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Australasian Plant Conservation

Originally published in Australasian Plant Conservation 18(1) June - August 2009, p 8-9

People, passion and place: Millie’s story

Millie Nicholls
North Marola, Clare, SA. Email: northmarola@bigpond.com

My place is in the Mid North of South Australia, in the wine growing region of the Clare Valley. I live there because my great-great grandfather, who was an admiral in the Royal Navy, had a vision of a better life for his sons in the new colony of South Australia.

Figure 1. Painting of early settlers’ impression of the landscape that became the Nicholls’ family farm.
Photo: Nicholls Family

Figure 2. Post-war tree clearing using a bulldozer. Photo: Nicholls Family

My Family

On Christmas Day, 1841, my 23 year old great grandfather and his brothers found themselves a campsite on the side of a small creek 100 miles north of Adelaide. This scene (Figure 1), painted shortly after their arrival, looks today very much as it did 168 years ago. The timber fence has given way to wire, the horses to machines, the native grasses to crops, and the sheoaks have long gone. Long gone, too, are the large gatherings of Kaurna people, whom the young men complained kept them awake at night with the sound of their corroborees.

It was a simple beginning, but by the time he died 55 years later, my great grandfather had survived droughts, bushfires and depressions, and become a wealthy man. His children, and many of his grandchildren, lived very comfortable lives moving between Australia and England, the place they all seemed to regard as home.

It was the Depression of the 1930s that brought them back to reality—my father was 23 when he took over the family property in 1930. One of his first moves was to employ two men to ring bark trees for 2/6 per acre.  After the war came cheap energy and the wool boom. This was a common scene in my childhood—trees stopped the grass growing and had to be removed (Figure 2). Shrubs such as bursaria and wattles harboured rabbits, and they too joined the big piles of timber that were subsequently burnt. I found it all very exciting.

The Blue Gum woodland was replaced by improved pastures and sheep which were the mainstay of my family’s business.  I remember lying awake and listening to the bush stone curlews calling at night. They stopped calling sometime in the 1960’s, but I didn’t understand why until much later.

In my generation, this destruction has continued. Mid-northern South Australia was predominantly grazing country until the 1990’s. Now the pastures, both native and improved, have been ripped up and are continuously cropped. Habitat destruction has, if anything, increased rather than decreased. The focus changed from clearing trees, which were mostly gone on the arable land anyway, to clearing grasslands and picking rocks to make cropping easier.

Our Block

My husband and I moved onto a block of what was considered unimproved, poor quality grazing country. Because we were both interested in birds, we left the trees alone, but to my great regret, we ploughed up over a thousand acres of good quality native grassland so we could grow crops.

We also spread super and pasture seed by air over our hills, which were predominantly open grassy woodland. After ten years of spending lots of money and getting no results, we started to think—at last. What were these grasses that, despite our best efforts, refused to die?

No one could tell us. No-one in my region knew any of what I now know to be common native grasses—species of Danthonia, Stipa and Aristida. I didn’t know that a herbarium existed in those days. I am sure they could have told me what the plants were, but there was certainly no interest in native grasses anywhere else!

An opportunity to spend a few years in Adelaide led me to do a Science degree majoring in Botany. I came out of that course knowing little more about grasses than I did when I went in. Grasses were too hard!

Discovering Grasslands

In 1996, the World Wide Fund for Nature recognised that the Mid North was originally a grassland area, and initiated a project to raise awareness of grasslands in the region. I got a small part time job with this project—I was the local knowledge component, and Ann Prescott, a well known botanist, was the botanical expert. We spent five years discovering grasslands, and raising awareness of them through working with people and community groups. We could have achieved so much more if we had been able to obtain some grant funding, but the government was not interested at that time because the grasslands were nearly all on private land and being productively used.

With some neighbours, we started a local Landcare group which had a focus on grasslands and grassy woodlands. It was a very successful group for 10 years, until Natural Resource Management came along. Now there is no more funding for Landcare groups, so we have gone into recess.

With an increasing awareness by government of grasslands, the Mid North Grasslands Working Group was formed to administer a large grassland project—at last there was money for incentives to manage grasslands, both for grazing and conservation. There was also a large component of money for research, and six years of grazing management trials followed. This component was co-funded by Land, Water and Wool for the final three years of its existence. Again, there was good community involvement and support, and it was considered a very successful project. But it will also go into recess next year due to the current lack of funding for this type of group.

Towards Sustainable Farming

What has happened on our farm in the last 15 years, since we discovered that the plants we were trying to kill were actually just as productive as and far tougher than the plants we were hoping to grow? 

We now use a grazing system that is based on plant growth, rather than traditional set stocking. It has been a challenge to change our focus from our animals to our plants, and we still make mistakes, but our grassy woodlands are in far better condition than they were 10 years ago.

We are using minimal input, biological cropping practices on our better land, and we are trying ‘No Kill’ cropping on our rougher, less productive country, hoping to regenerate native grasslands in these areas. We have fenced off more than 10% of our farm with the aim of improving the diversity of the vegetation in these areas, and have recorded over 140 species of native plants on the farm.

We have left standing the trees that were ringbarked in the 1930s, as they make great habitat. We have seen 120 species of birds and have six species of bats resident on the property. All our fallen timber and rocks are left to provide habitat as well.


We are confident that our farming practices are slowly becoming sustainable, and we are very pleased with the regeneration of our native vegetation. We know we still have a long way to go to repair the damage done over the last 160 years, but we were greatly encouraged to see a bush stone curlew on our farm recently—the first to be seen in the district for 40 years. It gives us hope that we must be doing something right at last!