Climate explained: regenerative farming can help grow food with less impact



Returning nutrients, including animal feces, to the land is important to maintain the soil’s capacity to sequester carbon.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I would like to know to what extent regenerative agriculture practices could play a role in reducing carbon emissions and producing food, including meat, in the future. From what I have read it seems to offer much, but I am curious about how much difference it would make if all of our farmers moved to this kind of land management practice. Or even most of them. – a question from Virginia

To identify and quantify the potential of regenerative agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we first have to define what it means. If regenerative practices maintain or improve production, and reduce wasteful losses on the farm, then the answer tends to be yes. But to what degree is it better, and can we verify this yet?

Let’s first define how regenerative farming differs from other ways of farming. For example, North Americans listening to environmentally conscious media would be likely to define most of New Zealand pastoral agriculture systems as regenerative, when compared to the tilled fields of crops they see across most of their continent.

If milk and meat-producing animals are not farmed on pasture, farmers have to grow grains to feed them and transport the fodder to the animals, often over long distances. It’s hard to miss that the transport is inefficient, but easier to miss that nutrients excreted by the animals as manure or urine can’t go back to the land that fed them.

Healthy soils

Returning nutrients to the land really matters because these build up soil, and grow more plants. We can’t sequester carbon in soil without returning nutrients to the soil.

New Zealand’s style of pastoral agricultural does this well, and we’re still improving as we focus on reducing nutrient losses to water.




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Our pastoral soils tend to have as much carbon as they once did under forest, but concerns have been raised about carbon losses in some regions. Yet, we do still have two big problems.

First, the animals that efficiently digest tough plants – including cows, sheep, and goats – all belch the greenhouse gas methane. This is a direct result of their special stomachs, and chewing their cud. Therefore, farms will continue to have high greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat and milk they produce. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasised this, noting that changing diets can reduce emissions.

The second problem is worst in dairying. When a cow lifts its tail to urinate, litres of urine saturate a small area. The nitrogen content in this patch exceeds what plants and soil can retain, and the excess is lost to water as nitrate and to the air, partly as the powerful, long-lived greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Defining regenerative

Regenerative agriculture lacks a clear definition, but there is an opportunity for innovation around its core concept, which is a more circular economy. This means taking steps to reduce or recover losses, including those of nutrients and greenhouse gases.




Read more:
Regenerative agriculture can make farmers stewards of the land again


Organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of antibiotics and synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, could potentially include regenerative agriculture. Organics once had the same innovative status, but now has a clear business model and supply chain linked to a price premium achieved through certification.

The price premium and regulation linked to certification can limit the redesign of the organic agricultural systems to incremental improvements, limiting the inclusion of regenerative concepts. It also means that emission studies of organic agriculture may not reveal the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture.

Instead, the potential for a redesign of New Zealand’s style of pastoral dairy farming around regenerative principles provides a useful example of how progress might work. Pastures could shift from ryegrass and clover to a more diverse, more deeply rooted mix of alternate species such as chicory, plantains, lupins and other grasses. This system change would have three main benefits.

Win-win-win

The first big win in farming is always enhanced production, and this is possible by better matching the ideal diet for cows. High performance ryegrass-clover pastures contain too little energy and too much protein. Diverse pastures fix this, allowing potential increases in production.

A second benefit will result when protein content of pasture doesn’t exceed what cows need to produce milk, reducing or diluting the nitrogen concentrated in the urine patches that are a main source of nitrous oxide emissions and impacts on water.

A third set of gains can result if the new, more diverse pastures are better at capturing and storing nutrients in soil, usually through deeper and more vigorous root growth. These three gains interrelate and create options for redesign of the farm system. This is best done by farmers, although models may help put the three pieces together into a win-win-win.

Whether you’re interested in local beef in Virginia, or the future of New Zealand’s dairy industry, the principles that define regenerative agriculture look promising for redesigning farming to reduce emissions. They may prove simpler than agriculture’s wider search for new ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including genetically engineering ryegrass.The Conversation

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases



Farming emits greenhouse gases, but the land can also store them.
Johny Goerend/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Mark Howden, Australian National University

We can’t achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement without managing emissions from land use, according to a special report released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Emissions from land use, largely agriculture, forestry and land clearing, make up some 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Counting the entire food chain (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale) takes this contribution up to 29%.




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The report, which synthesises information from some 7,000 scientific papers, found there is no way to keep global warming under 2℃ without significant reductions in land sector emissions.

