Contents SoE 2003
New South Wales State of the Environment
Toward Sustainability Human Settlement Atmosphere Land Water Biodiversity   See Backgrounder

SoE 2003 > Land > 4.1 Land-use changes

Chapter 4: Land

4.1 Land-use changes

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4.1 Land-use changes

Past agricultural land-use practices have contributed to widespread land degradation – innovation and increased effort is required at the local, catchment and broader levels

Most of the land degradation in NSW is a legacy of agricultural management practices over the past 150 years. Improved land management practices and greater investment in rehabilitation at the property, local, catchment and regional levels will be necessary to reverse degradation of natural resources.

Many landholders are making a concerted effort to improve their practices in response to land degradation problems. However, change is needed on a still wider front to achieve long-term sustainability. This will not be easy, as many landholders, although willing, do not have access to the necessary resources.

The NSW and Federal Governments are investing considerable resources to address regional priorities. Success is likely to depend on achieving consensus about the respective rights and obligations of individual landholders and the broader community, and development of mechanisms that provide for an equitable sharing of costs and benefits.

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NSW Indicator


Status of Indicator

4.1 Changes in agricultural land use

Limited data indicates significant changes in land use are continuing, including intensification of agricultural activities. The changes have both positive and negative environmental consequences.

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Importance of the issue

Much of the land degradation in NSW today is the result of changes to land cover and land use during the first 100–150 years of European settlement. Native woody vegetation once covered 65% of the State (Keith 2002). This was extensively cleared in eastern and central NSW, primarily for the establishment of crops and pastures, but also for the development of urban areas, plantation forests, mining areas, and communication and infrastructure corridors (EPA 2000a). These changes were often encouraged by government directives and incentives and have provided significant social and economic benefits. However, they also altered the physical, chemical, biotic and hydrologic balances in the landscape, accelerating the degradation of soils (see Land 4.2, Land 4.3, Land 4.4, Land 4.5 and Land 4.6), water (see Water 5.3) and vegetation (see Biodiversity 6.1 and Biodiversity 6.2).

The focus of this issue will be on those changes brought about by agricultural land-use systems. Other notable changes in land use, such as those related to urban activities, ecosystems and vegetation clearing are discussed elsewhere (see Human Settlement 2.1, Biodiversity 6.1 and Biodiversity 6.2, respectively).

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Changes in land use and its intensity

Changes in land use include the transfer from one type of land-use system to another or a change in the intensity of use. Higher intensity may be the result of greater use of fertilisers and pesticides, irrigation and mechanical cultivation, or more intense use of the resource base, such as land and water (BRS 2001).

Land-use changes continue throughout the State, though they are often difficult to quantify. One of the most significant has been the replacement of the State's natural vegetation with agricultural landscapes. Land clearing to allow permanent land-use change persists today: Native Vegetation Clearing Reports, prepared by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources, found that 75% (43,808 hectares) of the clearing approvals granted in 2002 were for permanent land-use change, especially cropping and grazing activities (also see Biodiversity 6.2).

Agriculture is the dominant land-use system in NSW, accounting for 76% of the State's total land area (ABS 2001). Historically, the nature and pattern of agricultural development in NSW has been influenced and constrained by such factors as rainfall, topography, soil quality and accessibility to markets. However the adoption of new crops and pasture varieties as well as new technologies and methods have provided opportunities to overcome these limiting external factors to some degree and to expand, intensify or convert land uses. The availability of water for irrigation through river regulation and the increased use of ground water have also provided new opportunities (see Water 5.2 and Water 5.4).

Agricultural land-use systems can be broadly categorised in order of increasing intensity as shown in Table 4.1. In general, the lowest intensity grazing uses are the most extensive.

Table 4.1: Major agricultural land uses in NSW

Land use

Major components

% of total agricultural land

Extensive livestock grazing

Native/naturalised pastures




Grazing sown/improved pastures

Introduced fertilised pastures


Broadacre cropping

Cereals, oilseeds, pulses


Semi-intensive cropping

Cotton, rice, potatoes, sugar



Fruit, vegetables, nuts


Source: Derived from ABS 2001

Note: (a) Total agricultural area less all nominated agricultural land-use areas. It comprises low productivity woodlands or tussock grasslands used for extensive grazing, and land lying idle or fallow.

