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Paying the way to conservation

What do you do if you want to protect the natural bush on your land, while at the same time making a living off it as a fourth-generation Tasmanian farmer?

This has been the perplexing question plaguing farmers, such as Sam Nicolson, who work on and care for the rolling farmlands of the Tasmanian Midlands.
Bush Heritage ecologist Dr Matt Appleby and Midlands farmer Sam Nicolson. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

Like many farmers in the region, Sam shoulders two sometimes conflicting responsibilities: earning a living off the land, and caring for that land in the same way his parents did, and their parents before them.

“I’m the fourth-generation on Bonneys Plains,” says Sam. “80% of this farm is native bush. It's supported this family for that long and it continues to support us because we’ve looked after it in the best way we can.”

Rather than maximising stock, the Nicolsons have regularly chosen to keep stock numbers low to lessen the impact on the native grasslands and grassy woodlands. But it hasn’t always been an easy choice; running more stock could have paid off large bills in tough years, while the impacts of climate change and an increased capacity to irrigate also put pressure on the family to intensify their farming practises.

Managing the Midlands for conservation. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

Innovating for the bush

The Tasmanian Midlands conservation project is making that decision an easier one by providing farmers with a reliable, additional income stream.

“It was always very clear that the Midlands are a significant place for biodiversity. What was unclear was how to protect those values,” says Jane Hutchinson, CEO of the Tasmanian Land Conservancy.

“The farmers approached us and Bush Heritage… looking for a way to engage with nature conservation while still continuing their farming practises and the farming legacies that are so significant to them.”

A Bennetts Wallaby in the Midlands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

The solution that ultimately came out of those conversations with landowners was something called a ‘stewardship agreement’. These rolling agreements with local farmers (for up to 10 years initially, and extended five-year terms thereafter) result in them receiving annual payments in exchange for meeting key conservation outcomes.

As a result, there’s less financial pressure on farmers like Sam when they manage their land for conservation.

“This model recognises that those farms in the Tasmanian Midlands aren’t for sale, and may never be for sale. So it’s a smart way of achieving conservation outcomes on land that we wouldn’t otherwise have access to,” says Gerard O’Neill, CEO of Bush Heritage.

Of course, the money for those payments must come from somewhere, and that’s where the Midlands Conservation Fund (MCF) comes into the picture.

This $3 million fund, generously donated by the Sidney Myer Fund, The Myer Foundation, John T Reid Charitable Trusts, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and others, allows for those payments to continue on in perpetuity.

The Tasmanian Midlands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

“The Midlands Conservation Fund is about getting the natural environment on the balance sheet,” says Gerard.

The ultimate goal is to grow the MCF to $10 million by 2020, which will allow us to support farmers in the protection of 8,000 hectares of native grasslands and woodlands.

Two key things make the MCF model different to other conservation models previously trialled in the region and around Australia. The first is the reliable and ongoing nature of the payments, and the second is the fact that the stewardship agreements are adaptable to change due to their rolling terms.

“My parents were very wary about locking the farm down. But the MCF arrangement is flexible. Because of the payments, we can reduce stock grazing even in a hard year, and the bush is always managed as it should be, rather than how it has to be to make ends meet,” says Sam.

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