The development of land for cities and farming has led to a decline in land health in Victoria. Many of the environmental challenges facing our state are the result of past decisions about land use and land management. A key challenge around land use is making sure farms can keep operating while protecting and enhancing biodiversity and land health.

What the indicators tell us

13 indicators tell us about Victoria’s land health, but there is only comprehensive statewide data for about half of these. For those, 6 indicators are fair and 1 (participation in natural resource management activities) is good. Only 1 indicator shows deterioration, while 3 are stable and 3 improving.

Themes and indicators: How does Victoria measure up?

Land use

Soil health

Contaminated sites

Land management

More detail

Background

Victoria’s land is used for a variety of purposes, including residential and business use, agricultural lands for production of food and fibre, and conservation areas to protect biodiversity. Maintaining the viability of the agricultural sector while also protecting and enhancing biodiversity is a key challenge for land managers.

The SoE 2013 reported that land development for urban and agricultural uses has resulted in declines in the condition of land, water and biodiversity. Many of the environmental challenges facing Victoria are the result of past decisions about land use and land management. Land-use change is driven by a range of social, economic and environmental pressures. Preference for living in coastal or rural areas close to Melbourne has an impact on natural ecosystems and agricultural land, and it is a threat to biodiversity. However, the main drivers of agricultural land-use change are climate (for example, water availability), commodity prices, supporting infrastructure and land capability (for example, soil type, terrain, susceptibility to flooding and inundation). These factors determine the type of farming that can be carried out as well as those types that will maximise returns.

Few long-term datasets exist to inform our knowledge of Victoria’s statewide land health and those datasets that do exist are often limited in extent, impairing our ability to comprehensively understand environmental condition. This lack of land-health data was a key observation of the Victorian Catchment Management Council’s (VCMC) 2017 Catchment Condition and Management Report.

New and emerging technology is helping to improve the data capture and understanding of Victoria’s land health. Remote sensing is one such example, with satellite and aerial imagery capable of identifying areas subject to climate stress. However, remote sensing only has a limited ability to identify specific land-management types. Despite this limitation, remote sensing is rapidly improving with more investment in the sector (including Digital Earth Australia and the Australian National University).,

More frequent drought and fires will reduce vegetation cover and more severe storms and extreme rainfall events are also likely. These conditions will create great potential for severe erosion and reductions in soil nutrients and carbon.

The critical challenges facing Victoria’s land-health management now and into the future include:

  • ensuring on-ground monitoring is undertaken to understand changing land-management practices

  • enhancing the ability of technology such as remote sensing to identify land areas subject to climate stress

  • mitigating the effect of climate change on soil degradation

  • increasing, and then maintaining, soil carbon. Decomposing organic matter is the most useful soil carbon for farming and is very susceptible to deterioration during drought

  • proactively identifying and remediating legacy land contamination

  • ensuring that environmental implications are a primary consideration in land-use decision-making, including providing land users and managers with timely information on land condition.

Current Victorian Government Settings

In May 2016, a Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) completed its inquiry into Environment Protection Authority Victoria (EPA Victoria). One of the MAC’s recommendations was for Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) to ‘develop a comprehensive database of contaminated sites’. The Victorian Government supported this recommendation and asserted that ‘a public database providing consistent and easily accessible, statewide site history information will be developed to assist with the identification of potentially contaminated sites’. More on the progress of this database is provided in indicator L:09 (Contaminated sites).

A couple of relevant audits within the land-health sector have been completed during the past decade by the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office. The audit topics were Soil Health Management (October 2010) and Enhancing Food and Fibre Productivity (August 2016)., The 2010 audit recommended the development of agreed soil-health indicators and monitoring programs to assess soil-health status and trends over time. The Soil Health Strategy released by DELWP in July 2012 responded to the 2010 audit. This strategy included an action to identify key performance indicators that effectively and pragmatically measure the impact against departmental and regional priority environmental assets, using monitoring programs to collect the data required. The 2016 audit recommended that the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources (DEDJTR) develop or utilise external performance measures to provide assurance that changes in agricultural practices and productivity are not affecting the long-term sustainability of the natural resources base. In its response to the audit, DEDJTR agreed to seek to incorporate indicators of the long-term sustainability of the state’s natural resource base as part of the agriculture-industry component of the DEDJTR-wide Outcomes Framework.

