Pre-European Melbourne was a place of diverse natural environments and great variety in natural resources. The vegetation of the area included 1260 flowering plants (grasses, sedges, orchids, wattles, bush peas, eucalypts and daisy bushes), 73 ferns and club mosses, 95 species of liverworts and hornworts, 180 mosses, and at least 560 fungi. As an early observer wrote, 'Almost every kind of natural scenery is to be met with at Port Phillip'. All of these environments provided habitats for a wide range of plant and animal life and a broad spectrum of resources for the Aboriginal population.
The natural vegetation of any area is determined largely by a range of physical factors germane to the site - the soils and their parent materials, topography and climate. The larger area within which the settlement of Melbourne developed can be referred to as the Port Phillip Sunkland. This was formed during the Cretaceous Period (between 140 and 65 million years ago) by the subsidence of land between two roughly parallel faultlines - the Rowsley in the west and the Selwyn in the east.
The topography of the area displays little variation in landscape elevation. The highest elevations, those reached in the granitic Dandenong Ranges in the east, are no more than 685 m, but the area is predominantly one of alluvial and volcanic plains and low hills. Because topography and climate are intimately related, there is a corresponding east-west gradient in annual rainfall in the region. The highest falls, of up to 1400 mm, are in the eastern highlands, including the Dandenong Ranges, while a low of 400 mm is received on the basalt plains in the region's west.
In hydrological terms the region contains four major catchment areas and is well watered. From the west, these drainage basins are associated with the Werribee, Maribyrnong, Yarra and Bunyip rivers. The Yarra is the major stream in the area and in large part the raison d'être for the location of Melbourne. Both the Yarra and its major tributary, the Maribyrnong, are tidal in the lower reaches. In the case of the Yarra this was only as far as the rock ledge known as the Yarra Falls, about 6 km above the junction with the Maribyrnong. (This junction was originally about 4 km upstream from the Bay.) The fresh water above these shallow falls was the main source of potable water for the settlement. The major part of the rivers' flow is in winter and spring, during which they carry between 65% and 89% of their annual load.
Around the margins of Port Phillip Bay, on a base of calcareous sands, the vegetational regime encountered by the earliest settlers was predominantly that of a dry coast complex. The seaward slopes of dunes were bare or stabilised with Coast Saltbush and Hairy Spinifex. Coastal Tea-tree was widespread and saltbush and native pigface were common. On the margins of these environments, She-oaks often occurred on higher, better drained areas. Typically, these areas were the habitat of white-footed dunnerts, swamp antechinus, tree dragons, lizards and three-lined skinks, and arboreal ringtail possums that found nesting sites in the branches of tea-tree. Bird life was prolific, with the vast majority of the region's more than 300 species of bird found on the margin of the Bay. These birds included 91 species of bush bird, 37 different seabirds and 52 waders.
In a number of places adjacent to the coast, the abundant bird life centred on the wetlands and swamps that were relatively common before European settlement. Around present-day Altona and south-west to Point Cook, for example, there was an extensive lignum swamp system. The low-lying alluvial area of the Yarra delta contained extensive wetlands in the vicinity of West Melbourne and on the southern bank of the river, where the appropriately named South Melbourne Swamp formed the basis for present-day Albert Park Lake. Other significant wetland areas occurred in Caulfield, Prahran (the name itself comes from the Boon wurrung term for 'surrounded by water') and Bulleen. The largest swamp within the Melbourne area was on the eastern side of Port Phillip Bay behind the coastal dune ridge, in a basin formed between the Selwyn and Beaumaris faultlines. Called the Carrum or Little Swamp (to distinguish it from the much larger Great Swamp at Koo Wee Rup), it nonetheless stretched for about 15 km in length, from Mordialloc Creek to near Frankston, with a maximum width of 5 km.
