire in November/December which burned out 740km² on just its first day.
The scenery within the Pilliga Forest is distinctly unique and making a trip into the scrub quite an adventure. As you drive across one of the many crisscrossed roads you may come across remnants of the past (chimney stacks, abandoned timber mills and a cobblestone road) and the future (gas wells).
Fast Fact: Under the Pilliga Scrub lies one of Australia’s largest onshore natural gas reserves. Gas from this area alone could be sufficient to supply current levels of NSW gas demand for the next 50 years!
Handy Hint: It is advisable to purchase a Pilliga Forest map from the Visitor Information Centre as there are 2,700kms of tracks through the scrub and although most are marked, it would be easy to take a wrong turn.