My postdoctoral work was part of a team-based, interdisciplinary investigation of the problem of isolated and scattered tree cover loss as a result of grazing pressure in the southeastern sheep-wheat belt of Australia. Isolated and scattered trees provide disproportionate value to the ecosystem services on which humans and animals depend, compared to the area of sacrifice required to foster them. Such cover dominates productive lowlands (Fischer at al. 2010), but is not regenerating. Conservation strategies instead focus on intact woodlands and stream edges, and planting strips along fencelines. Our work was funded during the 2007 call for Commonwealth Environmental Research Facilities, by the Australian Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (co-author).

I integrated spatial and social science expertise in my research on isolated and scattered tree decline, which sought to understand how farmers perceived their working landscapes, and how those perceptions drove their decision-making, especially in relation to tree recruitment. The primary method I used was photo-elicitation. As part of their stratification, Dr Fischer and his research assistant established 33 case study farms in the upper Lachlan River catchment, mapping them and establishing their grazing regimes. Twenty-five of the farmers of these properties captured photos of ‘significant’ features of their property. We used their photos as prompts in qualitative interviews, which revealed farmers’ fondness for trees, and scattered trees in particular (Sherren et al. 2010a). We also mapped the photos, and performed viewshed analysis (identifying the ‘footprint’ of each photo) to show that farmers captured disproportionately more scattered tree cover than denser arrangements (Sherren et al. 2011a). Farmer affection, appreciation and concern for scattered trees, along with their lack of understanding of how to reverse it, was confirmed via a larger-scale landholder survey (Schirmer et al. 2012). Another large-scale survey revealed distinct typologies of attitude in relation to tree cover: younger farmers had the most pro-heterogeneity attitudes but did the least conservation of scattered cover; older farmers were most ambivalent about trees but did the most conservation, suggesting that life stage was a strong predictor of ‘offset’ behaviour (Sherren et al. 2012b; also summarized in the Ecosystem Services blog).

We used some of the photos captured by farmers as the basis of landscape visualisations of tree cover under status quo conditions (tree decline) and a range of planting regimes (Sherren et al. 2011b). It became obvious that the drivers of decline needed to change, that we could not plant our way out of the problem. The photo method demonstrated drastically different world views espoused by farmers using two different practices – continuous stocking versus holistic management – as well as different outcomes during drought (Sherren et al. 2012a). Dr. Fischer also found that the latter treatment had better outcomes for tree recruitment (Fischer et al. 2009). These formed the basis of some policy engagement about holistic management, including invited talks to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forests Joint Biodiversity Conservation Branch, who proceeded to consider sparse vegetation in conservation schemes. We also offered a submission to the Australian House of Representatives Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Resources Inquiry into the role of government in assisting Australian farmers to adapt to the impacts of climate change (in front of which we were invited to formally appear to give evidence). Our advocacy was influential, as evidenced by direct references to holistic grazing management and perennial grazing, supported by our quotes, in the final report of the latter, Farming the Future (2012; see pages 22-23 and 34-36), and in the former. Our policy engagement on this practice has been controversial, and has fuelled new research activity, but seems eventually to have contributed to tax-breaks for conversion costs in Australia, effective July 2016. Then-Treasurer Joe Hockey included this endorsement of so-called cell grazing in his announcement in May 2015:

“… This initiative will help with cell farming, which is far more productive and is actually better for the environment … A lot of farmers don’t erect fences because it becomes expensive, but the more fencing we have, and the better utilisation of existing farmland through cell farming, you’re going to see a better outcome.”

We created a synthesis YouTube video, a series of five information sheets for farmers synthesizing our findings, now available in the local catchment authority, and collaborated in the design of three interdisciplinary curriculum modules (seven lessons each) for the New South Wales public school curriculum about the importance of scattered trees, for grades 1/2, 5/6 and 11, and saw the first one trialled in the region, including a field day for students to visit a farm to plant and protect scattered trees.

Our collaborative approach has also been published (Sherren et al. 2010b; Fischer et al. 2014), and used as a model of interdisciplinary integration, such as in Joern Fischer’s Sofia Kovalevskaya-funded project on sustainable agricultural transitions in Romania, post-EU.  The latter is summarized well in this blog posting and was named as one of the top 10 reads in ecosystem services and resilience in 2014, by CGIAR’s Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.

Works cited

Fischer, J., Stott, J., Zerger, A., Warren, G., Sherren, K., and Forrester, R. 2009. Reversing a tree regeneration crisis in an endangered ecoregion. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA. Vol. 106, No. 25, pp. 10386-91.

Fischer, J., Sherren, K., Stott, J., Zerger, A., Warren, G., and Stein, J. 2010. Towards landscape-wide conservation outcomes in Australia’s temperate grazing region. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 69-74.

Fischer, J., Sherren, K. and Hanspach, J. 2014. Place, case and process: applying ecology to sustainable development. Basic and Applied Ecology, Vol 15, No. 3, pp. 187-93.

Schirmer, J., Clayton, H., and Sherren, K. 2012. Reversing scattered tree decline on farms: implications of landholder perceptions and practice in the Lachlan Catchment, New South Wales. Australasian Journal of Environmental Management Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 91-107.

Sherren, K., Fischer, J., and Price, R. 2010a. Using photography to elicit grazier values and management practices relating to tree survival and recruitment. Land Use Policy, Vol. 27, No. 4, pp. 1056-67.

Sherren, K., Fischer, J., Clayton, H., Schirmer, J., and Dovers, S. 2010b. Integration by case, place and process: Transdisciplinary research for sustainable grazing in the Lachlan River catchment, New South Wales. Landscape Ecology, Vol. 25, No. 8, pp. 1219-30.

Sherren, K., Fischer, J., Pink, J., Stott, J. Stein, J., and Yoon, H-J. 2011a. Australian graziers value sparse trees in their paddocks: a viewshed analysis of photo-elicitation. Society and Natural Resources, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 412-22.

Sherren, K., Fischer, J., Clayton, H., Hauldren, A. and Dovers, S. 2011b. Lessons from visualising the landscape and habitat implications of tree decline – and its remediation through tree planting – in Australia’s grazing landscapes. Landscape and Urban Planning, Vol. 103, No. 2, pp. 248-58.

Sherren, K., J. Fischer, I. Fazey. 2012a. Managing the grazing landscape: Insights for agricultural adaptation from a mid-drought photo-elicitation study in the Australian sheep-wheat belt. Agricultural Systems Vol. 106, No. 1, pp. 72-83.

Sherren, K., Yoon, H-J., Clayton, H., and Schirmer, J. 2012b. Do Australian farmers have an offset mindset about their farm trees? Biodiversity and Conservation Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 363-83.

Research trainees

Jerome Pink, recent ANU School for Resources, Environment and Society (now Fenner School) Honours graduate, worked as a research assistant in 2008/2009, using  innovative ‘viewshed’ methods to spatially analyze the preferences farmers revealed through their choice of photos. His time with the team was cut short by a cancer diagnosis, which cut his time on earth cruelly short.