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The use of rice fields by the endangered Australian painted snipe (Rostratula australis): A rare opportunity to combine food production and conservation?


Abstract and Figures

We document widespread use of rice fields by the globally endangered Australian Painted Snipe (Rostratula australis), highlighting the potential for ‘wildlife-friendly’ food production in Australia. A total of 44 Australian Painted Snipe from five of 93 surveyed rice field study sites, and an additional 43 Australian Painted Snipe from three other rice fields, were recorded during the 2012-2013 rice-growing season in the Riverina region of New South Wales. The overall total of 87 birds at these eight widely distributed sites was likely to be indicative of at least several hundred Australian Painted Snipe using the 113 500 ha of rice fields during that period particularly given the limited survey effort. This is remarkable given the most recent estimate of total population size for the species ranges only from 1 000 to 2 500 birds. The birds were primarily recorded using the shallow edges of rice fields, along banks and channels. Future research should focus on (1) determining if significant numbers of Australian Painted Snipe use rice fields regularly, (2) whether or not rice fields provide suboptimal habitat, (3) the extent to which Australian Painted Snipe breed in these habitats, and (4) optimal rice-growing practices that benefit Australian Painted Snipe without hindering conservation management of the Endangered Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), which also occurs in these habitats. There are clear environmental costs of extracting water from rivers for irrigation and rice fields are no substitute for natural wetlands. However, given the recognised need for food production and the large area where rice is still grown, targeted management of rice fields to benefit Australian Painted Snipe and other species may be important in complementing traditional conservation measures like protected areas and ecological restoration.
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Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
1Murray Wildlife, PO Box 48 Katoomba 2780, Australia.
2Birdlife Australia, National Office, Suite 2-05, 60 Leicester Street Carlton VIC 3053, Australia.
We document widespread use of rice fields by the globally endangered Australian Painted Snipe
(Rostratula australis), highlighting the potential for ‘wildlife-friendly’ food production in
Australia. A total of 44 Australian Painted Snipe from five of 93 surveyed rice field study sites,
and an additional 43 Australian Painted Snipe from three other rice fields, were recorded during
the 2012-2013 rice-growing season in the Riverina region of New South Wales. The overall total
of 87 birds at these eight widely distributed sites was likely to be indicative of at least several
hundred Australian Painted Snipe using the 113 500 ha of rice fields during the period,
particularly given the limited survey effort. This is remarkable given the most recent estimate of
total population size for the species ranges only from 1 000 to 2 500 birds. The birds were
primarily recorded using the shallow edges of rice fields, along banks and channels. Future
research should focus on (1) determining if significant numbers of Australian Painted Snipe use
rice fields regularly, (2) whether or not rice fields provide suboptimal habitat, (3) the extent to
which Australian Painted Snipe breed in these habitats, and (4) optimal rice-growing practices
that benefit Australian Painted Snipe without hindering conservation management of the
Endangered Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), which also occurs in these habitats.
There are clear environmental costs of extracting water from rivers for irrigation and rice fields
are no substitute for natural wetlands. However, given the recognised need for food production
and the large area where rice is still grown, targeted management of rice fields to benefit
Australian Painted Snipe and other species may be important in complementing traditional
conservation measures like protected areas and ecological restoration.
The modification of natural ecosystems to develop
modern agriculture is recognised globally as a
major cause of biodiversity loss (Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment 2005). However, the
potential biodiversity conservation value of the
resulting novel, anthropogenic habitats and
landscapes is often overlooked. They may also
support populations of rare or threatened species,
thus providing opportunities for both viable
agricultural production and biodiversity
conservation (e.g. Longoni et al. 2011, Chester &
Robson 2013, Luck et al. 2013). Central to the
‘land-sparing’ and ‘land-sharing’ debates in
conservation science is the inevitable need for
increased agricultural production (Green et al.
2005, Fischer et al. 2008, Phalan et al. 2011). The
ensuing question is how effectively can the
expansion of ‘wildlife-friendly’ farming (‘land-
sharing’) conserve biodiversity compared to more
intensive farming with protected conservation areas
Globally, rice fields are well known for their
value as waterbird habitat, and although they are no
substitute for natural wetlands, their potential
contribution to conservation as agricultural
wetlands is well established in the literature (e.g.
