| Article and photos by Dr Keith Corbett
A Tasmanian Land Conservancy party gets an Autumn view north to Lake Lea from Daisy Hill, with snow on the Black Bluff Range.
The Vale of Belvoir is a large open limestone valley located about 15 km NNW of Cradle Mountain, in the lee of the Black Bluff Range. It is about 10 km long by 2 km wide, trends NE-SW, and has an open grassy floor flanked by strips of ancient rainforest and eucalypt forest. There are many important botanical, geological, geomorphological, historical and cultural aspects associated with this valley, and it has a special welcoming ambience which has endeared it to many people. APST groups and members have visited the area many times. Cattle have been summer-grazed at ‘the Vale’ for over a century. The Tasmanian Land Conservancy has recently purchased the grazing property in the centre of the valley from the Charleston family, but grazing will be allowed to continue because of its apparent beneficial effects on the floral communities.
View of the southern part of the Vale of Belvoir from Daisy Hill, with Mt Beecroft behind. Note Cradle Mountain Link Road crossing the valley.
The Vale of Belvoir was named in 1827 by Joseph Fossey, after the valley of that name in Leicestershire, England. Fossey was on a surveying expedition for the VDL Company, looking for a stock route from Mole Creek to their holdings at Surrey Hills, south of Burnie. The route delineated by Fossey and Henry Hellyer, via the Middlesex Plains and Vale of Belvoir, became known as the ‘Western Road’ or ‘VDL Road’, and was used to drive cattle herds, and for general access, for about 30 years. It followed an earlier aboriginal track, also sited to take advantage of the open country south of the belt of dense forests which extended to the north coast (see Haygarth, 1998). Cattle were grazed in the area from about the 1850’s, firstly by the Field family, then by George Moon (who built the first hut camp at the Vale in the 1880’s), then by the Williams family from Narrawa, near Wilmot. George Williams also ran a summer dairy herd and operated a cheese factory at the Vale in about the period 1915-1935. The discarded whey from the cheese-making was apparently very popular with the local thylacines and tiger snakes! (unpublished historical notes from Lisa Charleston, 2008). Another unusual venture in the area was by a Canadian, Percy Davis, who bought land for farming at Lake Lea in the 1890’s and tried to grow a crop of wheat in ploughed ground near the southern shore.
The Charleston family from Wilmot took over the grazing leases from the Williams through the 1960’s, and continued the general grazing practices, including mosaic burning of the grasslands. The present small house and stables, located in a sheltered side valley on the eastern side of the Vale, were established in about 1975. The annual cattle drives from Wilmot and back were memorable events for the family. The family sold the 473 ha Vale property to the Tasmanian Land Conservancy in 2008, retaining the right to continue summer grazing as part of the agreement. Research conducted by NPWS on the impact of grazing and burning on the grasslands has shown that the practices are generally beneficial to biodiversity, in part by maintaining the openness between the tussocks which allows the smaller flowering plants to thrive. The grazing lease areas around the freehold blocks are now incorporated into the Vale of Belvoir Conservation Area.
Geology and geomorphology
The Vale of Belvoir lies at an average altitude of 800 m, giving it a sub-alpine character. It is underlain by Ordovician limestone (about 450 million years old) – the same ‘Gordon Limestone’ which forms most of the other large limestone valleys in the state, e.g. at Mole Creek, Gunns Plains and Florentine Valley. However, those are all lowland valleys, at around 400 m, so that the Vale represents the only sub-alpine limestone valley in the state. The limestone is underlain by a formation of siliceous sandstone, quartzite and conglomerate – the same unit which forms the West Coast Range - and both have been folded to form a broad syncline or elongate basin, which forms the valley, with anticlines of the siliceous rocks rising up on either side to form the Black Bluff Range and Bonds Range (SEE MAP).
About one third of the valley has been infilled with basalt flows, of Tertiary age (about 20 million years), and these form a 100m-high dome-shaped hill in the middle part of the valley, now called Daisy Hill, a smaller hill on the western side of the valley, and several large hills at the northern end. The basalt has been spread around the valley floor during the third phase of the geological history, when a small ice sheet, spreading out from the Cradle Mountain area in the early part of the Pleistocene Ice Age (1-2 million years ago), picked up and redistributed many basalt boulders. This ice sheet also carried and deposited many boulders, or erratics, of dolerite from Cradle Mountain, as it ground its way across the valley and up the western flank, where it finally melted. So the valley floor now has a semi-continuous cover of bouldery glacial moraine, rich in basalt boulders in many places, in between the outcrops of limestone bedrock. This ‘sweetening’ of basalt has improved the soil fertility, and may be part of the reason for the extensive grass cover.
Looking west across valley from near house site
As in our other limestone valleys, there are numerous sinkholes and caves across the floor of the Vale. The sinkholes are typically 10-20 m across, with grassy to muddy walls and floor where the surface soil has collapsed into the top of the cave beneath. Many have wombat burrows on the sides, hinting at the very large population of these, and other marsupials, in the valley. Some of the sinkholes have exposed limestone sides, and some have permanent ponds or small lakes in them. Several have water bubbling up and flowing out one side, with impressive water plants in some cases. Platypuses live in some of these ponds.
View of Lake Lea from near its northern outflow, with flowering Bellendena montana in foreground
The bi-directional drainage of the valley is unusual, and is probably a result of the basalt flows. At the northern end is the picturesque Lake Lea, which flows out northwards via the Lea River into the Iris-Wilmot system and eventually into Bass Strait. The south-flowing Vale River drains the rest of the valley, eventually flowing into the Pieman River on the West Coast.