Land puts out emissions – and absorbs them

The land plays a vital role in the carbon cycle, both by absorbing greenhouse gases and by releasing them into the atmosphere. This means our land resources are both part of the climate change problem and potentially part of the solution.

Improving how we manage the land could reduce climate change at the same time as it improves agricultural sustainability, supports biodiversity, and increases food security.

While the food system emits nearly a third of the world’s greenhouse gases – a situation also reflected in Australia – land-based ecosystems absorb the equivalent of about 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This happens through natural processes that store carbon in soil and plants, in both farmed lands and managed forests as well as in natural “carbon sinks” such as forests, seagrass and wetlands.




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Australia is a global top-ten deforester – and Queensland is leading the way


There are opportunities to reduce the emissions related to land use, especially food production, while at the same time protecting and expanding these greenhouse gas sinks.

But it is also immediately obvious that the land sector cannot achieve these goals by itself. It will require substantial reductions in fossil fuel emissions from our energy, transport, industrial, and infrastructure sectors.

Overburdened land

So, what is the current state of our land resources? Not that great.

The report shows there are unprecedented rates of global land and freshwater used to provide food and other products for the record global population levels and consumption rates.

For example, consumption of food calories per person worldwide has increased by about one-third since 1961, and the average person’s consumption of meat and vegetable oils has more than doubled.

The pressure to increase agricultural production has helped push about a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area into various states of degradation via loss of soil, nutrients and vegetation.

Simultaneously, biodiversity has declined globally, largely because of deforestation, cropland expansion and unsustainable land-use intensification. Australia has experienced much the same trends.




Read more:
To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws


Climate change exacerbates land degradation

Climate change is already having a major impact on the land. Temperatures over land are rising at almost twice the rate of global average temperatures.

Linked to this, the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as heatwaves and flooding rainfall has increased. The global area of drylands in drought has increased by over 40% since 1961.

These and other changes have reduced agricultural productivity in many regions – including Australia. Further climate changes will likely spur soil degradation, loss of vegetation, biodiversity and permafrost, and increases in fire damage and coastal degradation.




Read more:
We desperately need to store more carbon – seagrass could be the answer


Water will become more scarce, and our food supply will become less stable. Exactly how these risks will evolve will depend on population growth, consumption patterns and also how the global community responds.

Overall, proactive and informed management of our land (for food, water and biodiversity) will become increasingly important.

Stopping land degradation helps everyone

Tackling the interlinked problems of land degradation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and food security can deliver win-wins for farmers, communities, governments, and ecosystems.

The report provides many examples of on-ground and policy options that could improve the management of agriculture and forests, to enhance production, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make these areas more robust to climate change. Leading Australian farmers are already heading down these paths, and we have a lot to teach the world about how to do this.

We may also need to reassess what we demand from the land. Farmed animals are a major contributor to these emissions, so plant-based diets are increasingly being adopted.

Similarly, the report found about 25-30% of food globally is lost or wasted. Reducing this can significantly lower emissions, and ease pressure on agricultural systems.

How do we make this happen?

Many people around the world are doing impressive work in addressing some of these problems. But the solutions they generate are not necessarily widely used or applied comprehensively.

To be successful, coordinated policy packages and land management approaches are pivotal. Inevitably, all solutions are highly location-specific and contextual, and it is vital to bring together local communities and industry, as well as governments at all levels.




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Given the mounting impacts of climate change on food security and land condition, there is no time to lose.


The author acknowledges the contributions to authorship of this article by Clare de Castella, Communications Manager, ANU Climate Change Institute.The Conversation

Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why is everyone talking about natural sequence farming?


Ian Rutherfurd, University of Melbourne

On the eve of the recent National Drought Summit, prime minister Scott Morrison and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack visited Mulloon Creek near Canberra, shown recently on the ABC’s Australian Story. They were there to see a creek that was still flowing, and green with vegetation, despite seven months of drought.

Mulloon Creek was the legacy of a long collaboration between prominent agriculturalist Peter Andrews, and Tony Coote, the owner of the property who died in August. For decades they have implemented Andrews’ “natural sequence farming” system at Mulloon Creek.




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Central to the system is slowing flow in the creek with “leaky weirs”. These force water back into the bed and banks of the creek, which rehydrates the floodplain. This rehydrated floodplain is then said to be more productive and sustainable.