Fasola & Ruiz 1996, Elphick 2000, Elphick et al.
2010, Tourenq et al. 2001, Czech & Parsons
2002). Despite this, little is known of the use of rice
fields by cryptic and threatened waterbird species
(Taylor & Schultz 2010).
The Australian Painted Snipe (Rostratula
australis), referred to hereafter as ‘APS’, is a poorly
known, cryptic shorebird, primarily an inhabitant of
shallow freshwater wetlands (Marchant & Higgins
1993, Department of the Environment 2013a). It
was only recently recognised as a full species,
distinct from its closest relative the Greater Painted
Snipe (Rostratula benghalensis) of Asia and Africa.
This distinction was made initially by
morphological differences and subsequently
confirmed by mitochondrial-DNA analysis (Lane &
Rogers 2000, Baker et al. 2007). It is endemic to
Australia and has been recorded using a wide range
of freshwater wetland habitats. However, its
breeding habitat requirements are more specific:
temporarily inundated wetlands, during the
transitional stage after flooding when drying out, at
which time they have a combination of shallow
receding water levels, open mudflats, patches of
dense low cover, complex shorelines and small
islands (Rogers et al. 2005).
APS is listed as Endangered by the International
Union for the Conservation of Nature because it has
a single, small population that has declined rapidly
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
(BirdLife International 2012). The decline of the
APS has been primarily attributed to the loss of
suitable wetland habitat through drainage and the
diversion of water for agriculture and other human
uses. In Australia, its conservation status was
upgraded from Vulnerable to Endangered under the
Environmental Protection and Biodiversity
Conservation Act 1999 in May 2013 following
continued evidence of significant decline
(Department of the Environment 2013a). There is
only one other Australian wetland bird species – the
Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) – that
is listed as Endangered at the global or national
level (Department of the Environment 2013b;
Birdlife International 2014).
The reporting rate of the APS has declined
steadily since the 1950s, with its apparent
stronghold – the Murray-Darling Basin – sustaining
the largest decline (Lane & Rogers 2000). In 2005,
it was suggested the total APS population could be
a tenth of what it was in the 1970s – a 90% decline
– but there were significant limitations in the
dataset used (Rogers et al. 2005). In 2010, the total
population was estimated to be 1250 mature
individuals (1000-1500, medium reliability), and
highly unlikely to exceed 2500 mature individuals
(Garnett et al. 2011).
Rice fields are known to be of importance to the
Greater Painted Snipe, which nest on embankments
in inundated rice fields (Ali 1968, Fujioka &
Yoshida 2001, Amano et al. 2010). APS have also
been recorded using rice fields (Marchant &
Higgins 1993) although their abundance in rice
fields and the relative importance of this habitat are
not known. The most recent major work on the
ecology and conservation of the species found no
evidence to suggest that rice fields were important
to the APS (Rogers et al. 2005).
In Australia, approximately 95% of rice is
produced in the Riverina region of southern New
South Wales, which is a region containing wetlands
known to support substantial numbers of waterbirds
(Kingsford et al. 2013). Rice is grown from
September to May in irrigated bays (Figure 1) with
water that has been stored in upstream reservoirs
(or diverted directly from rivers), then distributed
through networks of channels. Seed is usually sown
aerially into flooded bays (approximately 5 cm
deep). After about four weeks the water level is
increased. By around 12 weeks, water levels are
approximately 25-30 cm and are maintained at this
level until about March, when water levels
gradually recede in preparation for harvest, with
any excess water drained. The agronomic practice
of ‘lasering’ (the use of geographic information
systems with earth-moving machinery to implement
desired microtopography) results in relatively
uniform water levels in each rice bay except in toe
furrows, which are deeper (Figure 1). The total area
of rice crop varies greatly between years and
depends on the amount of water available for
irrigation, which is determined through regional
allocations that are strongly influenced by dam
levels as a result of floods and droughts. The rice
crop area ranged from approximately 180 000 ha in
2000-2001 (prior to the millennium drought and
environmental water recovery), to 2160 ha in 2007-
2008. The largest crop since 2001–2002 was 113
Figure 1. Schematic
diagram of a rice field,
typical of a single study
site, with seven rice
bays, each surrounded
by toe furrows (a thin
area surrounding the
bay, deeper than the
crop) and banks, and
with the supply and
channels. Surveys were
conducted by walking
and driving along
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
500 ha in 2012–2013 (RGA 2013, Sunrice 2013,
Sunrice unpubl. data).