To address the challenges associated with measuring statewide changes to soil health, Agriculture Victoria is working with the Cooperative Research Centre for High Performing Soils to ascertain key soil properties that could form the basis for soil performance indicators. To support this, Agriculture Victoria has recently completed work to update its data systems for improved data sharing and accessibility. Another project designed to improve access to both public and private data includes the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia (funded by the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network and the National Research Infrastructure for Australia).

The Australian Government has invested $1 billion in the National Landcare Program over four years from 2014–15 to 2017–18. The program is designed to address problems such as loss of vegetation, soil degradation, the introduction of pest weeds and animals, changes in water quality and flows, and changes in fire regimes. Over the coming five years, from 2018–19 to 2022–23, the Australian Government will invest more than $1 billion in a second phase of the National Landcare Program.

In 2017, Agriculture Victoria released the Agriculture Victoria Strategy. The strategy noted the agriculture sector was continuing to make a major contribution to Victoria’s economic and employment growth even though the nature of farming has changed dramatically in recent decades. This strategy is a reform framework, articulating Agriculture Victoria's priorities to enhance the global competitiveness, innovation and resilience of the state’s agriculture.

Parks Victoria works with Traditional Owners to manage parks and reserves. The Managing Country Together framework provides both practical and symbolic recognition of Traditional Owner rights, underpins enduring partnerships with Traditional Owners and strengthens sector capacity in joint protected area and cultural heritage management.

Future Focus

Improve understanding of soil and land condition and threats

To manage Victoria’s land health during a time of climate change, it is essential that a long-term plan is created for the collection, consolidation, reporting and assessment of land data across the state. It may be a decade before the benefits of this plan are realised, but it is critical that responsible agencies commence work now so that adequate assessments of land health can be used to drive statewide improvements in land-health condition across Victoria.

The main challenges to soil monitoring are the inherent high variability of soils (the changes are minor and occur over decades), and that measuring soil characteristics can be expensive. These are national issues. New collaboration and funding models linking public and private databases and federated data could provide greater opportunity for soil health monitoring in the future. Aligning these new models with the work undertaken by the Cooperative Research Centre for High Performing Soils to develop and measure soil health indicators for the future, could be used as the foundation for a state soil and land condition monitoring program.

Further analyses of the threats and impacts of land use and land-use change would also improve policy development and decision-making across a variety of sectors including agriculture, planning and water resources. An analysis of the tools that support ongoing land use assessments, including the Victorian Land Use Information System (VLUIS) and the optimum frequency for updating land use datasets and maps would be required.

Recommendation: That Agriculture Victoria lead the design and delivery of a state soil and land condition monitoring program, that includes analysis of the threats and impacts of land use and land-use change, to improve decision-making across a variety of sectors including agriculture, planning and water resources.

Readers’ note: this recommendation complements the recommendation Improve biodiversity outcomes on private land. The investigation of the threats and impacts of land use and land-use change would determine the impact of private land on Victoria’s ecosystems and inform actions to maintain and improve biodiversity on private land.

UN Environmental Economic Accounts

Land accounts are at the core of environmental–economic accounting. Land accounts can be used to assess changes in tenure, impacts of urbanisation, intensity of crop and animal production, deforestation and other direct and indirect uses. Land accounts are also very relevant to many levels of governance including local, regional, catchment and state. While broad assessment of the changing shares of different land use and land cover within the state may provide useful indicators of change, increasingly the power of the land accounts is reflected in the use of mapping technologies that can pinpoint areas of change.

Land is a unique environmental asset that delineates the space in which economic activities and environmental processes take place and within which environmental assets and economic assets are located.

The use of any given parcel of land determines the suite of ecosystem services it may provide. For instance, a native forest provides water purification, carbon sequestration and habitat services. Whereas land used for farming, say wheat production, is generally limited to providing provisioning services in the form of wheat for feed. There are many other instances where a unit of land can provide multiple ecosystem services and it is government policy and economic activity that determine land use and in turn the suite of ecosystem services.

A key feature of land accounts is the ability to disaggregate them for specific and targeted spatial analysis and decision-making. For instance, biodiversity-related services are highly dependent on specific types of land or ecosystem assets, including Ecological Vegetation Classes (EVCs), wetlands and rivers. Further, many species require specific types of ecosystem assets in a condition that allows for them to exist and breed.

