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Environment and Communications References Committee
23/08/2019
Australia's faunal extinction crisis

HOCKING, Dr Colin, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

McINTYRE, Dr Sue, Private capacity

MELVILLE, Dr Jane, Senior Curator, Terrestrial Vertebrates, Museums Victoria

MICHAEL, Dr Damian, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Sturt University

SARRE, Professor Stephen, Private capacity

SHARP, Ms Sarah, Committee Member, Friends of Grasslands

Evidence from Dr Hocking, Dr Melville and Dr Michael was taken via teleconference—

Committee met at 09:01

CHAIR ( Senator Rice ): I declare open this hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee inquiry into Australia's faunal extinction crisis. I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet—the Ngunawal and Ngambri people. I pay our respects to elders past, present and emerging and acknowledge any First Nations people who are with us today or listening in.

On behalf of the committee, I welcome everybody here today. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings will be made. The hearing is also being broadcast on the Australian Parliament House website. Before the committee starts taking evidence I remind witnesses that, in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee generally prefers evidence to be given in public but, under the Senate's resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground on which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may of course also be made at any other time.

I now welcome a panel of experts on grasslands threatened faunal species and ecological communities. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses has been provided to you. I now invite you to comment on the capacity in which you appear before the committee today.

Ms Sharp : I am a representative of Friends of Grasslands, which is a community group in the local ACT and New South Wales region.

Prof. Sarre : I am a professor of wildlife genetics and a conservation biologist at the University of Canberra.

Dr McIntyre : I am appearing as a private individual.

Dr Hocking : I am an adjunct senior lecturer at La Trobe University. I have been involved in grassland research and management for about 25 years.

Dr Michael : I am a senior research fellow at the Institute of Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University, and I've been working in grassy woodlands for the past 20 years.

Dr Melville : I am the senior curator of terrestrial vertebrates at Museums Victoria in Melbourne. I have been doing research on conservation, genetics and ecology of lizards in grasslands for about the last 20 years.

CHAIR: Thank you. I now invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.

Ms Sharp : I am a grassland ecologist by trade. I have close to 30 years experience working in grasslands. My primary interest, personally, is in the plants in grasslands. The major point I want to make is that no fauna can exist outside their habitat, and that habitat moves beyond just a little fragment; often, it is within a much wider landscape. It's important, therefore, to be looking at that in a very holistic and biodiverse sort of way. That leads to my second point: the stewardship of land is extremely important. You have to look at this outside the reserve system, outside the small fragments that might be looked after for conservation; you have to look at the role of other landholders and land users. Also, it is the responsibility of the entire society to be looking after these things. The general community, the conservation community, the landholders and the traditional custodians of the land all have a role in these things.

The other thing I would like to say goes to the importance of this for climate change. National ecosystems and grasslands, and the species that are in them, are providing us with resources that go far beyond just esoteric conservation. They are critical to the survival of humans, I believe, and changes and resilience in this time of climate change. I therefore think it is the responsibility of everybody to be looking after these things and thinking about how they fit into our climate change scenario.

Prof. Sarre : I am here because I've been working on one of the endangered reptile species that inhabits the grasslands—the grassland earless dragon. I have been studying that since 2006 with students and colleagues. I view this species as a bit of a talisman for the grasslands in general. We thought at one stage that there was one species, but it turns out that there are four. At least one of those species has not been seen for 50 years and is likely extinct, and another hasn't been seen for 30 years. I've been studying the two remaining species—one that is pretty well endemic to Canberra and another that is on the Monaro tablelands. I'm sure Jane will be able to tell you a bit more about how it came to be that we ended up with four species rather than one. That is an example of how we just did not know what sort of cryptic diversity existed.

Grassland earless dragons are now an endangered species. I think their status will be re-examined shortly, but the situation has worsened in the last 20 years, not improved. There seem to be some key factors involved. The main factor of course is the loss of grasslands. Nationwide, we have less than one per cent of what was originally here 200 years ago—shocking destruction of a habitat type and a vegetation type. What habitat remains is often degraded by land-use practices. In Canberra, we have a particular problem: fragmentation of remaining populations by urban development. On top of that—and it is what I have been studying for the last five years or so—is the impact of climate change. Grasslands get extraordinarily hot, at least in Canberra. At ground level, they get to over 73 degrees on a day that is in the high 30s. The ambient temperature might be in the high 30s, but on the ground, as experienced by plants and animals, it is extremely hot. They can't survive in those temperatures. With the increases in temperatures that we have seen in the ACT over the last 20 years, that is quite possibly a critical extinction factor as well.

Dr McIntyre : I have worked in rural landscapes throughout New South Wales and Queensland for most of the last 40 years with CSIRO and universities. I've been researching and observing the effects of farming and grazing practices on the biodiversity and productivity of grassy ecosystems over that time. I also served on the Threatened Species Scientific Committee for three years from 2012. In that position I became quite aware of the extent to which limited resources are affecting the effectiveness of the EPBC Act and the recovery actions taken.

The ongoing decline of Australia's fauna is matched by the ongoing decline of its plants and invertebrates. The greater focus on fauna is a reflection of a greater popular interest in animals and a relatively greater number of fauna experts in the field of ecology. However, in rural landscapes the causes of decline of all groups of native species—plants and animals—are the same.

The EPBC Act has some very important functions but has not been effective in delivering protection in rural areas. Intensification of agricultural land use is the root cause, and it is not being sufficiently addressed. By 'intensification' I mean the expansion of crops, sown and fertilised pastures, and horticulture. These activities can be highly productive and require high inputs. So, intensification equals high inputs and extensification equals low inputs.