The aim of this paper is to report unexpected
and widespread APS records made during waterbird
surveys in rice fields in the NSW Riverina during
the 2012-2013 season, along with additional
records. We describe methods that we applied and
the observations made, review the knowledge of
use of rice fields by APS prior to our study period,
and discuss the significance and implications of the
Study region
The Riverina region of southern New South Wales,
Australia, is recognised as one of Australia’s most
important agricultural regions and now contains
heavily modified landscapes, including vast
irrigation areas. The Riverina incorporates the
Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, once they have
flowed out of the Great Dividing Range in the east,
until their confluence in the west near Boundary
Bend in Victoria. Major regional centres of the
NSW Riverina include Griffith, Leeton and
Deniliquin, with Albury and Wagga Wagga on the
eastern edge of the region. As the Riverina is
characterised by broad floodplains with braided
channels, it contains numerous wetland systems. Its
flat plains support chenopod shrubland, grassland,
and woodlands of Boree (Acacia pendula), Grey
Box (Eucalyptus microcarpa), Black Box (E.
largiflorens) and River Red Gum (E.
camaldulensis) (Kent et al. 2002). It is classified as
a hot dry zone (with cooler winters), with mean
monthly rainfall similar throughout the year. The
mean daily maximum temperature for Deniliquin is
32.5°C in January and 14.4°C in July with 405 mm
rainfall, with similar ures for Griffith of 32.9°C,
14.5°C and 403 mm, respectively (BOM 2014a).
Study Design
During the 2012-2013 rice-growing season, 93
study sites were established in rice fields
throughout the Riverina as part of a study targeting
Australasian Bittern (Herring et al. 2014) (Figure
2). Community engagement activities in November
and December 2012 led to new records of bittern
sightings. Each of the 93 study sites was a discrete
rice field (encompassing multiple bays) situated
greater than 30 metres from an adjacent rice field
(Figure 1). Most sites were between 20 ha and 40
ha, typical of a rice field, but ranged in area from
7.3 to 93.5 ha. The precise area for some sites was
not determined but the area of the 93 sites
accounted for somewhere between 3 and 4 per cent
of the total 2012-2013 rice crop area of 113 500 ha.
There were four different site types, each
specifically related to the bittern study: (1) sites
based on reported bittern sightings with the aim of
verifying these records (n=28); (2) control sites
where no sightings had been made, located adjacent
Figure 2. Records of the Australian Painted Snipe (APS) associated with rice fields during the 2012-2013 rice-
growing season in the Riverina region of New South Wales, including the 93 study sites (grey crosses), five of which
produced APS (black dots), along with three additional APS sites (grey dots).
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
to the above verified sites (n=13); (3) targeted sites
where there were either previous confirmed bittern
reports or which were visited to ensure coverage of
the study area (n=22); and (4) sites from randomly
selected rice farms (n=30). The 30 randomly
selected rice farms were exclusively in the
Coleambally region because of the relatively high
densities of bitterns in that region. The remaining
63 sites included 34 in the Murrumbidgee
catchment and 29 in the Murray catchment. Of the
34 Murrumbidgee sites, 24 were verification sites
based on reported sightings, while the remaining
ten were control sites. Only four of the 29 Murray
sites were verification sites based on reported
sightings, with three control sites, and the
remaining 22 being targeted sites.
Waterbird surveys
All waterbirds were surveyed once at each of the 93
study sites between 11 December 2012 and 8
February 2013. This retrospectively formed the
basis for identifying sites where APS were present
for subsequent repeat surveying. Each survey
entailed one hour of scanning for birds from banks
adjacent to rice bays in a vehicle and on foot. The
only surveying that took place within the crop itself
was from these banks. All surveys were conducted
within three hours of first light in the morning or
three hours before sunset, with the exception of six
surveys that were conducted mid-afternoon.