Vale River flowing through limestone outcrops, with Baloskion sedgeland, grassland with daisies and trigger plants
The Vale of Belvoir is an exceptionally rich place botanically. It supports one of the most extensive areas of montane grassland in the state, possibly related to early aboriginal burning, including considerable areas of rare communities of great conservation value. It is also a ‘hotspot’ for a number of rare and threatened species, including some beautiful flowering plants. In addition, it has now recognised that the Vale provides perhaps the most spectacular flowering of mountain daisies anywhere in the state, and the walk over Daisy Hill during flowering time in late January – early February has become a very special botanical experience. This is mostly due to the swathes of orange everlastings (Xerochrysum subundulatum), which blaze across the hill and around many of the slopes. In places these are mixed with sweeps of the rare white grasslands paperdaisy (Leucochrysum albicans albicans var. tricolour), and another common associate is mountain rocket (Bellendena montana), either with its creamy flowers or later red seedpods. Fields of Bellendena are also a feature of the Lake Lea area.
Orange everlastings and grasslands paperdaisy amongst Diplarrena and mountain rocket on Daisy Hill.
So bright!... orange everlastings at Daisy Hill
Detail of grasslands paperdaisy (Leucochrysum albicans albicans var. tricolour)
Other striking flowers to be seen are the white snowgentians (Chionigentias spp) in January, several yellow daisies (Podolepis jacioides, Leptorhyncus squamatus, Helichrysum scorpioides), and pink triggerplants (Stylidium graminifolium), while Richea scoparia and Boronia citriodora put on a show on the surrounding ridges.
Three of the main grassy communities in the valley are rare: (i) Highland Poa grassland, classified as Rare and Endangered, in which Poa labillardierei (silver tussockgrass)and Poa gunnii (gunns snowgrass) dominate, with other grass and sedge species and some important inter-tussock herbs such as Stylidium graminifolium, Viola hederacea, Chionigentias spp and Euphrasia collina; (ii) Highland sedgy grassland (Rare), which is dominated by the sedges Lepidosperma filiforme and Carex gaudichaudiana, with the rush species Baloskion australe and Eurychorda complanata, plus Poa spp and Gleichenia alpina (alpine coral fern); and (iii) Subalpine Diplarrena latifolia rushland (Rare), which is dominated by the western flag-iris, extends over many of the slopes and low hills (e.g. Daisy Hill), and includes many small flowering plants between the tussocks. Large areas of buttongrass vegetation are also present on the valley sides, particularly in the southern part of the valley, and add to the rich golden colour which suffuses the Vale.
Grassland and grassy sedgeland near Lake Lea lagoon
A number of forest and woodland communities are also present along the sides of the valley, and partly fringing Lake Lea. They include patches of superb ancient rainforest dominated by myrtle and sassafras, with open understorey, Eucalyptus coccifera (snow peppermint) forest, and open woodland with Eucalyptus gunnii (cider gum).
View from inside myrtle rainforest, west side of valley
Eucalyptus gunnii (cider gum) forest near Lake Lea
Of the rare and endangered species present, the most spectacular are the daisies Leucochrysum albican albicans var. tricolour (hoary sunray or grassland paperdaisy), with white flowers and pink bracts, and the rather similar Rhodanthe anthemoides (chamomile sunray). Recent surveys indicate that the former has its biggest population in the state at Daisy Hill, while the latter typically grows on limestone banks, including along the Vale River.
Other rare plants at the Vale include: Stackhousia pulvinaris (alpine candles), a small matted herb with star-like white flowers, mostly found in sinkholes; Muehlenbeckia axillaris (matted lignum), another small groundcover with fleshy leaves and white flowers; Viola cunninghamii (alpine violet); Prasophyllum tadgellianum (tadgells leek orchid); Scleranthus brockiei (mountain knawel); and Argyrotegium poliochlorum (greygreen cottonleaf).
Rhodanthe anthemoides (chamomile sunray) with limestone beside Vale River
(photo Tim Rudman)
Other rarities at the Vale
In addition to the many rare plants and plant communities, the Vale of Belvoir is home to perhaps the biggest population of the rare and vulnerable Ptunarra brown butterfly. This rather unassuming orange-brown butterfly is endemic to Tasmania, and lives only in Poa tussock grassland - a fast diminishing ecosystem. They only fly for three weeks each year, in March, on warm sunny still days, and they’re not very good flyers. Recent surveys at the Vale suggest that there is a thriving population of Ptunarra browns throughout the valley.
Surveys of the wildlife, large and small, at the Vale are continuing, under the auspices of the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, and it seems likely that other rarities will be discovered. Wombats, wallabies, pademelons, devils and quolls are known to thrive here (but no rabbits it seems), and historical reports tell us that thylacines were once common.
In conclusion, it is clear that the Vale of Belvoir is a very special place for many reasons. Even without the many rare and threatened small things, there is a special feel and atmosphere about the Vale, with its sense of calm and welcome and timeless serenity, against the backdrop of Cradle Mountain and the rugged hills. We are fortunate indeed that the Charlestons and other families who have used the Vale have done so with care and love, that no large developments have been done, and that it is now in the hands of the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, who are very conscious of the many conservation values and the need for careful long-term management. The Tasmanian Land Conservancy has a group of enthusiastic volunteers involved in helping to manage the Vale of Belvoir. If you would like more information, visit their website at www.tasland.org.au.
Tasmanian Land Conservancy group enjoying the flowers on Daisy Hill