AUSTRALIA’S Threatened Species Commissioner says farmers don’t get enough credit for helping native animals and are in fact best placed to deal with the number one threat: invasive pests such as the feral cat and fox.
Commissioner Gregory Andrews said the nation’s farmers are often unfairly tarred by the city as ignorant on native wildlife and greedily complicit in the destruction of habitat. And while he says land clearing undoubtedly has an impact, it is pest animals that Mr Andrews sees as a bigger threat to native species, with farmers at the forefront of efforts to contain the problem.
Mr Andrews said he had witnessed from Cape York to Tasmania farmers controlling pest species while also putting their hand up for habitat creation programs - even setting aside land – to provide natives with the best chance of survival.
“I like to celebrate the commitment of farmers,” Mr Andrews said. “More than half of Australia is farmland, and about 17 per cent national parks or protected areas. But animals and plants don’t care if land is public or private and aren’t necessarily aware where these places start and finish.
“I find often there is a heightened level of activity to control pests on private land than in National Parks.”
Mr Andrews was named Australia’s first Threatened Species Commissioner in 2014. He sits within the Federal Environment Department to raise awareness of and support for Australia’s fight against extinction.
His fears around the impact of pest animals echo those of biologist and writer Tim Low, who told The Weekend Australian introduced pests and diseases had done more damage than land clearing, fire and habitat loss.
Mr Low told the paper environmental groups would see more of an impact per dollar spent from campaigning to stop the spread of plant and animal pests than campaigning against land clearing.
“The conservation movement should be talking more about quarantine, even if that means saying a bit less about habitat loss,” Mr Low told The Weekend Australian.
Mr Andrews said the top three threats to native wildlife “were feral cats at the top, foxes as the second, and fire as the third.” He also said he believed it was important for public funding to be available to farmers to do help improve biodiversity by managing their private land.”
“Farmers know their land better than anyone else.”
Mr Andrews said a ‘lock it up’ approach to conserving land was potentially disastrous.
“What I always say, is that Australia’s land has been managed by people for well over 40,000 years. If we just lock land up and leave it, both the native plants and animals and invasive species will get out of wack.”
Landowners leading the way
MUCH of Gregory Andrews’ work is spent on the road, with his job as Threatened Species Commissioner revealing varied examples of private land management helping native flora and fauna.
“I’ve met farmers all over Australia, who are doing great work,” he said. “Around the Dryandra Woodlands on the edge of the wheatbelt in WA they’re controlling feral cats and foxes, to protect their sheep, but also to protect the numbat and quolls.
“In the Riverina where there is a third of the endangered Australasian Bittern in the world... there are farmers who are adjusting their rice practices and deeply love these birds that are right in the middle of their rice. Graziers around Deniliquin adjusting their grazing patterns because if an area isn’t grazed, then you’ve got vegetation too thick for the Plains-wanderers to live in.”
Mr Andrews said Kangaroo Island was one of the first places he learned the link between farm productivity and saving species by controlling feral cats.
“All these sheep and chook farmers who are fed up because of the diseases being spread, affecting lambing rates.”
He said he did not deny the impacts of land clearing on some native habitats.
“Of course it has an impact. What has an even bigger impact is the historical legacy of land clearing, which is something we can work with and help species adapt. It’s not always about turning the clock back or having what is perceived to be natural habitats - it's about having appropriate and effective habitats.”