The Australasian bittern is a wading bird, like a heron or an egret, but they’re unbelievably sneaky – like a phantom. It’s a real challenge to get ecological data on them to guide conservation. You can spend all day and you might hear just one bird and perhaps catch a glimpse of its head in the reeds, and that could be a good day. They’re quite a large bird, and can have up to five chicks, so you might think they’d be easier to find. But they just melt into the vegetation – they’re absolute masters of disguise.
It’s also called the bunyip bird, because the booming call of the breeding males has for millennia been linked to the sound of the mythical bunyip. You can hear the sound from two kilometres away, but it’s so deep that if you try to record it on your phone, you can’t hear it. You need really high-quality speakers.
“It’s also called the bunyip bird, because the booming call of the breeding males has for millennia been linked to the sound of the mythical bunyip.”
For about 20 years now I’ve been drawn to our cover-dependent Australian waterbirds – the rails and crakes and painted-snipes, and certainly the bitterns. I’ve always had an affinity for wetlands, and I’ve spent much of my life trudging around the swamps in the Riverina in the reeds and rushes and the sedges. But it was the bitterns’ presence in the rice fields there that drew me to its irrigation landscapes.
It turns out that the traditional way you grow rice in the Riverina – these ephemeral, densely vegetated agricultural wetlands – provides near perfect breeding habitat for this endangered species.
It was a compelling example of how farmers who were trying to produce food for us can actually conserve wildlife at the same time. I first grasped this in the late 1990s working on brolgas, and as my work has grown, I’ve appreciated more and more the habitats that exist on farmland.
“It turns out that the traditional way you grow rice in the Riverina – these ephemeral, densely vegetated agricultural wetlands – provides near perfect breeding habitat for this endangered species.”
National Parks are obviously the cornerstone of our efforts to conserve biodiversity, but there are all these opportunities on private land. More than half of this country is used for agriculture, with such huge potential. I’m drawn by the ideal of marrying farming and wildlife conservation – and in particular it’s the birds that have enticed me to habitats like farm dams and rice fields, because they have such good habitat values.
The dominant narrative in the media is that the worlds of farming and wildlife conservation are opposed, and that it’s only possible to have one or the other. The voices are so polarised that you tend to hear those extreme views at each end of the spectrum. But there’s now a sort of radical centre of people, a middle ground, quietly working away figuring out how to balance the two.
It doesn’t matter which angle you come at it from, from the economics to the intrinsic values, co-management makes sense and both worlds are something we depend on for how existence. There’s no getting around the fact that biodiversity is essential to our future, and it’s vital that we look after the environment in general. And agriculture is where so much of our footprint occurs, from the clothes on our back to the food we eat at the table. Pursuing sustainable farming, particularly for biodiversity, is a huge growth area.
“Pursuing sustainable farming, particularly for biodiversity, is a huge growth area.”
People say they want to look after the environment and conserve koalas and cassowaries and so on, but a lot of that boils down to whether they’re willing to pay for it as a consumer. Government funding is already so inadequate, and can only go so far. But it could be different if people were prepared to put their money where their values are. I’ve been really heartened by a paper we’ve just published about consumer values for wildlife-friendly farming products.
We conducted a survey to establish whether consumers were prepared to pay more for “bittern-friendly” rice – and found that most are prepared to pay 100% more for a product that supports an endangered species on someone’s farm.
In Australia, there’s not many products out there making these claims, and there’s certainly none in the mainstream. The next big thing has to be the potential for products from farms that support biodiversity. This could be achieved through certification schemes or endorsement from reputable NGOs.
“The next big thing has to be the potential for products from farms that support biodiversity.”
It can make a huge difference. It engages the consumer and connects them to the private land where their food comes from, and they can get a kick out of buying food for themselves while supporting conservation at the same time.
This kind of certification scheme is missing here in Australia. There’s some great stuff being done in other countries like Japan and the UK, but Australia really has to pick up our act. We’re such an important agricultural nation – we produce food for roughly 50 to 60 million people. It makes so much sense to incorporate biodiversity into the way production methods are rolled out.
Read more about water birds: Birds thrive in the Murray-Darling.
There’s already a lot of basic things farmers can do, like reducing pesticide use and maintaining remnant native vegetation. But we can also go case by case, perhaps based on a certain species in a certain area with a certain industry, and you can tailor certification criteria around that. In the Riverina rice fields, we’ve been able to do this, initially with funding from the National Landcare Program through Riverina Local Land Services – they provided the taxpayer dollars to roll out an incentive program for rice growers to grow their rice in a “bittern-friendly” way. Here’s an Australian farming industry protecting a globally endangered waterbird.
“Here’s an Australian farming industry protecting a globally endangered waterbird.”
We know it can work and also that it could be commercially viable. At sites with a sufficient ponding period we can have successful breeding before the harvest takes place in autumn. The bitterns disperse around harvest time – half to the coastal wetlands of NSW, Victoria and SA, and the rest to regional wetland areas with dense water plants.
We can get the sort of outcomes that we’re after. And now we’ve looked at the premiums that consumers are willing to pay for these sorts of products, it means they will happily foot the bill.