It’s the latest in a string of new state and federal laws designed to crack down on activists who trespass on farms – often to gather video evidence of alleged animal cruelty, which is later distributed to the public.
But amid the flurry of attention on activists, another group of trespassers on farms has largely escaped attention: illegal hunters.
Unauthorised access to farm properties can create many problems – not least, it runs the risk spreading disease such as African swine fever that can devastate farming industries.
It’s important that laws to tackle farm trespass are evidence-based. So let’s look at the evidence.
Media coverage of activists trespassing on farms has appeared regularly in recent years.
Over several months in 2018-19, activists targeted the Gippy Goat farm and cafe in Victoria – in one incident stealing three goats and a lamb. News reports covered the protests, claims by farmers that the fines issued to the activists was inadequate, and the eventual closure of the farm to the public.
In another example last year, the front page of rural newspaper the Weekly Times featured a family exiting the farming industry after alleged trespass and threats from animal activists.
Activists did not escape the attention of politicians. Ahead of Victoria’s new legislation this month, federal parliament last year passed a bill criminalising the “incitement” of both trespass, and damage or theft of property, on agricultural land.
Speaking in support of the bill, Attorney-General Christian Porter said trespass onto agricultural land could contaminate food and breach biosecurity protocols. He specifically cited “activists” when describing how the laws would work.
The New South Wales government last year also introduced significant fines for trespass on farms in the Right to Farm Act. And in South Australia, the government wants those who trespass or disrupt farming activities to face tougher penalties.
But as lawmakers crack down on animal activists, the problem of trespass by illegal hunters gets little political attention.
Illegal hunting includes hunting without a required licence and accessing private property without permission.
In 2015 and 2016, this article’s co-author Alistair Harkness surveyed 56 Victoria farmers about their experiences and perceptions of farm crime. Farmers reported that in recent years, illegal hunters had caused them economic loss and emotional anguish by:
A follow-up mail survey of 906 Victorian farmers in 2017 and 2018 asked them to rate the seriousness of a range of issues. Farmers reported the following issues as either serious or very serious: illegal shooting on farms (34.4%), animal activism (30.9%), and trespass (44.2%).
Lead author Kyle Mulrooney is conducting the NSW Farm Crime Survey 2020. The work is ongoing, but so far farmers have reported feeling victimised by trespassers generally, and fear about illegal hunters. Farmers were not specifically asked for their views on trespassing activists.
A submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry last year underscored the distress felt by farmers when hunters trespass on their properties. Farmer John Payne recalled:
Recently we had a period over several nights, where unknown persons trespassed on our property and callously killed a substantial number of our goat kids, in one case trussing one up before killing them. All just for fun and sport! […] This is one of several events where people have trespassed and shot our animals for fun, or hunted for pigs or wildlife, with little fear of detection, arrest and prosecution.
Figures supplied to us by NSW Police show in 2018, 513 incidents of criminal trespass on farms was recorded – up from 421 in 2014.
Giving evidence to the NSW parliamentary inquiry, Detective Inspector Cameron Whiteside, the State Rural Crime Coordinator, said illegal hunting was “the most cited factor associated with the trespass” on farms.
Police action appears to be following the evidence. In communication with the lead author, Whiteside has said enforcement and operations focused on illegal hunting and trespass are a primary and current focus of the Rural Crime Prevention Team.
As African swine fever sweeps Asia, Australian pork producers have been urged to ramp up biosecurity efforts on their own properties. This reportedly includes restricting visitor numbers and separating visitor and farm vehicles.
There are fears that if the disease hits Australia, it could could shut down Australia’s A$5.3 billion pork industry, leading to mass job losses.
Given these risks, it’s important that policies to crack down on farm trespassers are guided by evidence, and don’t unduly target a single group.
And importantly, more research into the issue is needed – including into the social and economic impacts of farm trespass, in all its forms.
