A vegetation labyrinth

Award-winning farmer Sheldon Dalton reckons he should have bought Lotto tickets instead to trying to clear land


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MAZE of federal, state and local environmental laws leaves farmers lost.

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Sheldon Dalton with his 18-year-old son Kaleb and 26-year-old son Bellamy on "Tanderra" at the weekend. The Daltons are frustrated with government environmental legislation.

Sheldon Dalton with his 18-year-old son Kaleb and 26-year-old son Bellamy on "Tanderra" at the weekend. The Daltons are frustrated with government environmental legislation.

SHELDON Dalton reckons he would have been better to spend $30,000 on Lotto tickets rather than embark on a protracted bid to clear 600 hectares of virgin Mallee country north of Hillston.

He refers to his application to clear an area of “Scottscraig”, a 12,545ha farm, that currently has about 3200ha dedicated to cropping.

The property is subject to an overlay that declares it is Mallee fowl country and joins a national park on its northern boundary.

“The overlay declares there could be Mallee fowl there, that’s not to say there is,” he said. “If there is Mallee fowl – what do we do then?

“We have declared intended offsets and are prepared to fence those offsets to keep out wild dogs and foxes and have even suggested a baiting program, all extra costs we’re prepared to take on.”

The intended offsets, to be preserved for posterity’s sake, represent four times the area he wants to clear.

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“It’s been 12 months since we made an application to clear the country and we’ve found it’s not as sweet and easy as they said it would be.”

Home base for the family holdings – owned with wife Rebecca, son Bellamy, daughter-in-law Hannah and youngest son Kaleb – is “Tanderra”, a 12,140ha farm about 20 kilometres south of Hillston and there’s another holding of about 4000ha which, combined with “Scottscraig” takes their entire investment in Mallee country to about 35,000ha.

Of that land 14,160ha is cropped in a no-till regime of blocks every second year to build sufficient soil moisture, so about 60 to 70 per cent of his cleared country is cropped annually to a mix of cereals and pulses.

“We bought ‘Scottscraig’ three years ago, as part of our succession plan to remain viable as a family farm,” said Mr Dalton.

“We were hoping to crop the area next year, but wouldn’t even look at it now.

“We can’t plan, can’t get answers and really don’t know whether it will ever happen.

“You could say we’ve lost confidence in the process.”

Tracy Blackburn, Suncorp, Dubbo, presents the sash for second place in the western region wheat competition to Sheldon and Rebecca Dalton early last year.

Tracy Blackburn, Suncorp, Dubbo, presents the sash for second place in the western region wheat competition to Sheldon and Rebecca Dalton early last year.

BlackburnAgri’s Peter Ware, who has been helping Mr Dalton navigate environmental laws, is frustrated.

“The core issue is that state government has been telling people it’s a one-stop shop for land management and it’s not,” he said.

“If Local Land Services gives the go ahead and you have not performed due diligence that satisfies the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) then you could well have a compliance issue and you might get a tap on the shoulder.”

In the case of the Dalton’s proposed project, its coordinates were entered on the Species Profile and Threats database, designed to provide information about species and ecological communities listed under the EPBC.

The database listed species potentially affected.

“Some species are obviously not there, because their preferred habitat is absent when ground-truthing is performed,” said Mr Ware.

“Federally, there is an accepted assessment methodology for each species, it’s a very defined process that says ‘you must do these things’ to determine your possible affect.”

Environmental scientist of 22 years Steve Cuppit, who works largely in Queensland but often within the confines of the EPBC, reckons Mr Dalton may as well have bought his Lotto tickets.

“That’s about the size of it, it’s very rare to get anything through, probably the best course of action is to fly to Canberra with an environmental scientist by your side and ask them if you are wasting your time and get things straight from the outset,” he said.

The farming community is getting kicked around like a political football. - Brendan Moylan

Brendan Moylan, a partner in Webb and Boland Lawyers, with offices in Moree and Narrabri, is currently working on 30 native vegetation cases, an easing from 80 earlier in the year.

He has encountered farmers in the North West looking to clean up country farmed years ago who followed state government rules, gained approval, but were then scuppered by EPBC legislation.

Mr Moylan believes this tangle is why so many farmers find themselves outside the regulatory framework, the problem being something listed as an invasive native species under state laws may be considered an endangered ecological community federally.

“There has to be a better way to achieve environmental outcomes than prosecuting farmers in the Land and Environment Court. The farming community is getting kicked around like a political football.”

Asked about environmental laws, NSW Farmers president James Jackson quickly warms to a indictment of the lot farmers have been dealt.

“Any sort of active land management is nigh impossible now, it’s ridiculous,” he said.

“We’re getting wedged from all sides, we’ve got local government, state and the feds all imposing their own set of environmental regulations – three different sets of police.

“Australia has been actively managed with fire for 60,000 to 70,000 years and you can’t just leave stuff alone, there are invasive weeds all over the country.

“Up here in New England, the people who used to run cattle on the eastern falls simply used to drop a match in lantana and blackberries as they pulled out.

“That doesn’t happen anymore,” said Mr Jackson, suggesting a neglected landscape rapidly becomes a fire threat.

“A really hot fire tortures koalas, there are people who are well meaning, but ignorant, they have a poor understanding of how the environment works.

“Weeds need to be removed for biodiversity. Mixed grasslands and woodlands have a greater biodiversity than just bush.”

Mr Jackson said there must be stewardship payments included in legislation because managing weeds takes time and money.

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