Australian Painted Snipe sites
Once APS sites had been identified, the detection
method was noted and a second count was made to
determine the minimum number of individuals and,
where possible, the gender of each bird (this was
not possible for some sub-adult or poorly seen
individuals). Views were not sufficient to determine
if there were any juvenile birds present. In order to
obtain accurate minimum counts of the number of
individuals and determine sex ratio, the observer
flushed birds by walking along banks. The specific
microhabitat was recorded (e.g. toe furrow,
adjacent channel). Subsequent visits, where
possible, helped determine minimum length of stay
at each site. Further information on habitat use was
also recorded. These additional visits are detailed in
the results.
Review of the APS database
Birdlife Australia established the APS Project in
2001 and has been encouraging birdwatchers to
undertake targeted surveys for the species. It
maintains a database of all reported records of the
species and endeavours to include those not directly
contributed to Birdlife Australia. The database was
searched for APS records associated with rice
A total of 44 APS was recorded at five of the 93
study sites in 2012-2013. The APS database
revealed an additional 43 birds within this same
period at three different rice fields (‘Mayrung 1 &
2’ and ‘Finley’) located within the study area. Thus,
the overall total was 87 APS associated with rice
fields during the 2012-2013 rice-growing season.
The 87 birds comprised 19 females, 19 males and
49 individuals where sex could not be determined
or was not recorded (Table 1). APS observations at
the five sites where they were recorded during the
core study (93 sites) included two from morning
surveys and three from afternoon surveys. All eight
APS sites (our five plus the three in the APS
database) were distributed across the rice growing
regions of the Riverina in New South Wales, except
for the northern Murrumbidgee region around
Griffith (Figure 2). Three of the five APS sites
(from the 93 study sites) were from randomly
selected rice farms in Coleambally.
The initial detection was as a result of either
walking or driving around the edges of rice fields,
where APS were seen or, most often, flushed as a
result of that disturbance. The majority of
observations were of birds using the edges of bays
within rice fields (Figure 3), particularly the toe
furrows, which are the surrounding channels within
individual rice bays (Figure 1, Table 1). At four
sites, the drainage or supply channels were used,
while at two sites, areas where water had
overflowed or seeped from the rice field were used.
APS were recorded in the actual crop, rather than
the toe furrow, at only one site, where 12 birds were
flushed from the crop edge (Figure 4, Table 1). The
rice height at this site was considerably shorter than
at least four of the other seven APS sites
(‘Coleambally 2 & 3’, ‘Barham’ and ‘Swan Hill’),
which supported rice over 30 cm in height, with
water depths of 12-17 cm at the time APS were
The observations were made in a period ranging
from 1 to 102 days. This represents the best
estimate of minimum duration of APS occupancy in
rice fields as systematic monitoring of each site was
not possible, and it was unknown how long APS
were present before detection. A return visit to the
Coleambally 1 site (Figure 2, Figure 4) on 5
January 2013 failed to relocate any of the 12 birds
seen previously, while return visits were not
possible to the ‘Coleambally 3’ and ‘Swan Hill’
sites, meaning the observation period for all three
of these sites was only 1 day. At the ‘Coleambally
2’ site, only two birds were initially found, with a
return visit yielding four on the 14 January 2013,
but no birds on 13 March 2013. At all other sites,
the observation period has been deduced by the
observations made by other people.
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
Figure 3. An Australian
Painted Snipe foraging on
dusk, using the shallows on
the edge of a rice field
adjacent to the crop. Photo:
M. Herring.
Figure 4. One of 12
Australian Painted Snipe
recorded using this rice field
(in the shade, at the bottom,
centre of image), found
roosting within the crop
edge. Photo: M. Herring.
Figure 5. Australian
Painted Snipe nesting on
the bank of a rice field in
1974, including incubating
male, three eggs and
recently hatched chick
(Thomas 1975). This rice
farm produced seven of the
ten Riverina records
associated with rice, prior to
the 2012-2013 season and
spanning 39 years, on the
Birdlife Australia APS
database. The apparent
significance of this
particular rice farm is
probably best explained by
the family that owns it,
which includes several avid
birdwatchers who have
reported their sightings. It
was also one of the eight
2012-2013 APS sites.