Land accounts alone are not sufficient and there is generally a need to have them connected to accounts that can report on ecosystem services and benefits. The decision to use land should include an analysis of the potential changes in both services and benefits, noting that some benefits may not be monetary and so not all land-use decisions are driven or motivated by economic returns.

For example, forests are a type of land account. Forest asset accounts can be linked to the natural inputs and ecosystem services they produce which have benefits for the economy and society. (This is discussed further in the Forests chapter).

Land accounts are linked to soil resources. Soil is an important environmental asset that provides services and benefits, but it can be degraded. The services provided by soil are linked to land accounts, as the way land is used and managed impacts on the condition of soil, and the condition of soil affects land-use decisions. Soil assets can be managed to improve or maintain their condition. For example, soil acidification can be reversed with the application of lime, and soil erosion can be managed by maintaining ground cover that protects soil from wind and water erosion.

Land also has an important role to play in climate change. For instance, land may be inundated in coastal areas or contain ecosystem assets that will be impacted by changing climatic conditions. Changes are already being observed in the allocation of land to different agricultural enterprises in response to changes in climate and weather patterns. Land accounts could be used to forecast potential impacts on land and how that may impact on economic and social wellbeing for planning and government policies and programs.

Case studies

Community care through Landcare

Environmental care groups bring benefits to people as well as place.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/franceswhitfield/

Defining impact

Landcare is a community-based movement that began in Victoria in 1986, and now has thousands of Victorians working together to tackle environmental issues at a local level. As well as helping the natural environment, Landcare projects also bring a positive benefit to communities. This community benefit has been informally recognised for many years but in 2015, the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority (WGCMA) set out to measure it.

In partnership with social research company Think Impact, WGCMA investigated the Social Return on Investment (SROI) for funds it directed to the Merriman Creek Landcare Group. Its 2017 report showed that for every $1 spent on a Landcare project there is at least $3.41 return in social value.

An SROI framework is a way of identifying and accounting for social benefits experienced by key stakeholders by giving those benefits a value. Although the values are expressed in dollars, they do not equate to financial return.

An important project for an active group

In 2015, WGCMA received Victorian State Government funding as part of the Regional Riparian Action Plan to support community works along waterways. WGCMA directed $15,000 of this funding to the Merriman Creek Landcare Group in Gippsland to undertake works such as tree planting, fencing and weed control. The group managed all aspects of the project itself, including deciding where the money should be spent, and hiring contractors.

The group has been managing and delivering projects on public and private land for more than 30 years. These projects have helped improve the health of the Merriman Creek by increasing biodiversity, reducing sediment and nutrient run-off, and removing habitats that suit pests.

As part of the SROI evaluation of the Regional Riparian Action Plan funded-project, members of the group were interviewed and surveyed on how they felt being involved.

Multiple benefits

WGCMA found five main positive outcomes for people and the community involved in the Merriman Creek Landcare Group:

  • increased group purpose and dynamics

  • increased emotional wellbeing

  • improved connection within the local community

  • reduced labour and chemical costs

  • improved natural resource management skills and awareness.

The report gives us formal evidence that as well as helping the environment, Landcare projects also have a significant benefit to the local community by increasing skills, emotional health and social connection.

Riverside renewal

A dedicated team is working with nature to transform an unruly patch of land on the banks of the Yarra.

Battling the weeds

In 2010, while riding his bicycle along the Yarra River and coming to the Burke Road Bridge, university student Stanley Barker was struck by how abruptly the landscape shifted from well-mown lawn to thigh-high weeds.

It turned out that while the local council regularly maintained the land it owned, the land on the riverbank – which was Crown land (owned by the government) – received no attention at all. It was smothered in tradescantia, blackberries, African boxthorn, hawthorn, willow, moth vine, Chilean needle grass and more.

Stanley, who was studying an RMIT University conservation and land management course, saw the opportunity to put what he was learning into practice. He approached the then Department of Sustainability and Environment (now the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) about the possibility of rehabilitating the land.

A team effort

Since then Stanley, his teacher Helen Corney from the RMIT Centre for Urban Research, and a band of students and volunteers have turned 10 hectares of denuded urban land (it had been both a dairy farm and a tip) into a slice of natural-looking, remote-feeling bush.

Known as the Burke Road Billabong Committee of Management, the group has killed hectares of weed, planted thousands of indigenous seedlings and attracted growing numbers of native birds and other wildlife. Although the riverbanks are just metres from the Eastern Freeway, they contain picnic areas, woodland tracks and one of the Yarra’s few remaining natural billabongs.

