Chapter 7. Farming, pastoralism and forestry

This chapter looks at the impact of modern agricultural and forestry practices on Australia's biodiversity and what research is telling us about better managing agricultural landscapes for biodiversity.

Australia's biodiversity: farming, pastoralism and forestry: Watch an interview with author Dr Sue McIntyre (06:21)

Show transcript

[Music plays and text appears: Australia’s biodiversity – Farming, pastoralism and forestry]

[Image changes to show Dr. Sue McIntyre – Agricultural Ecologist]

Dr. Sue McIntyre: When settlers first arrived in Australia they didn’t really recognise that there was a form of agriculture being practised, because it was very dissimilar to that that was practised in Europe.

[Image changes to artwork of Aboriginals hunting kangaroos]

There was no ploughing, there was no overt sowing of seeds, but there was fire stick farming, and there was movement of plants around.

[Image changes to footage of bushfires]

[Image changes to countryside landscape]

So the Australian flora and fauna has evolved under a very gentle regime of burning, modest disturbance, and it’s also evolved in a very infertile environment, so Australian soils are naturally very low in fertility.

[Image changes to view from a plane flying above the ground]

[Image changes to mountainous landscape]

In contrast in Europe the agriculture has developed on a landscape that’s much more rich due to the glaciations that have ground the rock into fertile soils.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

And in the sort of previous thousands of years agriculture has developed slowly in terms of ploughing, sowing seeds, domestication of animals and plants.

[Image changes to farmland and sheep grazing]

And so when the first settlers arrived their form of farming was totally novel to the Australian fauna and flora.

[Image changes to a herd of cows]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

The impact of that was initially quite high. But over the last couple of hundred years the Australian agricultural systems have become even more technically advanced, and more intensive.

[Image changes to view from a plane flying above the ground]

[Image changes to farmland crops]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

So there is a much greater impact on the fauna and flora in Australia of modern agriculture.

[Image changes to farmland crops and text appears: Agriculture in Australia today]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

Agriculture is obviously vital to our population, we need the food and fibre that comes off, and the different styles of agriculture produce different quantities per unit area of that food and fibre.

[Image changes to pictures of wheat crops]

[Image changes to farmland and sheep grazing]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

So if you look across Australia today there’s a whole range of intensities of agriculture. In the more remote areas there’s still some traditional burning and hunting, and the farming style is really very much as it was.

[Image changes to a family walking through a field that is being back burned]

[Image changes to a picture of an Aboriginal woman]

And that’s very compatible with high levels of native plant and animal diversity.

[Image changes to a picture of a plant]

[Image changes to overhead view of farmland]

[Image changes to a herd of cattle]

In the drier country there’s primarily livestock grazing of sheep and cattle, and this uses the natural community, the native grasslands, to provide productivity of meat and wool and so forth. That’s quite a low intensity agriculture because although the impacts of grazing can be quite important, the plant and animal community is largely still intact.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

As we get into the higher rainfall areas the more intensive uses come into play.

[Image changes to a farmland paddock]

[Image changes to farmland crops]

So we get cultivation, use of fertilizers, use of crop plants, and so you’re getting replacement of the native community, and this is particularly developed where there’s water for irrigation, where it’s very intensive use of really most of the landscape.

[Image changes to overhead view of woodlands]

[Image changes to farmland crops]

And this does displace many, many native species.

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

So the biodiversity impacts of the different styles of agriculture are in an opposite trend to that of the amount of production that comes off it.

[Image changes to a lady beetle on a plant and text appears: Biodiversity provides services for agriculture]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

Native biodiversity can provide services for agriculture. For example, birds control a lot of pests, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and so forth.

[Image changes to birds in a field]

[Image changes to a creek in a field]

Research has also shown that native vegetation can provide a habitat for predatory insects that can in turn move into cropping areas and control insect pests.

