A new project in the Northern Territory aims to involve landholders
and managers in conservation management of the Barkly Tableland. By
The tiny long-tailed planigale is the most common mammal species on
the Mitchell grasslands of the Barkly
Photo: Alaric Fisher
While the recent Northern Territory Parks Masterplan focuses on the
formal National Park system, it also recognises the vital role of
off-reserve conservation and the importance of involving
landholders in maintaining an environmentally healthy landscape. It
notes that in some environments, arrangements with landowners that
ensure the conservation of wildlife could prove an alternative to
expanding the network of National Parks. The grasslands and swamps
of the Barkly Tableland are one outstanding example of the
potential for off-reserve conservation.
The Barkly Tableland is a major feature of semi-arid northern
Australia, extending from Elliott in the Northern Territory to the
south of Mount Isa in Queensland. The 'downs' country dominates the
landscape: flat or undulating treeless grasslands on dark, cracking
clay soils. The dominant vegetation of this area is Mitchell
grassland, named after the main perennial grasses (Astrebla spp).
This country is well suited to cattle grazing and it is
economically one of the most important areas for pastoral
production in the Northern Territory. There is little permanent
surface water on the Tableland, and one factor in the success of
pastoral use is the comprehensive network of bores throughout the
area that feed raised earth dams ('turkey-nests') for watering
cattle. The development of the industry in this region began a
century ago, so most areas have been grazed by stock for many
Largely because of the high pastoral productivity of this
environment, and also because in the past it was not perceived as
attractive to tourists, or even important for wildlife, the area of
National Parks within the Barkly Tableland is very small (c. 400
In fact this 'monotonous' grassland is made up of many plant
species, with up to 60 species occurring within a single hectare.
The cracking clay soils provide shelter for small mammals and
reptiles. This includes the tiny long-tailed planigale, which is
one of the world's smallest mammals but also a voracious carnivore,
and an alarming collection of poisonous snakes. The abundant seeds
from the grasses and herbs provide food to many bird species,
including the flock pigeon.
Singing bushlarks and button-quails shelter in the grass, while
flocks of aloof bustards are still common. A large variety of
raptors (eagles, falcons, etc.) hunt over the grasslands. The
Barkly Tableland is also an important habitat for waterbirds and
migrant shorebirds, with 75 species recorded. While there is no
evidence that pastoral land use has had a severe impact on the
wildlife in the Barkly Tableland, it is a different story in some
of Australia's other arid-zone rangelands. The spread of artificial
watering points means that most of inland Australia's landscape has
now been opened up to grazing by sheep or cattle.
A recent CSIRO study compared sites at different distances from
watering points, including 'reference' sites so distant from water
that they were inaccessible to stock. They found that a proportion
of native plants and animals (up to a third of all the species in
the region) were more abundant at sites further from water. Of
these, some species were found only in reference sites, suggesting
that some native species can no longer survive in much of the
Our studies show that this pattern is not as pronounced in the
Mitchell grasslands, although there are no true reference points.
Some bird species are very common close to water and have been
advantaged by pastoral development. However, some of the most
common species, including some of those unique to this region,
become more abundant further away from water and so seem in some
way to have been disadvantaged by pastoral use.
Our results suggest that the best way to protect all the native
species of this region is probably to maintain a network of areas
of different distances from water and different levels of grazing.
Keeping a reasonable area of land that is only lightly grazed may
be most important for ensuring disadvantaged species can survive
through dry years when impacts of grazing are most pronounced. Such
areas may also act as seed reserves and help to re-establish
desirable pasture species following drought.
Through the NTPWC's new project, "Biograze: Waterpoints and
Wildlife", we are looking at ways to promote sustainable rangeland
management while minimising impacts on economic returns. The
project is being carried out in partnership with CSIRO and the
South Australian Department of Environment and is funded by LWRRDC
(the Land and Water Resources Research and Development
Corporation). In the Barkly Tableland it has two main components:
- Determining exactly which native species have been advantaged and
disadvantaged by pastoral development, particularly the
establishment of artificial watering points;
- Developing example plans (such as keeping stocking rates low in
certain areas) that will ensure the continued conservation of the
disadvantaged species, and measuring what economic costs such plans
A key part of Biograze is to establish a dialogue with landowners
and managers (through workshops, field days, articles and personal
contact) in order to exchange information and discuss the issues
that concern them.
The ultimate goal of the project is to promote the idea that
conservation and pastoral production in the rangelands can be
successfully integrated. This type of conservation management
requires full collaboration of all interested groups, both on the
land and in government agencies. This will be addressed in the
Regional Parks Masterplan for the Barkly Region, which builds on
the vision in the Northern Territory Masterplan.
Alaric Fisher is a research scientist at the Parks & Wildlife
Commission of the NT.
This article is an edited version of an original article for Bush
and Ranger magazines.
Printed with permission of Environment Australia.