I know that the department is giving evidence later today. It would be valuable to ask them what proportion of the EPBC Act referrals have related to agricultural practices in comparison with mining and urban development. Then you could compare this to what we know, which is that some of our most endangered ecosystems are in agricultural areas. These are the grassy woodlands and grasslands that have formed the basis of our farm production until very recently. The EPBC Act doesn't take into account the cumulative effects of agricultural intensification over entire landscapes. Indeed, we don't have any effective systems at the moment for this sort of landscape planning. The simple fact of the matter is that, in order to avoid the loss of native species, we have to give them space on the landscape. Not all native species require dedicated conservation reserves to survive, but very few species can complete their lifecycles in a landscape that is dominated by cropping.

Research has shown that intensive farming should not exceed a third of the landscape. In many regions this threshold of sustainability has been well exceeded. Beyond that threshold we begin to lose not only species but also critical functions that keep the water clean, keep the soil in its place, stabilise pasture productivity and keep our crops pollinated. Low-input land uses such as grazing on native pastures, if well managed, are quite compatible with many native plants and animals thriving. Low-intensity land uses provide economic value in a range of diverse ways—directly through businesses and indirectly through the many ecosystem services provided. Moreover, the threat to native species is much reduced in this type of land use. So federal environmental legislative provisions need a whole-of-landscape approach which considers limits to intensification and which supports low-input agricultural practices.

CHAIR: Dr Hocking, shall we start with you on the line?

Dr Hocking : I would just like to say at the start that, listening to those other witnesses present, I would pretty much agree with the things that they have said. A couple things I was going to say I think have already been picked up by some of the others. I think that probably suggests or confirms that we know a fair bit about the basic ecology and management of native grasslands, having now had about 35 or 40 years of experience. My primary experience is in basalt plains grasslands, but I have worked on some of the other grasslands, like the ones in Canberra and what's now known as the south-eastern highlands grasslands as well. So I do have experience across some of that range, which wasn't in my initial submission.

One of the things that we know is that the tussock grasses form the base matrix for native grasslands. They're quite resilient if that matrix is kept in place—that is, you've got tussock grasses forming that matrix or other equivalent grassy species. If that matrix is removed, it's actually quite difficult to get back. A lot of the high biodiversity value plants and animals live amongst that matrix. What we have is now a remnant system of the once expansive grasslands, what was known as the Australia Felix. Australia grew to prominence on the sheep's back, and the sheep ate the native grasses.

This heritage that we have has virtually shrunk down to around one per cent or less, and a lot of those remnants are now actually subsets—that is, they're less than whole, though still very valuable. They can be quite resilient and they can be very valuable. Just a couple of quick examples. There are instances in lots of places where a pipeline has been put through a native grassland, the native grasses are torn up, you get massive weed invasion and the boundary between that pipeline and the native grass sits there alongside for many, many years. So there is a high level of resilience of even small patches of native grasslands if they're kept with that basic matrix intact.

The other thing is that these different remnants may contain different values, and those values aren't always apparent. We had the experience of discovering just over 30 hectares of native grassland next to the campus I worked on out in the west of Melbourne. It was pretty low quality in terms of plant biodiversity but we, by chance, discovered that there were striped legless lizards living in that grassland, and over time we were able to do surveys on that and found it's in fact the largest population in existence of the striped legless lizard, which you also have in Canberra. So that's a key population that was unknown prior to that. It wouldn't have been evident that that was there in those 30 or 35 hectares prior to somebody looking. It's now surrounded by houses, but that population is monitored along with some of the other endangered plants, and they seem to be surviving okay within that sort of limited context. I suppose the take-home message is you can have some smaller patches that are really quite resilient and valuable.

We are seeing changes happening with climate change. We don't know what they are. What we do know from ecology is that the more of these patches you have kept, the higher likelihood there is of actually some of these surviving into the future with the effects of climate change.

Certainly in semi-urban areas we've had an experience now of about 15 or 20 years of offsets. That really hasn't been successful—the idea of allowing some grassland areas to be taken away and then trying to upgrade other areas of grassland as an offset compensation. There have been some recent reports here about that. Particularly, the Western Grassland reserve set aside by the state government here hasn't really been successful, and I can't really see how that can be successful. If it were to be, there would need to be a lot more attention paid to the outcomes of those offsets and a lot more resources put into that approach.

My last comment is in relation to the involvement of community and learning in relation to grasslands. Sarah Sharp referred to this as well. It's around that notion of stewardship. Grasslands—probably like most ecosystems now, but grasslands in particular—need a form of active management to be maintained, and they need an informed approach to that. There are many people—like friends groups, in semi-urban areas, or farmers—who value native grasslands and are able to do that type of active management. There are lots of successful examples of that, and there are lots of examples of farmers, or people in the agricultural space, valuing these areas and, I suppose, that more general trend that a lot of people in an agricultural setting are now coming to the view that biodiversity in the landscape is actually a very positive thing and has lots of positive economic and social benefits as well as the intrinsic benefits of the retention of the species themselves.

In terms of the EPBC Act—and I think other people have made this point—in principle, it's a good act; in practice, it really isn't performing its function. An example is that the notion of 'critical habitat' needs to be taken out of a political context and put into the hands of an independent assessment process. Critical habitat is deemed to be habitat that's critical to the survival of a species—that is, if you take away that habitat, the species will be pushed towards extension. And yet we've had very few examples where critical habitat has either been identified or enforced properly under the EPBC Act. I think I'll leave my comments there.