All of these wetlands supported an enormous biodiversity that included mammals, reptiles, fish, birds and invertebrates. Within such areas observers noted platypus, eastern water rats, snake-necked tortoise, Macquarie Tortoise, Tiger Snake and Red-bellied Black Snake, and three species of frog including Ewings Tree Frog. The bird life included Australian Pelican, Little Pied Cormorant, Little Black Grebe, Grey Teal, Black Duck, Black Swan, Yellow-billed Spoonbill and Ibis. The water was home to Galaxids, Smelt, Gudgeons, Small Lampreys and Mosquito Fish; and the air was alive with Stone Flies, May Flies, Codd's Flies and Dragonflies.
Stretching away from the coastal zone in a number of directions were open plains that presented an attractive proposition for European pastoralists. To the west of the Maribyrnong River lay an extensive plain, the volcanic origin of which was evident from the numerous boulders of scoria that littered the ground surface. On this plain the shallow gradational soils supported mainly grasslands and savannah. As John Helder Wedge observed, the grasslands 'partake more of the nature of downs'. Many of the 90 indigenous grass species found in the region, such as Kangaroo, Wallaby, Spear and Red-Leg Grasses, as well as Tussock, some Windmill, and Panic Grasses were part of the suite of vegetation on this and other local grasslands. A wide variety of flowering plants occurred in tussock grasslands such as these, including Button Wrinklewort, Everlastings, Groundsels, Bulbous Lilies, Orchids, Pussy Tails, Tuberous Crane's Bill, Blue Devil and Blue Bell. One of the more prolific species of flowering plant on the plains was the Yam Daisy (Microseris lanceolata), called murnong by the Koorie residents of the area, to whom it was of particular importance. This park-like appearance may have been a construct of Koorie hunting strategies, a result of the periodic firing of the vegetation in order to clear undergrowth and promote new growth to attract game.
This wide plain was dissected by a number of major streams, such as the Werribee River and Kororoit Creek, along the course of which a more mature succession had developed. Fringing Kororoit Creek was riparian scrub - Acacia species, eucalypts and Callistemon species. The lower reaches of Kororoit Creek were called 'Ti tree Creek' for the native species that grew there. A She-oak woodland grew on the western side of the Maribyrnong River, stretching from Braybrook to Yarraville and (with a gap for Stoney Creek) to Williamstown. This woodland included both the Black and Drooping She-oak species.
Stretching to the south and south-east of the Yarra River, to the edge of Western Port Bay, was an alluvial plain that presented a landscape of rolling hills. In areas where the soils were leached, notably in the vicinity of Brighton and Sandringham, the ground covering consisted of heath or heathy woodlands. There were patches of dense tea-tree, some Banksia, Allocasuarina and Manna Gum, but in the main the vegetation was of the drought-resistant Epacris variety.
Further to the south-east the soils became less acidic and supported a regime of open forest with large areas of grassland; this environment extended from the vicinity of Springvale and Dandenong east to the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges and south-east to Westernport Bay. Mature eucalypts, mostly River Red Gum, and a medium to tall shrub layer that included Silver Wattle and River Bottlebrush marked the course of permanent streams such as Dandenong and Eumemmerring creeks. Around the lower reaches of these streams and at their junction grew a thick forest with stands of magnificent Red Gums and an under-storey of She-oak, Wild Cherry, Wattle and Peppermint species. Such forested areas, in which River Red Gums are dominant, are often the preferred habitat of a number of avian species, particularly the Long-billed Corella, Red Rump Parrot and Noisy Miner.
There were also smaller expanses of grassland in other parts of the region, for example in otherwise forested parts of Box Hill and Ringwood. Such areas were generally associated with river valleys and alluvial flats. The grasslands and lightly wooded areas on these plains - both alluvial and volcanic - provided habitats for a range of animals and bird life. Enormous flocks of kangaroo (mostly Eastern Grey) and emu were common on the alluvial flats of the Dandenong area in the 1830s. Bird life on the grasslands included Australian Bustard, Little Quail, Stubble Quail, Magpie, Nankeen Kestrel, Brown Hawk. While few small animals were found in areas lacking substantial ground leaf litter, in the more open wooded grasslands species such as the Fat Tailed Dunnert, Gunns Bandicoot and the Plains Wanderer were noted. Reptilian life included the Spinifex Lizard, at least three species of snake, and several skinks.
