By Joern Fischer
The Victorian Farmer’s Federation (Australia) recently stated in a press release that it would lobby the Victorian government to relax rules on removing isolated paddock trees in cropping situations. The press release argues there are economic costs of retaining these trees, arising from lost productivity and damage to machinery. The basic message is that paddock trees receive too much attention in current clearing legislation, considering they are ‘on their way out’ (not regenerating) anyway, and are of less value to biodiversity than trees in patches or linear strips. (See also ABC coverage here.)
This lobbying effort is entirely consistent with a trend that is occurring already: namely, trees are disappearing from within paddocks and are actively maintained only in patches or along fencelines. This makes cropping easier. In a grazing context, the same thing is happening, but less so by intent, but rather because under grazing pressure trees slowly disappear because they can’t regenerate. So if that’s the trend anyway, surely, legislation may as well support this trend, rather than get in the way of it … or not?
Well, things aren’t that simple. First of all, there are two fundamental assumptions regarding the offsetting of paddock trees with trees in patches that are flawed. The first assumption is that old trees can be somehow offset by young trees elsewhere. Fact is that the value of large paddock tree is disproportionate relative to the small area occupied by a single tree. Small trees will be valuable in the long term, of course, but there will be a major time lag until they reach maturity. So while I’m all for planting new trees, the assumption that currently planted new trees can offset the value of old trees elsewhere is simply flawed. Old does not equal young.
The second flawed assumption is that isolated trees are worthless because they are isolated. Much recent research from around the world has shown that part of the biodiversity value in agricultural landscapes comes from landscape heterogeneity: in Australia, this means small patches, large patches, single trees, and strips. All of these elements, in combination, contribute to regional biodiversity.
Perhaps most importantly, the mere debate about further clearing in Australia’s wheat-sheep belt (and especially in its southern parts) is plainly a sign of not having learnt from the past. Europeans settled Australia 200 years ago, and destroyed vast areas in an effort to implement European-style farming systems (in fact, many Australian systems are far more intensive than their European counterparts!). There is little disagreement among natural scientists that the wheat-sheep belt is already over-cleared relative to what will be biophysically sustainable in the long term. Humans have taken more than their fair share of Australia’s farming landscapes as it stands. The results are biodiversity loss, salinity, soil erosion, and so on. If anything — it’s time to give back to nature, rather than take more.
In one point I agree with the Victorian Farmers Federation: yes, more tree planting is needed, to undo some of the sins of the past. Honest landscape-scale restoration efforts would signal a growing understanding that it is time to live with Australia’s conditions (old soils, variable climate) rather than battle against them. But planting to offset yet more clearing symbolises the very same mindset that has caused degradation in the past. Clearing paddock trees won’t somehow change the fact that many of Australia’s most intensive farming systems are fundamentally ill-adapted to the land.
Overseas, when I speak about Australia, people imagine a land of intact wilderness. Most haven’t seen the wheat-sheep belt. While Europeans increasingly go out of their way to save ‘veteran’ trees, Australians continue to abuse their natural heritage. Under the current mindset, bit by bit, the wheat-sheep belt will go from sad to tragic. What needs to happen to move toward a mindset of restoration and of living with nature, instead of ever higher levels of resource extraction despite averse natural conditions?
Control nature and extract resources, or restore ecosystems and lead the world in sustainable farming? It’s for Australian society as a whole to decide. Some farmers are leading the way, and I’ve been fortunate to work with some of them.
(I expect my opinion will be controversial. As always, comments are welcome.)