CHAIR: Thanks very much, Dr Hocking. Dr Melville?

Dr Melville : I agree with everything that's been said so far. There's been a perspective from the ecological side of things. My expertise is possibly more in the genetics side of things and, being a museum person, in taxonomy, which is the discovery and description of species. I've been working on grassland species for about 20 years now—including the grassland earless dragon and the striped legless lizard, which have been mentioned already—working from Queensland down to Victoria, across to South Australia.

There are a couple of points that I want to make. These threats that people have been talking about—in particular, the fragmentation and degradation of habitats—lead to impacts at a population level in the genetics of species. When you're looking at the genetic health of a species with small, isolated, fragmented populations—say, in the case of the legless lizard—you might get quite a few individuals in there but, when you actually look at the genetics, you can see that there are spikes in inbreeding and a loss of genetic diversity because they're in small, isolated, fragments of habitat which can't connect to other habitat.

The second point I want to make, and I think it is particularly important, is about the lack of understanding of the diversity of species across the board. This isn't just fauna; this is flora as well. We don't actually know that much about what we actually have in these grasslands. An example is the grassland earless dragon. This is a vertebrate species, a lizard, and you would think that we would know everything about it. But just in the last 15 years, from Northern Queensland down to Victoria and across to South Australia, I've described seven new species. These are species that occur in small, fragmented habitats. The majority of them have been, or will be, listed as some form of endangered or critically endangered, with two of them potentially already extinct. So we've got lizards that we didn't even know were there. It's very difficult to have optimal management of species when we don't even know what's there. Then, when you look at the invertebrates, they are almost a complete unknown.

So there's a significant lack of understanding of the biodiversity of these grasslands. Then you have to have the skills base and the number of taxonomists required to describe the species. It is the descriptions of species upon which the EPBC Act develops the conservation management programs, so you need species to be able to develop these. There's a real lack of a skills base and resources to provide that information to the ecologists so they can go out there and find out about these species. I think that's what I wanted to say. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Melville. Finally, Dr Michael.

Dr Michael : Good morning. Thank you, everyone. There have been some really good points raised already, so I'll try not to repeat some of them. Over the last 20 years I've been primarily involved in monitoring reptile diversity in agricultural landscapes, particularly grassy woodlands and grasslands in south-eastern Australia. In a recent review of the response of reptiles to revegetation and restoration in general, drawing on almost 20 years of monitoring data, we found that key natural resource management practices such as modifying grazing regimes, fencing out livestock from remnants and revegetating the landscape with wildlife corridors were not translating to significant improvements in reptile diversity. That's important because these are some of the main instruments that we've got in our toolkit to try to improve biodiversity. But I guess it's not surprising given that we know the vast majority of grassland reptiles are reliant on things like intact soil cover, native grass cover and, where they occur, shelter sites such as fallen logs and surface rocks.

If I focus on surface rocks in particular, they're considered a critically important habitat for a wide range of vertebrate species. Three EPBC-listed threatened species are reliant on surface rocks in the landscape, where they occur. Jane and others have already mentioned some of them: the grassland earless dragon, which is now split into several species; the pink-tailed worm-lizard; and the striped legless lizard. Paddock rocks have been picked up and removed from the landscape ever since early settlement. However, my concern is that, in the last three to four years, there has been a massive resurgence in rock removal from agricultural landscapes. There's new technology that exists now—which has been developed for Western Australian laterite soils—which is being used to remove rocks from these grasslands and grassy woodlands in south-eastern Australia. Rocks are no longer being picked up, stockpiled or relocated along fence lines. They can now be crushed and put back into the soil at a rate of almost one hectare per hour. I find this quite alarming.

The removal of bush rock is listed as a key threatening process in New South Wales under the Threatened Species Conservation Act. However, like many things, routine agricultural activities are exempt from its activity. Unchecked, this new wave of habitat loss will have massive implications for threatened grassland species such as the ones we've mentioned already. There are experiments underway to see if it's feasible to restore rock habitat for threatened reptiles. But irrespective of these outcomes, restoring rock habitat at the scales required to reverse the declining trends is really not going to be practical. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks, Dr Michael. It's a really thorough beginning, I think, of the extent of the issues facing grasslands fauna and flora. I'll kick off. I wanted to remind all of us we have also got Senator Urquhart and Senator Smith on the line, which I forgot to mention at the beginning of the program. All of you have mentioned a range of threats to these species. I wanted to focus in on what you see the key threats as being. In particular, perhaps I could take you to the areas where grasslands are remaining, and in these agricultural landscapes what the threats and what the driving forces behind those threats are. Does anybody want to summarise those threats and why it's occurring, from your perspective?

Ms Sharp : I think a major threat is weeds. It comes up again and again. The grasslands have been particularly vulnerable to weed invasion through their use for agriculture and various elements of ploughing. One of the interesting things about grasslands is that they can, perhaps, handle a tiny bit of ploughing—maybe once—but nutrient addition, fertilisers and soil disturbance, is something that changes their structure, their diversity, enormously. The resultant weed invasion is a massive problem—more in these systems than in other ones but in all agricultural systems.

I think it was Colin who mentioned the requirement for active management. Grasslands can get overgrown. Grasslands aren't just grasses, that's the most important thing. A high component of grasslands in good condition is that they have a range of other species. They have other herbaceous species—flowers, daisies, lilies and orchids. They also have ferns, fungi and algae. It's like a little world. Instead of in your trees, your mid story and your ground story, you've got it in your grasses and other things. Think of yourself as a little thing down the bottom. It's the equivalent. With that comes those cryptic animals that live in those areas. It's not your pandas, your koalas and your other things. Biomass control of the grasses is also really important to maintain that structure that allows these things to live. You're looking for a diversity of structure in these systems, so biodiversity.

