ILWS - Charles Sturt University
ILWS - Charles Sturt University

Survey heritage trees: an assessment of their abundance, condition and history, (2013-2014)

Strategic Research Area

Biodiversity Conservation

Phase 1: Community survey to locate old survey trees (November 2013-April 2014)

Phase 2: Assessment of the condition and heritage values of old survey trees in southern NSW (2014 Honours project Jake Shoard)


Phase 1 - NSW Government's Environmental Trust and supported by the Slopes to Summit (S2S) partnership of the Great Eastern Ranges Imitative: $10,000.

Phase 2 - Part funded by NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service (Murrumbidgee Area): $3000


Dr Peter Spooner & Jake Shoard (honours student)


Dr Peter Spooner and a survey blaze treeWorldwide there is growing interest in the preservation of large, old trees. Heritage trees are large, individual trees which possess important biophysical, aesthetic, social or historic values. Since early European settlement until more recently, surveyors used a system of permanent markers such as blazed trees to mark the boundaries of land portions. These trees were typically marked by cutting the bark of the tree in a shield or blaze, and chiselling a government broad arrow and the relevant portion number. The survey trees (permanent markers) that have persisted since 1870-90s have significant historic and cultural values, however such trees are succumbing to the ravages of time, where wood decay, fire and illegal clearing practices are ongoing threats. Knowledge of their location, abundance and condition not only provide important insights to past survey practice, but also provide a lasting legacy of a regions land-use history.


The first phase of this project with the aim of locating old survey trees, many of which have heritage values, has been completed. This involved a community survey in the Greater Hume, Lockhart and Corowa shires which began in late January and finished in April. Using varying methods the researchers located 67 old survey trees throughout the region.

The second phase of the project, an investigation of the condition, age history of the old survey trees involved:

  • Analysis of the biophysical attributes of the trees including  the condition of each tree, species, and factors affecting occurrence, and
  • Using historic information, developing a narrative or story to each tree where possible

Land and Property Information, a division of NSW Office of Finance and Services, are assisting the researchers with information about the trees which were located, including why the trees were marked, and some aspects of their history.  The researchers have also had assistance from current and retired surveyors working in various government departments and elsewhere in NSW.

The researchers  identified several groups of old survey trees, some of which they anticipated, and some of which they didn't. The main group identified are corner reference trees or permanent markers, used to mark out the boundaries of all the land portions in the region. Some of these date back to the 1870s. Unfortunately many such trees (eucalypts in particular) are in decline due to the ravages of time, with markings now very hard to decipher. However where the researchers have been able to read the tree markings, they have been able to accurately date when the survey took place, by cross-checking to original survey plans and maps.

A second group of trees were mainly found in the Corowa/Berrigan area, were marked with a 'BM' ( which stands for benchmark) and other numerics, which relate back to surveys conducted in the 1930s as a prelude to the development of irrigation. It appears that a gridwork of these trees exists almost every mile in the irrigation districts, and many of these trees still survive in good condition.

A third group of trees have been loosely grouped as trees for specific purposes such as trig stations or boundaries of roads or cemeteries. The researchers  also located some unusual markings on trees along Travelling Stock Routes and the Murray River which are under investigation but potentially link back to early surveys in the 1870s.

The researchers are still documenting the history of individual old survey trees. Once that is completed the researchers will get back to landholders who participated in the project and share with them the stories of the trees on their properties.


Spooner, P. & Shoard, J. (in press 2016) Using historic maps and citizen science to investigate the abundance and condition of survey reference `blaze´ trees, Australian Journal of Botany


Old survey trees serve as one of the few remaining physical legacies of early European land settlement history.  Given the age of these trees, and connection to our heritage, they meet criteria for listing in State and National Heritage registers, as examples of our living heritage.  In preserving the heritage of rural areas, it is vital that we record the location and characteristics of old survey trees before they, and the stories they tell, are lost forever. It is envisaged that the research will lead to conversation management actions that preserve good examples of survey trees i.e. listing on council asset registers, and may be used to develop cultural heritage or eco tours of council areas, to share the stories and history of farming and land development in rural areas of NSW.


Dr Peter Spooner

July 2016