[Image changes to a picture of a spider on a plant]

[Image changes to farmland crops]

[Image changes to a honeybee]

Remnant vegetation alongside crops also provides pollination services because the honeybees, the feral honeybees that we depend on for pollination of crops, such as canola, actually nest in hollow trees in native vegetation.

[Image changes to trees in a field]

[Image changes to farmland crop and text appears: Preserving biodiversity in agricultural landscapes]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

[Image changes to farmland crops]

Ecological research at CSIRO and elsewhere has looked quite closely at the requirements of native plant and animal conservation, and really worked out more precisely what we need to conserve in farming landscapes to enable both production and conservation of biodiversity.

[Image changes to cows in fields]

[Image changes to overhead view of farming landscape]

For example in rangelands there’s a big difference between very heavy grazing and lighter grazing.

[Image changes to outback landscape]

If you leave good cover and don’t graze all the shrubs out, of course habitat is much better for the plants and animals.

[Image changes to a treed area beside a field]

And if you control noxious weeds and feral animals, of course too you can improve that habitat of biodiversity.

[Image of noxious weeds]

[Image changes to camels on the ground and a helicopter hovering above them]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

In the more intensive areas the past impacts of clearing have been much greater, and we do need to make much more conscious efforts to return trees, to look after the existing trees that are already persisting in the paddocks.

[Image changes to farmland crops]

[Image changes to trees in fields]

The mature hollow bearing trees that are scattered throughout the pastures and crops in our rural areas provide habitat and nesting for a whole range of birds and animals.

[Image changes to a parrot in a tree]

But they also provide a critical way that animals can move through these very cleared landscapes.

[Image changes to a flock of birds flying]

They provide stepping stones for resting and refuge for birds, for example.

[Image changes to a cockatoo perched in a tree]

[Image changes to a herd of sheep and text appears: Solutions for the future]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

In the last 30 years or so there’s been considerable change and much greater awareness of the need for biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes.

[Image changes to cows in a field]

But voluntary actions can only take us so far, and research has shown that there is a need to provide financial incentives to help people manage their land in such way that we don’t lose many of our native plants and animals.

[Image changes to people planting a tree]

[Image changes to a bird perched on a branch]

[Image changes to a herd of cattle]

It’s a growing challenge for Australia to continue to provide food and fibre for many, many people, and many more people into the future.

[Image changes to a wheat crop]

[Image changes to farming crops]

[Image changes a person observing leaves of a crop]

[Image changes to scientific equipment and people recording data]

[Image has changed back to Dr. Sue McIntyre]

So the pressure on biodiversity will continue, and so we’re going to continue to need science to better understand the problem and find solutions for the meeting of both biodiversity conservation and increased production.

[Image changes to a bee on a flower and text appears: MUSIC –; ARTWORK – Joseph Lycett, “Aborigines using fire to hunt kangaroos”, circa 1820, National Library of Australia; ADDITIONAL IMAGES – Sue McIntyre, Fiona Walsh, Wendy Henderson, David McClenaghan, Hans Boessem, Willem van Aken, Sujaya Rao, Melanie Cook, Landcare Australia Limited]

[Music plays and CSIRO logo appears with text: Big ideas start here]

Hide transcript

The abundance of many species of Australian plants and animals has been greatly changed by modern agricultural and forestry practices.

Chapter overview

Since the 1970s, biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes has been strongly driven by the voluntary actions of landholders. Going forward, progress will rely on technical support, policies, legislative arrangements and financial assistance.

Maintaining biodiversity in areas of intensive farming and forestry will require these areas to be embedded within larger areas made up of areas of less intensive agricultural production and areas of native vegetation that is managed for conservation.

Adopting less intensive methods of agricultural production can enhance biodiversity by enabling native species to coexist alongside farming and forestry. In turn, enhanced biodiversity can benefit agricultural production, such as by recycling nutrients in the soil.

Download the chapter or the whole book [PDF and EPUB versions available]

Chapter authors

Sue McIntyre


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