It’s in New South Wales! And it’s quite a story…
I’m happy to be corrected on this claim. Forestry Tasmania established a very large blackwood plantation resource 20+ years ago, but I understand these have all since failed. So this ~25 hectare plantation in Robertson, NSW must now rate as the country’s largest planting.
But let’s go back to the beginning…
Blackwood is one of the most wide ranging tree species in Australia with a natural distribution from southern Tasmania, to the Atherton tableland in far north Queensland and across into South Australia. Heading up the east coast blackwood is increasingly confined to the cooler high altitude locations along the Great Dividing Range. But blackwood as a commercial species has been confined to Victoria and Tasmania.
So it came as a surprise when I was contacted earlier this year about a blackwood plantation on the southern Tablelands of NSW. The town of Robertson sits at an altitude of 750m on the eastern edge of the southern Tablelands with a mean annual rainfall of 1600mm and a climate not unlike parts of Tasmania, but with a summer rainfall bias. The district is renowned for its rich red basalt soils. The original native forest was more closely related to that found in the mountains of central Victoria 500 km to the south, with blackwood a common tree. Remnants of warm temperate rainforest known as the Yarrawa Brush occur in the district.
Photos of the plantation showed some challenges but also plenty of potential. Survival and growth seemed to be pretty good, but as is commonly the case, pruning had not been timely or maintained, and thinning was obviously needed. The owner had made a very significant investment and I was curious to find out more. I offered my help. Seven months later came the reply and last week I spent 2 days visiting Robertson.
My first experience with blackwood when I arrived, apart from seeing plenty of roadside and paddock trees driving into Robertson, was walking into the owners house and seeing an absolutely stunning timber floor. I didn’t recognise the timber so I took a guess and asked the owner if the floor was forest red gum.
“No!” He replied. “That’s local blackwood milled from the property”.
I was speechless!
Stunning “Robertson Red” blackwood floor.
This looked nothing like the blackwood floors I have previously seen. The uniform rich mahogany red-brown timber, with a distinctive grain, was unique to my experience. Part of the explanation for the uniform colour was that all the timber for this very large floor came from just 2 trees! But these two trees had identical timber colour. I have seen this mahogany red-brown colour in Tasmanian blackwood but it is not common, with Tasmanian blackwood mostly having a lighter golden-brown colour.
The next 24 hours showed me that this red-brown colour is the common colour of the local Robertson blackwood. I made sure that the owner understood how unique and precious this local feature was, which needs to be preserved and managed for the future. Research has shown that blackwood wood colour is strongly genetically controlled, so in my opinion this “Robertson Red” blackwood has commercial potential.
The owner and the property
The owner Andy Kennard has a passion for timber and growing trees which he inherited from his father, despite the family having no farming or forestry background. This property is the family’s third attempt at tree farming. He bought the property 18 years ago with the objective of growing quality timber and cattle. Most of the planting occurred around 10-13 years ago. To date the focus has been on a range of eucalypts and blackwood. The property also includes remnants of native eucalypt forest and warm temperate rainforest. The rainforest includes blackwood and other timber species such as northern sassafras and coachwood. The remnant native forest is now managed for conservation values with the occasional wind thrown tree milled for timber.
A hillside of native Robertson blackwood. The pale flowers belong to native Coachwood trees.
None of the people employed on the property have any forestry background or training so the tree-planting investment has been a big learning exercise. A point had been reached however where they didn’t know how to proceed or what to do next. And like many tree growers the thought of cutting down those precious trees was stalling any objective decision making. Beware the emotional attachment!
The blackwood plantings are spread around the property in various paddocks on sites ranging from exposed ridge-top to sheltered lower slope and gully locations. The planting occurred between 2000 and 2003. All the plantings are on red basalt soils, with growth and performance varying widely even in the one paddock. A range of seedlots were used sourced from Tasmania, Victoria and NSW. No local Robertson blackwood seed was used. In a few areas eucalypt nurse crops were tried but these were a failure, due to the general poor growth of eucalypts on the property.
In the pure blackwood plantings initial stocking was 1100-1200 trees per hectare. In most locations survival was >95%. None of the blackwood paddocks have been fertilised under the current ownership. Early weed control is not known.
Early protection of the blackwood from domestic and wild animal browsers was a major issue. Standard farm fences proved sufficient to keep cattle out. But the wallaby, kangaroo and very active wombat populations have all been challenges requiring significant investment in fencing. Small amounts of ongoing deer damage is also apparent.
No thinning of the blackwood has yet occurred. Pruning has generally been OK but needed to be more timely and systematic. Most trees are pruned to at least 3 metres with pruning to six metres on the best sites. Given the lack of expertise and knowledge and the very large area to manage, the results have been very good. Cattle are grazed beneath the blackwood.
Results: poor to exceptional!
