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

Abstract

This project sought to identify and promote ecologically sustainable grazing management in grassy eucalypt woodlands in northern Australia. Through innovative interpretation and packaging of ecological information, and working with extension networks, we were able to change perceptions of conservation management amongst 942 landholders, of whom 418 changed their property management practices to incorporate some biodiversity conservation measures. However, our research has also identified significant economic and practical barriers to the adoption of sustainable management and biodiversity conservation. By raising awareness of the existence of ecological limits to land use (thresholds) amongst the scientific community and industry, we have provided a conceptual framework for improving our understanding of landscape management, and identifying practical ways forward in the quest for sustainability.

Executive Summary

An understanding of the impact of grazing practices on biodiversity, and the identification of measures for improved practical management can benefit beef industry interests in two important ways i) to support their quest for sustainable resource management options; ii) to allow them to retain their rights to autonomy in deciding the best means for achieving this end. The wider community also stands to benefit from the move towards more sustainable use of grazing lands through sustained beef production. It also safeguards future land use options and the provision of ecosystem services.

This project combined the disciplines of agronomy, ecology and socio-economics to identify:

  1. Limits to the use of grassy woodlands for grazing that will enable ecological sustainability (including maintenance of biodiversity) to be maintained.
  2. The management changes required to achieve ecological sustainability.
  3. The economic implications of moving from current practice to sustainable management.
  4. The barriers and opportunities for producers to move towards ecological sustainability.

A technical reference panel and published information was used to develop a set of principles and thresholds for ecological sustainability. Four properties in SE QLD formed case-studies to explore the impact of moving towards more sustainable management. Production and economic models were used to calculate the economic impacts resulting from the minimum requirements for tree cover and protection of watercourses under the sustainability scenarios. We convened three management panels comprising the property owners and their peers and assessed the practical implications of implementing the principles.

Our project has substantially raised awareness of ecological sustainability and biodiversity conservation issues in northern Australia. The landscape management principles developed and the thresholds identified form a basis for the development of an Environmental Management System for the beef industry.

Communication outputs included a learning module for extension purposes (introduced to over 100 people in an innovative learning environment) and a technical information manual. We have been innovative in our presentation of technically difficult material into easily understood text, graphics and spoken presentations. An example of this innovation is a board game was developed to demonstrate a key aspect of landscape ecological theory.

An evaluation of the project indicated that as a result of the usage of the learning module, the content relating to the principles and thresholds reached 1543 landholders. The information contained in the module changed the perceptions of conservation management held by 942 landholders. These landholders now have a better understanding and greater awareness of the issues of conservation management in terms of their own properties. Of the 942 landholders, 418 have changed their property management practices to incorporate some conservation measures.

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

  • 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 likely accelerate damage to natural resources and further contribute to losses of biodiversity.
  • The areas that have the greatest need for conservation management are the riparian areas and fertile land types. These are the most desirable areas for production and involve the greatest attitudinal and financial barriers to change.
  • The benefits of improved landscape management are long-term, while the costs of implementation are immediate. The benefits may not be fully captured by producers, or at least be perceived as beneficial to them. For example, fencing and regenerating riparian areas offers considerable advantages for biodiversity conservation and water quality improvement. These may be valued more by downstream and off-site users than by producers.

We identified the major threats to ecological sustainability in grazing lands in Queensland to be in three areas:

  • Lack of long-term protection of native grasslands and pastures. 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 are a greater threat to grassland than grazing. Protection is currently afforded only by the economic circumstances; it is not perceived to be profitable to expand these technologies.
  • 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 is 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 easier to kill trees than to establish them.
  • Failure to protect riparian areas. Watercourses and their adjoining lands are key parts of the landscape that need protection. Dysfunctional landscapes leak soil, excess water, nutrients and organic matter which leave the catchment via watercourses.This reduces water quality and results in a loss of production resources from the catchment.Riparian vegetation retains these resources and provides a keystone habitat for wildlife.

Because native pastures play a key role in maintaining ecological functioning and biodiversity in grassy woodlands, we recommend that the industry seriously reviews new or proposed technologies that expand the areas of intensively used land. Crop, fertilizer and sown pasture technologies, that exceed critical thresholds in terms of their extent, threaten the long-term ecological sustainability of landscapes.

Suggested areas of future research include further exploring the financial and practical barriers to adoption of ecologically sustainable management in more detail. We also need to determine the limits of private responsibility for natural resource management, and the point at which it is replaced by public responsibility. This will enable equitable cost-sharing arrangements to be negotiated to balance private and public contributions to the cost of achieving sustainability.

Some beef producers are in a position to immediately undertake management actions towards ecological sustainability, either through self-interest or regulatory requirements. For these, continued exploration for practical solutions is important. An aspect of this will be the availability of technical support for farm planning and decision making. Salinity hazard mapping, soil maps, topographical maps etc are examples of information that is required at specific scales for farm planning, but which may not be easily accessible.

Another important area is to further refine the boundaries of the thresholds, how they vary, and what are the trade-offs under different levels of management. This will provide a more accurate assessment of landscapes to better identify practical solutions. Management options informed by scientific observations of landscape function are critical.Our work has structured current knowledge to identify important questions that require research viz:

  • What are the limits to intensive land uses at the landscape scale in terms of vegetation health and the condition of riparian zones?
  • What ecological attributes are maintained by providing riparian vegetation of different widths and different combinations of structural attributes (e.g. grazed sward, ungrazed sward, shrubs, trees)?
  • What birds and mammals are adversely affected by different levels of vegetation clearing in the landscape?
  • What are appropriate spatial scales to apply the different land-use thresholds (property, sub-catchment, catchment)?