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Winners and Losers

by Jamie Walker

Humans have changed the world so much; especially the land, its use and its appearance. Tree cover has been cleared, not juast for housing and the infrastructures our lives demand, but also for agriculture.

Here in Australia’s east, much forest has been converted to pasture; but on the western edges of the ranges, there is now a diversity of open land use, which includes food crops. In this environment of our own creation, there are winners and losers. Forest birds and animals have declined – so much of their habitat now lost – but others have thrived.

Crested Pigeons were strictly outback birds in the 19th century, but where densely treed bush (which they shun) was cleared, it enabled their progress eastwards. Today, they are a familiar urban bird on the coast.

Other inland species from open, native grassland and arid zones, have spread the same way with varied success. Zebra Finches and Brown Songlarks can be spotted with certainty, just west of Toowoomba. Cockatiels and Red-rumped Parrots glean among stalks of grain stubble, Galahs enjoy the seeds of arable weeds and fence tops are sometimes the song-posts of Horsfield’s Bushlarks. (With due respect to the eminent Mr Horsfield, the older name of Singing Bushlark seemed much more attractive).

In a few places, clearance has been so severe, that only a thin stand of grasses now grows along the fence lines at field edges. Even here, the White-winged Fairy Wren exploits a habitat that seems of little use to other species.

I have not yet looked on the intensively farmed land of Australia’s wheat belt, but I have seen drastically degraded ecosystems in parts of Europe.  There, high crop densities and cultivation of every available field corner are heavily subsidised, there is dependence on use of herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers and wildlife is thin on the ground. Such land is often described by government and the agriculture industry as “improved”.

In Australia, a debate has begun about the preservation or (in some cases) recovery of wildlife communities on farms. Conservationists can help with Management Plans and give their time in a way that weather-focussed and market-stressed farmers cannot afford. There has to be a partnership: and it can work.

In the Toowoomba region, I noticed some margins and corners of arable fields were brightly coloured with Yellow Buttons and Bluebells – in places, under a screen of shrubs and trees. Those spots were loud with birds’ calls and alive with their movement.

We have to feed ourselves; but it can be done with the right light-touch approach that doesn’t squash nature, brush it aside or treat it as an enemy.



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