Learning from agri-environment programs in Australia

 A NERP workshop (Mt Stromlo, Canberra, November 2014)

Do our agricultural landscapes hold the key to protecting our declining biodiversity? If they do, how would it be done? And who would pay? Would it be the landowner or the general public (via the government)? These might sound like simple questions but when you consider some of the factors at play it quickly becomes apparent we’re dealing with very complex issues (consider our boxed case study stories).

Australia, like many other countries, is spending increasing amounts of money on conservation outcomes in agricultural landscapes. And, just as in other countries, we haven’t got much to show for the investment (though the problem of declining biodiversity just gets worse).

Late last year ecologists, economists and social scientists (largely from NERP ED) and practitioners came together at Mt Stromlo in Canberra to share their experience on what we’ve learnt from agri-environment programs to date, what are the gaps in our knowledge and where should we be moving in the future. Representatives from the Department of the Environment and Agriculture were also present to contribute a little policy reality to the discussions.

The main output of the workshop will be a book presenting short and engaging discussions from each of the workshop participants. The book should be available in the coming months.

A story of two agri-environment schemes

Figure 1

Figure 1. On the third day of the workshop a field trip was organised in which workshoppers visited two agri-environment schemes near Canberra. The first involved a scheme called Whole of Paddock Rehabilitation (WoPR) in which whole paddocks are directed seeded with native vegetation. In the picture above, Graham Fifield from Greening Australia (the NGO who developed the scheme in partnership with farmers) describes how WoPR works to workshoppers. They are standing in a five year old WoPR plot.

To illustrate the complexity behind designing agri-environment schemes, consider these two simple situations, both examples of efforts to protect biodiversity on farm land. The first involves a run-down paddock on which the landowner has removed his sheep and sown a mixture of native trees and shrubs. In exchange for a ‘stewardship’ payment of $50 per hectare per year, the farmer agrees to keep his sheep out of the paddock for five years. He gets half the payment at the beginning and the rest at the end of the 5 years, at which time grazing stock are permitted back into the paddock. By this time the native vegetation should have developed enough to be able to cope with the reintroduction of grazing. Indeed, the presence of trees and shrubs will provide the grazing animals with valuable shelter. (See Figure 1)

The second situation involves a farmer agreeing to remove grazing sheep from a patch of box gum grassy woodland – an ecosystem now listed as threatened in Australia. The farmer is allowed to let his/her sheep into the woodland in short bursts – pulsed grazing – whereas previously the woodland experienced set stocking in which a certain number of animals were always there. The landowner also agreed not to fertilise the woodland. For these actions the government is prepared to pay the farmer over $200 per hectare per year, and the farmer has entered into a contract that will run for 15 years. (See Figure 2)

Figure 2. The second scheme visited was an Environmental Stewardship Program site. In this situation, a farmer agrees to remove grazing sheep from a patch of box gum grassy woodland and to not fertilise. The picture above shows workshoppers standing on the woodland site listening to the property’s manager explain how it works.

Figure 2. The second scheme visited was an Environmental Stewardship Program site. In this situation, a farmer agrees to remove grazing sheep from a patch of box gum grassy woodland and to not fertilise. The picture above shows workshoppers standing on the woodland site listening to the property’s manager explain how it works.

The first situation describes a process of restoration, with the aim of returning native vegetation to land that once supported it. It’s about improving the natural value of degraded land. The second is more about the preservation or conservation of an existing ecosystem. It’s about sustaining the health and resilience of land with high natural values. Both schemes are happening in production landscapes and the land under each scheme is expected to continue to provide agricultural outputs into the future.

Which approach is better, restoration or conservation? 

  • Where do we get the best value for money? (Why should one farmer be paid four times the amount the other farmer receives? Do we receive four times the return? Do we derive four times the natural value?)
  • Why should the government pay for a scheme which benefits the farmer (in the case of new trees providing shelter for stock)?
  • Why does the restoration scheme only run for five years when the conservation project goes for 15?

Of course there are many answers to each of these questions and it often depends who you ask. “Which is better?”, for example, would most likely get different answers from ecologists, economists, farmers and policy makers. Which simply underscores the complexity surrounding the operation of these schemes.

More info: David Salt david.salt@anu.edu.au 

Leave a Reply