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Conservation versus Agriculture: Searching for a solution to New Zealand’s land-use conundrum.

By David Munro

In New Zealand, conservation and agriculture are often considered two polar opposites in terms of land management. Conservation aims to restore native biodiversity, something commonly achieved by reverting land from farmland to native bush and encouraging the return of wildlife. Agriculture however, often works against this by actively removing native habitat to make room for pasture for the grazing of introduced livestock. New Zealand policy makers are stuck between a rock and a hard place,

Dairy cattle in Taranaki, New Zealand. Dairy is one of New Zealand’s largest primary industries. Credit: Dave Young.

as on one hand they actively encourage and practice conservation, but also need to support agriculture as it is the backbone of the New Zealand economy. In fact, over half of New Zealand’s total land area is used for the sheep, beef and dairy industries (Statistics NZ, 2012), and the revenue earned from these is the single largest contributor to the New Zealand economy (Walls, 2017). How, then, can agriculture and conservation work together to both achieve their goals if they are currently practiced in such directly opposing ways?


Globally, scientists are now calling for a union of agriculture and conservation. Conservationists are discovering that protecting reserves alone will be insufficient to preserve biodiversity (Garcia et al., 2005). Meanwhile. It has been widely suggested that a solution to the problem of competing land uses is to adopt low-intensity farming where agriculture and conservation are practiced on the same land (Bignal et al., 1996; Matson & Vitousek, 2006). Our frame of thought must shift from viewing agriculture and conservation as two opposing practices, but rather see them together as one integrated land-type which meets both food production and conservation goals.

The two most common features of low-intensity farming are riparian buffer zones and habitat islets. Riparian buffer zones are areas along the margins of waterways which are not used for grazing, and they can take many forms.In New Zealand, riparian buffers often involve having up to 10 metres of native bush planted along each flank of a waterway. This provides habitat for terrestrial species while also reducing soil erosion, preventing leaching of fertilizer into waterways, as well as shading the waterway, improving the water quality for aquatic species (Ryan et al., 2003; Matson et al., 1997; Joy & Death, 2013).

An example of riparian planting in New Zealand. Retrieved from DairyNZ

Habitat islets refer to patches (‘islets’) of native habitat in a sea of pasture. These islets provide habitat for native species, improve surrounding soil quality by depositing leaf litter, and provide shade and shelter for livestock (Beneyas et al., 2008; Erickson et al., 2002). These islets allow for regular agricultural practices to continue around them , while low-intensity farming offers a solution where agriculture can continue over large scales. Low-intensity farming provides benefits for both conservation efforts and agricultural practices, but is not without its downsides.

Small patches of habitat, such as those created by riparian buffer zones and habitat islets, have fundamental differences to large reserves. Some animal species, including many of New Zealand’s native birds, are described as timid to open habitats. This means that they will not inhabit small habitat fragments or dwell near the edge of a forest, and therefore require large forested habitats in which they can roam. Because of this, low-intensity farming may be unsuccessful at conserving a large number of our native species (Green et al., 2005), and may instead favour less timid exotic species. These patches of habitat often also harbour pest species such as rats and possums (Ryan et al., 2003; Beneyas et al., 2008; Matson et al., 1997). The former is of concern to conservation, as it is a predator species for many native birds and insects, while the latter is a carrier of bovine tuberculosis. If these habitat patches harbour possums, then they may be of concern to agricultural practices. The risk of a herd of cattle becoming infected with bovine tuberculosis has been found to be higher the closer the herd is to an area of bush (Porphyre et al., 2008). Areas of low-intensity farming also tend to be less productive than areas of intensive farming, typically due to a lower density of livestock (Green et al., 2005). Because of this, low-intensity farming requires more land to achieve the same levels of production as highly intensive farming. This in turn reduces the amount of land available for the large conservation reserves which are required for the conservation of timid species. It may therefore make sense to maximise the land for conservation by minimising the amount of agriculture area, which can only be achieved by further intensification of agriculture.

Having habitat islets within agriculture is one method of low-intensity agriculture. Retrieved from Bird Life International.

How then should New Zealand approach this land-use conundrum? Low-intensity agriculture not only provides benefits for conservation, but also provides a number of other environmental, economic and productive gains. Costs such as the initial establishment of and pest management within habitat patches and will be outweighed in the long run by the prevention of soil erosion, return of ecosystem services, and by aesthetic and moral value of assisting conservation efforts. Despite the large area of land necessary for low-intensity farming to match the production of high-intensity farming, the benefits outweigh the negatives. This leaves one final question, how can we successfully integrate conservation and agriculture?

