Ways to improve natural assets on a farm Establish shelterbelts

Shelterbelts provide shade and wind protection for livestock, mitigate erosion and slow wind speeds across pastures and crops. Native shelterbelts also support many species of animals, helping conserve wildlife and contributing to natural pest control on a farm.

What are shelterbelts?

Shelterbelts are strips of woody vegetation usually established between paddocks to reduce windspeeds and provide shade and shelter (Cleugh 2003). Some older shelterbelts were strips of a single species of tree, sometimes non-native trees, often called tree lanes. These tree lanes provide minimal shelter due to the lack of bushy understory, and don’t provide the biodiversity benefits of native shelterbelts.

For maximum benefit for shelter, shade and biodiversity benefits, shelterbelts should be planted with a mix of native species, usually both trees and shrubs, and are ideally at least 30 m in width. However, a strip of native plants of any size is beneficial. Some landholders have chosen to establish shrub-only shelterbelts which can still reduce windspeeds and provide significant benefits for biodiversity, including for pollinating insects.

Shelterbelts are not a new idea – work by groups such as Landcare and Greening Australia have facilitated the planting of shelterbelts since the 1980s. However, years of monitoring these shelterbelts and observing what does and doesn’t work means there is now an extensive body of scientific literature to guide how best to design and plant shelterbelts.

Why plant native shelterbelts?

Controlling problems with secondary salinity was a primary reason for many farmers planting trees in the 1980s and 1990s. These days, the integration of shelter and shade into farming systems is often a strong motivation, as well as improving the aesthetics of a farm and providing habitat for native wildlife.

The benefits of shelterbelts for farm productivity

Shelterbelts can:

  • Reduce windspeeds and windchill
  • Boost pasture production for livestock by up to 8%
  • Reduce mortality of lambs by 10%
  • Increase wool production by more than 30% and weight gain in livestock by more than 20%
  • Reduce populations of pest invertebrates like the red-legged earth mite.

Shelterbelts can also enhance soil fertility, mitigate the effects of soil erosion and secondary salinity, increase water infiltration and store large amounts of carbon.

If shelterbelts are planted along farm boundaries, they reduce direct contact with neighbouring livestock, providing biosecurity benefits.

How shelterbelts support biodiversity

Shelterbelts can help provide food and habitat for animals like superb parrots, flame robins, speckled warblers and squirrel gliders – all of which are threatened by extinction.

In a farming landscape, patches of native vegetation are often disconnected from other patches. Shelterbelts provide habitat and can help connect other areas of vegetation, helping support native wildlife.

Shelterbelts also provide a different kind of habitat compared to old growth and natural regrowth woodland.

A farm with both shelterbelts and remnant woodland is likely to support more species than a farm with just one of these vegetation types.

By supporting more wildlife and increasing biodiversity on a farm, shelterbelts help provide ecosystem services like pollination and natural pest control.

How a shelterbelt works to reduce wind speeds and redirect airflow.

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Bird PR, Jackson TT, Kearney GA, Williams KW (2002) Effect of two tree windbreaks on adjacent pastures in south-western Victoria, Australia. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 42, 809–830. doi:10.1071/EA02016

Cleugh H (2003) Trees for Shelter: A Guide for Using Windbreaks on Australian Farms. Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, Canberra.

Colloff MJ, Pullen KR, Cunningham SA (2010) Restoration of an ecosystem function to revegetation communities: the role of invertebrate macropores in enhancing soil water infiltration. Restoration Ecology 18, 65–72. doi:10.1111/j.1526-100X.2010.00667.x

Cunningham RB, Lindenmayer DB, McGregor C, Crane M, Michael D (2008) The combined effects of remnant vegetation and replanted vegetation on farmland birds. Conservation Biology 22, 742–752. doi:10.1111/j.1523-1739.2008.00924.x

Lin BB, Macfadyen S, Renwick AR, Cunningham SA, Schellhorn NA (2013) Maximizing the environmental benefits of carbon farming through ecosystem service delivery. Bioscience 63, 793–803. doi:10.1525/bio.2013.63.10.6

Lynch J, Donnelly J (1980) Changes in pasture and animal production resulting from the use of windbreaks. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research 31, 967–979. doi:10.1071/AR9800967

Squires VR (1983) The value of trees as shelter for livestock, crops and pastures: a review. In Trees in the Rural Environment: Towards a Greenprint for South Australia. (Eds FJ van der Sommen, R Boardman, VR Squires.) Roseworthy Agricultural College, Roseworthy.

