The other green army: a history of bush regeneration
Sydney’s ‘eccentric’ Bradley sisters were pioneers of bush regeneration, a movement that changed the battle against the biggest enemy of native plants—invasive weeds. Nick Franklin, an experienced bush regenerator, heads into the scrub in search of their story.
‘The grand Australian bush, nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.’
The Bush Undertaker by Henry Lawson
‘It is what we have done to the natural environment and what it has done to us. The world outside us and the world within. Wilderness, home and garden. Temple, nursery and slaughterhouse.’
The Bush by Don Watson
‘So you’re going to be a weed Nazi,’ said my sister laughing down the phone from the other side of the world.
Being misunderstood and seen as a bit of crank has a long history in bush regeneration, going right back to the pioneering Bradley sisters, who were often labelled as eccentrics when they began developing their theories on Sydney’s North Shore back in the 1960s.
At the boundary between bushland and suburbia it’s almost like a lava flow—flowing over the fence and creeping into the bush … and there’s a sense of complacency in Australia.Tim Low, biologist and author
Joan and Eileen Bradley literally stumbled into bush regeneration as they walked their dogs on Bradleys Head (no relation). As they walked they would pull out weeds, and eventually noticed the bush naturally regenerating.
The Bradley method of weed control was built on the three core principles outlined in Joan Bradley’s Bringing Back the Bush:
1. Work outwards from good bush areas towards areas of weed.
2. Make minimal disturbance to the environment.
3. Do not over clear.
In a tone that would become all too familiar to her followers, she warned: ‘You must not deviate from any of the principles. We cannot stress this enough.’
This was the beginning of a movement that today has thousands of people around Australia practising bush regeneration either as volunteers or paid workers. Early in my research for a documentary on the history of bush regenerators, I assumed that the Bradley sisters were the first, but I was wrong.
Back in the dust bowl years of the 1930s, naturalist Albert Morris made an interesting discovery at Broken Hill, where houses had been buried in sand. When the town common was fenced off to exclude goats, sheep and cows, the land recovered naturally. It was a huge success, but Morris, unlike Joan Bradley, wasn’t a skilled publicist, and it wasn’t until the great green awakening of the ‘60s and ‘70s that bush regeneration took off.
So after half a decade of popular bush regeneration, how bad is Australia’s weed problem today? According to biologist Tim Low, exotic species are invading Australia at a frightening rate.
‘At the boundary between bushland and suburbia it’s almost like a lava flow—flowing over the fence and creeping into the bush … and there’s a sense of complacency in Australia,’ he says.
Despite our quarantine laws, Low says 20 new kinds of weeds are entering Australia every year.
Our forebears were even worse, actively introducing plants which are today listed as noxious weeds. Among the many early weed importers, Victorian government botanist Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller stands out—not only for his often pompous speeches promoting weedy plants, but as a man of action. He always carried a packet of blackberry seeds in his pocket, and scattered them through the wilderness on field trips. He believed that one day people would bless him for his thoughtfulness.
I confess I can’t take the high moral ground here. As a kid who grew up in a village in England and enjoyed the simple pleasure of picking blackberries, I was initially pleased to see the same fruit growing even more vigorously in my garden hedge at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains.
Later I discovered my hedge was, in fact, composed of some of the mountains’ worst weeds—including Himalayan and Japanese honeysuckle, Scotch broom, cotoneaster, privet, montbretia, ivy, tutsan and trad.
Bush regeneration has always been a work in progress, with occasional passionate arguments about how best to help the bush repair itself.
At Wingham Brush near Taree in NSW in the 1980s the battle was fierce. The actual fight against fast growing exotic vines was incredibly tough, but it was nothing compared to the controversy over techniques used by the local bush regeneration team.
John Stockard’s team committed the cardinal sin of deviating from the Bradley method. They were sacked by the National Trust for their use of herbicide and over clearing, but were subsequently vindicated. The National Trust later—on the advice of a newly-appointed scientific committee—recognised that different weed-infested sites required different treatments.
These days many people enter bush regeneration after leaving better paid city jobs. For me, after spending the last 30 years office-bound, it was a chance to work outdoors in the natural world.
Few people do it primarily for the money—many are employed as casuals. You can be driving to work and suddenly the heavens open up; rain means no work today, and no work today means no pay. Nobody has gotten rich doing bush regeneration.
Despite the physical challenges—aching backs and sore knees, as well as leeches, mosquitoes and ticks sampling your blood—the level of commitment by many bush regenerators is staggering.
I was quietly ashamed of complaining about my aching body when I met Rymill Abel—one of the pioneers of bush regeneration on Lord Howe Island, who at 88 is still doing volunteer work in Sydney’s Lane Cove.
Abel retired from paid bush regeneration at 80. I thought he was the oldest bush regenerator in the country until I met Bruce Mackie—one of the original team at Wingham Brush. He’s still volunteering aged 94: ‘I live for today but have an interest in the future and the Manning River, where I’ve lived for 50 years.’