Protecting Tasmania's biodiversity hotspot

Friday 20 March, 2009

The Tasmanian Land Conservancy’s CEO Nathan Males and Bush Heritage ecologist Dr Matt Appleby give us the lowdown on an exciting new conservation initiative.

Everybody’s favourite, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). Photo Matt Newton.

Everybody’s favourite, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii). Photo Matt Newton.

Drought-affected landscapes, dust storms and plans for extensive irrigation schemes – it all sounds like a description of the Murray–Darling basin but, surprisingly, this is the current situation in Tasmania’s Midlands.

Whether it's climate change at work or just a blip in the weather patterns, drought is not the only issue. Land managers in the region are also concerned about the long-term viability of farming systems, their impact on the environment and the potential social and cultural effects on their rural communities.

A proposal for a significant increase in the area under irrigation in the Midlands may provide new agricultural opportunities, but is potentially a new threat to the area’s grassy ecosystems. The underlying message is clear: urgent action is needed if we're to keep the unique wildlife of this region.

Wedge-tailed eagle. Photo Leigh Walters.

Wedge-tailed eagle. Photo Leigh Walters.

The landscape between Tasmania’s Great Western Tiers and the east coast ranges represents one of Australia’s handful of national biodiversity hotspots – the grassy lowland plains of the Tasmanian Midlands. The region was defined as a hotspot due to the large number of species that are endemic (unique) to the area, and because it's a refuge for a number of marsupials that are endangered on the mainland, such as the spotted-tailed quoll (Dasyurus maculatus) and the eastern barred bandicoot (Perameles gunnii). There's also significant pressure on these natural inhabitants from a range of land uses that have altered habitat over the years.

Critically, less than 4% of the Midlands region is protected in secure reserves, making the region a priority for conservation. Because 98% of the land is privately owned – frequently by families who’ve been in the area for generations – working with landowners is the only way to achieve effective conservation in the Midlands.

Grassy white gum woodlands and silver tussock grass. Photo Matt Newton.

 Grassy white gum woodlands and silver tussock grass. Photo Matt Newton.

Recognising this, Bush Heritage, the Tasmanian Land Conservancy and Tasmania’s Department of Primary Industries and Water have formed a partnership to provide new opportunities for landowners in the Midlands who are interested in making their conservation efforts generate income. The partnership will explore new and existing models of conservation management on private lands, with a particular emphasis on multigenerational time-scales.

The partner organisations are already working with a number of landowners who share common conservation goals. For landowners, any conservation initiative must also take into account the social and economic impacts on their farms and on the broader Midlands community. A key message from landowners is that conservation agreements and support for conservation action on other lands need to be ongoing and keep pace with the costs of management.

Golfers leek-orchid (Prasophyllum incorrectum). Photo Matt Appleby.

Golfers leek-orchid (Prasophyllum incorrectum). Photo Matt Appleby.

The partnership received initial financial support from The Myer Foundation and the Australian government’s National Reserve System Program to develop a conservation action plan (CAP) and a business plan addressing the long-term implementation of the project.

The completed CAP and business plan explore new and existing models for protecting conservation values and provide funders and supporters with costings and likely outcomes. It proposes a two-pronged approach, encompassing both the acquisition of land and drawing up of conservation covenants with current landowners, and the establishment of a long-term fund to pay for conservation actions by partner landowners.

Showy violet (Viola betonicifolia). Photo Matt Appleby.

Showy violet (Viola betonicifolia). Photo Matt Appleby.

‘Since I started farming more than 30 years ago I have had a growing awareness that biodiversity conservation and the broader benefits of maintaining natural ecosystems – provision of clean water, carbon sinks, plant pollination, natural pest control, healthy soils, nutrient recycling, etc. – should be an integral part of the farming enterprise and balance sheet. This new partnership recognises this reality and I look forward to being part of making it happen.’
– Andrew Cameron, farmer and partnership coordinator

The project’s commitment to both social and ecological sustainability has led The Sidney Myer Fund to recently commit $2 million additional support to the project. This seed funding will be used to begin work on both arms of the project – initial acquisitions and set-up costs for landowner partnerships, and to set up a seed fund that will provide support for conservation down the generations.

While considerable further support will be required to establish the project, this generous initial funding has recognised the significance of Tasmania’s Midlands. The foundations are in place and the process of seeking funding, building new partnerships and strengthening existing reserves is about to begin.

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