McCormack, who is also the minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development, was impressed and declared the success of Mulloon as a “model for everyone … this needs to be replicated right around our nation”. The ABC program suggested this form of farming could reduce the impact of drought across Australia. So, what is the evidence?

The promise of natural sequence farming

There are plenty of anecdotes but little published science around the effectiveness of natural sequence farming. What there is describes some modest floodplain rehydration, little change to stream flows, some trapping of sediment and some improvements in soil condition. These results are encouraging but not miraculous.

How much each of the different components of natural sequence farming contributes is not always clear, and the economic arguments for widespread adoption are modest. At present, there is not the standard of evidence to support this farming method as a panacea for drought relief, as proposed by the deputy prime minister.




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Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


But if the evidence does emerge, why wouldn’t farmers simply adopt the methods as part of a sensible business model? Don’t all farmers want to do better in drought?

In the ABC show, and elsewhere, supporters of natural sequence farming argue that it is hard for farmers to adopt the methods because government regulations restrict use of willows, blackberries and other weeds, that they claim, are particularly effective in restoring streams.

Governments are correct to be wary of this call to use weeds, and some research suggests that native plants can do a similar job. This restriction on use of weeds might be galling for proponents of natural sequence farming but it should not be a fundamental impediment to adoption.

A more important frustration for natural sequence farming practitioners is how widely the approach can be applied. In Australian Story, John Ryan, a rural journalist, says:

I am sick of politicians, farmers groups, and government departments telling me that Peter Andrews only works where you’ve got little creeks in a mountain valley … I’ve seen it work on flat-lands, steep lands, anywhere.

Natural sequence farming arose in the attempt to restore upland valleys and creeks in southern NSW that were once environmentally valuable chains of ponds or swampy meadows. But these waterways have become deeply incised, degraded, and disconnected from their floodplains. Not only does this incision produce a great deal of sediment pollution, but it produces many agricultural problems.




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Spring is coming, and there’s little drought relief in sight


In reality, small and medium-sized stream systems across much of Australia have deepened after European settlement. If the leaky weirs of natural sequence farming are effective, then they could be applied across many gullied and incised streams across the country.

We’ve already been doing it

The good news is that landholders and governments have already been using aspects of natural sequence farming in those very gullies for decades to control erosion.

Since the 1970s, across the world, one useful method for controlling erosion has been grade-control structures. They were once made of concrete but are now usually made of dumped rock (called rock-chutes), and also logs.

Rock chutes in Barwidgee Creek, 1992, Ovens River catchment, Victoria. Source: T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority
The same creek in 2002. It is now heavily vegetated and has pools of water, just like Mulloon Park.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority

These structures reduce the speed of water flow, trap sediment, encourage vegetation, and stop gullies from deepening. These are all goals of natural sequence farming using leaky weirs.

There are thousands of such structures, supported by government initiatives, across the Australian landscape acting as an unrecognised experiment in rehydration and drought protection.




Read more:
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Perhaps governments should already have evaluated these structures, but the rehydration potential of these works has not been recognised in the past. It is time that this public investment was scientifically evaluated.

We may find that natural sequence farming and the routine government construction of grade-control structures have similar effects on farmland and the environment.

But whatever the outcome, gully management is not likely to mark the end of drought in the Australian landscape.The Conversation

Ian Rutherfurd, Associate Professor in Geography, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

With the right help, bears can recover from the torture of bile farming


Edward Narayan, Western Sydney University

Bear bile farms, which exist in some Asian countries like Vietnam and China, are a terrible reality for Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus).

The bears spend their lives confined in tiny steel or concrete cages. They are “milked” through permanent holes in their side that allow bile to be extracted from the gall bladder.

My research, published in the journal Animal Welfare, investigated the chronic stress created by these conditions. We found that with care and rehabilitation, rescued bears in animal sanctuaries can readjust to a normal lifestyle with a reduction in stress – a highly encouraging result.




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What’s so precious about bile?

Bile is a greenish-brown fluid produced by the liver in humans and most vertebrates. Bile acid aids digestion of fats – and one particular bile compound, called ursodeoxycholic acid, could have potential pharmaceutical applications.

Because of this, bear bile is highly sought in traditional Chinese medicine. It is believed to reduce gall stones and improve indigestion, among other things. However, non-animal-derived and synthetic alternatives exist for urosodeoxycholic acid and other bile components.

