Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What Next for the Stock Route Network?

By Pia Lentini

Eastern Australia could lose one of its greatest environmental and heritage assets, and many of us are not even aware of it.

Stock routes and reserves have been a feature of the Australian landscape since the mid-1800s, and are now most prominent throughout NSW and Queensland. They form a large-scale network of linear-connected roadside remnant vegetation.

Stock routes are often wider than your usual roadside reserve. They were established to provide corridors for livestock as they were walked “on the hoof” between properties – complete with watering points, forage, shade and shelter. As agriculture expanded, the vegetation within the stock routes was allowed to remain standing while vast tracts around were cleared.

Although the network is often referred to as “The Long Paddock”, there are important differences between them and the average paddock. Besides possessing a greater cover of native vegetation, stock routes have never been subjected to fertilisers and pesticides. These inputs negatively impact on native fauna and the regeneration of eucalypts.

The stock routes have also traditionally only been “crash-grazed” for short periods of time. This is a more conservation-sympathetic form of pasture management.

The emergent conservation, recreational and heritage values of the stock routes have, in some cases, superseded their pastoral role. And given that livestock are now usually transported in large trucks rather than on the hoof, authorities responsible for their management in NSW are no longer receiving adequate income from droving permits to cover the costs of managing this land.

Reviews of stock route management in 2008, for both NSW and Queensland, recommended major changes. In NSW, a hand-back of stock routes to the state Crown Lands Department was announced, and would see sections deemed to be of “lesser value” sold off to private landholders. In Queensland it was proposed that sections of stock routes that no longer supported high droving activity would be put under “annual grazing agreements”, negating all the value these remnants had accumulated from only being crash-grazed.

Following the first announcement that the stock routes might be lost from the public land system back in 2009, we commenced a project aimed at demonstrating their conservation values, with a focus on the network of stock routes in NSW. We collected all the information, data and literature we could find, and synthesised it to provide clear evidence of how stock routes benefit not only biodiversity conservation but rural communities and Australian society as a whole.

We were able to demonstrate that stock routes contain a high proportion of landscape features (e.g. valleys) and vegetation types that are currently severely underrepresented in the National Reserve System. The project also included a large field-based component in which we surveyed three fauna groups associated with the provision of ecosystem services: woodland birds (tourism), native bees (pollination) and microbats (pest control).

Not surprisingly, stock routes often supported more diverse or abundant communities of these groups than the surrounding landscape. However, they also had a positive influence on the native fauna in surrounding agricultural land – it appeared that the habitat resources that stock routes provide allowed for the persistence of these beneficial communities, which then spill over to adjacent paddocks.

During the course of the project, the political climate surrounding the stock routes changed. An outcry from both environmental and agricultural sectors temporarily spared the stock routes from the fate of “disposal”. Successful lobbying by the Stock Routes Coalition and other groups in Queensland led to the 2011 Stock Route Network Management Bill, which represents a compromise between those with production and conservation interests.

There has been less success in NSW. It would appear that the interim efforts to raise awareness, provide evidence and suggest alternative options have been in vain. The latest 2011 review of the NSW stock routes reached the same conclusion as 2008 – that the stock routes be handed back to Crown Lands. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance that sections of “lesser value” will be sold off.

Attempting to promote connectivity and healthy, functioning landscapes while simultaneously selling off sections of an irreplaceable corridor network in some of the most fragmented areas of the country makes no sense whatever. Surely this situation will be acknowledged and rectified – hopefully before it’s too late.

Pia Lentini is a PhD student working on the conservation value of travelling stock routes. She is based at the Australian National University and is part of the Environmental Decisions Group.