On the best sites blackwood growth and form is excellent, with 13 year old trees having diameters (dbh) ranging from 25-35 cm and heights of 12-16 metres. Some of the pruning on these trees has not been timely but nevertheless they are exceptional. At age 13 years these trees are half way to full commercial size!
Exceptional blackwood growth and form (30 cm dbh in 13 years).
In one paddock the trees have good uniform growth and form but a serious wattle grub attack followed by the inevitable cockatoo assault a few years ago has left at least 80% of the trees worthless. The owner now needs to assess what can be salvaged from this paddock. The cause of the wattle grub attack is unknown. Wattle grub is relatively rare in the other blackwood plantings. The trees look healthy and are growing well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that wattle grubs attack when trees are stressed or are getting old. So was it genetics or soils? Or was it just natural random chance?
A vast expanse of wattle grub affected blackwood, otherwise it looks pretty good.
On the ridge-top locations growth and form varies from ok to poor. Blackwoods hate growing in exposed windy positions where height and diameter growth and stem form become compromised. Robertson is on a high exposed plateau subject to strong winds. The property has some useful windbreaks but some of the high blackwood plantings are fully exposed the winds. Shelterbelts are needed to help improve the growth and form of these blackwood.
Despite the soils being derived from red basalt there are very obviously major soil issues for the blackwoods. This may be due to Ph, nutritional or soil structural issues or a combination of these. The owner is now organising soil testing across a range of sites both good and bad to see if the soil issues can be identified.
Records of the blackwood plantings are also in need to better management. Are the differences in blackwood performance due in part to genetics (seed source)?
The owner has established a small arboretum where a range of local and other native tree species are being tested. Stand out performers for me were coachwood (Ceratopetalum apetalum), northern sassafras (Doryphora sassafras), silky oak (Grevillea robusta), red cedar (Toona ciliata), hoop (Araucaria cunninghamii) and Wollemi pines (Wollemia nobilis).
I’ve only ever seen coachwood and northern sassafras in native forest situations where they can be very impressive trees and certainly have a reputation for producing premium timber. So to see them planted in the open and growing very well was encouraging. These two species would be well worth considering on a small, specialised farm forestry basis. Silky oak, Red cedar and Hoop pine are more commonly seen in parks and gardens where their issues and potential are more commonly appreciated. Again at Robertson good growth can obviously be achieved given the right sites and treatment, when grown on a small scale.
10 year-old planted Coachwood. Not bad at all!
And finally Wollemi pine at 4 metres in 4 years shows that even this unique tree has potential for producing softwood of equivalent quality to Hoop pine, but with much easier pruning.
Wollemi Pine – 4 metres in 4 years!
With all of these species commercial rotations of 40-45 years might be possible if early performance is any indication, but with prices around $5,000+ per cubic metre for reasonable logs, these are still good investments.
And finally a word about eucalypts. For such a lush rich environment I saw very few outstanding eucalypts at Robertson. Amongst the species planted by the owner none seemed to be doing very well. I’m no eucalypt specialist but I can only put this down to soil problems.
When these blackwoods were planted only New Zealand farmers and scientists were having any success growing commercial plantation blackwood. So for a novice enthusiast NSW landowner to plant 25 hectares was a brave venture. Despite this the results are certainly encouraging.
An action plan has now been drafted to get the blackwood management back on track. A thinning program has been sketched out, starting with the better performing stands. The scale of the thinning operation requires a mechanical approach, so research is needed to find an appropriate solution. Clearwood pruning will continue where it is still possible. Soil sampling and analysis will help identify what remediation is possible for some of the stands. Shelterbelts will be planted for the ridge top sites. An assessment of the wattle grub affected stand will determine what can be salvaged. Given that 82% of the trees need to be thinned anyway to get the stand down to 200 trees per hectare, there might still be something worth saving. Seed from the local Robertson blackwood will be collected for preservation and possible future planting. There was much discussion and a lot learnt by everyone involved including me.
So will Robertson NSW become a major centre for growing commercial blackwood?
The land base is too small. Suitable areas are within about 5-10 km of the Illawarra escapement due to the terrain and steep rainfall gradient. But if enough landowners were interested there may be the potential for ~500 hectares of blackwood plantation. This could sustainably produce about 5000 cubic metres per year of premium blackwood sawlog. As a potential land use in this semi-rural landscape it is a relatively low-maintenance, high-value option. Close proximity to Sydney, and the Port of Newcastle and export markets, suggests that markets won’t be a problem.
There are still issues to be resolved including soil issues and determining the best genetics to plant, but hopefully growing Robertson blackwood should eventually be a profitable investment.
The visit to the Robertson blackwood plantation was definitely inspiring. Robertson clearly has blackwood growing potential. How the owner proceeds will determine whether that potential is realised and the challenges met. I’m looking forward to assisting and following progress here over the coming years.
Thanks to Andy and the crew for a great trip.