Over the past 20 years a number of trends in agricultural land-use systems have become apparent at both a national and State level. A study by the Bureau of Rural Sciences (BRS 2001) for the National Land and Water Resources Audit points to the following trends in NSW:

  • a decline in the total area used for agriculture since 1960
  • an increase in the area of land irrigated, with the largest gains associated with semi-intensive crops, such as cotton, rice and horticulture
  • more intensive and diversified cropping rotations, accompanied by a range of new soil and crop husbandry practices
  • the greatest land-use changes often occurring near large populations or where irrigation is possible with the areas of least change in inland areas where rainfall and its reliability are lowest.

The decline in the area used for agriculture is likely to be a result of the cessation of activity because of poor returns and transfers to alternative land uses, such as urban development, national parks and reserves, and roads. Some may be due to environmental degradation, although there is little data on how much agricultural land is no longer productive for this reason (BRS 2001).

Decisions to change agricultural land uses are driven predominantly by expected market prices and profitability (BRS 2001). Once substantial investment is made in a land-use system, the need for a return can lock in pressures for ongoing intensification of agricultural activity. This is particularly so if earlier expectations of yield or return were overly optimistic. Some intensive farming activities impose a high demand on underlying natural resources, particularly soil. On the other hand, many extensive farming practices are less profitable, making it harder to use innovation and investment to reduce environmental impact or restore land.

Significant changes in agricultural land use have occurred on the eastern edges of the Western Division of NSW. Grazing of livestock on native and naturalised pastures continues to be the main land use, although cropping is expanding into marginal lands previously limited to grazing. There has been a general increase in the area cropped for dryland and irrigated agriculture since the mid-1980s, particularly along the rivers in the Division's north-east, and the eastern and southern margins (DLWC 2000b). Data collected by the Resource Assessment and Monitoring System Far West shows that there was a general increase in areas cropped between 1986 and 2001.

Increasing agricultural intensity is also evident in the Northern Tableland catchments of the Namoi, Gwydir and Border Rivers. A monitoring program using satellite imagery in these catchments between 1998 and 2003 has measured an increase in off-river farm water storages and an expansion of irrigated cropping into previously non-irrigated lands in floodplain areas. These findings appear to be consistent with the statewide trend which shows a 76% increase in total water use for irrigation between 1983–84 and 1996–97 (NLWRA 2001c).

While there may have been an overall intensification in cropping practices through, for example, development of irrigation infrastructure, the actual extent of cropping in any given year is complex, reflecting many factors, including climatic and economic conditions. The actual extent of summer cropping in the three catchments studied has been variable. Table 4.2 illustrates a general increase in total areas sown throughout most of the monitoring period, peaking in 2002. The sudden fall in acreages in 2003 reflects the recent drought that has extended across most of NSW.

Table 4.2: Annual summer cropping in the NSW Northern Tablelands catchments, 1998–2003

Year cropped

Area cropped (hectares)

Border Rivers catchment

Gwydir catchment

Namoi catchment

























Source: EPA data, as at 2003

Note: The data shows only the amount of land covered with summer crops and excludes cropping land that is fallow, used for winter crops, grazing, etc.

Map 4.1 provides an indication of cropping intensity over the monitoring period in the Northern Tablelands study. The proportion of summer cropping areas that supported cropping each year of the study during 1998–2003 was consistent between the catchments and comprised about 15% of the total area of summer cropping. GIS analysis of the data shows that the spatial distribution of these most intensively cropped fields is biased toward lands adjacent to major drainage lines and constructed water storages, reflecting the influence and use of irrigated cropping practices in the region.

Map 4.1: Intensity of summer cropping in the NSW Northern Tableland catchments, 1998–2003

Map 4.1

Source: EPA data, as at 2003

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Impacts of land-use change

Soils are a vital component of the State's natural resources and an essential base for the productive capacity of the land. Much of the soil in NSW is ancient, strongly weathered and relatively infertile. These natural limitations, together with the continent's highly variable climate, make many of the State's landscapes susceptible to soil degradation. While degradation can occur naturally, it has been accelerated by inappropriate land-use management practices.