Photos: E. Thomas.
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
Records prior to 2012-2013
Prior to the 2012-2013 season the Birdlife Australia
APS database held 13 records associated with rice
fields. Three of these records were from outside of
the Riverina region of New South Wales: one on the
Gwydir River floodplain in north-eastern New
South Wales, and two from Queensland. Seven of
the 10 historical Riverina records were from the
same farm near Barham where 25 APS were
recorded during the 2012-2013 season; they include
the only documented case of Australian Painted
Snipe nesting in rice fields (Thomas 1975, Figure
5). The 10 Riverina records span six different rice-
growing seasons: 1974-75, 1978-79, 1979-80,
1992-93, 2003-04 and 2004-05.
The large numbers and widespread distribution of
APS found during the 2012-2013 rice-growing
season suggest that rice fields are more important as
habitat for the species than previously recognised
(Marchant & Higgins 1993, Rogers et al. 2005,
Department of the Environment 2013a). The value
of rice fields as APS habitat appears to have been
overlooked because of a lack of broad scale surveys
by observers familiar with the species and its
conservation status.
The total of 87 APS recorded at eight widely
distributed rice paddocks during the 2012-2013
season was likely to be indicative of many more,
probably at least several hundred, using rice fields
during that period in the Riverina region of New
South Wales. We make this inference because of:
1. the limited primary survey effort of 93 1-
hour surveys (which yielded 44 birds).
2. the rice crop area of the 93 sites was less than 4
per cent of the total rice crop area of 113 500 ha.
3. the limited total rice field edge surveyed. A
coarse estimate of the entire length of edges for
a 42 ha (600 m x 700 m) rice field with seven
bays, is 6.2 km (not including both sides of bay
edges). So during the 2012-2013 season there
was approximately 16 755 km of rice field edge
across the 113 500 ha crop, not including the
edges of adjacent supply and drainage channels.
A maximum of approximately 2.5 km was
surveyed at each of the 93 sites, representing
1.4% (232.5 km of 16 755 km) of the estimated
total rice field edge in the Riverina.
4. the occurrence of APS at three of the 30
randomly selected rice farms in Coleambally.
5. the likelihood of double counting is considered
very low because many of the observation
periods occurred concurrently (Table 1),
including the two sites with the largest numbers
(‘Barham’ and ‘Mayrung 2’). Additionally,
there are large distances between the sites
(Figure 2), with substantial intervening areas of
potentially suitable habitat.
6. the APS is a cryptic species and often difficult
to detect, so some individuals were probably
7. the likelihood of rice farmers or other observers
at rice fields being aware of the species, its
significance and reporting sightings is
considered very low.
8. the relatively homogenous nature of rice field
habitat means that extrapolation of the results at
this scale is much more reasonable than with
other wetland types.
Table 1. Records of the Australian Painted Snipe associated with rice fields during the 2012-2013 rice-growing season,
showing the minimum number of birds, their habitat use and observation period. M=Male, F=Female & U=Unknown sex.
(Site Name) Minimum
number of
Habitat use How were
APS initially
Observation period
(first and last obs.)
Coleambally 1 12
(2F, 2M, 8U) Crop edge, edges of toe
furrows, along supply channel Walking 1 day
23 Dec. 2013
Coleambally 2 4
(1F, 3U) Along drainage channel and
edges of toe furrows Walking 24
22 Dec. 2012 -14 Jan. 2013
Coleambally 3 2
(1F, 1M) Edges of toe furrows Driving 1 day
22 Dec. 2012
Barham 25
(5F, 3M, 17U) Edges of toe furrows, as well
as seepage/ overflow and
adjacent grassland
Driving 46
19 Dec. 2012 - 23 Jan. 2013
Swan Hill 1
(1U) Edges of toe furrows and
adjacent overflow/seepage Driving 1 day
6 Jan. 2013
Mayrung 1 4
(1M, 3U) Edges of toe furrows Walking 102 days
15 Dec. 2012 - 27 March
Mayrung 2 34
(10F, 10M,
Along drainage channel,
edges of toe furrows Driving 14
30 Dec. 2012 - 13 Jan. 2013
Finley 5
(2M, 3U) Drainage channel, edges
of toe furrows Driving 14
15-29 Nov. 2012
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
The likelihood of rice fields supporting
hundreds of APS is highly significant for a globally
endangered species with a very small estimated
population size (1250 mature individuals; Garnett et
al. 2011). Indeed, the apparent adaptability of APS
to novel, anthropogenic habitat is encouraging and
this provides numerous opportunities for targeted
conservation management on rice farms. However,
there are important questions that need to be
How regularly do APS use rice fields?
