4613.0 - Australia's Environment: Issues and Trends, Jan 2010  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 28/01/2010   
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Contents >> Landscape >> Land

This document was added or updated on 05/02/2010.


LAND USE 2001-2002

Area (km2)
% of total

Conservation and natural environments
2 684 877
Production from relatively natural environments
Grazing natural vegetation
4 194 721
Production forestry
133 064
Production from dryland agriculture and plantations
Plantation forestry
16 879
Dryland agriculture and grazing
466 445
Production from irrigated agriculture
30 535
Intensive uses
15 984
1 366
134 869
No data
9 763
7 688 503

Source: Bureau of Rural Sciences, 2006, 2001-2002 Land Use Australia, Version 3.

Almost two-thirds of land in Australia has been modified for human uses, primarily grazing of natural vegetation. Clearing of native vegetation continues to occur for agriculture, plantation forestry, and urban development (Endnote 1).

The loss of native vegetation and habitat is a major threat to Australia’s environment.

Land uses vary in the degree of pressure they place on the environment. Generally environmental impacts increase as land use intensifies – from grazing natural vegetation to dryland agriculture and plantations and irrigated agriculture. Intensive uses such as mining and urban development involve the greatest level of modification and thus generally have the greatest environmental impact.

Intensive uses account for less than 1% of total land use. However, their impact is often highly concentrated. For example, the environmental impacts of urban development are a major concern in coastal areas near capital cities where growing populations are increasing demand for housing near the coast (Endnote 1).

Grazing accounts for just over half of all land use. Environmental issues associated with sheep and cattle grazing include habitat loss, surface soil loss, salinity, and soil and water quality issues. Drought condition in 2002–03 exacerbated soil loss, leading to the highest dust storm activity since the 1960s (Endnote 1).

Land classified as “conservation and natural environments” accounts for just over a third of Australia’s area. About 12% is formally protected in reserves or protected areas (Endnote 2).

Graph: Land clearing
Source: Department of Climate Change, 2009, National Inventory Report 2007 Volume 2.

Vast areas of native vegetation have been cleared since Europeans first settled in Australia in 1788.

Since 1990, although land clearing has continued, the rate of forest land conversion has decreased by more than one-third or 182.6 thousand hectares. The figures do not distinguish between the clearance of native or non-native vegetation.

The clearance of native vegetation is a significant threat to terrestrial biodiversity. Other threats to biodiversity include deterioration of soil and water quality, increased prevalence of dryland salinity, the spread of weeds and feral pests and climate change.

Australia's biodiversity is unique and globally significant, with Australia being home to many endemic plants and animals, that is, they are found nowhere else in the world. Australia is recognised as one of only 17 'mega-diverse' countries, with ecosystems of great biological significance. This group of mega-diverse countries covers less than 10% of the global surface, but supports more than 70% of the earth's biological diversity.

Land clearing also has implications for greenhouse gas emissions. Refer to pages on greenhouse gases in the Atmosphere section.


Agriculture is the most extensive form of land use in Australia. Livestock grazing accounts for the largest area of land use in agriculture. Grazing pressures can also result from feral and native animals such as goats, camels, rabbits and kangaroos.

At June 2008, sheep and lamb numbers were reported as 79.2 million, about 8% less than in the previous year. This is the lowest reported estimate since 1920.

Graph: Livestock grazing pressures, 2008
(a) Milk cattle and sheep and lamb data not available for NT; Milk cattle data not available for ACT.
Source: ABS, 2008, Principal Agricultural Commodities 2007–08 (cat. no. 7111.0).

In 2008, New South Wales had the highest number of sheep (26.8 million), followed by Western Australia (18.4 million) and Victoria (17.5 million). Queensland had the highest number of cattle (12.2 million), followed by New South Wales (including the Australian Capital Territory) (5.8 million), and Victoria (3.9 million).

Meat cattle were reported as 25.3 million in 2008, less than 1% fewer than for 2007. Milk cattle were reported as 2.5 million, a 10% decrease on 2007 numbers. Victoria continued to dominate the dairy industry with 62% of Australia's total dairy herd.

Although the numbers of cattle and sheep have not increased in recent times, they continue to place pressure on the land.

The impact of grazing varies in different parts of Australia. In the higher rainfall and irrigated areas, livestock grazing has led to the replacement of large areas of native vegetation with more productive introduced pastures and grasses. Grazing also modifies soil structure and leads to soil compaction.

In the arid and semi-arid areas of Australia, despite lower stock densities, the impact of grazing on biodiversity can be greater than in high rainfall zones. The low productivity of arid and semi-arid areas limit resources and stock compete with native animals for food and water. The provision of water through bore holes, earth tanks and dams has resulted in grazing occurring in areas previously unsuitable for livestock.

Graph: Farm expenditure on natural resource management, 2006-07
Source: ABS, 2008, Natural Resource Management on Australian Farms 2006–07 (cat. no. 4620.0).

Australian farmers reported spending almost $3 billion on Natural Resource Management (NRM) during the 2006–07 financial year. More than half ($1.57 billion) was spent on management of weed related issues. Animal and insect pest management was the next highest category of spending, followed by management of land and soil.

The primary weed-related problem reported by farmers in 2006–07 was decreased value of production. Decreased value of holding and increased fire risk were two other major weed-related concerns reported.

To prevent or manage weed issues, almost 89% of farmers undertook activities such as application of herbicides, pulling, manual removal or chipping, slashing, cutting or mowing, crop or grazing management, cultivation or burning.

Animal and insect pest management on farms accounted for a total of $768 million in 2006–07. Decreased crop production (including crop damage) and decreased livestock production were the two major pest-related problems reported by farmers.

More than 80% of farmers reported undertaking activities to prevent or manage pest-related issues. The most common management practices were use of pesticides or insecticides, shooting or trapping, baiting and crutching.

Graph: Farms reporting NRM activities, 2006-07
Source: ABS, 2008, Natural Resource Management on Australian Farms, 2006–07 (cat. no. 4620.0).

The major issues affecting the condition of soil and land on Australian farms in 2006–07 were erosion, soil compaction, soil acidity and surface waterlogging. In that year, farmers spent $649 million to prevent or manage such issues.


1. Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, 2006, Australia State of the Environment 2006.
2. See Biodiversity section.

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