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New South Wales farmers protect rare habitats

By Gilly Lloyd

A male Superb Parrot © John Cooper

Farmers in New South Wales, Australia, are helping to increase the population of endangered birds and mammals by partitioning their land for conservation, according to a report from the Sydney Morning Herald.  Landowners, who, in return, are being paid market rates for quarantining the land for 15 years, are enthusiastically joining the $37.5 million Federal Government scheme which is designed to conserve ecologically rare areas.

In the Lachlan-Murrumbidgee region in the south-west of the state, farmers are fencing off tracts of critically endangered box gum grassy woodland habitat, which is home to the Superb and Swift Parrots and the tiger quoll.  This woodland habitat once spread from south-east Queensland across New South Wales and down to central Victoria, but less than 5% of it now remains.

According to Alan McGufficke, from the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority, 700 landowners have already applied, and 161 have qualified for the first stage of the program. Applications for the second round have closed, and a third is expected soon.

Mr. McGufficke said that the program was the first conservation plan of its kind to provide real compensation for land that was taken out of production. The 15-year agreement also allows farmers to better plan their future.

“They are basically being paid to be conservative,” he said. “A lot of landholders are quite conservation-minded. There is more awareness of what’s going on now.”

David Rothery, whose family has farmed near Cowra since the 1830s, said he was looking forward to a greater diversity of species on his farm.

“The idea of conserving part of the property in an original state excites us, particularly as we can still use it to a limited extent for grazing,” he said. “It is going to allow us to manage the farm in a more balanced and sustainable way…  By increasing the diversity of plants, birds, insects, reptiles and other animals, it will make the farm better equipped to withstand changes, both short-term drought and long-term climate change.”

The Lachlan Valley is one of the areas in the state most affected by the drought, with dam levels in the region under 5% and falling.

Guy Fitzhardinge, who has fenced off 40% of his grazing property in Cowra, said the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization) was monitoring an increase in Superb Parrots and other birds on his land.  Established grasses on some older tracts of woodland were, however, being eaten by kangaroos – an issue which has not yet been addressed by the program.

“Their numbers have exploded and in many ways their impacts are no different to the impacts of cattle and sheep,” he said. “We have provided an ideal habitat for them with plenty of food, permanent water and no predators.”

Dr Fitzhardinge, who is a director of the conservation group Bush Heritage, has completed a PhD on ways to improve the sometimes difficult relationship between farmers and conservationists. He said it was important that conservation programs were closely monitored over decades rather than years, to ensure that habitats were properly maintained.

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