In the coldest state of Australia, the most frost-tolerant eucalypt in the world is under threat.
- Animals returning after fires target the cider gum’s new growth, conservationists say
- Cages have been installed by volunteers to protect new growth from foraging animals
- A stand of the trees in Tasmania’s Central Highlands has become popular with tourists, despite the trees being dead
Located in the Central Highlands, the Tasmanian cider gum has a rich history and is of cultural importance to the local Indigenous community.
The Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre’s Andry Sculthorpe said there needed to be a focus on saving the much-loved gum.
“They carry with them an importance for our cultural heritage and with the living trees, the survival of those species is super important, but also there are the remains of the activities of Aboriginal people who tapped those trees,” he said.
Eve Lazarus from the Derwent Catchment Group described the gums as an icon for the central highlands.
“They produce this cider, this sweet sap that ferments naturally with the yeast in the air and we get this semi-alcoholic beverage which the Tasmanian Aboriginal people used to seek out as a resource when it was running in the warmer months,” she said.
“When you’re out and you’re walking around the trees and it’s hot and you get this amazing smell of fermentation like you’re at a cider bar, except you happen to be in the middle of the bush.”
Graveyard of trees
The trees are in decline due to a combination of global warming, insects and animal attacks.
In fact, a graveyard of the gums lining a road in the Central Highlands has become a tourist attraction.
“Even in death, as they stretch out their pale limbs towards the sky, they cast a very eerie silhouette across the landscape that people are quite fond of,” Ms Lazarus said.
But now bushfires are posing a threat to the species, with the Great Pine Tier blaze that burned through the area in 2019 ravaging some of the gums.
The Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s Joe Quarmby said they were concerned the trees affected by fire would not recover.
“We came out after the fire and found that most of the large trees had not re-sprouted, so had potentially died and there wasn’t much sign of re-generation,” he said.
“That caused us to look at caging around the base of the trees to hopefully get some regeneration from the plants that were left and hopefully if there was some seed regeneration, that the cages would protect those seedlings.”
A TLC volunteer group installed 34 cages to protect the plants and found them to be effective, with minimal browsing inside the cages.
“The animals come back in after the fire, they’re very hungry and these guys are first on the menu,” Ms Lazarus said.
“They are like sugar to children for all of our browsing animals.
The TLC discovered a mass “recruitment”, with new seedlings sprouting both inside and outside the cages.
“With cider gums they flower episodically, so maybe every five to 10 years you might see flowering,” Mr Quarmby said.
“And from that flowering, they only produce a small amount of gum nuts, so seed within the gum nuts.”
After the recent fires, many of the burnt cider gum trees unexpectedly dropped seeds.
Mr Quarmby believes the trees must have flowered last season or two seasons before, for such a large recruitment event to occur.
“I’ve never seen it and it’s something I don’t think has been recorded or observed for this species ever before, so it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence,” he said.
“It provides a huge opportunity for the conservation of the species if we can get in and protect the seedlings.”
A conservation area was established on the Central Plateau in 1978 and a few years later it became a World Heritage Area.
That has meant fewer burn-offs in the region, which some believe has increased the risk of bushfires taking off and spreading to farm land and reserves.
While the trees are now on the road to recovery, another big fire could lead to extinction.
“In a traditional way, a cultural burn would be a lot more sensitive and cooler burn in those landscapes, which would mitigate against wildfires and escaped burn-offs,” Mr Sculthorpe said.
“The loss of the cider gum would mean the loss of a cultural practice, it’d mean the loss of a species that is recorded within our history and losing that is a tragedy.”