It's only starting to come back that fire is probably a really important part. That's complicated by the fact that you've now got fragmented species, so you've got limited populations of species. What does fire do to those species? And what is the effect of fire on weeds? There are some massive weed problems that need to be managed. Any work with any fauna has to include management of this extraordinarily complex ecosystem.

CHAIR: Thanks, Ms Sharp. Dr McIntyre?

Dr McIntyre : Yes. In some regions, particularly the tablelands of New South Wales and southern Queensland, there are still a lot of native dominated grasslands and dry grasslands. The key threats are exactly as I've mentioned: the use of fertilisation and so on. What happens is that every time a piece of land changes hands the new owner decides that they want to do some new enterprise, and often that enterprise might be some horses, some free-range pigs or some chickens. They seek advice. They're told, 'You might want to improve the pastures and so on.' So there's a constant churn of landownership, where bright new people who don't really understand the system at all and what they're losing by doing these things are encouraged to do these things. The reason they're encouraged to do things is it involves selling outputs and it promises greater yields. But it doesn't necessarily deliver, in the longer term, the ecosystem services that people want. To me, that's a big driving force, that constant focus on doing something that's farming or, if you're a broadscale farmer, improving your yields. There's a huge push from all parts of society to do that.

CHAIR: On private land, agricultural land, where these grasslands occur, how much awareness do you feel there is from landowners about the fact that they've got native grasslands, what they're grazing on and the value of those grasslands?

Dr McIntyre : Very little, I'd say. In the last 15 years I've worked locally with the Landcare group, and there is always a very small knot of people who are passionately interested and active. The vast majority of people simply don't understand what they're standing on or looking at. Grasslands are fairly subtle creatures and they look pretty ordinary much of the year. Because of the way we manage them, there are very few spectacular wildflower displays, so they don't get the aesthetic appreciation that you can see when you've got your eye in. There's very little awareness, in my experience.

Dr Hocking : If I can pick up on that point, one of the underlying issues is the issue of valuing these native grasslands. Where native grasslands come to prominence, it's often in the media as, 'Well, they're in the way of something.' They've been in the way of something, probably, since the Second World War. Prior to that, they were actually valued, because they were the pasture on which a lot of Australian agriculture, particularly grazing agriculture, was based. They're often now cast as being a problem rather than an asset. We've lost the landscape scale—what do you call it?—oversight or curation of these things. We used to have things called extension officers in agriculture who had an understanding of these things and could develop that.

I was on the National Chilean Needle Grass Taskforce. I don't know whether any of the senators know about Chilean needle grass, but it's one of our worst invading weeds. It has high impacts for agriculture, grazing and biodiversity. We were able to bring together the people interested in native grassland biodiversity, and the invasion of Chilean needle grass into that space, along with agriculture. We all learnt a lot together about that. In that process, there was a revaluing of native grasslands in that agricultural landscape scale, particularly for native grassland resilience in times of dry conditions and resistance to invasion and the processes that we were using to remove it.

It is possible to have that combination of an agricultural perspective and a biodiversity perspective. In fact, that's what's needed. But what we don't have is the valuing of native grasslands in the landscape and knowledge of that, and we've lost the resources or people on the ground to get in and work out what the solutions and the approaches are for communities on the ground who will be needed to manage these areas.

CHAIR: Thank you. I want to go to the temperate grass—sorry, is there somebody else? Dr Melville?

Dr Melville : I just wanted to say something really quickly. I wanted to point out that there's less than two per cent of the temperate grasslands intact from what there naturally was. Agriculture is probably the major impact, but an increasing impact, particularly around Melbourne, around Canberra and up around Bathurst, in the high plains up there, is urban encroachment. Just as an example, the Victorian grassland earless dragon hasn't been seen for 50 years now, but, looking at the historic records, it occurred in St Kilda in Melbourne, in Essendon and down near Geelong. This is its natural habitat. So increasing urban encroachment, not just agriculture, is a problem.

CHAIR: I think that's an important point. Two per cent is amazing, if you think we've lost 98 per cent of it. It puts in context how important what's remaining is.

Dr McIntyre : Can I just make a point of clarification. There would appear to be a conflict between me saying there's a lot of native grassland and the fact that there is only two per cent left. The listed ecosystem is what's considered natural native grassland in temperate areas, but there is a very extensive ground layer that is native dominated and shares many of the species, and it extends right up through the whole of eastern Australia and into Queensland. I'm referring to what are generally called 'derived native grasslands', where the trees have been taken away but they're still using the ground layer for pasture production.

CHAIR: That's in addition to the two per cent that's intact natural native grassland systems?

Dr McIntyre : That's right, yes.

CHAIR: I want to go to the temperate grasslands—particularly in the ACT and the Southern Highlands of New South Wales—and the Friends of Grasslands submission. Ms Sharp, in your submission—and it goes to how much is known by those communities—you say that the Commonwealth has stayed silent re deliberate clearing of the grasslands. I'm interested to know why you feel that was the case. Do you feel that the clearing that has gone on is deliberate? How much knowledge of the fact that there are grasslands there amongst agricultural communities do you feel there is?

