Conservation: what should we expect from farmers?

In his 1939 essay, The Farmer as a Conservationist, the noted ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote: "The landscape of any farm is the farmer's portrait of himself. Conservation implies self-expression of that landscape, rather than blind compliance with economic dogma."

The New Zealand farmer is, for better or worse, inextricably woven into the fabric of the landscape - a landscape that is often the reflection of generations of farmers working in concert with the ecological processes and biota upon which production depends.

While economic motivations often dominate farm management, many farmers consider themselves stewards of their lands and all of the non-production plant and animal species on them.

New Zealand is unique among industrialised countries in that farmers receive no subsidies to support conservation measures on their lands, and that nearly all efforts to enhance and conserve non-production species are undertaken at the farmers' own expense.

Because farmers must engage in conservation of their own volition, they may regard themselves as having a vested interest in supporting non-production ecology, and may consequently have a greater motivation to be innovative in developing conservation strategies.

Along these lines, Leopold wrote: "Subsidies and propaganda may evoke a farmer's acquiescence, but only enthusiasm and affection will evoke his skill."

I argue that this enthusiasm and affection is something that characterises many New Zealand farmers and, importantly, distinguishes them from their counterparts abroad.

Yet, New Zealand agricultural landscapes are far from Edens of biodiversity. Indeed, there is a dire need to restore and enhance biodiversity on production lands throughout New Zealand.

So what can and should we expect farmers to accomplish with regard to conservation in agricultural landscapes?

Many of us who experience nature intermittently through controlled encounters in national parks, where wildlife remains in its most unadulterated state, may place unrealistic expectations on farmers to engage in conservation efforts on their farms.

The result is a widening of the already great farmer-townie rift. Do farmers have a responsibility to protect and enhance non-production species on their lands? Absolutely. Something that perhaps warrants a bit more attention is the degree to which wider New Zealand should be held accountable for supporting farmers in such endeavours.

In addition to aesthetic or intrinsic value, biodiversity provides ecosystem services, such as nutrient cycling, pollination and pest control, which confer benefits to the broader landscape in addition to supporting production.

This results in a more robust landscape that is better able to accommodate environmental stress and disturbance beyond just the farm scale.

Leopold wrote: "Conservation is harmony between men and land. When land does well by the owner, the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of the partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not."

I propose that the wider public is also a critical component of this covenant. When a farm is biodiverse and resilient, the ecology of the farm benefits, the farmer benefits through enhanced production and, ultimately, the New Zealand economy and landscape benefit.

Whether calling for conservation support in the form of subsidies or council grants, the public also has a responsibility to support conservation of biodiversity outside of protected areas. Regardless of the mechanism through which conservation occurs, it is critical that both farmers and the public enter into this conversation.

The real challenge will be to restore biodiversity to the areas most greatly impacted by human activities and, therefore, those in greatest need of conservation.

Only when all New Zealanders, farmers and public alike, support conservation across all landscapes can New Zealand truly consider itself a leader in environmentalism and conservation.

• Sarah Meadows recently completed her PhD in zoology at the University of Otago, where her research took a transdisciplinary look at the ecological and social processes that affect non-production biodiversity on pastoral farms. She works as a research assistant at the Centre for the Study of Food, Agriculture and Environment.


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