Kyle J.D. Mulrooney, Lecturer in Criminology, Co-director of the Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England and Alistair Harkness, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England
In box gum grassy woodlands, widely spaced eucalypts tower over carpets of wildflowers, lush native grasses and groves of flowering wattles. It’s no wonder some early landscape paintings depicting Australian farm life are inspired by this ecosystem.
But box gum grassy woodlands are critically endangered. These woodlands grow on highly productive agricultural country, from southern Queensland, along inland slopes and tablelands, into Victoria.
Many are degraded or cleared for farming. As a result, less than 5% of the woodlands remain in good condition. What remains often grows on private land such as farms, and public lands such as cemeteries or travelling stock routes.
Very little is protected in public conservation reserves. And the recent drought and record breaking heat caused these woodlands to stop growing and flowering.
But after Queensland’s recent drought-breaking rain earlier this year, we surveyed private farmland and found many dried-out woodlands in the northernmost areas transformed into flower-filled, park-like landscapes.
And landholders even came across rarely seen marsupials, such as the southern spotted-tail quoll.
These surveys were part of the Australian government’s Environmental Stewardship Program, a long-term cooperative conservation model with private landholders. It started in 2007 and will run for 19 years.
We found huge increases in previously declining native wildflowers and grasses on the private farmland. Many trees assumed to be dying began resprouting, such as McKie’s stringybark (Eucalyptus mckieana), which is listed as a vulnerable species.
This newfound plant diversity is the result of seeds and tubers (underground storage organs providing energy and nutrients for regrowth) lying dormant in the soil after wildflowers bloomed in earlier seasons. The dormant seeds and tubers were ready to spring into life with the right seasonal conditions.
For example, Queensland Herbarium surveys early last year, during the drought, looked at a 20 metre by 20 metre plot and found only six native grass and wildflower species on one property. After this year’s rain, we found 59 species in the same plot, including many species of perennial grass (three species jumped to 20 species post rain), native bluebells and many species of native daisies.
On another property with only 11 recorded species, more than 60 species sprouted after the extensive rains.
In areas where grazing and farming continued as normal (the paired “control” sites), the plots had only around half the number of plant species as areas managed for conservation.
Landowners also reported several unusual sightings of animals on their farms after the rains. Stewardship program surveyors later identified them as two species of rare and endangered native carnivorous marsupials: the southern spotted-tailed quoll (mainland Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial) and the brush-tailed phascogale.
The population status of both these species in southern Queensland is unknown. The brush-tailed phascogale is elusive and rarely detected, while the southern spotted-tailed quolls are listed as endangered under federal legislation.
Until those sightings, there were no recent records of southern spotted-tailed quolls in the local area.
These unusual wildlife sightings are valuable for monitoring and evaluation. They tell us what’s thriving, declining or surviving, compared to the first surveys for the stewardship program ten years ago.
Sightings are also a promising signal for the improving condition of the property and its surrounding landscape.
More than 200 farmers signed up to the stewardship program for the conservation and management of nationally threatened ecological communities on private lands. Most have said they’re keen to continue the partnership.
The landholders are funded to manage their farms as part of the stewardship program in ways that will help the woodlands recover, and help reverse declines in biodiversity.
For example, by changing the number of livestock grazing at any one time, and shortening their grazing time, many of the grazing-sensitive wildflowers have a better chance to germinate, grow, flower and produce seeds in the right seasonal conditions.
They can also manage weeds, and not remove fallen timber or loose rocks (bushrock). Fallen timber and rocks protect grazing-sensitive plants and provide habitat for birds, reptiles and invertebrates foraging on the ground.
So can we be optimistic for the future of wildlife and wildflowers of the box gum grassy woodlands? Yes, cautiously so.
Landholders are learning more about how best to manage biodiversity on their farms, but ecological recovery can take time. In any case, we’ve discovered how resilient our flora and fauna can be in the face of severe drought when given the opportunity to grow and flourish.