Ms Sharp : That's a complicated question with a complicated answer. One of the issues is that there is a disparity between state and Commonwealth and ACT. You've had this devolution of responsibilities, under the EPBC Act, to the states. In the ACT, natural grasslands were first listed as a threatened community in 1994 or 1995, and under the Commonwealth act it was very close to that; it was about 2000. That followed very soon after the EPBC Act being introduced and implemented. I think it was the very first community that got listed. In New South Wales, though, 25 years later it still isn't listed, although you have an enormous area—and that is the issue—in New South Wales, on the Monaro plains, of natural grassland. So you've got this disparity between the different areas and the different ways that it actually is being implemented. In the case of New South Wales, they don't have it listed themselves but they have a responsibility to undertake actions to protect the grasslands under the Commonwealth legislation. There are enormous pressures on these areas. Exactly as Sue says, the people come in and they want to change landscape. The Monaro grasslands have been highly valued for their sheep and wool production for many years. That really sits very firmly on the native grasslands—native grasses and forbs, herbaceous species, that the sheep eat. That takes them through winters. It takes them through bad times. With the costs of sheep going down, that also changes. I hope I'm answering your question. The issue, I think, is in compliance. It's whether these things are happening.

CHAIR: Do you think those farmers on the Monaro tablelands who have got native grasses on their properties know that they've got them?

Ms Sharp : That's an interesting question. I think it's no coincidence that we have all been working on these things for 20 or 30 years. It was in the early 1990s that people suddenly realised that these things are important, they are not just sheep paddocks. I think there has been a change in that 20 or 30 years. I don't think people necessarily knew what they had. But they valued what they had. I think it's increasing. It's exactly as Sue says. When you talk to local officers in councils and so on, they complain that new people come in and they just get a swathe of weeds coming through—because they don't know what to look after.

CHAIR: In terms of your comments on deliberate clearing, was that referring to the reported alleged poisoning in the Jam Land development?

Ms Sharp : That's one, but I think it is happening a lot. It is happening silently in the background. Sometimes it is very deliberate. There is vegetation clearing legislation in New South Wales so you are not supposed to be able to clear it. Well, just before that came in, there was massive clearing. So people feel limited and, I think, affronted because they feel like they're the owners of the land. I think we need to learn a lot from that, to say that we are custodians and that's all we are.

Senator GALLAGHER: Ms Sharp, thank you for your evidence. We have temperate grasslands that are listed as critically endangered under the EPBC Act and in the ACT because it is listed under ACT legislation. But it is treated differently in New South Wales because it is not listed under the New South Wales act as it is in the ACT. Is that the issue? I'm trying to understand why the Commonwealth would treat something differently under the same legislation in the ACT than it would in New South Wales.

Ms Sharp : I don't think it is a difference by the Commonwealth—and by the Commonwealth officers and responsibilities. But I think that because it is not listed in New South Wales it lowers its value and importance in New South Wales under New South Wales legislation.

Senator GALLAGHER: But the response from the Commonwealth should be the same if there was clearing of that land—if it occurred in the ACT or if it occurred in the Monaro it should elicit the same response from the Commonwealth?

Ms Sharp : Absolutely. But with a weakening of the processes by devolving some of those responsibilities, I think you don't have that same presence. In the same way, an enormous issue is actually following up with compliance. It is an absolutely massive issue.

Senator GALLAGHER: So that's how it links with compliance activity?

Ms Sharp : Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: Because it's devolved to New South Wales state regulators, the response is perhaps not what it would be in the ACT?

Ms Sharp : It's complicated. I don't want to cast aspersions on anybody but I think it is very complicated when you don't have two arms with the same objectives coming in together with the same level of legislative protection. I think it's confusing.

Senator GALLAGHER: You say in your submission:

Additionally, staff of the Commonwealth Department of the Environment have been restricted from sharing information on their work on threatened species. Lack of transparency is a hallmark of the current government.

Could you explain what you mean there, particularly in relation to restriction on the sharing of information and the lack of transparency?

Ms Sharp : I wasn't involved in that particular part of the submission, so that is a bit more complicated. I think I can only put that into a more general comment that as a community group and as individuals—the general community—people don't necessarily see what is happening and what is going on. I think I know where this is coming from. When you're told that an offset is going to be put in place as a result of clearing there is not necessarily any transparency about where that offset is, why it is being chosen and how it is going to be looked after. There is a classic one in the ACT where there is an area that has a completely odd shape in the middle of a paddock and that's the offset. It's a little area in the middle of a paddock. As far as we understand it, it is not even a paddock boundary. How do you manage that? I'm sure that's what we're referring to in that quote.

CHAIR: Are those offsets or compliance activities influenced by political implications or political pressure?

Ms Sharp : There is always political pressure, I guess. Sticking with that example for a moment, if you are going to have an offset, it has to be somewhere it is not going to be used for development later or something else. So there is a political element there. It's a difficult one. It is not just political; it is a whole range of other things. As has already been said, it does not value the natural values of what they can and do provide to us as human beings in the same way as mining or agricultural or other areas and the amount of money that goes to that and saving those areas. It's always: 'Let's find a solution quickly and get it out of the way and then move on.' I think that's the general concern.

CHAIR: You say in your submission that 'attempts to do this within the New South Wales government appear to have been blocked by certain interests which promote clearing of natural temperate grasslands.' Could you expand on that?

Ms Sharp : I think that is a direct concern about the Monaro grasslands—that there is massive pressure there to not declare it because there is a feeling that it will limit the utilisation of that land.

CHAIR: Where is that pressure coming from?

Ms Sharp : I think the farming community.

CHAIR: The farming community across the board, or particular individuals?