The fourth bio-geographic unit of note within the pre-European environment was that of the forested areas including both wet and dry open forests and, in the higher elevations, a montane complex. These forests often occurred on sodic (i.e. alkaline) sediments derived from granites, and covered large areas - on the northern side of the Yarra River, stretching in a broad band into the foothills of the Dividing Ranges, and in the foothills and uplands of the Dandenong Ranges to the east.
At altitudes between 200 m and 900 m, the dominant forest communities were the dry sclerophyll forest and the foothill forest complex. In the former case, red box, red stringy-bark, long-leaf box and yellow box dominate the vegetation and there is generally an open grassy understorey. Foothill forests were characterised according to the nature of their understorey and could be herb-rich, heathy or scrubby. Essentially, the dominant tree species in such forests took in various associations of Narrow-Leafed Peppermint, Messmate, Manna Gum, Silvertop and Eurabbie.
In the upland country to the north-west of the western plains area, where that area's creeks had their rise, the forest cover comprised tree species such as Grey Box (the most common trees growing on these uplands), Yellow Gum, Yellow Box, Broad-Leaf Peppermint, Bundys and Red Stringy-bark.
In the dry forests the understorey supported small mammals such as bush rats and brown antechinus. There were also six species of insectivorous bats, Leadbeater's Possum, Echidna, Black Wallaby and, in the more open forests, Tuan, Koala and Yellow-footed antechinus. Similarly, the bird life was not extensive but Honeyeaters, Wattle Birds, Boobook Owl, Black and White Cockatoos and Crimson Rosellas were all observed in this environment.
The abundant natural resources, including a huge diversity of plant and animal communities, that characterised the environments of the Port Phillip region provided local Koorie clans with a rich material basis for their way of life. For thousands of years those environments had been exploited but also passively maintained by Koories. While initially European interests focused mainly on the region's extensive grassland, the impact of their land-use practices was soon felt in all of the many other local ecological niches. Within a mere 50 years of settlement, no part of the wider area was untouched and the rate of environmental change showed no sign of decreasing.
Melbourne today, like other modern cities, is a conurbation of several million people breathing, drinking, using, changing and feeling the natural environment. The city's growth has spread over the plains, swamps and hills of the original Port Phillip District, and its environmental impact extends both within and far beyond the current boundaries of the Greater Melbourne metropolitan area. The natural environment has determined and in turn been shaped by such developments. Melbourne's character has been influenced by decisions made early in its settlement; by the ways in which the city has been sustained over time with water, energy and food; by its demography and the development of its transport infrastructure; and by its government and administration. Community responses to physical and economic growth and social evolution have also impacted on the biological environment.
The first European settlers in the Port Phillip District changed the environment that attracted and supported them for the first few years of settlement, as the pressures grew for housing, roads, water supply and waste disposal, commerce and the normal infrastructure of a rapidly growing city. The natural environment that supported them was later seen as constraining, non-productive and an impediment to progress.
Melbourne's climate remains virtually the same as it would have been before European settlement. Although the buildings and roads of Melbourne constitute an artificial solar heat bank, releasing energy during the night and keeping atmospheric temperatures elevated, particularly on still nights, this is a local phenomenon within the broad, unmodifiable passage of the seasons and the eastwardly moving anticyclonic patterns so characteristic of its mid-latitude climate. The response of Melburnians to this climate has been to install heaters and airconditioners in offices and homes, such comforts coming at the expense of fossil fuels and the alteration of energy-producing environments elsewhere.
In the development of the city, natural surface features have been manipulated by physical effort. The placement and cost of high-rise buildings is very much influenced by the proximity of solid bedrock foundations. The streams and drainage patterns of Melbourne generally follow natural paths, although barrel drains and concrete channels have destroyed the living environmental context of many and some have been used as convenient corridors for the siting of freeways. The lower reaches of the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers would be totally unrecognisable to mid-19th-century Melburnians. However, there are some attempts at restoration of the natural environment on the Westgate Park swamplands beyond Fishermans Bend in Port Melbourne, and elsewhere. Creeks, tributaries and even the Yarra River itself have been modified to meet the needs of the city, but at a significant engineering and aesthetic cost.
