A quarter of a century ago, Ballarat Region Treegrowers examined which common native trees within our patch were most suited to working with wood. There were four, but in a surprise to most of us, sugar gum topped the list.
Originally, sugar gum was not planted for its timber, but as shelter for sheep from killer frosts and bone-chilling winter winds and scorching summer sun. In trials across the treeless plains of the Western District over 130 years ago, sugar gum, a South Australian species, was found to grow strongest and was, moreover, amenable to coppicing.
A coppiced tree is one that when cut down at its base, sends out a fresh crop of stems and regrows. Coppicing gave sugar gum the natural ability to perpetually recycle, recreating screens of leaf-dense shelterbelts, ideal for protecting sheep huddled on their lee side.
As a by-product, a firewood industry sprung up around the coppiced tree trunks. By the 1920s, up to 40,000 tonnes a year of sugar gum was chopped up for firewood.
But no-one thought to use it as timber – despite scientific analysis finding that sugar gum is one of Australia’s few Class 1 naturally durable exterior timbers. We subsequently demonstrated its suitability for decking and cladding, with Ballarat Region Treegrowers setting up a co-operative managed by farm foresters, Sustainably Managed Australian Regional Timbers (or SMARTimbers) that successfully marketed exterior sugar gum products to architects in Melbourne for five years.
Some of our members are still seeking to repurpose sugar gum as a substitute for the Asian rainforest timbers that we in the developed world consume en masse, aiding and abetting tropical deforestation. BRT President, Gary Featherston, is certifying
sugar gum for a group of farm foresters in the Western District.
But that’s a whole other story. For the purposes of this one, we and Lachie know that sugar gum is a local, it’s abundant and we can put it to a more sustainable fate than firewood.
Castlemaine filmmaker, Campbell Hynam-Smith, has been commissioned to follow the steps in the journey of building the hut and produce a 10 minute YouTube video.