On the River Murray floodplain in late summer 2013, there are signs of new life everywhere. Nature delivered a ‘get out of jail free’ card with floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012 which brought millions of seedlings to life. These seedlings now need all the help they can get to replace the millions of trees lost during the Millenium drought, when the floodplain went without life-giving floods for 14 years.
With water flowing out of the Murray Mouth for the last three years, new growth on floodplain trees and the reappearance of young native fish, the general perception is that the problems are solved. But, while the River Murray is better, it is still far from fixed. And the forests of new seedlings are facing challenges to their survival from grazing stock and very dry summer conditions.
At a site on the edge of the River at Chowilla, most mature trees were dead or extremely stressed, with only limited regrowth after the floods. And sadly, thousands of red gum seedlings which germinated in the floods had been severely grazed by sheep, leaving sticks 30-50 cm high with badly chewed leaves. The grazing sheep have powdered the soil surface, making it vulnerable to evaporation and erosion, and preventing the establishment of ground cover plants. The survival rate for seedlings at this site is likely to be very low.
It is important to protect and support the flood-generated seedlings for the highest possible rate of survival, to replace the dead and dying older trees. That includes protecting seedlings from grazing, and using environmental water to help them survive through their first two summers. Nature has provided a major opportunity for recovery on the River Murray floodplain. This is an important chance to repair the drought damage and bring the River Murray back to health.