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Ways to improve natural assets on a farm Support biodiversity

The box-gum grassy woodlands of south-eastern Australia are truly remarkable: home to an astonishing diversity of vegetation and incredible wildlife. The woodlands also underpin some of Australia's prime agricultural land, and as a result only 4% of the original woodland vegetation remains intact.

Much of the remaining vegetation is on farmland, and farms provide vital habitat for many endangered plants and animals. Learn more about the small changes you can make on the farm to help support biodiversity and protect the natural heritage of our woodlands.

Above: Ground cuckoo-shrikes. Photo by Dave Smith.

Woodland plants and animals

Farms across the sheep-wheat belt of south-eastern Australia are home to many native woodland animals. These farms support patches of remnant woodland vegetation that are rich in beautiful flora and fauna, much of which is relatively unknown to the Australian public.

Species diversity in these woodlands is very high. More than 33% of Australia’s land bird species are associated with woodland areas (Birdlife Australia).  This includes very rare species such as the regent honeyeater and swift parrot. Iconic and charismatic bird species such as Major Mitchell’s cockatoo, crimson and eastern rosellas, flame, scarlet and red capped robins, and turquoise parrots are also strongly associated with woodlands. Smaller birds often found in woodlands are diamond firetails, striated pardalotes, and yellow-rumped thornbills.

At night, these woodlands come to life with several species of gliders and possums, as well as the more difficult to detect predatory birds that are critical for regulating the food webs. These include the southern boobook, barking owl, masked owl and tawny frogmouth.

Tim Walpole in a patch of remnant woodland on his property in north east Victoria. Photo by Amber Croft.

Environmental stewards of woodland landscapes

Temperate woodlands are a unique and valuable part of Australia’s natural heritage. The box-gum grassy woodlands of south-eastern Australia were sustainably managed by First Nations peoples for many thousands of years. With biodiversity under threat across the world, it is vital that woodland ecosystems are managed sustainably, alongside agricultural production.

Farmers are the environmental stewards of significant parts of the Australian landscape, and have a unique opportunity to conserve the inherent natural values of woodlands for future generations.

There is increasing recognition, both internationally and here in Australia, of the role of farmers in supporting biodiversity. For many farmers, the rewards are intrinsic, but increasingly there will also be opportunities to apply for funding to improve the biodiversity on farms. It is likely that these programs will be designed to recognised the long-term efforts made by those farmers who have integrated conservation into their farming systems.

Biodiversity and natural assets

Water and land are elements of natural capital that have been well-recognised as essential to agricultural production. In recent years, carbon has attracted an increased focus as an element of natural capital.

Biodiversity is also a component of natural capital, and it is vital to any farming system. Biodiversity refers to the variety and variability of life, at a range of levels including species and ecosystems. Without this variety, ecological systems such as water filtration and nutrient cycling could not function.

Healthy natural assets, such as vegetation and farm dams, have a significant role to play in supporting biodiversity and thus, in turn, supporting the ecological systems that underpin farm productivity.

There are a range of management actions farmers and other land managers can undertake to protect, restore or enhancing natural assets. In doing so, farmers can help protect our unique wildlife.


Paddock tree, Currawang. Photo by Sharyne Doensen.

Conserving woodland vegetation

While large woodland patches have the highest conservation significance, even a single isolated paddock tree can support a remarkable diversity and abundance of insect fauna that are prey for birdlife. These insects can also play a beneficial role in supporting agricultural production, as predators of pest insects and as pollinators.

In some places, isolated trees make up almost a quarter of the total remaining vegetation cover. Protecting these small remnants – which can be nodes of natural regeneration – can be a starting point for building the productive capacity in farming landscapes. While you wait for natural regeneration to mature, the large hollows in existing older paddock trees provide critical habitat.

The value of woodland vegetation for supporting biodiversity is enhanced when patches of vegetation – or even individual large old trees – are connected to other patches. Find out more about connectivity on the shelterbelts page.

What you can do to support biodiversity

Natural asset management projects come in many shapes and sizes – from planting a new paddock tree, to fencing off a farm dam. Investing in any of these projects on your farm will build habitat to support native species.

You may also want to focus restoration efforts on a particular species, and many Landcare groups and networks have established projects seeking to support particular species. One example is the Squirrel Glider LAMP Project based at Burrumbuttock in southern NSW, which is working with the local community to plan and implement the conservation of threatened squirrel gliders in the region.

