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Ways to improve natural assets on a farm Protecting native perennial grasses

Intact native grasslands are now very rare, but many of the plant species that once characterised these grasslands persist as part of native and mixed pastures. If managed appropriately, native grasses can help provide year-round ground cover and drought resilience.

Native grasses in pastures at Windermere, near Murringo, NSW. Photo by Dave Smith.

Native grasslands are naturally-treeless, biodiversity-rich ecosystems characterised by a diversity of native grasses, chenopods, daisies, lilies, orchids, and other wildflowers and forbs.

Most areas of native grassland in temperate Australia have been gradually cleared, invaded by exotic species or otherwise degraded over the past two centuries however. High quality areas of native grassland are now extremely limited in south-eastern Australia with just 0.1% of the pre-European extent of some grassland community types remaining. Grassland communities in good condition are protected under Australian environmental law, being classified as either Endangered or Critically Endangered in Australia under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999.

Fertilizer use, weed invasion, establishment of exotic pastures and overgrazing are key threatening processes that have contributed to the decline of native grasslands.

While high quality areas of native grassland are very limited in their extent, native pastures that include native perennial grasses as well as exotic pasture species, are more widespread and these are also an important natural asset on farms, supporting both biodiversity values and sustainable production.

Why native grasses are important for biodiversity

Native grasslands are rich in biodiversity and support a disproportionately large number of threatened species of plants and animals. Threatened grassland-dependent species in south-eastern Australia include birds, reptiles, insects and plants, such as the plains-wanderer (Pedionomus torquatus), pink-tailed worm lizard (Aprasia parapulchella), striped legless lizard (Delma impar), grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla), golden sun moth (Synemon plana), button wrinklewort daisy (Rutidosis leptorrhynchoides), hoary sunray daisy (Leucochrysum albicans var. tricolor), maroon leek-orchid (Prasophyllum frenchi) and dozens of other species.

Native grasslands also provide ecosystem services such as carbon storage, supporting pollinators, and control of salinity, soil acidity and erosion.

While intact native grasslands are rare, mixed pastures that include native perennial grasses are more widespread.  Native pastures are still very important for biodiversity, supporting many native plants and animals including birds such as the stubble quail, little button-quail and Horsfield’s bushlark. Reptiles associated with native pastures in some areas include the southern rainbow skink, grassland earless dragon and striped legless lizard.


The role of native grasses for farm production

Mixed pastures that include native perennial grasses are a key natural asset on farms, supporting both biodiversity and production.

Native perennial grasses are deep-rooted, enabling them to draw on moisture deep in the soil. Their deep root systems improve both water infiltration and soil moisture retention, as well as stabilizing the soil, reducing wind and water erosion.

Because they are summer-active, native grasses hold more moisture and are greener during the hotter months of the year, so they are less susceptible to fire than winter-active annuals that dry off in summer. If they are burnt, they recover quickly.

Management of native grasses requires a low input production system, which has the potential to increase the profit margins of a grazing enterprise, through removal of the high costs associated with sowing pastures and applying fertilizer.

With good management, native pastures can be hardy during drought, providing more reliable feed for livestock when feed is scare elsewhere.

To protect native pastures:

  • Control the timing and intensity of grazing to meet ground cover targets and allow desirable species to seed, recover and
  • Just as for improved perennial pastures, native perennial grasses will need to be rested occasionally to allow recovery from
  • Control encroaching exotic plants by strategically grazing these areas before invasive plants set