Agricultural land-use systems and the methods of farming since European settlement have often been incompatible with the Australian climate and the long-term sustainability of the country's soils (see EPA 2000a for details). The area of land suitable for the production of a range of crops and livestock products is comparatively small (Grosskopf 2000). For example, rural land capability classes show only 29% of potential agricultural land in the Eastern and Central Divisions is suitable for cropping. About 5% of this land is considered high quality agricultural land capable of a wide variety of uses, including intensive and continuous cropping (DLWC 1989). The most intense land uses are often undertaken on these relatively small areas of highly fertile soils. These lands are also often in demand for alternative uses, such as hobby farms, rural-residential and urban development (see Human Settlement 2.1).

Inevitably, agricultural land uses and associated practices alter the characteristics of the landscape, with modifications generally having a higher impact where farming intensity or land disturbance is greater (NLWRA 2001a). Across NSW, the use of inappropriate agricultural land management practices has accelerated soil degradation and the deterioration of other natural resources, including vegetation cover and water. Often these various forms of land degradation occur together and predispose the land to still other forms of degradation. This combination of degrading influences has led to cumulative negative effects across large parts of the State.

Land degradation is widespread throughout NSW and takes many forms, as shown in Table 4.3.

Table 4.3: Major forms and causes of land degradation in NSW

Form of land degradation

Cause of land degradation

Soil erosion (see Land 4.2)

Clearing of erodible soils, loss of vegetation cover, overgrazing, cropping of marginal lands and over-cultivation of some crop lands. Weather patterns such as drought can exacerbate erosion problems.

Dryland salinity (see Land 4.3)

Rising watertables largely due to extensive clearance of deep-rooted, perennial native vegetation and replacement with shallow-rooted annual crops and pastures

Soil acidification (see Land 4.4)

Annual legume pasture development, over-use of ammonium fertilisers and removal of crop and livestock products

Acid sulfate soil (see Land 4.5)

Clearing and drainage activities from agriculture and urban development

Chemical alteration of soil and produce (see Land 4.6 and Land 4.7)

Inappropriate application of fertiliser, pesticides and herbicides used in all intensive agricultural land-use systems

Associated water quality problems (see Water 5.3)

Soil erosion, streambank erosion, overgrazing and runoff from agricultural lands and urban areas

Loss of flora and fauna (see Biodiversity 6.2 and Biodiversity 6.3)

Alteration of vegetation through extensive clearing and replacement with cropping and pastoral land uses, fire regime changes, overgrazing and urban development

Weed establishment (see Biodiversity 6.4)

All agricultural industries through trafficking by livestock and vehicles, tillage, overgrazing and import of crop and pasture seeds. Spread of urban garden species to surrounding lands.

Other soil-based forms of land degradation include soil structure decline, soil nutrient decline and loss of organic matter. These are not addressed in this report.

As well as affecting the environment, changes imposed by agriculture on soil and landscape processes are now beginning to have an impact on farm productivity and threaten the future viability of current agricultural landscapes. Some types of degradation have long-term or irreversible consequences, such as soil loss by accelerated erosion, dryland and irrigation salinity, and salinisation of ground and surface waters. Other forms of degradation can be remediated, such as nutrient decline and surface soil acidification (NLWRA 2001a).

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Response to the issue

The focus on land degradation at national, state and regional levels has been to take a coordinated approach involving long-term strategies and actions to reduce its adverse impacts and protect and restore agricultural landscapes in NSW. Over the past 10 years, the response to degradation has grown with funding and resources coming from all levels of government, landholders and community groups. The Commonwealth and State government policies and programs that have developed embody integrated catchment management principles and encourage sustainable land-use systems. Many landholders have begun to adopt and implement improved agricultural management practices that use resources more efficiently (NLWRA 2001a).

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Integrated natural resource management

Recent efforts by the NSW Government have focused on bringing more integration and efficiency to the strategic planning and management of natural resources. In late 2000, the Government established 18 Catchment Management Boards through amendment to the Catchment Management Act 1989. The boards have since developed 21 regional integrated catchment management plans or 'Catchment Blueprints'. These 10-year plans establish natural resource priorities for whole catchments. They are consistent with national and statewide policies and will integrate with other natural resource management plans, such as water and regional vegetation management plans.