Climate change is bringing more extreme weather events. Last year was the warmest on record and the nation has been gripped by severe, protracted drought. There’s only so much pressure our iconic wildlife and wildflowers can take before they cross ecological thresholds that are difficult to bounce back from.
More government programs like this, and greater understanding and collaboration between scientists and farmers, create a tremendous opportunity to keep changing that trajectory for the better.
As COVID-19 restrictions start to ease, we’re unlikely to return to our previous behaviours, from our work-life balance to maintaining good hygiene.
But there are downsides to this new normal, particularly when it comes to hygiene concerns, which have led to an increase in an environmental scourge we were finally starting to get on top of: single-use plastics.
We’ve recently published research based on data collected in mid-2019 (before COVID-19). Our findings showed that not only were people avoiding single-use plastics most of the time, but one of the biggest motivators was knowing others were avoiding them too. Avoidance was becoming normal.
But then COVID-19 changed the game. Since the pandemic started, there has been a significant increase in plastic waste, such as medical waste from protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, and increased purchases of sanitary products such as disposable wipes and liquid soap.
The good news is we can return to our plastic-avoiding habits. It just might look a little a different.
In our representative survey of 1,001 Victorians, we asked people about their behaviours and beliefs around four single-use plastic items: bags, straws, coffee cups and take-away containers.
We found people’s beliefs about how often others were avoiding these items was one of the strongest predictors of their own intentions.
Other influences that predicted intentions included personal confidence, the perceived self and environmental benefits and financial costs associated with avoidance, and whether others would approve or disapprove of the behaviour.
While beliefs about other peoples’ behaviour was one of the strongest predictors of intentions, there was still a gap between these beliefs and reported behaviour.
On average, 70% of our sample reported avoiding single-use plastics most of the time. But only 30% believed others were avoiding them as often.
Thankfully, our findings suggest we can encourage more people to avoid single-use plastics more often by sharing the news that most people are doing it already. The bad news is that COVID-19 has increased our reliance on single-use items.
Just when avoidance was becoming normal, the pandemic brought single-use plastics back into favour.
Despite the fact the virus survives longer on plastic compared to other surfaces and a lack of evidence that disposable items are any safer than reusable ones, many businesses are refusing to accept reusable containers, such as coffee cups.
So even if consumers want to avoid single-use plastics, it’s not as easy as it used to be.
It is still possible to avoid unnecessary single-use plastic right now. We just need to get creative and focus on items within our control.
We can still pack shopping in reusable bags, make a coffee at home in a reusable cup, carry reusable straws when we go out – just make sure to wash reusables between each use.
Many Victorians can even order delivery take-away food in reusable containers, thanks to the partnership between Deliveroo and Returnr, the reusable packaging scheme. Boomerang Alliance also produced guidelines for sustainable take-away options, including practical tips for contactless transfer of food.
Our research focused on public single-use plastic avoidance behaviours, but now is a good time to look at private ones too.
There are plenty of single-use plastics in the home: cling wrap, coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bottles, disposable razors and liquid soap dispensers to name a few.
But you can find reusable alternatives for almost everything: beeswax or silicone wraps, reusable coffee pods, shampoo and conditioner bars, reusable safety razors and bars of soap, rather than liquid soap.
Buying cleaning products in bulk can also reduce plastic packaging and keeping glass jars or hard plastic containers are great for storing leftovers.
Just because we’re in a period of change, doesn’t mean we have to lose momentum. Single-use plastics are a huge environmental problem that we can continue to address by changing our behaviours.
Many are calling on governments, businesses and individuals to use the pandemic as an opportunity to look at how we used to do things and ask – is there a better way?
When it comes to single use plastics during COVID-19, we can’t control everything. But our actions can help shape what the new normal looks like.
Kim Borg, Research Fellow at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University; Jim Curtis, Research Fellow in Behaviour Change, Monash University, and Jo Lindsay, Professor of sociology, Monash University