Category Archives: Research

The Conversation: To reduce fire risk and meet climate targets, over 300 scientists call for stronger land clearing laws

Without significant tree cover, dry and dusty landscapes can result. Image credit: Don Driscoll

By Martine Maron (The University of Queensland), Andrea Griffin (University of Newcastle), April Reside (The University of Queensland), Bill Laurance (James Cook University), Don Driscoll (Deakin University), Euan Ritchie (Deakin University), and Steve Turton (CQUniversity Australia).

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s high rates of forest loss and weakening land clearing laws are increasing bushfire risk, and undermining our ability to meet national targets aimed at curbing climate change.

This dire situation is why we are among the more than 300 scientists and practitioners who have signed a declaration calling for governments to restore, or better strengthen regulations to protect native vegetation.

Land clearing laws have been contentious in several states for years. New South Wales relaxed its land clearing controls in 2017, triggering concerns over irreversible environmental damage. Although it is too early to know the impact of those changes, a recent analysis found that land clearing has increased sharply in some areas since the laws changed.

The Queensland Labor government’s 2018 strengthening of land clearing laws came after years of systematic weakening of these protections. Yet the issue has remained politically divisive. While discussing a federal inquiry into the impact of these policies on farmers, federal agriculture minister David Littleproud suggested that the strenthening of regulations may have worsened Queensland’s December bushfires.

We argue such an assertion is at odds with scientific evidence. And, while the conservation issues associated with widespread land clearing are generally well understood by the public, the consequences for farmers and fire risks are much less so.

Tree loss can increase fire risk

During December’s heatwave in northern Queensland, some regions were at “catastrophic” bushfire risk for the first time since ratings began. Even normally wet rainforests, such as at Eungella National Park inland from Mackay, sustained burns in some areas during “unprecedented” fire conditions.

There is no evidence to support the suggestion that 2018’s land clearing law changes contributed to the fires. No changes were made to how vegetation can be managed to reduce fire risk. This is governed under separate laws, which remained unaltered.

In fact, shortly after the fires, Queensland’s land clearing figures were released. They showed that in the three years to June 2018, an area equivalent to roughly 570,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds (1,138,000 hectares) of bushland was cleared, including 284,000 hectares of remnant (old-growth) ecosystems.

Tree clearing can worsen fire risk in several ways. It can affect the regional climate. In parts of eastern Australia, tree cover reductions are estimated to have increased summer surface temperatures by up to 2℃ and southwest Western Australia by 0.4–0.8℃, reduced rainfall in southeast Australia, and made droughts hotter and longer.

Removing forest vegetation depletes soil moisture. Large, intact areas of forest typically have cooler, wetter microclimates buffered from extreme temperatures. Over time, some forest types can even become fire-resistant, but smaller patches of trees are typically drier and more flammable.

Trees also form a natural windbreak that can slow the spread of bushfires. An analysis of the 2005 Wangary fire in South Australia found that fires spread most rapidly through paddocks, rather than through areas lined with native trees.

Finally, Australia’s increasing risk of bushfire and worsening drought are driven by global climate change, to which land clearing is a major contributor.

Farmers on the frontline of environmental risk

Extensive tree clearing also leads to problems for farmers, including rising salinity, reduced water quality, and soil erosion. Governments and rural communities spend significant money and labour redressing the aftermath of excessive clearing.

Sensible regulation of native vegetation removal does not restrict existing agriculture, but rather seeks to support sustainable production. Retained trees can help deal with many environmental risks that hamper agricultural productivity, including animal health, long-term pasture productivity, risks to the water cycle, pest control, and human well-being.

Rampant tree clearing is undoing climate policy too. Much of the federal government’s A$2.55 billion Emissions Reduction Fund has gone towards tree planting. But it would take almost this entire sum just to replace the trees cleared in Queensland since 2012.

In 2019, Australians might reasonably expect that our relatively wealthy and well-educated country has moved beyond a frontier-style reliance on continued deforestation, and we would do well to better acknowledge and learn lessons from Indigenous Australians with respect to their land management practices.

Yet the periodic weakening of land clearing laws in many parts of Australia has accelerated the problem. The negative impacts on industry, society and wildlife are numerous and well established. They should not be ignored.

Persistence through tough times: fixed and shifting refuges in threatened species conservation

Authors: April E Reside, Natalie J Briscoe, Chris R Dickman, Aaron C Greenville, Bronwyn A Hradsky, Salit Kark, Michael R Kearney, Alex S Kutt, Dale G Nimmo, Chris R Pavey, John L Read, Euan G Ritchie, David Roshier, Anja Skroblin, Zoe Stone, Matt West, and Diana O Fisher

Published in: Biodiversity and Conservation


It may be possible to avert threatened species declines by protecting refuges that promote species persistence during times of stress. To do this, we need to know where refuges are located, and when and which management actions are required to preserve, enhance or replicate them.