The Catchment Blueprints have identified and prioritised the most important natural resource management issues for action and funding. These include adoption and implementation of improved management practices for grazing and cropping systems, such as the maintenance of ground cover and the use of desirable perennial pastures, based on rural land capability.

The Commonwealth and NSW Governments have also recognised the need to integrate their efforts and investment. They are using the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (see Land 4.3) to target regional priorities. The Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) is the primary funding mechanism for the Action Plan and regional investments are being directed at the priority issues identified in Catchment Blueprints. The Action Plan has been extended for a further five years to 2006–07 with $1 billion from the Commonwealth to be delivered at a national, regional and local level. To make it more effective, 23 NHT programs have been consolidated into four more comprehensive programs: Landcare, Bushcare, Rivercare and Coastcare.

For the past decade, Landcare has been the major form of voluntary organised natural resource management in NSW. Local landholders and the wider community work together with a range of other sectors, including the Commonwealth, State and local governments, community organisations, universities and businesses, to prevent and reverse land degradation and encourage the introduction of more sustainable land management practices.

At December 2002, there were 1669 Landcare groups in NSW with over 34,000 members. This is a 13% increase in the number of groups since 2000 and a 22% increase in total membership (EPA 2000b). Landcare is now recognised as an integral part of mainstream agriculture with over 1000 groups in the State's rural areas. These groups continue to address a wide range of natural resource management issues throughout NSW, including weed control, revegetation, soil erosion by water, streambank erosion, and river and estuarine corridor degradation.

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Sustainable agriculture

The NSW Government is reviewing its 1998 Policy for Sustainable Agriculture in New South Wales. The policy sets a framework to guide a wide range of stakeholders toward sustainable agriculture using a set of common objectives and strategies (NSW Government 1998).

Changed land management practices and greater investment in rehabilitation at the property, local, catchment and regional levels will be necessary to reduce the rate or extent of natural resource decline and sustain an area's production capacity over the long term. Examples of the changes needed include:

  • retention of vegetation, maintenance of ground cover and revegetation
  • the adoption of different farming practices, such as minimum tillage, stubble retention and integrated pest management
  • revised production mixes, such as alternating between annual cropping and grazing perennial pastures
  • adoption of conservation-based grazing practices
  • more efficient use of water for irrigation and stock purposes.

Most landholders recognise major land degradation as a problem and generally agree that current land management is not improving the situation (Lines-Kelly 2002). As a result, improved management practices have been adopted by an increasing number of landholders and agricultural industries. For example, in recent years there has been a substantial increase in the planting of tree and shrub seedlings on farms for nature conservation and to protect land and water (see Biodiversity 6.2). Fencing has been constructed on many properties to protect areas from grazing. In 2000–01, the total length of new fencing erected in NSW for this purpose was 14,012 kilometres, up 17% on the previous year. The main reason for building fences was to protect planted trees and shrubs, followed by protection of creeks and rivers, remnant native vegetation, saline areas and other degraded areas (ABS 2001).

Landholders' capacity and desire to change to sustainable natural resource management practices varies enormously from region to region and according to socioeconomic and local conditions. A number of constraints discourage individual landholders from adopting improved practices, including the relative financial benefit or cost of the practice, the financial capacity of the farm, and the skills and motivation of the farmer (Cary et al. 2002). It has been shown that improved practices are likely to be adopted more readily if they provide a positive financial return, are easy to implement and are not time-consuming or costly.

There is growing interest among landholders and industries about establishing Environmental Management Systems (EMSs). These provide businesses with a systematic approach to improve their environmental performance while increasing profitability and productivity. A working group of Federal and State ministers for agriculture and natural resources is developing a framework for EMSs in agriculture. A pilot program is also under way, with technical assistance available to landholders for the development and implementation of EMSs for farm properties.

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Environmental Services Scheme

Agricultural land has traditionally been viewed in terms of the commodities it produces, such as meat, vegetables, fruit and grains. However, there are other less traditional services that natural systems on agricultural lands can provide. These 'environmental services' include reducing the movement of salt from landscapes and the export of toxic products from acid sulfate soils; minimising soil loss; improving water quality; reducing greenhouse gases; and enhancing biodiversity. At present most environmental services go unrecognised.