Conservationists and farmers frequently butt heads over issues facing New Zealand, and achieving cooperation between these two parties can often be difficult. Harvey et al. (2008) suggests a framework for encouraging farmers to adopt low-intensity practices and to avoid this conflict. The suggestions include:

  1. Using economic tools as incentive for participation, such as subsidising establishment costs,
  2. Improve environmental laws and their enforcement to ensure a baseline level of cooperation,
  3. Strengthen ties between farmers, conservationists and other groups, aligning their goals and encouraging collaboration,
  4. Provide and encourage participation in certification schemes, and
  5. Leverage political support at multiple levels, including local and district council’s as well as centralised government.

While these suggestions provide a good theoretical framework, other studies have suggested that the most important motivating factors for a farmer to partake in conservation practices on their land are to do with the value they place on their land (Ryan et al., 2003; Erickson et al., 2002). This includes wanting to preserve the land and/or nature for future generations, and appearing to be good stewards of the land. Possessing these values made it more likely for farmers to practice conservation than external factors such as economic gain (Ryan et al., 2003). Instilling pride in New Zealand’s natural heritage may become the most useful tool for encouraging the adoption of low-intensity farming in New Zealand’s rural communities.

Low-intensity farming is one of many possible solutions to New Zealand’s competing land-use dilemma. By integrating conservation and agricultural practices on the same land, the benefits of each can still be achieved, albeit in a less comprehensive manner than when the two operate separately. Low-intensity farming may not provide all of the solutions to land-use related problems, but fostering cooperation between conservationists and farmers will go a long way toward reaching a more sustainable future for this country.


Works Cited

Benayas, J. M. R., Bullock, J. M., & Newton, A. C. (2008). Creating woodland islets to reconcile ecological restoration, conservation, and agricultural land use. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6(6), 329-336.

Bignal, E. M., & McCracken, D. I. (1996). Low-intensity farming systems in the conservation of the countryside. Journal of Applied Ecology, 413-424.

Bird Life International. (2003). Less Favoured Areas and High Nature Value farmland. Retrieved from: http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/less-favoured-areas-and-high-nature-value-farmland

DairyNZ. Retrieved from: https://www.dairynz.co.nz/environment/waterways/

Erickson, D. L., Ryan, R. L., & De Young, R. (2002). Woodlots in the rural landscape: landowner motivations and management attitudes in a Michigan (USA) case study. Landscape and Urban Planning, 58(2), 101-112.

Foley, J. A., DeFries, R., Asner, G. P., Barford, C., Bonan, G., Carpenter, S. R., … & Helkowski, J. H. (2005). Global consequences of land use. Science, 309(5734), 570-574.

Garcia, C. A., Bhagwat, S. A., Ghazoul, J., Nath, C. D., Nanaya, K. M., Kushalappa & Vaast, P. (2010). Biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes: challenges and opportunities of coffee agroforests in the Western Ghats, India. Conservation Biology, 24(2), 479-488.

Green, R. E., Cornell, S. J., Scharlemann, J. P., & Balmford, A. (2005). Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science, 307(5709), 550-555.

Harvey, C. A., Komar, O., Chazdon, R., Ferguson, B. G., Finegan, B., Griffith & Van Breugel, M. (2008). Integrating agricultural landscapes with biodiversity conservation in the Mesoamerican hotspot. Conservation biology, 22(1), 8-15.

Joy, M. K., & Death, R. G. (2013). Freshwater biodiversity. Ecosystem Services In New Zealand. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand.

Matson, P. A., Parton, W. J., Power, A. G., & Swift, M. J. (1997). Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science, 277(5325), 504-509.

Matson, P. A., & Vitousek, P. M. (2006). Agricultural intensification: will land spared from farming be land spared for nature?. Conservation Biology, 20(3), 709-710.

Porphyre, T., Stevenson, M. A., & McKenzie, J. (2008). Risk factors for bovine tuberculosis in New Zealand cattle farms and their relationship with possum control strategies. Preventive veterinary medicine, 86(1), 93-106.

Ryan, R. L., Erickson, D. L., & De Young, R. (2003). Farmers’ motivations for adopting conservation practices along riparian zones in a mid-western agricultural watershed. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 46(1), 19-37.

Young, D. (2012). Cattle in New Zealand. Retrieved from: http://www.fauna-flora.org/new-zealands-changing-landscape/taranaki-dairy-farm/

Reconciling Biodiversity Conservation and Food Security: Scientific Challenges for the New Agriculture– Paper Synopsis by Julia Murphy