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What the Bittern can tell us about environment policy

Last week at the RiceGrowers’ Association Annual Conference Gala Dinner, I had the absolute pleasure of listening to ecologist Matt Herring as he spoke about the Bitterns in Rice Project.

The Australasian Bittern – or the Bunyip Bird - is an endearing looking water bird, listed on the IUCN’s “red list” as one of the most endangered species in the world.  It is thought that there are between 1500-4000 Bitterns in the world, with the latest research suggesting that 43% of the global population lives and breeds in the “agricultural wetlands” of the rice industry in the NSW Riverina.

Last year the world watched on as “Robbie the Bittern” was tracked across south eastern Australia. Little Robbie flew from his hatching place in a rice crop in the Coleambally Irrigation Area to Pick Swamp (a Ramsar listed wetland in South Australia), along the coastal wetlands of Victoria and back home to the rice growing regions of the Riverina.

The real conundrum facing the future of the Bittern is how rice growing practices are changing to become more water use efficient.  Changes in the rice farming system such as sod and direct drill sowing, mid-season paddy draining and the future possibility of aerobic rice (which won’t require permanent water) are all designed to increase the water use efficiency of growing rice.  Yet each of these innovations results in conditions that are least favourable for Bitterns.

The Bittern is listed on the IUCN’s “red list” as one of the most endangered species in the world

The Bitterns in Rice project has demonstrated the important role that farmers play in delivering biodiversity outcomes.  It also highlights that sometimes policy levers can be actively pulling in opposite directions.  Take water recovery for the environment in the Murray Darling Basin: the Basin Plan is designed to deliver environmental outcomes like supporting threatened species like the Bittern.  Yet the same policy is actively encouraging the rice industry to become more and more water use efficient.

As policy influencers and policy makers it is important that we have the conversations about how productive and environmental water might work together; and how we support the action on the ground that we are seeing with the Bitterns in Rice Project.  This is real action, delivering real environmental outcomes – in a rice paddock of all places.  

Check out the project website http://www.bitternsinrice.com.au/ or follow the fate of Robbie’s friend, Neil the Bittern by following @matt_herringOz on Twitter.

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