Melbourne's settlement site provided ample fresh water, productive soils, sheltered shipping access and a hinterland capable of supplying not only quantities of timber for housing and construction but also land for agriculture. In a very short time, however, the original natural bounty was unable to meet the basic demands of the population. The Yarra, now with port facilities and noxious trades on its banks, became polluted. Fresh water for drinking became scarce. Disease was rife, especially typhoid. Many of the productive soils were covered with buildings and roadways. Immediate supplies of timber were exhausted, demanding access to and transport from more distant forest stands. By the 1850s the productive natural environment of the lower Yarra River, which had been instrumental in determining the original location of the city, had been completely altered and the impact of the expanding metropolis was growing. The natural environment was bountiful, but its continued survival was irrevocably compromised.
In the first two decades of settlement, the pastoral industry was the primary impetus for growth, importing stock and consumer goods and exporting durable primary products such as wool, hides and grain. Population growth and commercial development exploded with the discovery of gold in 1851. Roads and expanded transport routes had to be provided, a water supply and distribution system had to be developed, and sewerage and waste disposal issues threatened the health of Melbourne. Subsequent decades saw sequential phases of growth and development: land clearing for the production of food; suburban expansion into the formerly productive orchards and market gardens; the consolidation of industrial and commercial areas.
Supply and disposal of water and sewage involved major structural and administrative control. The Yan Yean scheme secured a potable water supply in 1857, with other dams opened by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works after it was given responsibility for the city's water supply in 1891. The Yarra Catchment has subsequently been managed on the 'closed catchment' principle, thus largely avoiding expensive water treatment. The catchment areas supplying water to Melbourne generally remain natural and undisturbed.
Due to its low elevation, which demanded expensive pumping, the problem of finding a suitable area for disposal, and a severe shortage of cash, Melbourne was slow to develop a properly effective sewerage system. The Werribee Sewerage Farm with its land filtering system and extensive evaporation ponds is a direct consequence of this need and created a completely altered habitat on the basalt plains to the south-west. The sewage ponds and farm at Werribee now constitute an internationally significant habitat for migratory waders and other waterfowl.
Melbourne's natural hydrological cycle has been modified by urbanisation, to the extent that suburban and city soils receive a smaller input of rainfall by virtue of the large areas of non-absorptive surfaces of roofs and roads. Overall water penetration into the soil has reduced, localised suburban flooding is an annual event, and precious water resources are diverted into the stormwater system. Pollutants in run off also have a subsequent effect on the Port Phillip Bay ecology. Soil water is augmented to a large extent by irrigation systems reliant on the relatively high-cost and high-quality domestic supply.
The city's founders recognised the civic importance of parks and gardens, although they were generally intent on clearing the indigenous flora and replacing it with exotic trees and structures. Interest in native flora in the 19th century was strongly influenced by the government botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, who had a strong economic interest, particularly in the timber and pharmaceutical values of both native and introduced species. Of prime interest was the importation of plants of known quality and the exploitation of those native plants with economic values. Such attitudes were reflected in the formation in 1861 of the Acclimatisation Society of Victoria, whose purpose was 'the introduction, acclimatisation and domestication of all innoxious animals, birds, fishes, insects and vegetables, whether useful or ornamental'.
While the settlers of Port Phillip were intent on establishing themselves in the new land, biologists and naturalists in the northern hemisphere were fascinated by the unusual, particularly by the unique plants and animals to be found in Australia. Gradually local interest developed and there were many exchanges of specimens and information emanating from Melbourne. By 1880 there was sufficient interest in natural history for the formation of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria (FNCV) and by 1890 the club had more than 200 members with a strong commitment to nature conservation and environmental education.
Despite these early moves, it was not until after World War II that the community started to systematically challenge the exploitative, pioneering approach to land planning and management and to consider instead the importance of protecting both natural and built heritage. Other organisations with strong conservation and natural history interests were established or became more active as public demand for policies of conservation and environmental protection grew. Bodies such as the National Trust became very much involved in the preservation of historic buildings, and the Landscape Preservation Council of the Trust extended interest to provide advice on the assessment and protection of significant landscapes.
