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Biodiversity on the books

Published 14 Jun 2022 
by Bron Willis

Ecologist Imogen Semmler is touring farms in NSW, to measure the health of farm ecosystems as part of Bush Heritage’s emerging focus on working with farmers to increase biodiversity.

In Spring 2021, ecologist Imogen Semmler stood surrounded by granite boulders, astonished at the woodland she saw in front of her.

“It felt really magical,” she says. “The diversity of native plants was off the charts, more than anything I’ve ever seen.”

The woodland was not part of a conservation reserve, but a mixed grazing-cropping farm in the Gulgong region of NSW, where farmer Col Seis has been caring for the woodlands for decades. Imogen was visiting the farm as part of her work assessing the overall ecological health of 50 farms as part of the Smartfarms Farm-scale Natural Capital Accounting project.

 Imogen Semmler with farmer Col Seis.
Imogen Semmler with farmer Col Seis.

The Smartfarms project, led by Dr Jim Radford for La Trobe University, is just one of a number of Bush Heritage programs demonstrating its emerging focus on working with farmers to enhance biodiversity across 10 million hectares of agricultural land by 2030 through ‘natural capital in agriculture’ initiatives.

With 58% of Australia used for agricultural production, the work that Imogen does with farmers like Col has huge potential to give many more native species and the habitats they rely on, a brighter future.

Imogen’s goal is to articulate to farmers, the economic benefits of managing the natural assets of their farms; the native vegetation, soils, wildlife and water – and to accelerate a global shift of thinking towards seeing biodiversity as a benefit, rather than a cost.

“Farmers are interested to know how natural capital can contribute to and improve a farming system,” says Imogen.

“If your farm is eroded, for example, it won’t be as productive. But if you have the data and knowledge to improve water flow, you can improve your farm’s agricultural production, as well as outcomes for native species such as Platypus and native fish.”

Ecologist Imogen Semmler assesses soil texture for Smart Farms project.
Ecologist Imogen Semmler assesses soil texture for Smart Farms project.

Angela Hawdon, Bush Heritage’s Business Development and Strategic Projects Manager, is excited about the opportunity that programs like Smartfarms, and the latest Farming for the Future project with Macdoch and the National Farmers’ Federation, offer in growing our understanding of the relationship between natural systems and production systems on a farm.

This growing field of expertise is known as natural capital accounting.

“Natural capital accounting can help us understand the relationship between production and biodiversity,” says Angela. “On one end of the spectrum you’ve got conservation reserves that exist to maximise biodiversity without monetary returns. At the other, you’ve got farms that focus 100% on agricultural production and high artificial inputs to earn income.

“These projects help to answer the question: ‘Where’s that sweet spot for farmers where nature has space to provide benefits for production?’”

While not all farmers have healthy productive woodlands like Col, the number of farmers seeking to improve the health of their farms is growing. Bush Heritage’s farm assessments will give them powerful data to help them achieve their goals.

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure, and most farmers haven’t put biodiversity on the books before. They’ve never measured how healthy their remnant vegetation is or asked, ‘how much does the presence of native pest-eating birds in that remnant vegetation benefit the crops in nearby paddocks?’”

 Imogen Semmler explaining the importance of native plants.
Imogen Semmler explaining the importance of native plants.

Once Imogen’s assessments are complete, she presents each farmer with a clear picture of the health of their farm, setting them up to take any number of next steps according to the results, including reviewing their practices to improve specific goals such as water flow, groundcover or soil health. Farmers who have healthy ecosystem function can also leverage the results to attract buyers who are willing to pay for their premium product, or ecosystem markets for carbon in planted trees.

“There are some incredibly enthusiastic brands who are keen to see natural capital accounts on the farms they buy from,” says Angela. “Consumers want to make a better choice about what jumper to purchase on the basis of where it’s from, how much carbon was produced or how their purchase supports native grasslands.”

Imogen’s assessment will be repeated at exactly the same points of the farm in three to five years to produce consistent data and to monitor the effect of any changes farmers may have made.

The Farming for the Future program is initiated by Macdoch Foundation in partnership with National Farmers’ Federation.

The Farm-scale Natural Capital Accounting project is led by the Research Centre for Future Landscapes at La Trobe University and is primarily funded by the Australian Government’s Smart Farming Partnership program.