Alpine Ecosystems

The alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems in Victoria are confined to the Eastern Highlands mostly above 1300 m.  The precipitation usually exceeds 1400 mm a year, some of which falls as snow in the winter when minimum temperatures regularly fall below zero.  Virtually all of the alpine ecosystems in Victoria fall on public land and about 75% are in some form or conservation park or reserve.

The vegetation of these regions includes snow gum woodlands, heathlands and grasslands.  Much of the woodland vegetation has an understory of small-leafed shrubs, soft-leafed herbs and coarse tussock grasses.  The grasslands are dominated by tussock grasses, small sedges and a wide range of herbs, particularly snow-daisies and trigger plants.  The heathlands of dry shallow soils on exposed sites support shrubby peas, heaths, peppers, wattles, mint-bushes and members of the Proteaceae, while those of wet depressions are generally dominated by heaths, sedges, rushes and sphagnum.

Alpine ecosystems do not support a rich vertebrate fauna and they are the only ones in Victoria where the three most commonly recorded native species are mammals rather than birds - Bush Rat, Common Wombat, Agile Antechinus.  Unfortunately the fourth most commonly recorded species is the Red Fox which may be related to the abundance of hares and rabbits in the alps.  The commonest birds are typical of woodlands across Victoria - robins, scrubwrens, rosellas, fantails, honeyeaters, currawongs, thornbills and pardalotes, while wetland species are rarely recorded. The most abundant reptiles are small skinks - most are alpine specialists - while there are about six species of frogs, three of which are more or less confined to the high country.

Alpine Woodland

The largest plants of alpine ecosystems are nearly always small, multi-stemmed, gum-barked eucalypts.  They are not really trees in the normally accepted sense in that they don't usually have a single trunk and seldom grow taller than 10 m.  They have much in common with the mallee eucalypts of semi-arid north-western Victoria and some common names include the word 'mallee'.  They are long-lived, slow-growing, resistant to wide variations in temperature and high winds, regenerate rapidly after bushfires from epicormic shoots on the branches (particularly near the base), and flower prolifically in the summer months.  Those that are found on shallow or rocky soils are most commonly one of four subspecies of Eucalyptus pauciflora, while wetland areas often support Eucalyptus stellulata.  

There are few animal species in Victoria that can truly be regarded as alpine specialists and all of them are small.  Four species of skink, three species of frog and one mammal (Mountain Pygmy-possum) are more or less restricted in their geographic distribution to alpine and sub-alpine areas.  Each is listed under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act (FFG) and all but two are considered to be critically endangered.  There are several more widespread species within these groups that overwinter in the high country - e.g. wombats, wallabies, native rats, antechinus, small skinks, dragons and frogs - but most birds migrate to the lower altitudes during the snow season.

Specialist alpine plants include small, often mat-forming shrubs, which produce succulent fruits that may remain during the winter months - providing some small mammals with a food supply.  Many of them are small heaths or coprosmas but there are also prostrate ballarts, lobelias and shrub-violets.  The Victorian alps supports a greater range of tussock grasses (Poa spp.), herbaceous daisies, buttercups, eyebrights and carexes (small sedges) than any other ecosystem.

From a conservation standpoint the alpine ecosystems have been amongst the least affected by human activity.  There has been some form of spiring-summer cattle and sheep grazing in the high country since the 1850s (sheep were removed in the 1940s) and in most snowfields the first ski lodges were built in the 1920s (1910 in Mount Buffalo), but there has been comparatively little broad-area clearing of native vegetation so the current extent of these ecosystems is much the same as it was at the time of European settlement.  The vegetation of the alps has one of the lowest proportions of non-native plant species of any Victorian ecosystem and only three - Flatweed, Sheep Sorrel and White Clover - are amongst the most common 100 species.  All three species have been introduced via grazing animals and ski run development - a process called slope-grooming, at one time, included the introduction of clover and European grasses, such as Brown-top Bent, to new ski runs. 

The effect of cattle grazing in the Victorian high country has been the subject of heated debate over the past sixty years, one which finally ended, in 2006, with the removal, by the state government, of all cattle licenses in the Alpine National Park.  There has never been any serious doubt that grazing cattle and sheep in the alps changes the local ecosystems for the worse.  Stock were removed from the NSW high country in the 1950s for this reason and also because the managers of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme were concerned about the adverse effect of grazing on water flow and quality.  In addition, ecological research was begun in the Victorian alps in the 1940s after clear signs of serious erosion and reduction in native vegetation cover that had been brought about by uncontrolled grazing of cattle, sheep and horses.  Shortly afterwards, graziers and government agencies collaborated in the design and implementation of much stricter controls, which included limiting stock to cattle and the reducing the length of the grazing season.  In 1989 the 650,000 hectare Alpine National Park was proclaimed but the state government maintained grazing leases for 17 more years.

Alpine ski resorts in Victoria have increased in number and size over the past 50 years.  There are six designated resort areas, Mt Hotham, Mt Buller, Mt Baw Baw, Mt Stirling, Falls Creek and Lake Mountain.  There is also a Chalet at Mount Buffalo.  All the resorts are on Public Land and four are within the Alpine National Park and they occupy an area of slightly more than 100 km2 (about 5% of the alpine ecosystem area in Victoria).  It is estimated that they cater to nearly a million winter visitors each year and there are plans to increase summer usage as well.  With such a huge industry in or near a national park - valued at nearly $130 million a year - it is not surprising that a single overarching authority - the Alpine Resorts Coordinating Council (ARCC) - has been created to manage its development.  The aims of the ARCC are impressive and high on its list of priorities is the maintenance and enhancement of the park's biodiversity.  It is nevertheless curious that in the light of the widespread opposition to cattle grazing in the alps there has been no equivalent for ski resorts.  Apart from concern about Mountain Pygmy-possums, conservation groups and the ecological communities have been almost silent on the matter of ski resort expansion. 

© Paul Gullan, Viridans Biological Databases