Here we use a niche-based perspective to characterise refuges that are either fixed or shifting in location over ecological time scales (hours to centuries). We synthesise current knowledge of the role of fixed and shifting refuges, using threatened species examples where possible, and examine their relationships with stressors including drought, fire, introduced species, disease, and their interactions.

Refuges often provide greater cover, water, food availability or protection from predators than other areas within the same landscapes. In many cases, landscape features provide refuge, but refuges can also arise through dynamic and shifting species interactions (e.g., mesopredator suppression). Elucidating the mechanisms by which species benefit from refuges can help guide the creation of new or artificial refuges. Importantly, we also need to recognise when refuges alone are insufficient to halt the decline of species, and where more intensive conservation intervention may be required.

We argue that understanding the role of ecological refuges is an important part of strategies to stem further global biodiversity loss.

Reside AE, Briscoe NJ, Dickman CR, Greenville AC, Hradsky BA, Kark S, Kearney MR, Kutt AS, Nimmo DG, Pavey CR, Read JL, Ritchie EG, Roshier D, Skroblin A, Stone Z, West M, Fisher DO (2019) Persistence through tough times: fixed and shifting refuges in threatened species conservation. Biodiversity and Conservation PDF DOI

The truth about cats and dogs: assessment of apex- and mesopredator diets improves with reduced observer uncertainty

Authors: Michael L Wysong, Ayesha IT Tulloch, Leonie E Valentine, Richard J Hobbs, Keith Morris, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Jornal of Mammalogy


Dietary (scat) analysis is a key tool for assessing the potential effects of predators on prey and for comparing resource use between predators, information that is crucial for effective wildlife management. However, misidentification of the species from which scats originate could result in inaccurate conclusions regarding predator–prey interactions and their consequences for ecosystems, which may ultimately compromise conservation and management actions.

To address this issue, we developed a framework for decision-making in the face of uncertain scat species origin by incorporating field, laboratory, and molecular identification techniques.

We used the framework to examine the diets of two predators, a native apex predator (dingo, Canis lupus dingo) and an invasive mesopredator (feral cat, Felis catus), from 696 field-collected scats in the arid zone of Australia.

We examined how uncertainty regarding scat species origin changed perceptions of the nature of the relationship between coexisting predators and their prey.

The extent of dietary overlap between dingoes and cats varied with the method used to identify scat species origin. Dietary overlap assessed by laboratory identifications was twice as high as when uncertainty in scat species origin was resolved through our decision framework.

If uncertainty in scat species origin is not resolved in dietary studies, practitioners and decision-makers relying on this information run the risk of making misinformed conclusions regarding the ecological function of predators (including potential impacts on threatened species), which could have perverse outcomes if the wrong predators are targeted for management.

With uncertainty in scat species origin resolved through our decision framework, a low level of dietary overlap between the two predators was demonstrated, and medium-sized mammals most threatened with extinction were shown to be more at risk of impact from feral cat than from dingo depredations.

Wysong ML, Tulloch AIT, Valentine LE, Hobbs RJ, Morris K, Ritchie EG (2019) The truth about cats and dogs: assessment of apex- and mesopredator diets improves with reduced observer uncertainty. Journal of Mammalogy PDF DOI

Improving the assessment of food system sustainability

Authors: Michalis Hadjikakou, Euan G Ritchie, Kate E Watermeyer, and Brett A Bryan

Published in: The Lancet – Planetary Health

The global food system is causing unsustainable pressures on the environment, leading to widespread land use change, increased greenhouse gas emissions, disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, biodiversity loss, and freshwater depletion and pollution. Environmental pressures are mounting as populations grow and diets change, escalating the need to make food production and consumption more sustainable. Yet, there are limitations in the current analysis of global food system sustainability. We believe there are four main areas that could be improved to make such analysis more comprehensive and insightful. These improvements could have important repercussions on the development of effective evidence-based policy that ultimately promotes production efficiencies and sustainable diets.