The use of Asiatic black bears as primary sources of bile is a significant animal welfare problem that needs global awareness. Most of the bears are introduced to the trade upon poaching from the wild, and cubs as young as a few months are caged and held captive for up to 30 years.

I worked with the international welfare organisation AnimalsAsia, which runs rescue and rehabilitation programs in Asia and has moved hundreds of bears into sanctuaries.

My research investigated how successful this rehabilitation is, and whether rescued bears can recover from their experiences.

Animal cruelty causes chronic stress

Stress is defined as any unpleasant physical or psychological change that creates an uncomfortable feeling and negative outcome.

Not surprisingly, bears at bile farms in Vietnam have significantly higher levels of stress hormones than bears living in sanctuaries. This is the first scientific evidence of the chronic stress created by bear bile farming.

Stress in vertebrates (like humans and bears) is a physiological response in the endocrine system, also known as the hypothalamus-pituitary adrenal axis. This is the body’s main control centre for all things related to stress.

Stress hormones like cortisol help regulate the metabolism, especially in times of short-term or acute stress such as “fight or flight” situations. In normal situations, sharp stress causes an increase of cortisol that allows an animal to react quickly to a dangerous situation. Once the danger passes, a negative feedback loop reduces cortisol production and keeps the body stable.




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But chronic stress can lead to harmful changes in the stress endocrine system. Long-term cortisol overproduction weakens the body’s ability to fend off daily challenges, and increases the risk of disease and death. In humans, chronic stress contributes to problems with the cardiovascular, immune and central nervous systems.

The presence of what we call “stress biomarkers” in faeces or hair can be a very useful tool for assessing animal welfare.

We measured cortisol levels in bear faeces to rapidly and reliably check their stress levels.

This was particularly useful because we did not have to restrain the rescued bears, a process that would understandably upset them more than their peers.

Reversing chronic stress in bear sanctuaries

Chronic stress is a massive challenge for the successful rehabilitation of animals into their new environment. Careful monitoring of stress is essential in animal rescue and translocation programs because it can provide information on the physiological resilience of each animal, and help rescuers understand how the animals might respond to humane interventions and veterinary checks.

Rescued bears are given special veterinary care and integrated into the bear sanctuary after several months of careful physiological and behavioural assessments.

Our data show that although not all bears fully recover from living on a bile farm, they generally manage to reduce their stress hormone levels under the rehabilitation program.




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Like humans, animals need love and care. Stress reseach has shown humane treatment can reverse chronic stress – and our study has found that is true even for animals who have experienced intolerable treatment.The Conversation

Edward Narayan, Senior Lecturer in Animal Science; Stress and Animal Welfare Biologist, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Farmers’ climate denial begins to wane as reality bites


Sarah Ann Wheeler, University of Adelaide and Céline Nauges, Inra

Australia has been described as the “front line of the battle for climate change adaptation”, and our farmers are the ones who have to lead the charge. Farmers will have to cope, among other pressures, with longer droughts, more erratic rainfall, higher temperatures, and changes to the timing of seasons.

Yet, puzzlingly enough to many commentators, climate denial has been widespread among farmers and in the ranks of the National Party, which purports to represent their interests.




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Back in 2008, only one-third of farmers accepted the science of climate change. Our 2010-11 survey of 946 irrigators in the southern Murray-Darling Basin (published in 2013) found similar results: 32% accepted that climate change posed a risk to their region; half disagreed; and 18% did not know.

These numbers have consistently trailed behind the wider public, a clear majority of whom have consistently accepted the science. More Australians in 2018 accepted the reality of climate change than at almost any time, with 76% accepting climate change is occurring, 11% not believing in it and 13% being unsure.

Yet there are signs we may be on the brink of a wholesale shift in farmers’ attitudes towards climate change. For example, we have seen the creation of Young Carbon Farmers, Farmers for Climate Action, the first ever rally on climate change by farmers in Canberra, and national adverts by farmers on the need for climate action. Since 2016 the National Farmers Federation has strengthened its calls for action to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Our latest preliminary research results have also revealed evidence of this change. We surveyed 1,000 irrigators in 2015-16 in the southern Murray-Darling Basin, and found attitudes have shifted significantly since the 2010 survey.

Now, 43% of farmers accept climate change poses a risk to their region, compared with just 32% five years earlier. Those not accepting correspondingly fell to 36%, while the percentage who did not know slightly increased to 21%.

Why would farmers deny the science?