While many associations, such as the Natural Resources Conservation League, the Gould League and the Bird Observers Club, have a wider interest beyond the boundaries of greater Melbourne, some, like the Blackburn and District Tree Preservation Society, have adopted a more local interest. Such interest has been strongly welcomed by land managers since it brings a committed and practical interest in the environment at a time when parklands are suffering withdrawal of support and funding from both State and municipal government.
The little natural flora and fauna of greater Melbourne that does remain at the start of the 21st century is nearly all found on pockets of public land. Bushland remnants are found around the coast of Port Phillip Bay, along the streams and tributaries of the Yarra and Maribyrnong rivers and in the Dandenong Ranges. Some parks and gardens retain remnants of original native communities but generally they have been managed and modified to cater more for the leisure needs of local populations.
The Victorian Government is generally the landlord of all public land, but responsibility for day-to-day management may be vested in a local committee of management, often comprising people nominated by local government. In recent years many of the larger areas of public land in Melbourne have been brought under the administration of Parks Victoria, which has brought together managerial elements of the former National Parks Service, a division of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Parks and Waterways division of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works. Parks Victoria has a board of directors nominated by government and has responsibility for the co-ordinated management of these lands. Policy advice regarding the management of those parks within the schedule of the National Parks Act is provided by the director of national parks, who also has responsibility for the management of the Flora and Fauna Division of the Department of Sustainable Environment.
While the movement for the protection of the natural environment has come mainly from Melbourne itself, one of the first attempts at environment protection came from the farming community, who were the first to experience the serious consequences of soil degradation in the late 1930s. The Soil Conservation Board (later the Soil Conservation Authority), established in 1940, worked with rural communities to protect and manage farm soils. The difficulty of achieving success was dramatically brought home to Melburnians by the dust storm which blanketed the city in February 1983 and illustrated the vulnerability to wind erosion of ancient and often overworked soils.
Atmospheric and industrial pollution, along with photo-chemical smog, became matters of concern from the 1950s. The Victorian Government established the Environment Protection Authority (EPA) to monitor and license environmental pollution. Also in this period, controls on city planning were strengthened and local governments were given responsibility for the development and implementation of planning policy, much of which impacted on the natural environment. Legislation for the protection of native plants and animals was passed by the Parliament of Victoria, followed in 1988 by the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act.
Significant steps have been made towards the protection and management of the natural environment in Melbourne, but the development of the conserver society has a long way to go. Freeway and road extensions continue to threaten remnant forest and woodland communities and wetlands in the greater Melbourne area. A range of voices speak for the protection of the natural environment, many of which are associated with Environment Victoria, established in 1972 as a State co-ordinating body for the conservation movement. In the early 1970s, following discredited government proposals for clearing bushland in western Victoria, the electorate and the conservation movement were instrumental in convincing the Bolte Liberal Party Government to establish the Land Conservation Council (LCC). The LCC was required to recommend appropriate land management for all public lands in Victoria, other than those in cities or boroughs. It had little authority over the natural environment of Melbourne, although some important areas of public land within or adjacent to the greater Melbourne area were included in its deliberations, notably the Dandenong Ranges, Kinglake National Park and Organ Pipes National Park. Not only had a process been established for the assessment of the values of public land, but importantly it was a process that included strong elements of public participation.
During the 1990s there was a diminution of government funding and support for research and management of the natural environment. Loss of professional staff at both policy and management levels meant reduced performance and a loss of corporate knowledge. The response of the community has been to increase the voluntary input of effort through the formation of Friends Groups, sometimes assisted by small matching grants to help meet the needs of environmental management.
It was inevitable from the start of settlement that the history of Melbourne would be characterised by a continuing loss and alteration of the natural environment. In the face of this inheritance, many Melburnians continue both to question the rapacious demands of urbanisation and to ensure that the natural environment continues to define our sense of place.