One set of opportunities for improvement in the analysis of food system sustainability relates to the robustness of the dietary scenarios that are modelled. First, these scenarios need to be made more plausible. Although assessment of radical shifts in human diets might be useful in highlighting the effects of animal-based versus plant-based foods, we question the benefit of emphasising the most extreme of scenarios (ie, a complete switch from omnivore to vegetarian or vegan diets), when the foreseeable global trend is heading strongly in the opposite direction. In addition, analyses of these extreme diet substitution scenarios tend to focus on greenhouse gas emissions, but in such scenarios, trade-offs between sustainability indicators are highly likely—aptly highlighted by the increased use of water in scenarios that model shifts from grass-fed livestock towards water-intensive crops. We argue that it is more insightful to model ambitious yet achievable, context-specific reductions in animal products, overconsumption (particularly of discretionary foods), and food waste, in line with those recently recommended by the EAT-Lancet Commission on sustainable food systems for overall planetary health.

Secondly, more granular and dynamic analyses are needed. Estimates of environmental effects underpinning global food system analyses are typically based on life cycle assessment, an environmental accounting framework that captures effects from farm-to-fork. While the rigour and comprehensiveness of available life cycle assessment data and associated meta-analyses are improving and encompassing important trade-offs between sustainability objectives,5 significant shortcomings remain, notably in terms of low commodity-level detail and the use of global averages to infer region-specific or nation-specific environmental intensities (defined in life cycle assessments as the impact per functional unit of production). In addition, most life cycle assessments are static, and therefore do not represent system feedbacks that incorporate changes in demand because of production efficiency enhancements, or marginal changes in environmental effects involved in large-scale dietary shifts—such as when animal-based products are completely eliminated. The quantification of these dynamics and their system-wide environmental impacts is an opportunity to greatly improve sustainability assessments of different food products and proposed substitutions.

Thirdly, protein sources beyond conventional livestock need greater consideration. In many parts of the world, alternative animal protein sources such as abundant native species that are better adapted to local conditions (eg, kangaroo in Australia and deer in the northern hemisphere) can contribute to human nutrition, with such sourcing having considerably lower environmental effects than farming of conventional livestock. Many countries are also host to introduced feral animal populations that could serve as alternative protein sources—for example, Australia has substantial feral deer, goat, rabbit, pig, horse, and camel populations. Partly replacing existing mainstream protein sources with wild harvests of these alternative sources could achieve co-benefits for the environment (eg, through reducing emissions, land degradation, and the effects on native biodiversity), and improve human health, since game meat is typically leaner than lamb and beef. Conventional analyses also fail to account for other transformative shifts in animal-sourced protein, such as those towards laboratory-grown meat, insect-derived protein, and feeding animals on ecological leftovers such as food waste or grass from pastures. Including potential shifts to novel low-impact protein sources would ensure more comprehensive modelling of the associated environmental effects.

Finally, analyses should better quantify the diverse effects of food production on biodiversity and ecosystems. Food production contributes considerably to species extinction, which has detrimental effects on many ecosystems and plant and animal communities that are essential for supporting human life. Yet, there is an overreliance on proxy indicators such as land use when assessing terrestrial food systems. Previous research has highlighted how the extent of agricultural land area is not a good proxy for biodiversity impact, because of differences in production intensity and heterogeneity in biodiversity values. This limited analysis also extends to marine and freshwater food production. Stock depletion, bycatch, and habitat modification or loss, resulting from intensive aquaculture and fishing practices such as trawling, have substantial effects on the biodiversity of coastal and oceanic ecosystems. However, although some studies have considered the environmental intensities of aggregate categories such as farmed fish and crustaceans, the effect of fishing on wild stocks is typically not encompassed in life cycle assessments, despite appropriate data being available. Integration of a more diverse range of biodiversity indicators into the assessment of food system sustainability would allow for more meaningful analyses.

Taking advantage of the opportunities outlined here could facilitate a more complete understanding of the environmental effects of food production and consumption. Embracing these advances is a key prerequisite for developing effective policy recommendations. Our recommendations aim to foster a more comprehensive and nuanced debate on sustainable diets and the food system within the context of global environmental limits.

We declare no competing interests. We thank D Driscoll and BG Ridoutt for their insightful comments on the manuscript.

Hadjikakou M, Ritchie EG, Watermeyer KE, Bryan BA (2019) Improving the assessment of food system sustainability. The Lancet – Planetary Health PDF DOI

Feral horse impacts on threatened plants and animals in sub-alpine and montane environments in Victoria, Australia

Authors: Rebecca C Cherubin, Susanna E Venn, Don A Driscoll, Tim S Doherty, and Euan G Ritchie

Published in: Ecological Management & Restoration


Feral herbivores are a major driver of biodiversity loss globally and can alter the structure, composition and functioning of ecosystems. The direct impacts of feral herbivores on plant communities are well studied, but the direct and indirect effect they have on wildlife is not well understood.

In Victoria (south‐eastern Australia), a large feral Horse (Equus caballus) population coincides with highly sensitive and nationally endangered Alpine Sphagnum Bogs and Associated Fens communities, and several threatened animal species.

