The future marriage of farming and nature conservation is epitomised by a strange bird, the rice fields of the New South Wales Riverina and a pioneering project.
Australian farmers and their farms have been posited as an enemy of nature conservation for far too long. Environmentalists and the environment have been rendered in opposition to agriculture for far too long as well. But there is a unifying revolution emerging, one that recognises how much they have in common and how much they need each other going forward.
The Bitterns in Rice Project has uncovered the immense habitat values of rice crops, once touted as a thirsty threat to biodiversity conservation in the Murray-Darling Basin. These agricultural wetlands abound with wildlife and support the largest known breeding population of the globally endangered Australasian Bittern, a secretive, heron-like waterbird whose booming calls are associated with legends of the Bunyip. Never before has it been so clear that Australia's irrigation farms can yield much more than just agricultural produce. The case for water being managed for multiple outcomes is unequivocal.
Conservation on farmland is nothing new, yet it almost always ultimately involves areas outside of production, such as fencing off remnant vegetation along a waterway. With the hearty support of both the Australian rice industry and the conservation community, we are pursuing the development of programs and policies that encourage bittern-friendly rice farming. We are exploring the best possible incentives and how the consumer will value rice products that incorporate wildlife conservation.
It's a common sense approach to depolarise water resource management. The overly simplistic division of water, with one bucket for the environment and another for agriculture, belies an awful lot of ecological reality and foregoes valuable opportunities for integrated management. The Bitterns in Rice Project is helping to address the false dichotomies of the economy and the environment, of nature and humans, of farming and conservation. We are well on our way.
Matt Herring is an independent wildlife ecologist at Murray Wildlife and a PhD candidate at Charles Darwin University. Together with Neil Bull, Andrew Silcocks and many others, he has developed the Bitterns in Rice Project since it began in 2012. It has been built on the support of hundreds of rice farmers and is a collaboration between the Ricegrowers' Association of Australia, Birdlife Australia and a range of other organisations, with key support from Riverina Local Land Services through funding from the Australian Government's National Landcare Programme.
For regular updates, including the whereabouts of the tracked bitterns, visit the website - http://www.bitternsinrice.com.au , 'like' the Bitterns in Rice Project Facebook page or follow Matt on Twitter @Matt_HerringOz