Stirzaker R, Vertessey R, Sarre A (Eds) (2002) Trees, Water and Salt. An Australian Guide to Using Trees for Healthy Catchments and Productive Farms. Joint Venture Agroforestry Program, Canberra.

Tsitsilas A, Stuckey S, Hoffmann A, Thomson LJ (2006) Shelterbelts in agricultural landscapes suppress invertebrate pests. Australian Journal of Experimental Agriculture 46, 1379–1388. doi:10.1071/EA05137

YCF (2014) Focus on Carbon Farming makes Economic Sense. Young Carbon Farmers.

“In the paddocks where we have shelter from the trees, we put stock in to lamb and you have a much higher percentage surviving because it’s sheltered. If lambing rates increase over five or ten years, then that’s a significant result. You also have much better protection of your pastures because you don’t lose topsoil.” Bimbi Turner, sheep farmer near Yass, NSW

Planning and planting shelterbelts

Establishing shelterbelts and other plantings is a long-term investment in a farm’s future. So it makes sense to take advantage of the insights gained from previous planting experience – and from the twenty years of research undertaken by Sustainable Farms ecologists.

When designing and planting a shelterbelt, here are some factors to consider.


Where in the landscape can your shelterbelt have the greatest positive impact?

  • Is there an exposed paddock that requires more shelter for stock? Shelterbelts can significantly reduce wind speeds, with benefits for pasture production, lamb survival and stock weight gain.
  • Could planting along a drainage line help minimise erosion? Easily eroded areas may be stabilised through the establishment of a fenced planting.
  • Are there other planted areas or patches of remnant bush that a new shelterbelt could help “connect”? Connected areas have greater combined value for wildlife.
  • Could your new shelterbelt be established around an existing paddock tree? Large old trees give new plantings a head start, and in turn planting around a large old tree will help prolong its lifespan.
  • Don’t plant shelterbelts in native grassland, as these areas are extremely rare and valuable.

Shelterbelts intersect in the landscape, connecting areas of vegetation. Photo by Dan Florance.

Shelterbelts intersect in the landscape

Plant wide, dense shelterbelts 

  • Wide plantings and plantings with an understory provide greater wind control. This is good for stock, crop and pasture production, and can also reduce the speed at which grassfires travel.
  • A useful target width is 30m. If this is not possible, narrower plantings can still be valuable especially if linked to other areas of vegetation.


Plant native trees, shrubs and ground cover

In Australian conditions, there are many reasons to plant native shelterbelts:

  • They are adapted to local conditions and more likely to survive and thrive – as well as to bounce back after a fire.
  • Native vegetation provides essential habitat for native wildlife. Many of our native species are threatened by extinction, and a shelterbelt of native vegetation can provide badly-needed food and habitat for these animals.
  • Native vegetation is less likely to support exotic bird species, some of which are agricultural pests. Instead, it will support native bird species – as well as native invertebrates, including pollinators.

A shelterbelt near Coolac with dense shrubs and understory.

Fence shelterbelts

  • Maintain fences around shelterbelts. Research shows that heavily grazed shelterbelts are less valuable for birds and reptiles.
  • Gates are important to allow access for feral animal and weed control. Extra gaps between mature trees are also important to facilitate access between paddocks during emergencies such as fire.

Managing existing shelterbelts

Once you have a shelterbelt, it’s important to continue managing it so that it can continue to deliver benefits for the farm and wildlife. Old shelterbelts can also be improved – and the benefits will flow much quicker than if you’re starting from scratch.


Management actions for existing shelterbelts

Maintain fences to control grazing pressure. Lower levels of grazing lead to increased vegetation cover, more leaf litter, less bare ground, and more species of birds and reptiles.

Add new plants to replace those that die in the early years of establishment. New plants might be needed to maintain the structural diversity of the shelterbelt – that is, so there’s a mix of trees, shrubs and groundcovers.

Add fallen timber. If a log or fallen branch is in the way elsewhere on the farm, don’t burn it – move it into a shelterbelt where it can provide great habitat for animals like yellow-footed antechinus.

Control pests and weeds. Shelterbelts can be a useful focal point to concentrate pest control efforts.

Repair and rejuvenate older shelterbelts. Sometimes, old shelterbelts become less effective. Perhaps fences have fallen down, enabling stock access and meaning understory and groundcover plants may struggle to persist. Perhaps the original shelterbelt was narrow, or planted with trees only, and isn’t a very effective windbreak. But old shelterbelts have great potential for wildlife and, with some rejuvenation, will quickly offer benefits for the farm as well.

