A PARASITIC plant is slowly sucking the life out of trees in a forest near Bendigo and no-one's sure why.
"Coarse dodder-laurel" takes hold amid the Wellsford Forest, piercing young trees with root-like "haustoria" to slowly suck the life out of them.
Conservationist Stuart Fraser said the plant's presence was emblematic of the forest's fragility as authorities try to protect the ecosystem by adding more land to the Bendigo Regional Park.
The native plant grows across Victoria but appears to be destructive in the Wellsford, Mr Fraser said.
Exactly why remains a mystery, he said.
"But they do say that the Ironbark trees in the Wellsford have no branches low down. It's just the top [that has leaves]," Mr Fraser said.
Maybe that makes it harder for those trees to survive.
"This isn't common. It's only happening at particular sites. There are areas of grey-box and yellow gum in the Wellsford where the dodder doesn't take over," Mr Fraser said.
Mr Fraser knows these forests well. The retired beekeeper spent his career moving hives through the Wellsford, just as his father and grandfather did before him.
His eyes pick up the subtle changes as he walks between the trees.
"You can see, when you turn this way, that it becomes a stark forest in which there is no understorey, no wattle, nothing," he said when the Bendigo Advertiser visited the area with him.
He took the paper to an area where a burst of dodder had taken hold two decades ago and had covered young trees.
"All you get now is mature trees," Mr Faser said as he walked into the area.
The dodder was even worse at the end of World War Two, when returning veterans were finally able to get in and remove it from young Ironbark trees earmarked to be felled in later decades.
Back then, Bendigo Advertiser journalists described dodder as a vicious parasite that was turning swathes of forest into "cemeteries".
"These ghost-like trees were grim statues of what had been a flourishing young forest," one wrote in a story from 1950.
The trees had been planted in areas heavily impacted by deforestation in the preceding decades and they were supposed to secure Bendigo's future timber needs.
But people had not appreciated that one native plant might be so destructive if it took hold among so many young trees.
"Once upon the tree the tentacles spread out to suck the sap wherever they can obtain a hold. The long tentacles will run from one tree to another and sometimes one walking over the forest floor will find 'dodder' stretching for chains as it enmeshes trees wherever it gets the life giving sap," the 1950s journalist wrote.
"Every nodule on the tentacle is a potential root of the 'dodder' and it will cling and suck until the tree succumbs."
The Wellsford has come a long way since 1950.
It is much older now, for a start, and dodder does not latch on to older trees.
The parasitic plant cannot live without the trees it kills.
Nature has found a way to stop it, but it has come at the cost of the forest's understorey at a time when the state's biodiversity is already declining, Mr Fraser said.
He is one of many experts who have raised serious concerns about the ongoing crisis during a parliamentary inquiry into biodiversity decline.
Many Victorians detailed sweeping changes, including "localised extinction events" across the state, in written submissions and testimony.
Mr Fraser himself told the inquiry his beekeeping father and grandfather had passed down stories about Bendigo's forests from as far back as the 1880s.
They revealed the full scale of the "catastrophe" that had unfolded.
"To actually remember the stories ... of what it was actually like, they would tell the stories that if you camped in the forest, the noise at night would keep you awake, with the different birds and animals," Mr Fraser told the inquiry earlier this year.
"And today, you can camp in these forests and they are silent."
Mr Fraser took the Bendigo Advertiser out to the Wellsford in the aftermath of what he hopes will be a momentous decision for one tract of the forest.
It was the culmination of two decades of conservationists' advocacy.
But Mr Fraser said those same groups remain uncertain about key parts of the new deal, like when the government will legislate the protections.
Until it does, he cannot be sure a different government would not shelve the plan.
They are also still unsure about what miners will be able to do in the area, and how that might impact the fragile ecosystem.
At the park's eastern edge, Fosterville gold miners have already hit one mother lode in faults in the earth that gold-bearing fluid seeped into hundreds of millions of years ago.
The government is currently running a tender process for companies interested in exploring nearby ground, and geologists know of an underground fissure in the Wellsford area called the Yankee Creek Fault.
The Minerals Council of Australia's James Sorahan said the area presented a tantalising opportunity for modern day miners across the Wellsford.
"The area has prospective mineral wealth yet is underexplored, which provides a powerful incentive to ensure this ground is not quarantined from geoscientific investigations," he said.
The specifically cited miners' needs when it decided the area should become regional park, not the more protected national parkland classification advocates had called for.
"The government ... acknowledges that some minimally intrusive surface activity may need to occur in the regional park addition," the government reasoned last month.
Bendigo's environmental groups do not necessarily oppose mining under the Wellsford, if it takes place below tree root systems.
But advocates like Wendy Radford are uncertain what protections would be put in place if miners need to do anything closer to the surface.
"It seems very vague at the moment," she said.
Ms Radford is among environmentalists hoping to find out more from government representatives in the coming months.
Mr Sorahan said the mining industry would meet strict environmental controls if any exploration took place from the forest's surface.
"Exploration has a very small and temporary disturbance footprint, at most some minor clearing for test drilling, and this must be rehabilitated by law," he said.
The government this week said mining activity could include exploration as well as air vents connecting any future underground mines to the surface.
"As with any regional park, any mining or exploration beneath Bendigo Regional Park would require the consent of the crown land minister and would be subject to environmental assessment and any other conditions the minister sets," a spokesperson said.
Currently, miners must go to public consultation if they want to start exploring an area, and no company has approval to dig mines under the section of Wellsford in question.
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