There are many factors that influence a person’s denial of climate change, with gender, race, education and age all playing a part. While this partly explains the attitudes that persist among farmers (who tend to be predominantly male, older, Caucasian, and have less formal education), it is not the full story.

The very fact that farmers are on the front line of climate change also drives their climate change denial. For a farmer, accepting the science means facing up to the prospect of a harsher, more uncertain future.

Yet as these changes move from future prospect to current reality, they can also have a galvanising effect. Our survey results suggest farmers who have seen their farm’s productivity decrease over time are more likely to accept the science of climate change.

Many farmers who have turned to regenerative, organic or biodynamic agriculture talk about the change of mindset they went through as they realised they could no longer manage a drying landscape without major changes to their farming practices.




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In addition, we have found another characteristic that is associated with climate change denial is whether farmers have identified a successor for their farm. Many farmers desire to turn their farm over to the next generation, hopefully in a better state than how they received the farm. This is where the psychological aspect of increased future uncertainty plays an important role – farmers don’t want to believe their children will face a worse future on the farm.

We all want our children to have better lives than our own, and for farmers in particular, accepting climate change makes that very challenging. But it can also prompt stronger advocacy for doing something about it before it’s too late.

What can we do?

Whether farmers do or do not accept climate change, they all have to deal with the uncertainty of weather – and indeed they have been doing so for a very long time. The question is, can we help them to do it better? Given the term “climate change” can be polarising, explicit climate information campaigns will not necessarily deliver the desired results.




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What farmers need are policies to help them manage risk and improve their decision-making. This can be done by focusing on how adaptation to weather variability can increase profitability and strengthen the farm’s long-term viability.

Farming policy should be more strategic and forward-thinking; subsidies should be removed for unsustainable practices; and farmers should be rewarded for good land management – both before and during droughts. The quest remains to minimise the pain suffered by all in times of drought.The Conversation

Sarah Ann Wheeler, Professor in Water Economics, University of Adelaide and Céline Nauges, Research Director, Inra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Helping farmers and reducing car crashes: the surprising benefits of predators



File 20180409 114112 1max665.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Whoosa vicious helpful predator? You are! Yes you are!
Sean Riley/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Neil Carter, Boise State University

Humans may be Earth’s apex predator, but the fleeting shadow of a vulture or the glimpse of a big cat can cause instinctive fear and disdain. But new evidence suggests that predators and scavengers are much more beneficial to humans than commonly believed, and that their loss may have greater consequences than we have imagined.

Conflict between these species and people, coupled with dramatic habitat loss, is causing unprecedented predator and scavenger declines. Nearly three-fourths of all vulture species are on a downward spiral. African lions are projected to lose half of their range in the coming decades and leopards have lost upwards of 75% of their historic range. Many bat species are facing extinction.




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In a recent paper in Nature Ecology & Evolution, we summarised recent studies across the globe looking at the services predators and scavengers can provide, from waste disposal to reducing car crashes.

The many roles our fanged friends play

Animals that eat meat play vital roles in our ecosystems. One of the most outstanding examples we found was that of agricultural services by flying predators, such as insectivorous birds and bats.

We found studies that showed bats saving US corn farmers over US$1 billion in pest control because they consume pest moths and beetles. Similarly, we found that without birds and bats in coffee plantations of Sulawesi, coffee profits are reduced by US$730 per hectare.




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It’s not just birds and bats that help farmers. In Australia, dingoes increase cattle productivity by reducing kangaroo populations that compete for rangeland grasses (even when accounting for dingoes eating cattle calves).

This challenges the notion that dingoes are solely vermin. Rather, they provide a mixture of both costs and benefits, and in some cases their benefits outweigh the costs. This is particularly important as dingoes have been a source of conflict for decades.




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Predators and scavengers also significantly reduce waste in and around human habitation. This keeps down waste control costs and even reduces disease risk.

For example, golden jackals reduce nearly 4,000 tons of domestic animal waste per year in Serbia and over 13,000 tons across urban areas in Europe. Vultures can reduce over 20% of organic waste in areas of the Middle East. In India, vultures have been implicated in reducing rabies risk by reducing the carcasses that sustain the stray dog population.

One piece of research showed that if mountain lions were recolonised in the eastern United States, they would prey on enough deer to reduce deer-vehicle collisions by 22% a year. This would save 150 lives and more than US$2 billion in damages.

Weighing up the costs and benefits

Although these species provide clear benefits, there are well known costs associated with predators and scavengers as well. Many predators and scavengers are a source of conflict, whether it is perceived or real; particularly pertinent in Australia is the ongoing debate over the risk of shark attacks.