Maintaining fences to control grazing will help keep shelterbelts and other areas of vegetation healthy, and make them more effective for wildlife and productivity. Photo by Alice Marzano.

Fenced area of roadside vegetation

Will shelterbelts and extra plantings turn a farm into a fire trap?

Some farmers are concerned that more trees on a farm could increase the fire risk. However, research by leading fire scientists (Collins et al. 2014; Jenkins et al. 2019) shows that adding plantings to a farm landscape very rarely elevates fire intensity above suppressible levels.

In slowing and interrupting wind, shelterbelts may help slow fire, particularly fast-moving grassfires. Windspeeds can be important drivers of fire behaviour and the ability of shelterbelts to check these speeds can be critical.

It is however important to consider planting design and location in the landscape in the context of fire.

  • As well as gates, it’s important to leave occasional gaps between large trees to allow emergency access between paddocks.
  • Don’t plant too close to homesteads and other built infrastructure. Studies of house loss show that property damage is reduced where vegetation is more than 30 metres from a house (Gibbons et al. 2012).

Unlike built assets like fences and infrastructure, natural assets have the capacity to regrow. Many Australian native plants will regenerate after a fire, and the seeds of species such as Acacias will readily germinate after fire. Healthy natural assets of all types are also more likely to bounce back than those in poor condition. For example, dams or riparian areas with good fringing vegetation are less vulnerable to pollution by ash and soil run-off following fire.

Australian native plants will regenerate after a fire. Photo by Suzannah Macbeth.


Collins L, Penman TD, Price OF, Bradstock RA (2015) Adding fuel to the fire? Revegetation influences wildfire size and intensity. Journal of Environmental Management 150, 196–205. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2014.11.009

Gibbons P, van Bommel L, Gill AM, Cary GJ, Driscoll DA, Ross A, Bradstock RA, Knight E, Moritz MA, Stephens SL, Lindenmayer DB (2012) Land management practices associated with house loss in wildfires. PLoS One 7, e29212. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029212

Jenkins M, Price O, Collins L, Penman T, Bradstock RA (2019) The influence of planting size and configuration on landscape fire risk. Journal of Environmental Management 248, 109338. doi:10.1016/j.jenvman.2019.109338

Lindenmayer DB, Wood J, Montague-Drake R, Michael D, Crane M, Okada S, MacGregor C, Gibbons P (2012b) Is biodiversity management effective? Cross-sectional relationships between management, bird response and vegetation attributes in an Australian agri-environment scheme. Biological Conservation 152, 62–73. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2012.02.026

Lindenmayer DB, Blanchard W, Crane M, Michael DSS (2018b) Biodiversity benefits of vegetation restoration are undermined by livestock grazing. Restoration Ecology 26, 1157–1164. doi:10.1111/rec.12676

Designing shelterbelts for wildlife

Rose Robin; photo by Damien Esquerre.

For 20 years, the Sustainable Farms team has been studying what makes a good planting for wildlife. If you are keen to boost bird diversity on your farm and provide habitat for a range of bird species, there are some specific steps you can take.

Make plantings as large as possible

Large plantings support more bird species than small plantings. But small plantings are still better than no plantings!

Plant as big as you can from the beginning. Expanding the width of shelterbelts to increase their effectiveness and value for wildlife does not usually increase fencing costs by a significant amount.

Plant in gullies and around watercourses

Sustainable Farms research shows clearly that plantings in gullies or flat areas tend to support more species of birds than those on slopes or ridges.

Plantings that incorporate water bodies are great for bird breeding.

Connect plantings to other areas of vegetation

Connected plantings support more species of birds than isolated plantings. This effect is most obvious where plantings are narrow and linear.

Whether or not a species can survive in the long term often depends not only on whether they have access to habitat, but also on whether patches of habitat are connected to enable animals to move between them. Some birds, despite having wings, don’t travel far over open farmland.

Incorporate established trees in your planting

Including large old trees in a planting creates a 150-year head start. Suddenly, birds that rely on large old trees (such as for hollows, fallen timber or copious amounts of nectar) can utilise that planted area immediately, rather than waiting for the trees to mature.

Plant an understory

Including an understory and native groundcovers creates more layers of vegetation. This means there is more habitat for different species of birds.

Plantings with an understory are less likely to support large numbers of noisy miners. Noisy miners are a native honeyeater, but they are very aggressive to other birds and, given the chance, will drive other birds away.

The diversity of small bush birds will be significantly reduced if there are big populations of noisy miners. Planting an understory will help ensure the shelterbelt doesn’t support noisy miners, enabling many small native birds to thrive.


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