PARK WATCH Article March 2023 |

Tanya Loos, Biodiversity Projects Officer with Macedon Ranges Shire Council, describes the area’s growing love and concern for their Snow Gums

The first time I really ‘met’ a Snow Gum was not in classic Snow Gum habitat; on top of a mountain in the high country. This Snow Gum was by the Campaspe River, on a private property in Ashbourne, west of Woodend. The landholders had done a capital job of restoring their river frontage, and their exemplary paddock management meant that their large old trees would survive for generations to come.

And what large old trees they were! Massive Manna Gums with long limbs snaking along the ground, Yarra Gums with healthy dense canopies, towering Candlebarks and – the highlight – many wonderful old Snow Gums. Snow Gums (Eucalyptus pauciflora ssp. pauciflora) have stunning white, grey and multi-coloured bark that is especially beautiful when wet. Lowland Snow Gums, which grow below 800 metres altitude, are quite different in form to the Snow Gums we may observe in the Victorian Alps, or at the summit of Mount Macedon.

These Campaspe River Snow Gums were huge and heavy trunked, much like a Manna Gum. Unlike the mallee-like form of the higher altitude Snow Gums, which are twisted and multi-stemmed as the trees cope with the hazards of harsh mountain living. The landholder showed me how to identify the Snow Gums from the other white gums such as Candlebarks. Snow Gum fruits or gum nuts are very large and the leaves are also quite distinct, with parallel veins rather than a network of veins branching out from a central line.

Fast forward a year or so later, and I began working at Macedon Ranges Shire Council as their Biodiversity Projects Officer. I was delighted that one of my first roles involved taking the reins of a council-led Snow Gum Citizen Science Project!

The project began in 2018, when the Snow Gum population on Mt Macedon was selected as a target species for monitoring ecosystem health (modelling indicates this vegetation type is the most vulnerable to climate change).

Meanwhile, Newham and District Landcare Group, and in particular member Helen Scott, fell completely in love with the Snow Gums growing along their roadsides and in their paddocks. Gums were propagated and handed out to new members.

Caption: Snow Gum leaves and fruit. Credit: Helen Scott

What is so special about Snow Gums?

Snow Gums are one of approximately 700 species of eucalypts described in Australia. They are revered for their beauty, their tenacity and will to survive even the harshest snowy environments.

They have a wide distribution, ranging from eastern South Australia, across central and southern Victoria, central and eastern Tasmania, eastern New South Wales, extending north across the New England Tablelands plateau to near the Queensland border. Although they are most well known for their alpine populations, there are scattered lowland populations, with some Snow Gums in SW Victoria and Gippsland growing at 50 metres above sea level.

Unfortunately, many alpine populations are suffering from dieback, caused in part by a beetle whose wood-boring larvae are killing the trees as the climate warms. Climate modelling also paints a grim picture – this thirsty species requires at least 600 millimetres annual rainfall to thrive. While not listed in Australia, the Snow Gum qualifies as ‘Near Threatened’ in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Macedon Ranges Snow Gum Project

Firstly, a local Snow Gum working group was formed. Local ecological consultants Karl Just and Tim D’Ombrain then assessed the distribution and health of Snow Gum populations across the Macedon Ranges. Their brief was to collect spatial, quantitative and qualitative data to better inform programs for their ongoing protection and management.

As much of Macedon Ranges Shire is private land, by necessity the project had a strong citizen science focus. Building on the excellent education work of Newham Landcare, council launched a Snow Gum monitoring blitz – with a brochure, articles and social media asking residents to send in their Snow Gum sightings.

We co-led a workshop on the ins-and-outs of eucalypt identification, the ecology of eucalypts, the flora and fauna that depend upon them, and the care of these large woodland giants on private land. The workshop concluded at a much loved Snow Gum affectionately known as ‘the whopper’.

Meanwhile, Karl and Tim undertook detailed assessments of the health and distribution of Snow Gums across the shire, traversing the roadsides and visiting landholders who had submitted sightings. Nothing like a visit from an ecologist on your property!

In June 2022, the project report was published. Karl Just presented the project findings at a public meeting in June. This gathering of Snow Gum enthusiasts from across the Ranges even featured a local harpist playing a Snow Gum inspired composition.

Despite still bearing the scars from the 1983 Ash Wednesday fires, the Mt Macedon Snow Gum population was assessed as being in relatively good health, with over 50 per cent of trees assessed as in ‘very good’ health. In the lowland populations the picture as even more positive with 77 per cent of trees recorded as ‘very good’.

Happily, the health assessment also found that there are plenty of young Snow Gums in the region. This means the local conditions are still suitable, and that adequate numbers of saplings are reaching maturity.

But what got all of us really excited is that the assessment identifies the Macedon Ranges population of both alpine and low-lying snow gums as the ‘largest number of individuals and sub-populations of Snow Gum known to occur outside of the Alps region’. Newham Landcare’s Snow Gums, with some 697 trees distributed across five hectares, was identified as the largest lowland population in Victoria.

The enthusiastic participation in the Snow Gum Citizen Science project revealed a cohort of Snow Gum Guardians already taking action to protect and nurture this wonderful eucalypt. The Snow Gum can now be promoted as a mark of pride and point of difference for our shire.

Outside Macedon Regional Park, the majority of Snow Gums recorded were on council-owned roadsides, highlighting council’s special responsibility. Although we all can play a part in the ongoing protection and survival of Snow Gums, we continue to work with landcare groups, landholders and agencies (such as Parks Victoria) – especially as the climate warms and dries.

The project was made possible with funding through the Victorian Government’s ADAPT Loddon Mallee Program.