What farmers think about biodiversity on their land – and what experts think about the survey findings

More than 90% of sheep and beef farmers who responded to a recent scientific survey – acknowledge the benefits of managing biodiversity on their farmland.

The  benefits were mainly social or environmental, such as protecting land for future generations.

But a majority of the respondents also identified barriers to conservation efforts, such as financial costs or time investments.

The survey of sheep and beef farmers around New Zealand received nearly 700 responses that described advantages to managing and protecting biodiversity on their land.

Lead author Dr Fleur Maseyk, from The Catalyst Group, says the study showed many farmers associate a range of values and benefits with biodiversity on-farm, spanning social, environmental and economic themes.

Social advantages were the most commonly recognised –  47% of the responses described benefits such as advantages to the farmer, their family and staff, and benefits beyond the farm gate such as inter-generational equity and meeting the responsibility of land management.

Environmental benefits such as erosion control and improved water quality were commonly cited (34%),

Only 8% of respondents thought there were no benefits of having native biodiversity on farms.

Dr Maseyk says:

“As well as the values and benefits of biodiversity on-farm, this study also highlighted the sticking points that are acting as barriers to enhancing biodiversity in farming landscapes.”

When asked about the disadvantages of managing and protecting native biodiversity, responses were fewer (530) and grouped into economic (44%), practical (26%) and social (25%) themes.

Economic concerns – or the cost of protecting biodiversity – were the most common.

From a practical perspective, farmers were concerned about the loss of land or production (12%), and restrictions on movement around the farm.

Twenty-two percent of farmers said there were no disadvantages – nearly three times the number that said there were no advantages.

Dr Maseyk says the survey confirms there is no one farmer voice.

It also shows pastoral farming has huge potential for hosting nature-rich landscapes, which could create many benefits for the farmers and farms as businesses.

But the respondents identified barriers that show creating these landscapes can’t be left up to goodwill.

“We need investment in, and sustained commitment to, a mixed-method policy response that provides the appropriate protections for biodiversity, economic incentives to reduce financial barriers, and other practical support to encourage pro-biodiversity behaviour,” Dr Maseyk says.

“We need resources, capability and capacity building, and provision of practical and technical assistance on-farm to help with implementation.”

The study was published as part of the Farming & Nature Conservation project, funded by New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge.

The Science Media Centre asked experts to comment on the research. It has posted these responses-

  • Dr Melanie Davidson, Beneficial Biodiversity Team, Plant and Food Research, comments:

“What really resonates with me from this study is the fact that sheep and cattle farmers are the custodians of so much of the privately owned native bush in New Zealand and the study revealed that many farmers see the advantages to having native bush on their farms.

“Despite this, we are still seeing a decline in our native bush. The study highlights our need to show how native bush on farmland can bring an economic benefit to farmers, such as providing habitat for beneficial insects (pollinators, predators of insect pests, and decomposers), erosion control, carbon sequestration excess nutrient uptake, and improving water quality of streams and lakes.

“The message that came through was that we need to do more to support farmers in protecting our native bush, whether it’s getting out and helping farmers’ plant native plants on their property or providing better access to information and advice on how to manage and protect biodiversity on their farms.”

No conflict of interest.

  • Associate Professor Bruce Burns, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“New Zealand pastoral farmers are unintentional guardians of a huge wealth of New Zealand’s biodiversity, reflected in forest fragments and wetlands that enrich our rural landscapes. The uneven quality of their care of these areas, however, is the source of societal tension particularly as biodiversity declines year on year.

“The new research provides a fascinating window into the unfiltered attitudes and frustrations of the farming community with respect to protecting nature. Although responses were wide-ranging, it was refreshing that most farmers did highly value the native biodiversity they lived with, and recognized it improved their quality of life.

“The major downside for farmers was how they should cope with the costs of managing such areas in dollars and time. The research suggests that a carrot approach to supporting farmers efforts to plant trees and control possums would be more successful than applying a stick, and provides a grounding for effective policy.”

No conflict of interest.

  • Steve Wratten, Principal Investigator, Bio-Protection Research Centre, comments:

“Pastoral farming can harbour more biodiversity than arable land and orchards, and uses fewer pesticides (these sprays are usually not economic in that type of farming). However, as well as surveying farmers about their attitudes to biodiversity on their land, as this paper does, we need to ask two other key questions:

      1. What typeof biodiversity does the farm harbour? And
      2.  What ecological (nature’s) services does it provide to the landscape? For example, deep, dark, dusty, satanic (sensuWilliam Blake) macrocarpa blocks are biodiversity-poor and remind me of the black smears on the landscape in the Kiwi painter Sutton’s Plantation series.

“Such services can include refugia for birds and beneficial insects, as well as offering a well-appreciated landscape.

“Anyway, just counting living things is not enough. Do the ladybirds, other beetles and spiders in these refugia actually move into the paddock in spring and then reduce pest numbers? There are many ways of measuring these processes on which we have published and taught to students here at Lincoln University. Do the birds that nest in these hedges consume grass grub larvae in the adjacent pasture? Do the hedges reduce soil washing into water-races?

“Farmers who can demonstrate the added-value of functional diversity on their land will really have a story to tell!”

Conflict of interest statement: “Ben Hancock was a PhD student with us who now works for Beef and Lamb. We sent him some kits that B+L farmers can use to assess biodiversity on their farms. There were no financial transactions.”

Sources:  Scimex; Science Media Centre

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