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These drastic costs of predators and scavengers are rare, yet they attract rapt media attention. Nevertheless, many predators and scavengers are rapidly declining due to their poor reputation, habitat loss and a changing climate.

It’s time for a change in the conservation conversation to move from simply discussing the societal costs of predators and scavengers to a serious discussion of the important services that these animals provide in areas we share. Even though we may rightly or wrongly fear these species, there’s no doubt that we need them.


The ConversationThe authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Hawthorne Beyer and Alexander Braczkowski.

Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Eve McDonald-Madden, Senior lecturer, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Neil Carter, Assistant Professor, College of Innovation and Design, Boise State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A new wave of rock removal could spell disaster for farmland wildlife



File 20180409 114084 1cbign3.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Rocks being removed to make way for farming.
YouTube

Damian R. Michael, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

My (DM’s) perception of threatened species habitats changed the first time I encountered a population of endangered lizards living under small surface rocks in a heavily cleared grazing paddock. That was 20 years ago, at a time when land managers were well aware of the biodiversity values of conservation reserves and remnant patches of native vegetation. But back then we knew very little about the biodiversity values of the agricultural parts of the landscape.

Much has changed. Research has clearly shown the important ecological roles of different elements of the landscape for maintaining biodiversity on farms, especially for vertebrates such as carnivorous marsupials, frogs, snakes and lizards. Rocky outcrops and areas of surface rock, often termed bush rock, are among them.




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Areas of bush rock are biological hotspots. They represent island refuges for specialised plants and animals, and help ecosystems to thrive even in heavily cleared landscapes. In Australia, more than 200 vertebrate species depend on rocky outcrops to survive, and many of these species are found only in agricultural areas.

Recent surveys by The Australian National University on working farms in New South Wales found new populations of the threatened Pink-tailed Worm-lizard. Rocky outcrops and surface bush rock are the reason these reptiles can keep living in grazing landscapes.

Unfortunately, these critical habitats get little protection in agricultural regions. Rocky habitats may look tough, but they are fragile ecosystems and are easily damaged. Vast areas of surface rock have been removed and previously undisturbed outcrops are at risk of being destroyed by legal and routine farming activities.

The new wave of habitat loss

Licensed operators have been removing bush rock for use in landscape gardening for several decades. This is of growing concern, but is not a new threat to our native wildlife. Instead, more sophisticated technology is being developed which turns vast tracts of rocky country into farmland by crushing and destroying surface rock within minutes.

Across Australia, heavy duty sleds are being towed behind tractors to rip and remove rocky breakaways, ridgelines and small outcrops. The machinery operates like a large cheese grater, ripping bedrock with a row of tines, then crushing the displaced rocks with a large roller. These machines are designed to process large areas at once and can crush an entire hectare of rock every hour.

Turning bushrock into farmland.

Large areas of Western Australia, South Australia and western Victoria have been subject to widespread rock removal using these machines. This increasing agricultural practice has largely gone unnoticed.

While not illegal, rock-crushing has massive implications for the populations of native mammals, frogs and reptiles in agricultural areas. This approach to farming is at odds with the principle of land sharing, which encourages agriculture and wildlife conservation on the same land. Pressure to maximise productivity by increasing crop yields and intensifying land use could spell disaster for native species that live in these landscapes.

Some argue that using this new technology reduces soil damage by minimising how often agricultural machinery passes over the land. But this is not enough to offset the loss of this critical habitat. Surely we should be trying to find ways to protect and manage these environments in our cropping landscapes rather than developing ways to destroy them?

More rock-crushing.

A gap in the law

The removal of bush rock is listed as a key threatening process under the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995. However, this does not include the removal of rock where it is necessary for carrying out a development or activity with an existing approval under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act. Nor does it prevent the removal of rock from paddocks when it is a necessary part of routine agricultural activity.

This loophole in the legislation could spell disaster for threatened species that rely on bush rock on private property to survive. For example, the Grassland Earless Dragon is thought to have gone extinct in Victoria as a result of habitat loss, including the removal of critical surface rock habitat from across its former range.

The ConversationIt would be a real shame to lose more threatened species to poorly planned and completely avoidable agricultural practices – especially when so many progressive landholders are actively trying to restore and improve biodiversity on the land.

Damian R. Michael, Senior Research Officer, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.