Beef 2024 Report

Beef 2024: Support for ag needed in long-term koala conservation

Eric Barker, 16/05/2024

Cattle Australia deputy chair Adam Coffey, University of Queensland scientist Bill Ellis and Jess Loughland from Greenham and the Australian Beef Sustainability Steering Group.

A WELL-KNOWN ecologist has called on Governments to focus their koala conversation efforts on managed grazing lands.

University of Queensland researcher Dr Bill Ellis has been working closely with producers and regional communities for most of his career studying the ecological dilemmas faced by koalas.

One of his main findings over the years is that some of Australia’s largest and most healthy koala populations are found in areas grazed by cattle. A finding that drew plenty of discussion in this Beef Central article last year.

Speaking at an AgForce forum at Beef 2024 in Rockhampton last week, Dr Ellis said he had been trying to find ways of communicating the need for Governments to work with landholders in koala conservation efforts.

“Basically, the Government at the moment is putting a lot of money into conservation efforts around south-east Queensland on relatively small blocks of land close to the urban centre,” he said.

“There is a good reason for doing that, it is popular and they are getting good outcomes from it. The other thing they are doing is buying and locking up parts of the national estate, with National Parks and managed land.

“But we are not working in the agricultural space in an effective way to make sure we have a long-term viable koala habitat there.”

Dr Ellis has done the vast majority of his studies on privately owned grazing properties. He said he is finding more evidence that grazed areas assist koala populations.

“What I have found in the surveys we have been doing in Qld looking at whether or not koala populations are thriving in State Forests, is that koala populations are especially apparent in state forests that are grazed,” he said.

“I think that is because there is not as much undergrowth, so the fire intensity that goes through is less. Getting hold of the management of pest weeds and animals is also important.”

Communicating co-grazing of cattle and koalas

In a bid to demonstrate the ability of koalas to live in grazing lands, Dr Ellis pitched the idea of “koala friendly beef” to the Qld Government, which would work in a similar way as the Heart Foundation tick. He said it had been a hard sell.

“The pushback I received was about it not creating any new koala habitat, because if you already have koala habitat and are co-grazing then you get rewarded,” he said.

“But from my perspective, it meant we are probably going to have koalas forever.”

Most of his recent efforts have been trying to communicate the ability of cattle and koalas to coexist and work out how much it costs to create new koala habitat.

Looking at factors like how much it costs to plant and grow a new tree and how many trees you need for koala habitat, Dr Ellis presented the costs on a per koala basis, which he said varied across the country.

“Koalas in Central Qld will roam over an area of up to 100ha and further, whereas southeast Queensland they might be in five or six hectares – then it depends what you are doing on a specific property,” he said.

Managing koalas through generations

With most of his work based on travelling to regional areas and surveying koala populations, Dr Ellis highlighted several examples of grazing families managing koala populations through generations.

“In September last year, I went back out to Clermont to survey some koalas on some properties I had working at in the late 1980s,” he said.

“They are doing the same things on those properties that they were doing in the ‘80s and they still have the koalas.”

Dr Ellis also spoke about work he was doing on a property near Oakey in Southern Qld, where surveys started in the 1970s.

“We still go there and do surveys every year and the grandchildren are now running the place,” he said.

“It is great to see people are interested in tracking koalas over that period of time.”

Addressing myths about koalas

With plenty of public discussions about the management of koalas, Dr Ellis and his team at UQ had been working to address some of the myths being spread about koalas.

He said one of his students has been trying to find out whether cattle were likely to be trampling koalas – a suggestion which had been made in recent media reports.

“One of the students had a small stuffed koala and put it on a remote-control vehicle to see if cattle would attack it and as you can imaging they ran away from it,” he said.

“There are cases where koalas are attacked by cattle and it is one of the most miniscule impacts on koala populations there are – and that is knowing how prevalent koalas are on cattle country.”

Dr Ellis was also keen to make the point that koalas are a really resilient animal.

“They live in degraded systems and have been able to co-graze with cattle for years,” he said.

“We see them in these creek systems that are right beside cultivation and the populations extend for miles.”

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