Incorporation of Practical Measures to Assist Conservation of Biodiversity Within Sustainable Beef Production in Northern Australia

Edited by Sue McIntyre, CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems
Jointly funded by MLA, CSIRO and Environment Australia, October 2001
ISBN 1 74036 189 X

Impact on the Industry

Our project has substantially raised awareness of ecological sustainability and biodiversity conservation issues in northern Australia. The project has been timely in that it has been able to provide a sound scientific basis for a dialogue on these issues at a time when investment via the Natural Heritage Trust was substantial, and when legislative changes were occurring. It has been effective due to the team's ability to translate ecological concepts into easily understood language and learning tools. In the 2000 peer review (Lambert 2000), the project was described as '..influencing industry management guidelines and practices.' and '... (having) major industry implications'.

Although our project team was not directly involved in the establishment of tree clearing legislation, we are aware that the landscape principles and thresholds were one of the few relevant sources of scientific information available to those considering Duty of Care Provisions and vegetation management legislation in Queensland, and that the project outputs are currently of interest in relation to the development of targets for natural resource management planning at the catchment and regional scale. While we realize that the legislative approach has not been widely accepted by stakeholders in the beef industry, the Queensland Vegetation Management Act (1999) is not overly restrictive in terms of seeking ecological sustainability. For example, there are no limits to intensive land use (e.g. sown pastures), despite indications that this can impact on water quality and the viability of remnant vegetation. Also, although the policy code states that remnant vegetation should not be reduced to less than 30% of its pre-clearing extent, this applies at the scale of bioregions (Queensland has 13 bioregions), leaving the possibility of over-clearing in individual catchments and on properties. The legislation can therefore only be seen as a bottom line for biodiversity protection, and best practice will only be achieved by conscientious development and implementation of Regional Vegetation Management Plans.

The project has had influence beyond northern Australia. Our work has stimulated the MLA Sustainable Grazing Systems key program to take a similar approach in temperate Australia. We have also been frequently consulted to contribute to processes associated with catchment and landscape planning in southern Australia, while the Land and Water Australia Native Vegetation Program is now explicitly addressing the question of landscape thresholds in its new R & D program. Commissioned projects are to test aspects of the principles and thresholds in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania.

We have identified that while producers generally have a positive view of ecologically sustainable management, they face substantial barriers to implementation e.g.

  1. The economic penalties of restoring landscapes to adequate tree cover and appropriate patterns of grazing are substantial. When farm profitability is low, the impacts can be very high. Attempts to increase profitability by raising stocking rates, or expanding areas of crops and improved pasture will only accelerate damage to natural resources and further contribute to losses of biodiversity.
  2. The areas that have the greatest need for conservation management are the riparian areas and fertile land types. These are the areas that are most desirable for production and for which there are both attitudinal and financial obstructions to change.
  3. The benefits of improved landscape management are long-term, while the costs of implementation are immediate. In addition, the benefits may not always be directed towards producers, or at least be perceived as beneficial to them. For example, fencing and regenerating riparian areas appear to offer considerable advantages for biodiversity conservation and water quality improvement, but these may be valued more by downstream and off-site users than by producers.

We consider the major threats to sustainability in grazing lands in Queensland to be:

  1. Lack of long-term protection of native grasslands and pastures. Technical difficulties have meant that as a vegetation type, grasslands and the grassy layer of eucalypt woodlands are not protected under the Vegetation Management Act 1999, QLD. This is a problem as most of the diversity in grassy woodlands is in the grassy layer, and its condition determines the health of tree and wildlife populations. Sown pastures and fertilizer, rather than grazing, are the major threats to grassland. Protection is currently afforded only by economic conditions; it is not perceived to be profitable to expand these technologies on a significant scale. Changes in commodity prices and new technologies could turn this situation around overnight.
  2. Loss of tree regeneration capacity. Tree control is a major management input for producers, and there is a prevailing view that this burden should be eliminated. However, the loss of tree regeneration processes on the landscape means the beginning of a tree decline process. Initially this might provide relief to producers, but decades later, biodiversity losses will be felt and salinity hazards will become salinity problems. From a practical management perspective, is far easier to kill trees than it is to establish them.
  3. Failure to protect riparian areas. Our findings have supported other evidence that watercourses and their adjoining lands represent key parts of the landscape that need protection. Functionally, watercourses integrate management impacts from all over the catchment. Dysfunctional landscapes leak soil, excess water, nutrient and organic matter which leave the catchments via the watercourses. As well as reducing the quality of the water, this results in a loss of resources from the catchment. Riparian vegetation assists in the retention of resources and provides a keystone habitat for wildlife.