In June 2002, the NSW Government announced a pilot Environmental Services Scheme. The pilot is exploring how to develop a market for environmental services which will provide better incentives for changes in land-use practices. Under the scheme, participating landholders will choose from a range of land-use changes similar to those recommended in Catchment Blueprints to address salinity or coastal acid sulfate soil problems. Landholders will bid for financial support to implement the changes in competition with other landholders.

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Effectiveness of responses

There has been a strong commitment by the Commonwealth and State Governments to address land degradation through such programs as the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and the Natural Heritage Trust. However, an independent working group of the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council acknowledged that, while governments have reacted responsibly to signs of decline in Australia's natural systems, the focus has been on repair rather than the underlying causes of degradation or the maintenance of natural assets (PMSEIC 2002).

Concerted efforts are being made by agricultural industries and many landholders to adopt improved land management practices in response to land degradation. The positive outcomes of the National Landcare Program include raising awareness of land degradation issues and changing attitudes to sustainable agricultural production (Dames and Moore & NRM 1999). However, it is not clear that this is translating into the necessary adoption of improved farming practices or on-the-ground changes. Studies by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics suggest that Landcare membership is strongly related to the adoption of practices that are inexpensive and require less specialist skills, such as tree planting. Financial constraints were identified as the major factor preventing landholders changing from potentially damaging practices to those considered more sustainable (NLWRA 2002). The changes being made are in the right direction, but do not appear to be happening quickly enough to achieve long-term sustainability (Lines-Kelly 2002).

The reforms to the management of natural resources at a regional scale in NSW are at an early stage. The verdict on the effectiveness of Catchment Blueprints is not yet clear although the identified priority issues will need to receive sufficient resources to ensure social, environmental and economic improvements.

The Policy for Sustainable Agriculture in NSW recognises both the value of agriculture and its potential to affect the environment and has identified a wide range of actions to achieve sustainable agriculture. While the policy has helped in the development of natural resource plans and strategies, it needs to become more focused on key areas if it is to address the underlying causes of land degradation.

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Future directions

At a fundamental level, much ongoing land degradation arises from the failure of markets to reflect the value of avoided degradation in agricultural commodity prices. This creates an economic incentive for landholders to overwork land for short-term benefit and makes sustainability unaffordable for the many landholders who wish to pursue it. Correcting these market failures would be a sound basis for establishing long-term sustainability and provide a mechanism for consumers of produce to equitably contribute to sustainable farming systems.

In tangible terms, changed land management practices and greater investment in rehabilitation at the property, local, catchment and regional levels are necessary to address degradation of the State's natural resources.

For landholders, there are a range of measures that could be adopted. Examples include different farming systems, changes in production mixes and retention of vegetation or revegetation. In some cases, financial incentives are available. More information on sustainable land management practices and programs to support these activities is available from the Department of Infrastructure, Planning and Natural Resources.

Continued investment by governments in priority areas will be important. There is scope for improved management and protection of prime agricultural land through both local and State government land-use planning processes. This would form part of the increased effort required to develop sustainable land-use practices and systems that demonstrate the benefits of change. Government can also continue to develop schemes that provide economic incentives for the provision of environmental services by landholders. These have the potential to achieve long-term land management changes in a cost-effective way.

Progress in achieving the targets in Catchment Blueprints needs to be reported on a regular basis in order to determine their effectiveness and allow them to evolve.

The achievements of Landcare groups and related networks will be increased if they can be more closely integrated with catchment and State planning processes.

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Linked issues

2.1 Population and settlement patterns

4.2 Soil erosion

4.3 Induced soil salinity

4.4 Induced soil acidity

4.5 Acid sulfate soils

5.1 Freshwater riverine ecosystem health

5.2 Surface water extraction

5.3 Surface water quality

5.4 Groundwater extraction

5.5 Groundwater quality

5.6 Marine and estuarine water quality

6.1 Terrestrial ecosystems

6.2 Native vegetation clearing

6.3 Terrestrial species diversity

6.6 Aquatic ecosystems

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