Damp Sclerophyll Forest

Damp Sclerophyll Forest (DampSF) is the most widespread and variable forest ecosystem in the state.  It is found on a range of loamy, clay-loam and sandy-loam soils of relatively sheltered hillsides, mostly between 200 and 1100 m above sea level, with rainfall between 750 and 1200 mm a year.  About 60% of the area once supporting DampSF in Victoria falls on public land while a little over one fifth is represented in conservation parks and reserves.  About a third of all DampSF has been permanently cleared for agriculture or urban development.

At the wetter end of DampSF the trees may grow to 60 m or more, over an understory of climbers, broad-leafed and small leafed shrubs, occasional tree ferns, ground ferns, dense wire-grass and herbs.  The principal tree species is Eucalyptus obliqua (Messmate) which grows in association with two or three other species, often Eucalyptus cypellocarpa (Mountain Grey-gum) and Eucalyptus radiata (Narrow-leaf Peppermint).  This form of DampSF usually grows next to and grades into Wet Sclerophyll Forest.  

At the drier end, the trees are smaller, usually less than 40 m, with an understory of a few climbers and scramblers, wattles, small-leafed shrubs, tussock-forming and rhizomatous grasses, occasional ferns, and soft-leafed herbs.   In this form the main trees are also Messmate and Narrow-leaf Peppermint but Manna Gum (Eucalyptus viminalis) and Broad-leafed Peppermint (Eucalyptus dives) become more common.  Dry Sclerophyll Forest often borders and grades into DampSF under these conditions. 

At lower altitudes DampSF will often support Eucalyptus sieberi (Silvertop Ash), Eucalyptus globoidea (White Stringybark), Eucalyptus consideniana (Yertchuk), Eucalyptus muelleriana (Yellow Stringybark) and Eucalyptus baxteri (Brown Stringybark).

Damp Sclerophyll Forest
Damp Sclerophyll Forest 

The mammalian fauna consists primarily of large grazers (kangaroos), medium-sized browsers (wombat, wallaby), small ground insectivores and omnivores (antechinus, native rats), arboreal species, (koala, possums and gliders) and bats.  Most of the birds are common forest species across Victoria (fantails, thornbills, treecreepers, whistlers, honeyeaters, rosellas, currawongs, robins, pardalotes, cuckoos, Kookaburra, owls, parrots, wrens).  The reptiles are mostly small arboreal skinks with occasional Red-bellied Black Snakes, Tiger Snakes and White-lipped Snakes.  All common frogs are small, principally terrestrial species.

DampSF is the most heavily utilised Victorian forest ecosystem.  In sheltered, higher rainfall areas where the trees are large, the forests are logged - for Messmate, Silvertop Ash and Yellow Stringybark in particular.  Where it has a grassy understory many parts have been cleared and successfully converted to pasture.  Where there is moderately dense human population the forests are regularly harvested for firewood.  Almost all areas are frequently used for off-road and bush-track four-wheel-driving and trail-biking. 

Most stands of DampSF in Victoria are relatively young, less than 60 years old, and some are regrowth after having been cleared several times in the past, for sheep and cattle grazing and heavy cutting for timber and firewood from the 1800s to the mid-1900s.  In the early days of Victorian forestry, replanting trees in DampSF after logging was often restricted to tree species that were desirable for timber production (and not necessarily species that were present before logging), so both the composition and diversity of the forest canopy have changed.  Even today, active post-logging regeneration programs usually concentrate on the trees while understory species must re-establish via invasion from adjacent areas or from seed left in the ground.

Land managers, concerned with fire safety, regularly apply spring and autumn fuel-reduction burning programs throughout these forests and as a result the most widespread and consistently occurring plant species are Bracken (Pteridium esculentum) and Wire-grass (Tetrarrhena juncea), both of which increase in abundance after frequent, low-intensity fires. 

Despite this wide range of uses and dramatic changes to the vegetation in local areas, DampSF remains relatively weed-free (at least away from roads and clearings) and is one of the most botanically diverse ecosystems in the state (it is particularly rich in species of Eucalyptus and Pomaderris).   But this is seldom noticeable to the casual visitor to the forest or one with an untrained eye.  As a consequence DampSF is often described as messy and uninteresting.  It doesn't have the grandeur of Wet Sclerophyll Forest or the vistas of the Alps,  The spring wildflower display doesn't match that of the Grampians Heathlands or the Mallee.  This is often the case because many of the brightly flowering species have been reduced in number under thickets of Wire-grass and swards of Bracken.  It is also because the prominent species have subtle flowers or none at all (Tetrarrhena, Coprosma, Polyscias, Cassinia, Ozothamnus, Exocarpos, Pomaderris, Lomandra, Lepidosperma, Gahnia, Pteridium, Calochlaena), or their flowering seasons are spread out through the year rather than concentrated in a season (banksias in autumn, correas in winter, wattles in early spring, bush-peas in mid-spring, boronias in late spring, geebungs in summer) or because they grow singly or in small groups and don't make a big visual impact.  

Whatever the reasons, DampSF is not one of the greatly loved ecosystems of Victoria and it is this as much as any other ecological or utilitarian factor that puts the forest at risk.  There is a carelessness with which Victorians regard DampSF that is reflected in the weediness of its roadsides and creeks, the number of bush tracks that far exceed those needed for simple navigation (many have been created simply to test a motor-bike or four-wheel drive) and the rubbish dumping that results from most aspects of its use.  The undergrowth is usually tangled and difficult to walk through, the trunks of the trees are often black from the most recent fuel-reduction burn, and the animals are normally few and small and either hidden beneath the undergrowth or high in the trees.  All of which presents, to many observers, an unattractive and hence undervalued ecosystem  

If there is a characteristic feature of DampSF that stands out from the others it may be its ordinariness.  There are, of course, rare and unusual species that live in this forest which can be found, albeit with difficulty.  DampSF is the preferred habitat for the Long-footed Potoroo, the Spot-tailed Quoll and the Grey Goshawk as well as Boronia muelleri, Tetratheca stenocarpa and Hibbertia dentata.  But perhaps more importantly, DampSF is as good a place as any to go to see common species such Kookaburra or Black Wallaby or Garden Skink or Common Heath, or to demonstrate the difference between a stringybark, a gum and a peppermint all growing in close proximity, or hear the nocturnal calls of the Southern Bullfrog and the Sugar Glider.   All of these things can be experienced in DampSF almost anywhere it is found and it is found in more places and is more accessible to the general public than any other ecosystem.

© Paul Gullan, Viridans Biological Databases