Only one third of Louise Freckelton and David Bray’s 330-hectare property can be farmed, with the rest tied up under a perpetual conservation covenant that protects one of Australia’s rarest habitats: box gum grassy woodland.
At Highfield Farm and Woodland near Mount Adrah, about halfway between Melbourne and Sydney, the couple run sheep, cattle and chickens across the remaining land, adopting regenerative grazing on the rolling pastures.
They also host visitors at their luxury off-grid eco-hut built on the ruin of a historic farm hut – and have picked up a swag of high-profile awards for both their ethical produce, sold locally, and for their sustainable tourism venture.
Freckelton says that the pair left their city lifestyles a decade ago to buy property in the area, their favourite hiking destination – and rather than being put off by it, the conservation listing on this land sealed the deal for them.
They bought Highfield from what is now the NSW government’s Biodiversity Conservation Trust, which manages private land conservation agreements with landholders, establishing and auditing biodiversity stewardship sites.
The government runs a rolling fund that buys suitable land, and before reselling, establishes and fences these conservation zones, protecting them with a perpetual covenant added to the land title.
“Our conservation covenant was created as an offset, to compensate for similar woodland destroyed by a road bypass around the nearby town of Tarcutta,” says Freckelton.
They have since done extensive restoration of native grasslands to improve the biodiversity of the farmland, she says – and have identified more than 140 different native bird species in their protected woodland.
NATIONAL RESERVE SYSTEM AND THE 2030 TARGET
Highfield is just one small part of Australia’s National Reserve System, a network of protected natural landscapes now covering more than 150 million hectares, or about 21 per cent of our landmass.
The National Reserve System was established in 1993 when Australia ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity, and includes reserves held across all levels of government, Indigenous Protected Areas, land owned and managed by non-profit conservation organisations, and legally-protected areas on private land, like Highfield.
Australia’s internationally-lauded National Reserve System Program provided $200 million to co-fund the purchase of about 10 million hectares to expand the National Reserve System, before it was axed in 2013.
The program established national targets to increase reservation levels for under-represented bioregions or ecosystems. This, or a similar scheme, is likely to be renewed with the Albanese government’s promise that Australia will join more than 90 countries in committing to the international High Ambition Coalition’s pledge to protect 30 per cent of land and seas by 2030.
PRIVATELY HELD LAND FOR CONSERVATION
There are about 6500 privately-held conservation covenants like Highfield, covering more than 6 million hectares, all registered with various state bodies such as Trust for Nature in Victoria, Queensland Trust for Nature and the Tasmanian Land Conservancy.
Thousands of landholders have also signed up with various Land for Wildlife schemes operating across Australia, which provide advice and support to people wanting to create or protect wildlife habitats on their land, without altering its legal status.
Buying land to protect it is well-established internationally, says Dr James Fitzsimons, director of conservation and science at The Nature Conservancy Australia.
The Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit US entity with a billion-dollar plus revenue and branches in more than 70 countries, and which has protected more than 51 million hectares of land globally – and in Australia, supports and scales up purchases by local land protection groups.
The two largest land protection groups are Bush Heritage (working across 11.3 million hectares) and Australian Wildlife Conservancy (which manages 12.9 million hectares). But it’s not a case of simply racing out with cash to snap up old cattle stations – the approach needs to be more like building up a Noah’s Ark of landscapes.
“There’s so many different ways we can conserve biodiversity,” Fitzsimons says, adding that Australia has more than 80 bioregions that need to be represented. He says that ideally, different groups who want to protect land for conservation will work within a coordinated national protected area system.
“This means they can prioritise the areas where expanding their land purchases will have the most impact, and we can have a better understanding of protected corridors and more coordinated management across the landscape,” he explains.
BUSH HERITAGE AND FARMING FOR THE FUTURE
Bush Heritage began, appropriately, with a bushwalk, when Bob Brown – doctor, politician and renowned environmentalist – spotted two bush blocks for sale while hiking in Tasmania in 1990.
Brown snapped up the land before logging companies could get hold of it, and roped in some clever friends to help establish what is now one of Australia’s largest not-for-profit landholders, owner of more than a million hectares spread across each state of Australia, and employing more than 100 staff.
Bush Heritage aims to create corridors for wildlife to migrate in harsher climate conditions, says CEO Heather Campbell.
“We’ve recently bought a small property in Tasmania to connect two of our existing reserves, and one in Victoria, which will play an important role in connecting up wildlife corridors,” Campbell says.
“Bush Heritage works across 90 priority landscapes around Australia to identify areas that are underrepresented in our national parks and reserve systems, and we add detailed climate overlays to determine those which will connect to existing reserves at critical points,” she says.
It’s all about matching detailed data about local conditions to the best available evidence about what these ecosystems might look like as the climate changes, and working out where land conservation can have the best impact, she says.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the despair about environmental crises, but there is a huge amount of hope in the important work we can do to conserve our ecosystems.”