Ms Sharp : I have no idea and I wouldn't want to say. I think there is a disparity between how people want to utilise the land. There is such a lot of push now that we should be eating more vegetables and less meat—and that meat is a climate change issue. But you have an enormous amount of land where cropping would be absolutely crazy—and the water use and that sort of thing. The Monaro is a dry area; it is a cold, semi-arid area, effectively.

CHAIR: You talked about compliance earlier. Others also might like to give some views on the level of compliance activity, the level of follow-up where there has been clearing or degradation occurring. How effective has that been and do you think that is potentially influenced by particular stakeholders?

Ms Sharp : I don't feel very confident. I hope other people might have more information on that than I do. All I know is that it very seldom happens and it is extremely drawn out. I have a feeling that people feel that compliance or non-compliance isn't followed up, so it isn't a threat.

CHAIR: So they don't think there are going to be any repercussions from clearing or other degrading activities?

Ms Sharp : I don't think so. That's my opinion.

Senator GALLAGHER: Is anyone on the panel aware of any compliance action that has been taken in relation to the clearing of critically endangered temperate grasslands that has been handled well?

Dr Hocking : There have been some cases in Victoria where there has been deliberate clearing in advance of some new legislation coming in and there have been substantial fines. I don't have the details in front of me. That has had the effect of bringing people's attention to the value of grasslands. That was probably about 10 or 15 years ago.

Senator GALLAGHER: In Victoria, is it?

Dr Hocking : Yes.

Dr Melville : I know of that in Victoria as well.

Dr Hocking : What happened subsequently was that the process of offsetting was developed. Offsetting is really a trade-off. There is no science behind offsetting; there is no adequate monitoring of what the impacts of offsetting are. A few people have attempted to evaluate the outcomes of offsetting—and it doesn't look good; in fact, it looks quite poor. For example, there have been areas of native grassland cleared that had striped legless lizards. A subset have been salvaged. Our estimate was that one in four or one in five were being salvaged. We had some techniques for determining the overall population and what percentage were being salvaged. There was a controlled and uncontrolled release of those animals in another grassland that had been rejuvenated. There were fairly low outcomes for those animals. If we are going to offset, we are going to salvage lizards, which has been happening over time. The little we know of the outcomes of that aren't positive—yet offsets are used as the major tool for getting rid of a problem, as Sarah Sharp said.

The other side of this is that, if you are going to have compliance, what you need is an active education and engagement process so that these areas that people have on their land are valued and the practices that are put in place are actively planned for and managed with people who have the experience of that. Once upon a time, that used to happen. It doesn't happen anymore. That resource has largely been taken away. We don't have much of an engagement with appropriate agricultural people with biodiversity knowledge in most of these landscapes anymore. We used to but we don't now.

Dr Melville : Due to the lack of evidence on the translocation of the salvaged striped legless lizards, they have suspended the practice now.

Dr Hocking : That's right. That's one example where we had a little bit of science behind that—largely unfunded, I would add, but there was some attempt at that. In many cases, there is very little science or follow-up on those practices.

Dr McIntyre : I would like to make a comment on offsets. The right thing is done with offsetting; in the ACT, that certainly appears to be the case. The difficulty with offsetting is that it is almost a downward ratcheting situation. You can take an equivalent area which may be larger but of lower quality—and there are certain assumptions made about the improvement that can be made or will naturally occur if you take the livestock off it or something like that—but there is not much evidence that you do get these rather optimistic improvements. And there are some elements that are completely irreplaceable. In the case of endangered grassy box woodlands, mature trees are completely irreplaceable and are being cut down all the time.

At the end of the day, regardless of the kind of no net-loss intention, clearing or destroying a native grassland is destroying a native grassland. It is a downward-ratcheting thing. The other question I'd ask—and I'm not an expert on this—is: what happens to the offsets when the development pressures start to move further out to where those offsets are now? Are they guaranteed a future? My understanding is that they're not.

CHAIR: They're not. That's certainly the other evidence put before this committee. It's been a big issue, particularly in the urban development of Melbourne, where the supposed offsets, in fact, were never actually even purchased.

Dr McIntyre : Or protected in the long term.

CHAIR: And protected—that's right.

Prof. Sarre : Yes, I would have to agree that this concept is flawed. It's flawed because it's a net loss on most occasions. It assumes that placing an area of land under protection is actually going to be a long-term benefit—and that may or may not be the case, without sufficient resources. And there doesn't seem to be the resources put into a lot of these decisions as they're made.

Senator FAWCETT: I have quite a few questions, but, given the time, I don't know if we'll get to them all. There seems to have been an inference that intensification of agricultural is purely a profit-making activity by people who are unaware of the environment. I look at things like the development of direct drilling, which has a number of aims. One is to reduce the proliferation of weeds, one is to increase moisture retention in the soil and one is to improve soil structure. It's been proven to be very successful, particularly in my own state of South Australia with dryland farming. My sense is that people involved in agriculture are actually very aware of the environment and trying to use different techniques to increase productivity, but with an eye to getting rid of weeds, sustaining the productivity of the soil, improving soil structure et cetera. Do you accept that there can be productive use of land, from an agricultural perspective, that is aware of the environment?

Dr McIntyre : Within a cropping set-up—if you are cereal cropping or whatever—there are certainly better and worse ways of doing it, and things like direct drilling and sod seeding are better ways of managing soil structure loss and so on. However, it doesn't get over the fact that a cropping land use is a diversion of most of the natural resource to the food item or fibre item that you're after. So, those cropping habitats are still insufficient for the persistence of the native fauna or flora in them. They might occasionally be used by them. As you know, you'll get a flock of cockies coming down into a crop. But that isn't a means by which cockatoos will survive in the long run, because they need old eucalypts to nest in and so on.

