Book Review – What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife

In my quest to regenerate the Rock-Farm into sustainable and productive farmland, I have read many articles and books, and listened to lots of interviews with fascinating people.  I have also picked the brains of Rangers, Botanical experts and Farmers in an attempt to find the best way forward for our patch of paradise.   A large reason for setting up this blog was to share our lessons learnt and I thought one way to do this would be to review some of the books I have read.

The first book review, in what I hope will become a regular feature of my blog is: What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife, Lead Author: David B Lindenmayer, published by CSIRO in 2011.  My wife found it in the local library and brought it home for me to have a read.  Being winter, it s a great time to settle down with a cuppa in front of the fire and start getting ideas.

David has pulled together a number of authors with a range of backgrounds.  From experts in ecology and conservation biology, contributions also come from farmers and people with a background in forestry.  Whilst all the findings are backed up with research and extensive footnotes, the book is easy to read and not an academic text.  It is a practical and realistic guide for landowners with achievable actions that can make a huge difference for biodiversity in a productive farm.

What Makes A Good Farm for Wildlife opens with a clear aim – and it sticks to this throughout:

Our aim in this book is to highlight some ways to promote wildlife conservation on farms.  We are acutely aware that managing land for multiple goals is a difficult task and that not all parts of a farm will be managed in the same way or with the same order of priorities.  Given this, we provide new information to help landholders make decisions about ways they might manage parts of their farms.  To do this, we describe the characteristics of good remnants, good plantings, good paddocks, good rocky outcrops, good waterways and then collectively, what makes a good farm for wildlife.

Lindenmayer et. al. 2011 p1

The Rock-Farm adjoins some remnant woodland, and using the description of what makes good remnant, I have been able to look at what species this habitat supports.  I was most surprised at the number of species of insect that live in woodlands, particularly beetles and how important they are for native birds and mammals.

The authors examine what makes a good planting to restore woodland.  The authors explain the various ways trees can be planted, what species to use and how large the plantation should be.  Some of the information surprised me. Plantations support and favour different species to remnant woodlands.  The size of plantations is also important, especially being large enough to provide interior areas away from the edges.  This is important for birds such as the Rufous Whistler and Willie Wagtails.  Several of the paddocks in the Rock-Farm are lined with native trees such as Casuarina She Oaks and Peppermint Gums.   Whilst these provide good food sources for birds such as the Glossy Black Cockatoo, I learnt they are limited in their value due to the breadth of the plantings.

Lines of trees along fence-lines provide some limited habitat

Lines of trees along fence-lines provide limited habitat

The chapter on good paddocks examines the importance of large paddock trees.  I have several Brittle Gum trees that fit this category. I learnt it is not just the trees, but also the dead branches and fallen timber that are important for beetles and bird habitat.  The book details strategies to protect these important trees, and techniques to link large paddock trees with plantations to provide more habitat options.  I have previously cleared fallen timber from these trees, whereas now I will ensure I leave some logs and parts of the branches on the ground (after repairing the fence!).

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After cutting fallen timber off the fence, I am now leaving some of the timber, such as from this Ribbon Gum, behind to form logs for beetles and other creatures to live in.

One large Yellow-box paddock tree has recently died and I have been eyeing it off as a future firewood source. After reading this book, I will leave it standing to provide habitat for birds such as the Superb Parrot.   The good news is that the dead tree is surrounded by many young trees, that I have been encouraging to grow.  They will continue to stabilise the gully and provide a good stand of shelter in the future.

Creeks and water courses are examined.  This is an area I haven’t really explored on the Rock-Farm, but the book explored techniques to enhance this area too.  From leaving natural snags to slow water down, to managing stock access, it gave me plenty of food for thought.  I also really liked the author’s description of what made a healthy dam – including an island for bird refuge from animals.  We have been talking about making a floating island in our large dam, and this book has given us some ideas as to how to make this happen.

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The creek is an area for improved efforts to slow water down –

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but we have to be careful when it floods!

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Our dam needs work to improve habitat – we want to build a floating island to provide a refuge for ducks and other aquatic birds

What is interesting is that most of the farms examined in this book found that by increasing tree plantings and improving habitat, they also had the advantage of improving soil health.  The added benefit of improving the biodiversity also lead to psychological health benefits for the farmers, with the knowledge they were improving the land.

I like that the authors acknowledge the difficult balance that landowners face, especially when transitioning from high input-high output operations to less intensive operations.  There has been a huge change in expectations on landowners, as it wasn’t that long ago that governments instructed farmers to clear large areas of land.  The authors also acknowledge that some changes must take place beyond the farm at the landscape scale.  Whilst the challenge may seem overwhelming, if we all take little steps in the right direction, it will make a huge difference.  I feel that the future of our planet depends on not a few farmers practising regenerative or sustainable agriculture perfectly, but all farmers trying it imperfectly.

I was really pleased to find that much of the work we are doing around the Rock-Farm is consistent with the messages in this book.  That said, I have been guilty of trying to clean up paddocks by removing fallen timber.  I will now make sure I leave more of this in place – especially under large paddock trees.  It also has made me more conscious of how small changes I make can have enormous consequences for biodiversity outcomes.

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Some logs left after the branch fell on the fence. A balance of future fire wood and habitat for beetles.

Whilst What Makes a Good Farm for Wildlife is no longer in print, I borrowed a copy from our local library.  David Lindenmayer is a prolific author, and he has recently published Restoring Farm Woodlands for Wildlife (2018) which appears to build on this earlier book.  If you’re interested, it is available at the CSIRO Publishing Website here:  https://www.publish.csiro.au/book/7844

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