Bittern-friendly rice farming: integrated water management, from growers to consumers

The following abstract is part of the Bringing Back the Bunyip Bird Australasian Bittern Conservation Summit (Leeton, 1-4 Feb, 2022).

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Matt Herring Bittern summitMatt Herring, Murray Wildlife / Charles Darwin University,

Over the past ten years, ecological and conservation insights into the endangered Australasian Bittern have emerged from a surprising place. Surveys across randomly selected rice farms in the New South Wales Riverina have revealed the largest known breeding population. In most years, conservatively, these agricultural wetlands support 500-1000 bitterns, representing about 40% of the global total and around 60% of the national population.

Breeding usually commences in mid-late December and January, with the first egg laid about 77 days after sowing and flooding, when the rice is around 55 cm high, in water 20-30 cm deep. Driven by water-use efficiency, the ponding period is contracting, creating a sustainability trade-off. A breeding success model showed traditional ponding commencement by early November, for 149 days, can support successful breeding before harvest. Incentive programs are encouraging this, as well as adjacent habitat refuges, grassy banks, fox and cat control, and nesting patches, where taller, thicker rice is promoted to fast-track breeding.

A crowd-funded satellite tracking program showed that at harvest time bitterns disperse up to 600 kilometres to large, freshwater coastal wetlands in NSW, SA and VIC. However, more local wetlands are also used during the non-breeding season, ranging from restoration sites to storage dams and channels, emphasising the value in expanding wetland networks beyond the rice growing season.

A survey of 1478 Australian consumers indicated high levels of willingness-to-pay a premium for bittern-friendly rice products, suggesting commercial feasibility. Endorsement logos and pesticide reduction were also important. Bittern conservation on rice farms is challenged by prevailing water resource management in the Murray-Darling Basin that segregates the environment and agriculture, but most Australians support novel water policy development that depolarises water use. Australian rice growers have embraced bitterns as part of their social-ecological farming systems, and wildlife-friendly rice farming shows huge potential.

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