A core group of around 12 volunteers works two days a month to maintain the riverbank and plant an average of 3000 plants each year. Periodically, they also host groups who help out, often during planting season.

The area includes a 1.5-hectare billabong which had been dry for years. In late 2010, rains helped regenerate the native bush. The billabong has been intermittently wet and dry ever since and like the rest of the land has been extensively weeded and planted by volunteers.

Despite drought and a lack of money, the group has restored the urban land in their environment to something close to what it might once have been.

Case study based on ‘Burke Road Billabong Reserve Urban Renewal’ by Megan Backhouse, The Age, 22 August 2014.

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Private land for public good

More than 4000 hectares of natural habitat is lost across Victoria every year. With almost two thirds of land in Victoria privately owned, conserving and protecting animals, plants and ecosystems on private land is critical to ensuring their ongoing survival.

Protecting nature

Victoria’s Trust for Nature is one of Australia’s oldest conservation organisations. It’s a private land conservation agency, with its work defined by legislation. It works with landowners to protect habitats, native plants and native animals on private land. Since it was established in 1972 it has permanently protected more than 90,000 hectares of native habitat.

Tenure_2018_20180718

When land is sold

One of the challenges Trust for Nature is looking at is how to protect biodiversity on private land when it’s sold to new owners. New owners can introduce different land management techniques or develop the land, which can lead to loss of habitat. One solution is to protect ecosystems on private land before the land is sold.

To work out the possible threats and opportunities, Trust for Nature surveyed 20 years’ worth of sales and purchases of conservation land. Conservation land is land that:

  • wasn’t protected by a permanent conservation agreement

  • was in an area identified as a priority for conservation

  • was larger than 20 hectares

  • had native vegetation cover of 70% or more.

The survey showed that an average of more than 200 properties of this sort had been sold every year.

Turning a threat into an opportunity

This information will be of particular use for the Trust’s Revolving Fund, which is dedicated to the purchase and protection of properties with priority ecological assets. Trust for Nature purchases this kind of land when it comes onto the market, then sells the property to an owner willing to protect these ecological assets with a permanent conservation covenant. Sale proceeds are returned to the Revolving Fund to purchase more land, creating a continuous conservation investment cycle.

The first of its kind in Australia, the Revolving Fund has already purchased and resold more than 57 properties, adding permanent protection to more than 6800 hectares of private land.

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Taking stock around Elster Creek

Elster Creek, located in the Melbourne suburb of Elwood and surrounds, has an unusual coupling of high-density human habitation and biological diversity. This makes it an especially interesting area in which to study urban ecology and nature conservation.

Surveying the creek

In 2012, the Port Phillip Eco Centre (a not-for-profit, community-managed, environment group) began research and conservation efforts at Elster Creek. Its aim was not just to help manage Elster Creek itself but also to increase biodiversity in other city environments. The Elster Creek Wildlife Inventory research has been supported by Youth Wildlife Ambassador Gio Fitzpatrick.

There are regular surveys of many different types of animals. For example, there’s a bird survey every month, which follows a set route covering the major habitat types within the study area. Other survey methods include light sheets (for nocturnal insects), baited cameras, nest box inspections, and identifying sounds, calls and behaviours.

New discoveries

This research, while still in its early stages, has already expanded current scientific knowledge of five animal species:

  • the genus of shore fly Paralimna

  • the comb-footed spider Ostearius melanopygius

  • the hoverfly Sphaerophoria macrogaster

  • the masked bee Hylaeus perrufus

  • the intertidal spider Desis kenyonae (which had not been seen since its initial discovery in 1902).

The project has also led to the discovery of an eastern fiddler ray by an underwater remote baited camera on 29 March 2014. This was the first record of this species anywhere west of Mallacoota.

More habitat for native animals

The impressive outcome of the research (improving scientists’ understanding of local wildlife and safeguarding against local extinctions) led to the local council approving a planting plan for more indigenous vegetation to boost habitat for the animals. About 1.5 hectares were planted along the Elwood Foreshore in 2013. This seemingly small gain in available habitat will have vast benefits for bird migration in the region, and for the other animals that already live in the area.

In March 2018, the Bayside City Council approved a new 20-hectare nature reserve to replace the Elsternwick Golf Course, partly because of the findings of the Elster Creek Wildlife Inventory research.

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