It is unclear how regularly APS use rice fields,
especially in significant numbers. Prior to the 2012-
2013 rice-growing season, the Birdlife Australia
APS database held only ten Riverina records
(spanning six seasons over 39 years) where birds
were associated with rice fields, seven of which
came from a single rice farm that is owned by a
family that includes several avid birdwatchers. It
would appear that the 2012-2013 season was an
exceptional year but the increased survey effort as a
result of the ‘Bitterns in Rice Project’ (Herring et
al. 2014) at least partly explains this. APS may use
rice fields in most or all seasons, sometimes in
significant numbers, but until now this has gone
undetected. On 29 December 2013, four APS were
observed approximately three kilometres from the
‘Mayrung 2’ site (L. Moore, pers. comm.),
confirming the use of rice fields following the
season described in detail in this paper. In
November 2011, a group of at least 30 APS were
found using a rice field in the Jerilderie region, New
South Wales (P. Merritt, pers. comm. – note this
record was not contained in the APS database at the
time of searching). In sum, APS have been recorded
using rice fields in each of the last three rice-
growing seasons, with large numbers found in two
of them (30 and 87).
What roles do rainfall and natural wetland
availability play?
Overall abundance of APS is known to fluctuate
substantially between wet and dry periods in
Australia. The relatively large numbers recorded
using rice fields during the 2012-2013 season are
consistent with a documented recovery for the
species after two exceptionally wet years following
the millennium drought of 2001-2009 (Purnell et al.
2014). Toward the end of the drought, during the
2008-2009 survey period, only 11 APS were
reported nationally to BirdLife Australia, whereas
in the record two-year high rainfall period prior to
May 2012, there were over 400 individual APS
recorded (APS Database, Birdlife Australia; BOM
The use of rice fields by the APS might be
determined by the extent of suitable natural wetland
habitat during the rice-growing season in the
surrounding region. In the Riverina region of New
South Wales, almost all of the natural wetland areas
had dried out before the 2012-2013 season and had
no habitat suitable for the APS. The 100% water
allocations in the 2012-2013 rice-growing season
were largely as a result of water captured during the
floods of 2010-2012 (RGA 2013, Sunrice 2013).
During dry periods in the Riverina prior to rice-
growing, the APS may have simply moved
elsewhere in their large Australian range. Rice
fields may represent alternative, sub-optimal habitat
that only support APS in relatively large numbers
during dry periods (following a population boom)
when their preferred habitat is unavailable.
How do APS use rice field habitats?
Our results show that rice fields can provide
suitable temporary wetland habitat to support large
numbers of APS. The edges of rice fields appear to
be most important to the APS. The edges
surrounding individual bays and their toe furrows,
bank and channel edges, and areas where water
from overflow or seepage had pooled adjacent to
the rice field, all supported the APS. APS is known
to avoid habitats dominated by tall, dense wetland
vegetation and prefers substantial areas of patchy,
low vegetation in combination with exposed mud
and shallow water (Rogers et al. 2005). Any use of
the actual rice crop by the APS (e.g. Figure 4) is
therefore likely to occur only for a short period
some time after sowing when water depths remain
sufficiently low and before the crop has grown
prohibitively tall. Thus, APS may primarily be
associated with rice fields during the early and mid-
season periods.
How regularly do APS breed in rice fields?