There are two issues here. Within an intensive land use, there are better ways of doing it, and there is certainly a lot of work being done to improve that; I have no argument with that. But then there is the bigger landscape issue: how much of the landscape is being diverted to situations where everything is being diverted to human use? That is usually in the setting of an orchard, a cereal crop, a cotton crop or a sown pasture. Again, it's the totality of the landscape that will determine whether we lose many, many native species in the long run, and also whether we lose many of the ecosystem services that are provided by perennial native vegetation, including trees, shrubs and perennial grasses.

Dr Melville : Over the last 10 years or so, I worked with the Pittsworth Landcare group on the Darling Downs. I named the species there that lives on the Condamine floodplain—the Condamine earless dragon. They kind of took on that species as a mascot. Most of the Landcare group I was working with were local farmers—mainly the smaller land holdings there. And they were implementing low-tillage practices, maintaining verges, and slashing weeds rather than burning, and the lizards were surviving in the areas between fields. We even found them in the fields sometimes. But, over the last 10 years, more and more I've seen that these smaller land holdings are being bought and becoming large monocultures, with laser-levelling, and they're removing the edging around the fields which the lizards are living in. They're extending the tilled areas straight out to the edges of the road. I'm not sure what the legislation and rules around that are, but that's what I saw. And so these lizards that were managing to survive within these smaller, mosaic land holdings—the agricultural practices over the last 10 years have changed dramatically. The local farmers, the smaller landholders in the Landcare group, can see that happening. So there are different kinds of agricultural practices, and it's changing through time.

Dr Hocking : If I can just pick up on that. I assume that was a question from Senator Fawcett because it referred to South Australia, is that correct?

Senator FAWCETT: That's correct.

Dr Hocking : Yes, I think it's really important that we don't get into a kind of either/or thing. Some of my early comments were that there are a lot of farmers out there who value native grasslands and who are looking at ways of managing those. I think there are a lot. And there are some new kinds of ways of looking at the landscape that are coming in. So I agree with you, Senator Fawcett: I think it's quite possible. In fact, I'd make the point that the remnants we have left are the remnants that actually survived previous practices—of grazing, in particular—they have come through, and this is what we now have. So it's quite possible that those things can be integrated as part of land management.

I think what we have is a subset of these farming practices where these things are being taken away and being taken off the edge, if you like—and that is of concern to a lot of people because that seems to be increasing. And it's a concern to a lot of people because there isn't adequate protection, either through engagement and on-ground, sort of co-planning how you manage these things, or compliance, in terms of the enforcement of things like the EPBC Act. When you have, now, a situation where these things are on the edge of extinction—a lot of the species in these things, and the whole community is listed as critically endangered—then taking away a small part of it has a very big impact. So on the one hand you have a lot of farmers who value biodiversity and are doing the right thing, and then you have a subset who aren't. And I think there's a very widespread concern that there isn't an adequate protection for those sorts of practices that are seriously eroding.

Senator FAWCETT: Can I go to the issue of invasive weeds. I think it was you, Dr Hocking, who talked about Chilean needle grass.

Dr Hocking : Yes, that's right.

Senator FAWCETT: My understanding is that serrated tussock, African love grass and a range of noxious weeds are more of a threat to the grasslands than anything. In my experience, spraying—the use of herbicides—is one of the best ways to control weeds once they've got there. But in your expert opinions, what are the optimal methods for controlling weeds once they have taken hold into an area, particularly if they've passed that 50 per cent threshold?

Dr Hocking : Without getting into a long discussion, and you may be aware of this as well, it's really selective removal. That can be physical removal or herbicide removal. That has to be done in a way such that the surrounding pasture, whether it's native or exotic, remains competitive—also knowing the biology of the species, what the seed bank is and the way in which that works. If you have people working alongside farmers, in the native context, where things like Chilean needle grass are invading, or in an exotic pasture, some of the similar principles apply. If you get a careful removal of those things and management over time, and a competitive replacement, if you like, or a bolstering of the competition around those weeds, that seems to be the best way of removing those persistent things like Chilean needle grass and serrated tussock.

What we found out through the task force was that we had a shared interest in finding out about that stuff. People who were more on the agricultural side, with less knowledge of the native pasture, came to appreciate that more, because it's quite resistant, although not totally, and people more on the biodiversity side were able to see how these weeds were promulgating across the landscape and what some of the most effective methods being used to control them were. So there was a kind of win-win, because people were in the same space, sharing information and getting information about what was most effective. When you have a decrease in the resources to do that, and when you have a taking away of the resources of people with agricultural expertise to advise and to get people together, then you take away the capacity to do that type of management.

CHAIR: Is there documentation of the effectiveness of that type of control?

Dr Hocking : Yes. That went into the Chilean needle grass task force management practices. That's sitting there now. In fact, I was looking at it in South Australia, because I was in South Australia recently, and they happen to have Chilean needle grass. It was a more local, regionalised version of what came out of that task force about how to approach and manage those particular weeds. It referred to management of those weeds in a native vegetation context and in the exotic context.

Dr McIntyre : The first weapon in dealing with difficult weeds is to know what they look like. We've had this with African lovegrass coming into our district just in the last few months. The interesting aspect is that people only want to know what it looks like, but you can't know what it looks like if you don't know what it isn't. In other words, you have to know most of your grasses to be able to say, 'That's different.' Obviously, early detection and getting onto small infestations, preferably by hand, is the only effective way to keep it out of a property. The lack of knowledge and understanding of grasses is a really important economic aspect of farming which I think is greatly neglected.

