4613.0 - Australia's Environment: Issues and Trends, 2007  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 11/01/2008   
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Land use

Almost two-thirds of land in Australia has been modified for human uses, primarily grazing of natural vegetation.

The loss of native vegetation and habitat is a major threat to Australia’s environment. Clearing of native vegetation continues to occur for agriculture, plantation forestry, and urban development (Endnote 1).

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 of natural vegetation 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. Only a small proportion of this area (7% in total) is formally protected in reserves or protected areas.

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, 2001-2002 Land Use of Australia, Version 3.

Livestock grazing pressures

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

At June 2006, sheep and lamb numbers were reported as 91.9 million, about 10% less than in 2005. This is the lowest reported estimate since 1925. Farmers reported significant destocking during the year. This is because the availability of feed for stock is reduced in times of drought, and buying in feed is expensive.

New South Wales had the highest number of sheep (31.4 million), followed by Western Australia (23 million) and Victoria (18.2 million). Queensland had the highest number of cattle (11.7 million), followed by New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (6.2 million), and Victoria (4.4 million).

Meat cattle were reported as 25.7 million - the largest reported estimate since 1978. Milk cattle were reported as 2.8 million, a 9% decrease on 2004-05 numbers. Victoria continued to dominate the dairy industry with 63% 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, many of which have now become naturalised. 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 forage and stock compete with native animals for limited resources. The provision of water through bore holes, earth tanks and dams has resulted in grazing occurring in areas previously unsuitable for livestock.

Livestock grazing pressures, 2005-06
Graph: Livestock grazing pressures, 2005–06
(a) Milk cattle data not available in NT.
Source: ABS, Principal Agriculture Commodities, 2005-06 (cat. no. 7111.0).

Natural Resource Management on Farms

Australian farmers reported spending more than $3.3 billion on Natural Resource Management (NRM) in 2004-05. A third of this was spent on management of weed related issues. Management of land and soil was the next highest category of spending, followed by pests.
Farm expenditure on Natural Resource Management, 2004-05
Graph: Farm expenditure on Natural Resource Management, 2004–05
Source: ABS, Natural Resource Management on Australian Farms, 2004-05 (cat. no. 4620.0).

To prevent or manage weed issues, eight out of ten farmers undertook activities such as application of herbicides, use of biological control agents, slashing, cutting or mowing, cultivation, pulling, manual removal or chipping and burning.

Issues impacting upon the condition of soil and land on Australian farms include soil acidity, salinity, soil compaction, surface waterlogging and erosion. In 2004-05, farmers spent $907 million to prevent or manage such issues.

Animal and insect pest management accounted for a total of $721 million in 2004-05. More than three-quarters of farmers reported activities to prevent or manage pest related issues such as damage to native vegetation, decreased crop production or damage, and killed or harmed livestock.

Farms reporting NRM activities, 2004-05
Graph: Farms reporting NRM activities, 2004–05
Source: ABS, Natural Resource Management on Australian Farms, 2004-05 (cat. no. 4620.0).

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of farmers have native vegetation on their land. Of these, nearly two-thirds (62%) managed their native vegetation through activities such as fencing off vegetation from stock, planting and/or seeding, clearing, thinning of re-growth, allowing regrowth, and fire management.

Farmers reported spending $314 million to manage and prevent issues related to water quality and availability.
  1. State of the Environment Committee, 2006, Australia State of the Environment 2006, Department of the Environment and Heritage, Canberra, pp.10, 69 - 74.

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