Where to start? Learn about the wildlife local to your area, and find out if there are endangered species that need particular support. Speak to your local Landcare group to see if there are existing projects that you can add to by undertaking work on your farm. Or, choose one of the projects we’ve listed below – all of these projects will help provide targeted habitat or food resources for species or groups of animals.

Crested shrike-tit. Photo by David Smith.

Build an artificial floating island on your dam

Artificial islands are great habitat and refuge for wildlife such as ducks, frogs and turtles.

In this video, Sustainable Farms ecologist Eleanor Lang gives us a 2 minute demonstration of one way you can create temporary wildlife habitat in a dam.

Insect populations are in decline worldwide due to land clearing, intensive or monocultural agriculture, pesticide use, environmental pollution, colony disease and climate change. In Australia, honey bees, native bees and other native insects like hoverflies, wasps and butterflies provide essential pollination services for native plants, pastures, crops, fruits and vegetables.

These pollinators require habitat — such as diverse, native vegetation — that contains year-round food sources and nesting sites. The pollinators might focus on crops at certain times of year, providing pollination services, but the rest of the year they need other vegetation to survive.

If you want to support pollinators on your farm, plant a variety of native plants that bloom at various times across the year. Download or order our Powerful Pollinators resource to find out more and to access a plant list.

Keep fallen timber and dead trees

Fallen timber and dead trees are essential to healthy, functioning ecosystems. They provide refuge, shelter and resources for plants and animals.

Keeping fallen timber and dead trees in the landscape is one of the best things you can do for biodiversity and landscape health on your farm. In a paddock or on a woodland floor, fallen timber stabilises soil, reduces erosion, and creates a protected microclimate where small animals can thrive, nutrients collect, and seedlings can gain a foothold protected from grazing and the elements.

Large dead trees provide hollows that are essential nesting sites for wildlife – sites that are rapidly disappearing, meaning that every large dead tree, whether alone in a paddock or part of a vegetated patch, is valuable.

Click here to download more information on fallen timber and dead trees.

An echidna feeding among fallen timber on the woodland floor. Photo by Suzannah Macbeth.


Use wildlife-friendly fencing

Right: Squirrel glider. Photo by Jan Graham via Atlas of Living Australia.

Many animals get caught on and killed by barbed wire fences, including species of conservation concern such as the squirrel glider and little red flying fox. When establishing fences, avoid using barbed wire where possible, particularly on the top strand and especially around remnant vegetation.

Poly pipe can be used to cover existing barbed strands (particularly in high-traffic areas), limiting the number of animals such as marsupial gliders, flying foxes and birds that become tangled. In addition, planting trees in strategic parts of farms can help animals move between feeding and denning/nesting areas and shorten the distances that marsupial gliders have to glide, meaning that they are
less likely to become entangled in fences. Flagging tape attached to fences can also make them more visible to some animals.

Many landholders we work with have also found electric fencing to be a suitable alternative to barbed wire. Where barbed wire is essential for your livestock operation, avoiding using it as the top strand of the fence can minimise the risk for airborne wildlife.

Install artificial nest boxes

One of the most valuable resources for native animals are large old trees that have developed hollows. Unfortunately many of these trees have been lost due to clearing, and there is now a severe shortage of nesting and denning sites for hollow-using animals such as parrots, microbats and marsupial gliders.

Since hollows can take more than a century to form, new plantings do not immediately provide this much-needed habitat. Nest boxes in shelterbelts can help provide interim nesting and denning sites.

Here are some ways to increase the value of nest boxes for wildlife:

  1. Ensure they are appropriately attached to a tree (or other structure). Well designed harnesses can be used to attach nest boxes to trees in ways that do not harm the tree, nor result in the box being pushed off as the tree grows.
  2. Avoid checking nest boxes too frequently as some species will avoid using them if disturbed.
  3. Consider the position of nest boxes in relation to the sun, to avoid boxes over-heating during summer.
  4. If nest boxes are colonised by starlings, rats or bees, clean out the box. Often pest species will not return and native animals will colonise the boxes instead.
  5. Keep a record of when nest boxes were first installed, when they were checked and what species occupied them. This information can be invaluable for continuing to improve the design and use of nest boxes in the future.

Useful resources to support the design of nestboxes:

Nest boxes can be useful for providing interim nesting and denning sites for some species, and are also a great way to involve people in conservation activities. However, they are no substitute for natural hollows, so the best thing you can do to support hollow-dependent species is to retain large old trees, including dead trees, on your farm.