Dr Hocking : That's been one of the benefits of engagement with native biodiversity: people get to know what they have on their land. It is that very thing about identifying potential weeds coming into their property by encouragement of their active engagement and knowledge of what they actually have on their property.

Senator FAWCETT: I have a last question, from a technical perspective. You've talked about identifying the weeds. Are you aware of any work using remote sensing autonomous algorithms that can actually successfully distinguish between weed types and would allow spot spraying?

Dr McIntyre : Yes. There's a lot of interest in trying to detect things remotely. In fact, I've done some research collaborating with someone to try and detect native grasslands from fertilised grasslands, which would be a massive breakthrough if we could do that effectively. The person moved on. The work wasn't finished. But the basic answer is no, not yet.

Senator GALLAGHER: Dr McIntyre, I think in your earlier evidence you said you were a member of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. Is that right?

Dr McIntyre : Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: I have just a couple of questions about your experience. Did you say you sat on that for three years?

Dr McIntyre : Three years, yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: I know there's been a review done by Dr Wendy Craik—and we're speaking to her later today—that was commissioned by the government. There are a couple of recommendations around the operations of that committee and the representation on that committee. Are you aware of the recommendations she's made?

Dr McIntyre : No, I'm not; I'm sorry.

Senator GALLAGHER: Basically, in short, they are that nominations that are on their way to that committee should be available for public comment for a period of 30 days, after the department assesses that they comply with the regulations and should be referred to the committee, and that the time available for the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to prepare the proposed priority assessment list for the minister should be increased from a maximum of 40 business days to a maximum of 60 business days. I think there's also a recommendation that a scientifically qualified farmer—I think it uses a different word—

Dr McIntyre : Yes.

Senator GALLAGHER: be appointed to the committee. From your experience in the operations of that committee, how would that affect the work of the committee? Do you think that's a sensible way forward?

Dr McIntyre : The first one is the public declaration of a—

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes, notifying before it gets to you.

Dr McIntyre : So it could be objected to.

Senator GALLAGHER: Presumably.

Dr McIntyre : Yes. My reaction to that is it sounds like a politicisation of that role, in terms of the selection process, potentially. The second one was?

Senator GALLAGHER: It was about extending the days the committee has available to prepare the proposed priority assessment list for the minister, from 40 business days to 60 business days.

Dr McIntyre : I don't think that would be a problem at all, given the total length of time it can take some of these things to get through. I don't think that's a problem.

Senator GALLAGHER: Has the committee had trouble meeting that time frame, the 40 days?

Dr McIntyre : It's more the department meeting that time frame that's the problem, so they would have to comment on that. And the final one was?

Senator GALLAGHER: Appointing a scientifically—

Dr McIntyre : Yes, a farmer.

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes, basically.

Dr McIntyre : I'm aware there have been people with farming backgrounds on that committee before—as long as they had sufficient technical understanding.

Senator GALLAGHER: So it is a technical process that's gone through on that committee?

Dr McIntyre : Yes. I mean, people are selected on the basis of their technical competence. It would have to be a very particular sort of farmer. But there are different roles for the committee, so there are some elements where an understanding of the farming systems would be useful and other areas where it's strictly about, 'What do you know about this organism and its biology and its distribution, and how do you understand how ecological communities work?' So there may or may not—the person I'm aware of who had a farming background on it was totally competent to be on it, but I could also see the potential for that stipulation as an attempt to maybe interfere with the functioning of the committee.

CHAIR: I want to follow up on that. Presumably, the committee can seek advice, so if it was a threatened species that had a particular interaction with farming systems the committee would seek advice.

Dr McIntyre : Of course, yes. For example, I have 40 years working in farming systems, not as a farmer or a production person, so I could bring a lot of that. It's about the skill base. The idea of a farmer does sound like it has a specific underlying objective there, an underlying motivation. But certainly the idea of having farming skills, within the context of what that committee's trying to do, I don't think would be an advantage.

Senator GALLAGHER: Just finally—because I am aware we are out of time, and you have been very generous with your time this morning—from your experience in sitting on that committee, in the advice provided, was there ever a refusal of that advice to government?

Dr McIntyre : From the minister?

Senator GALLAGHER: Yes.

Dr McIntyre : No, just stalling.

Senator GALLAGHER: So not a rejection of the advice, but the time it took to progress the advice you'd given—

Dr McIntyre : Yes, particularly anything involving farming.

Senator GALLAGHER: Did you say you sat on it from 2013 to 2016?

Dr McIntyre : Yes.

CHAIR: Can you expand on what you perceived as stalling with anything to do with farming?

Dr McIntyre : The grassy woodland ecosystems, whose main threats are farming, were always considered to be slightly awkward and tended to take a very long time to get through. I can't give you any specifics on that, but that's just my general impression.

Senator GALLAGHER: From the point where it left the committee for advice to the minister and it actually being stamped and listed?

Dr McIntyre : Perhaps you could ask the department on the more recent one, which is the poplar box woodland recommendation, I think, because that was being finalised when I left in the committee, and I believe it has only been approved in the last month or so.

Senator GALLAGHER: We will follow that up.

Dr McIntyre : So that would be how many years?

Senator GALLAGHER: Three. Thank you, Professor McIntyre.

CHAIR: Thanks, Professor McIntyre, and thanks to all of our panel for your time this morning. It's been really, really valuable. Thank you to those of you who made submissions as well. It has all been very important evidence to the committee.