Regent Parrots and Almonds

The results of a major research project undertaken by a team of ILWS ecologists in co-operation with Select Harvests, Australia’s largest producer of almonds, and Government agencies in NSW and Victoria, have shown that almond plantations in north-west Victoria are helping to support threatened species such as the Regent Parrot. In return, native birds are also providing financial benefits to almond growers.

Regent parrot in almond orchard

Regent parrot in almond orchard

“Our research has shown that farming landscapes provide important habitat values for many species” says project leader Dr Peter Spooner. “In return, some native species provide important services to farmers, such as natural disease and pest control.”

Managing agricultural landscapes to maximise production and conservation outcomes: the case of the Regent Parrot, is a major research project (2008-13) funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), Select Harvests and the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries. CSU Researchers involved were Dr Peter Spooner, Prof Gary Luck and A/Prof David Watson, in conjunction with two PhD students, and researchers from partner industries.

A concurrent project, The ecology and conservation management of the endangered Regent Parrot along the Murray River in NSW, which focused specifically on the ecology of the Regent Parrot, ran from 2011-2012 and was funded by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. It involved ILWS post-doctoral fellow Dr Simon Watson and Dr Damon Oliver from NSW OEH.

“Our research showed that the benefits of bird interactions with crops, in some cases, outweighed the costs of crop damage,” says Dr Spooner. “In almond crops, birds such as Regent Parrots perform clean up services of what’s called “mummy nuts” – which are the nuts left on trees post harvest, that become a potential source of disease. By feeding on and removing these nuts, birds provide financial benefits to growers which can outweigh the costs associated with bird damage to crops.”

As well as documenting the benefits of birds to growers, this is one of the first studies in Australia which has explicitly examined the conservation values of treed crops for native species. “Our analyses showed that the presence of almond crops enhances existing native vegetation corridors, strengthening the habitat values of the broader landscape for many native species,” says Dr Spooner. “In the Mallee, most native vegetation on fertile soils has previously been cleared for cropping and grazing. By replacing these once open areas with almond trees, has provided important benefits for many species, such as shade, shelter and alternative food resources, particularly in times of drought”.

Recommendations

The researchers have made a number of recommendations based on their findings for the almond industry and conservation managers. These include the need for the almond industry to perform better cost-benefit analyses of bird management activities in almond crops.

“To date, almond growers have focused at the costs of bird interactions in crops,” says Dr Spooner. “This is understandable. A farmer sees the damage that birds do to their almond trees, which can be quite extensive in some locations, and therefore a threat to their livelihoods. However as our research has shown, the benefits of other bird interactions can offset these perceived losses, particularly at the landscape scale.”

To more effectively control bird damage in crops, a major recommendation of the project is that farmers provide alternative food sources or decoy crops to deter native birds. Currently the ILWS is in discussion with the Almond Board of Australia with regards to future research into this area. “What we are suggesting is to develop ways to live with nature, rather than trying to fight against it, to achieve win-win outcomes,” says Dr Spooner.

The researchers are also recommending a change in focus for conservation managers from the current emphasis on remnant native vegetation protection, to a broader landscape approach.

“Native vegetation protection, enhancement and restoration activities will always be the cornerstone of conservation management approaches” says Dr Spooner. “However farm crops such as almonds also provide important habitat values for many species. Therefore, conservation managers need to develop novel ways of working with farmers to protect threatened species. For example, rather than farming in an industrialised way, in strategic areas, incentives could be provided to farmers to manage almond crops in a more ‘traditional ’ sense i.e. where harvesting is done manually, and the ground is left ‘messy’, and covered with grasses and other plants. Such an environment would provide many advantages for native species, and still yield a crop.”

This story appears in the Connections newsletter February 2014.  Subscribe to the newsletter at http://www.csu.edu.au/research/ilws/news/connections/

 

About ilwscsu
The Institute for Land, Water and Society is one of four Centres of Research Excellence within Charles Sturt University, Australia. Its principal focus is on integrated research which contributes to improved social and environmental sustainability in rural and regional areas.

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