Riverina rice crops are helping to protect the endangered Australasian bittern, proving the environment and agriculture can work together.
There are only about 2000 bitterns left in the world and about 40 per cent of those breed in the Riverina's rice crops.
The Bitterns in Rice research, led by Matt Herring of Murray Wildlife, supported by Riverina Local Land Services and funded through the Australian Government's National Landcare Program, began in 2012, but this past rice season was the first time they've been able to offer rice growers incentives to tweak the way they grow rice to better accommodate the bitterns.
Riverina Local Land Services project manager, Anna Wilson, said to maximise successful breeding, early permanent water was required with a minimum period of 130 days of inundation.
"Maintaining grassy banks and providing adjacent habitat in channels and dams are also part of the incentive and are a favoured place for bitterns to frequent as the season progresses," she said.
"We have also trialled growing small areas where additional urea was added so that the rice is taller and thicker to encourage early nesting."
Fox baiting was also undertaken across all farms taking part in the project as it's thought chicks and young birds are easy prey for these pests.
Four times as many bitterns found on incentive crops
Mr Herring said it was a challenging year to kick off the incentive aspect of the project, with a record low rice planting due to low water availability. Yet they managed to sign on six growers.
"In total that was 279 hectares, and the results were really good," Mr Herring said.
"We got four times as many bitterns at those incentive crops compared to the control site and we even recorded a successful breeding event."
The program goes for four years and Mr Herring hoped that it will be eventually be taken over by SunRice.
"We'd ultimately like to see the consumer funding Bittern Friendly Rice growing, by paying that bit extra at the supermarket for bittern friendly rice products."
Rice consumers to eventually become involved
Mr Herring acknowledged that asking growers to use more water in order to protect bitterns, was at odds with the general direction of the rice industry with its focus on improving water efficiency.
"It's definitely a conundrum because saving water in farming is obviously a good thing to do but it does come at an ecological cost, this is a really good example of that," Mr Herring said.
"If we keep pushing for efficiency there are losses in habitat.
"Rather than being one or the other, I think the rice industry in Australia can do both, they can continue to have some crops that are super efficient for water and they can continue to have some crops which will support breeding bitterns."
Mr Herring said he thought the model they were using in the project could be applied to other industries.
"We're able to show that you can work together for dual outcomes, even with something as contentious as Murray Darling Basin water."
Rice grower Hayden Cudmore from west of Griffith signed up to the project last year.
He said it had barely disrupted his cropping program and had not led to a reduction in yields.
"Ever since I started my farm, going back 35 or more years, I noticed the bird in the crop," Mr Cudmore said.
"It was just a curious thing, I wanted to learn more about it, then Matt came along and I got involved.
"We have this mindset that the environment only exists within the river corridor but we can get some really good environmental outcomes on farm."