The Great Western Woodlands: is there anything out there?

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One of the most frequent responses that I receive when I tell people that I conduct ecological research in that part of Western Australia that lies beyond the Wheatbelt, beyond the old rabbit-proof fence, where there’s gold and dust but hardly any roads, is “what do you go there for? There’s nothing out there. Just desert”.

Apart from the fact that I disagree with the conflation of ‘desert’ (a unique and often spectacular set of ecosystems in its own right) with ‘nothing’, I’m not shocked.  Along with the other 99% of Australia that exists outside of highly populated areas and a few notable national parks and tourist trails, this incredibly special area has, for the most part, escaped inclusion in the consciousness of most Australians.

Sure, there are a couple of groups of indigenous custodians with ongoing traditional links, knowledge, and ownership responsibilities for the land. There are several handfuls of mining and exploration companies with interests or operations in the region. There is a long and fascinating history of gold mining, prospecting, timber harvesting and a famous pipeline that carries water out there.  There are some pastoral stations, a few small towns, and a growing number of conservation and research organisations and departments interested in conserving and/or managing the landscape. But various historic initiatives to settle and clear the land amounted to very little, and the majority of the Great Western Woodlands remains ‘unallocated’, with an area the size of Tasmania in the middle that contains no permanent settlements. Most Australians, even those who call the south-west of Western Australia home, have never heard of the largest remaining Mediterranean-climate woodland on earth that exists in their back yard, although it’s larger than England.

‘Mediterranean-climate’ may sound like an obscure qualifier, but in fact it refers to the fact that the Great Western Woodlands represents a particularly special biome that is in a particularly precarious position. There are five regions in the world with Mediterranean-type climates (mild wet winters and hot dry summers). These regions constitute just 2% of the world’s land area but support an astonishing 20% of the world’s vascular plants. Unfortunately, these species-rich regions have all experienced extremely intense development pressure, being the most transformed biome in the world after temperate grasslands. This combination of factors have led to each one of the Mediterranean regions earning the classification ‘biodiversity hotspt’: a region characterised by both exceptional levels of plant endemism (very many plants grow there that grow nowhere else) and exceptional levels of habitat loss (the greatest cause of species extinction, amongst other things).

What is called ‘The Great Western Woodlands’ is actually a mosaic of woodland, shrubland, mallee, casuarina and melaleuca thickets, rocky outcrops, halophytic (salt-loving) vegetation, salt lakes, and picturesque banded ironstone formations. It bridges the relatively wet south-west corner and the arid interior of Australia. It’s a centre of plant and animal diversity, being home to a fifth of all of Australia’s flowering plants, (including about 30% of all of Australia’s eucalypts), and very high levels of acacia, jewel beetle, and reptilian diversity. It’s the driest place on earth where you can find extensive tracts of woodland. It’s been identified as a continent-wide priority for conservation. And it’s relatively undisturbed.

The devil is in the detail, of course, and the word ‘relatively’ refers to the fact that there are in fact a whole suite of disturbances, all of which compromise the ecological values of the region to some degree. But that is a story for another day (someone should do a PhD on it…!).

For now, I have compiled a slide show of photographs taken in and of the Great Western Woodlands, taken during my field trips to the area. Many of the photos are from my most recent trip during the peak of the spring flowering (there were days where we literally walked through fields of flowers!). There are a few photos taken with motion-sensor cameras as part of my observational study on spatial predation dynamics. Please enjoy; and if you are inspired to go out and experience the area for yourself, please take care. The summers are hot, the winters are cold. The distances are great and telephone reception is sparse. The roads are very poorly mapped and often overgrown, and the abandoned mine pits; deep. It is, however, worth it.

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1 Response to The Great Western Woodlands: is there anything out there?

  1. Lucy Ridsdale says:

    I’m so touched by your sharing, Keren, by the beauty of the places you describe and show. Deep bow to you and your work of love and investigation of the Great Western Woodland.

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