Farming for change

Tuesday 13 June, 2017

Since 2012, Bush Heritage and the Tasmanian Land Conservancy have been working with farmers to restore the Tasmanian Midlands. Now, our efforts are starting to take root.

Bush Heritage ecologist Matt Appleby with Midlands farmer Sam Riggall, on Sam's property. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Bush Heritage ecologist Matt Appleby with Midlands farmer Sam Riggall, on Sam's property. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Tender young eucalypt saplings and the spiky seed heads of Kangaroo Grass can be signs of a landscape in repair, and in the Tasmanian Midlands they’re a welcome sight. Here, years of restoration and protection work are finally beginning to pay off.

Corralled by mountains and Tasmania’s stunning east coast, the fertile soils of the Tasmanian Midlands, the traditional lands of the Tasmanian Aboriginal community, have been widely regarded as farmland since European settlement.

Today, those grassy plains and woodlands have been transformed into productive cropping and grazing grounds, and less than 5% of the original native grasslands remain. Coupled with other pressures, this mass clearance of land has left over 180 plant and animal species threatened.

Conducting a vegetation survey on Sam's property. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Conducting a vegetation survey on Sam's property. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Five years ago, Bush Heritage Australia and the Tasmanian Land Conservancy teamed up to tackle this conservation crisis by asking one simple question: what if we could engage with the farmers themselves to help save native ecosystems on the very land their livelihoods depend upon?

It wasn’t the first time that question had been posed – conservation covenants and fixed-term agreements have been a popular tool for many a state government trying to improve its environmental policies – but previous governmental attempts to work with landowners in the Midlands have failed to adequately protect valuable remnant patches of native vegetation.

"Those conservation agreements were usually applied to land of the farmers’ choosing,” explains Bush Heritage ecologist Dr Matt Appleby. “The problem with that is they tend to choose the rockiest, most unproductive land they have, meaning that native vegetation on productive land gets left out.”

"We met with the farmers and they explained that they wanted to help. But they just couldn't justify setting aside fertile, productive land for conservation, forever," says Matt. "That's what led us to develop this stewardship-based conservation project."

The game plan

Kangaroo Grass seed heads. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Kangaroo Grass seed heads. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Under the project, farmers receive annual payments to help finance the protection and restoration of crucial patches of native vegetation on their properties in the Tasmanian Midlands. Those payments are tied to specific ecological goals, which are determined and monitored by the project team, and set out in a ‘stewardship agreement’ that the landowner signs.

On some properties, meeting those goals means reducing grazing to give native grasses the chance to flower and set seed, as well as strategically managing sheep numbers in certain areas.

“A bit of grazing can actually be a good thing if you get the balance right, because a lot of the smaller native plants get crowded out when grasses grow too long. Naturally, wallabies or kangaroos would keep them in check, but under the right management, sheep work well, too,” says Matt.

On other properties, landowners are eradicating weeds, controlling feral animal populations, and fencing off waterways or patches of native vegetation to allow trees to re-establish.

A map of the Tasmanian Midlands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
A map of the Tasmanian Midlands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
There are also conversations underway as to how traditional land management practises could be reintroduced to the Midlands landscape, and how Aboriginal cultural values on stewardship properties could be identified and protected.

Change in the air

It's still early days, but Matt’s "very encouraged" by the progress he's seen so far. About 2,600 hectares are now protected through this conservation project. Fields of Kangaroo Grass are going to seed and more regeneration is occurring over summer. Eucalypt saplings are popping up in places where new trees have struggled for decades, and new populations of several threatened plants have been found, including Tunbridge Buttercups, Grassland Flaxlilies and Lanky Buttons (daisies).

“We did baseline surveys of the properties when we first started, and from there we’ll do detailed surveys every three years,” says Matt. “The first of those subsequent surveys has just been completed, and the initial results are promising.

"We’ve seen increases in native species diversity, as well as the overall condition of our survey sites.”

Bush Heritage and the Tasmanian Land Conservancy are aiming to double the amount of land protected under these stewardship agreements, focusing on native grasslands, by the end of June 2017, with a view to eventually protecting around 8,000 hectares.

But as much as anything, it's the cultural change occurring in the Midlands community that leaves Matt most hopeful. "There are farmers offering us more land. They're saying to me, 'When's the next round? I'd like to do more.' And that's what you want to hear."