We assessed the impact of feral horses on this ecological community and the Alpine Water Skink (Eulamprus kosciuskoi) and the Broad‐toothed Rat (Mastacomys fuscus) at 20 sites with varying levels of horse disturbance. We used scat counts to determine an index of feral horse abundance and quantified impacts associated with their presence in the landscape. Active searches were used for Alpine Water Skink and scat and runway surveys for Broad‐toothed Rat. We also measured the vegetation structure and the abundance of different vegetation types (life forms).

Our results suggest that feral horses are associated with vegetation types and characteristics that negatively influence the presence or abundance of Alpine Water Skink and Broad‐toothed Rat. Sites with high horse activity had more low‐growing forbs, and the abundance of Alpine Water Skink was negatively related to this vegetation type. Grasses, sedges, rushes and shrubs were also less dense and lower in height in high horse activity sites, and Broad‐toothed Rat was less likely to be present in areas with these habitat attributes.

We recommend that feral horses are controlled to protect these threatened vertebrate species and their Sphagnum bog habitat.

Cherubin RC, Venn SE, Driscoll DA, Doherty TS, Ritchie EG (2019) Feral horse impacts on threatened plants and animals in sub-alpine and montane environments in Victoria, Australia. Ecological Management & Restoration PDF DOI

Impacts of feral horses in the Australian Alps and evidence-based solutions

Authors: Don A Driscoll, Graeme L Worboys, Hugh Allan, Sam C Banks, Nicholas J Beeton, Rebecca C Cherubin, Tim S Doherty, C Max Finlayson, Ken Green, Renée Hartley, Geoffrey Hope, Chris N Johnson, Mark Lintermans, Brendan Mackey, David J Paull, Jamie Pittock, Luciana L Porfirio, Euan G Ritchie, Chloe F Sato, Ben C Scheele, Deirdre A Slattery, Susanna Venn, David Watson, Maggie Watson, and Richard M Williams

Published in: Ecological Management & Restoration


New evidence of impacts by feral horses in Australia’s alpine parks systems confirms they endanger threatened species and extensively damage critically endangered bog communities that could take millennia to recover. These impacts are not confounded by effects of deer and accumulate over time, even when only a small number of feral horses (∼100) are present.

With protected areas representing only a small proportion of the area of the Australian states of New South Wales (9.3%) and Victoria (17%), allowing feral horses to degrade reserves is not a reasonable management compromise, is contrary to the purpose of the protected area system and conflicts with international obligations.

Modelling and decades of management experience indicate that trapping alone does not control feral horse numbers. Trapping and fertility control can work in small populations, but not when there are several thousand horses in remote areas. Aerial culling is needed to cost‐effectively and humanely control feral horse populations.

The relatively small amount of suffering feral horses experience during a cull is outweighed by

  1. avoiding suffering and death of horses from starvation and thirst,
  2. avoiding the suffering of native animals displaced by horses, and
  3. avoiding the ethical concerns of driving threatened species towards extinction.

Objections to aerial culling on welfare and cultural grounds are contradicted by evidence.

Improving knowledge in the general community about what is at stake is long overdue because without this knowledge, small groups with vested interests and unfounded claims have been able to dominate debate and dictate management actions.

As a result of ineffective management, horse populations are now expanding and causing well‐documented damage to Australia’s alpine parks, placing at risk almost $10M spent on restoration after livestock grazing ended. The costs of horse control and restoration escalate the longer large horse populations remain in the alpine parks.

It is crucial that feral horse numbers are rapidly reduced to levels where ecosystems begin to recover. Aerial culling is needed as part of the toolbox to achieve that reduction.

Driscoll DA, Worboys GL, Allan H, Banks SC, Beeton NJ, Cherubin RC, Doherty TS, Finlayson CM, Green K, Hartley R, Hope G, Johnson CN, Lintermans M, Mackey B, Paull DJ, Pittock J, Porfirio LL, Ritchie EG, Sato CF, Scheele BC, Slattery DA, Venn S, Watson D, Watson M, Williams RM (2019) Impacts of feral horses in the Australian Alps and evidence-based solutions. Ecological Management & Restoration PDF DOI 

ABC Science: If extinct animals could be brought back from the dead, should we do it?

We’re living in the middle of an extinction crisis, on par with what wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But an asteroid isn’t responsible this time; we are.

Imagine walking into the most beautiful museum, taking all the artworks off the shelves and burning them or throwing them in the bin. That’s what we’re doing. We’re losing species every day all over the world.

De-extinction science can never replicate the wonder of evolution, nor how long it takes for species to evolve…

Read the full article on the ABC website