Breeding habitat appears to be critical in limiting
the APS population and is probably the most
important conservation challenge for the species
(Rogers et al. 2005). There is one published record
of APS breeding in association with rice: on the
bank of a rice field near Barham during the early-
mid season (December) of 1974 (Thomas 1975;
Figure 5). It seems unlikely that this record is a
‘one-off’, with other breeding events having gone
undetected or unreported. The comparatively well-
studied congener of the APS, Greater Painted Snipe,
is known to nest on the banks of rice fields (Ali
1968). However, rice fields typically lack sustained
provision of some of the key breeding habitat
attributes for APS identified by Rogers et al.
(2005), notably the small islands, shallow water and
exposed mud that is associated with receding water
levels during a successional stage of temporarily
inundated wetlands. Nevertheless, the banks
between rice bays may provide a similar role to
islands, as they are almost entirely surrounded by
water, and the shallow water, exposed mud and
short, dense cover often found along the edges of
rice fields may be an adequate linear alternative to
that found in natural wetlands. If the single
published breeding record is indicative of a lack of
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
breeding, then there are numerous habitat
management opportunities to enhance the potential
for APS to breed in association with rice fields.
Could rice fields affect APS negatively?
The concept of ecological traps (Dwernych & Boag
1972, Donovan & Thompson 2001) may apply to
rice fields and the APS. For example, birds might
be lured away from better quality habitat in natural
wetlands where their chances of breeding
successfully are higher. Agronomic practices,
including the speed at which modern rice varieties
grow, could alter the required habitats before
successful breeding is completed. Similarly,
increased water levels after the APS have started
nesting in a rice field might result in chicks
hatching in a habitat where they cannot forage.
There is also a potential risk associated with the use
of pesticides in rice fields (Suhling et al. 2000,
Wilson et al. 2005), which may impact on APS,
either via their prey or through changes in water
quality. The risk of pesticide contamination or rice
fields acting as ecological traps should be a target
for further research as there are likely to be
numerous opportunities to ameliorate these risks
through careful management.
How can rice fields be managed to benefit APS?
Rice-growing methods and the configuration of rice
fields could be altered to benefit APS. Management
prescriptions with little or no impact on production
would likely result in the greatest uptake. Targeted
management of toe furrows, banks, channels and
overflows/seepage could increase the amount of
potential APS habitat in rice fields. For example,
rice farmers could be encouraged to have smaller
bays and wider, shallower toe furrows, which would
result in more edges and mudflats. Sheep grazing
could be used to keep vegetation at heights that are
not prohibitively tall for APS. In Japan, the Greater
Painted Snipe is closely associated with rice fields
and appears to have declined severely from changes
to rice field management (Fujioka & Yoshida 2001,
Amano et al. 2010). This highlights the need to
monitor agronomic developments in the Riverina
rice industry.
In developing APS-friendly rice-growing
guidelines, it will be important not to hinder
conservation efforts for the Australasian Bittern.
Taylor & Schultz (2010) highlight the importance
of the early stages of the rice-growing season for
shorebirds. At this time, the water depth and rice
height are both low. They advocate the
development of new varieties of rice that would
reduce the need for increasing water depths later in
the season. While these recommendations may
benefit the APS, they are likely to disadvantage the
Australasian Bittern. Similarly, toe furrows and
banks managed to benefit the Australasian Bittern
presently include the retention of Cumbungi (Typha
spp.) and the promotion of Barnyard Grass
(Echinochloa spp.) (Bitterns in Rice Project 2014a),
which would both likely render areas less suitable
or unsuitable for the APS. The potential habitat
management trade-offs for these key threatened
species now represent one of the primary challenges
for biodiversity conservation in Australian rice
The potential for ‘wildlife-friendly’ rice farming
Our findings highlight the potential for ‘land
sharing’ and ‘wildlife-friendly farming’ approaches
(Green et al. 2005, Fischer et al. 2008, Phalan et al.
2011) to conserve biodiversity using agricultural
wetlands in Australia. More specifically, the results
identify the potential role that rice farmers can play
in the conservation of Australia’s most threatened
shorebird. There are clear environmental costs of
extracting water from rivers for irrigation, and rice
fields are no substitute for natural wetlands.
However, given the recognised need for food
production and the large area where rice is still
grown, targeted management of rice fields to
benefit Australian Painted Snipe and other species
may be important in complementing traditional
conservation measures like protected areas and
ecological restoration.
Future research priorities
We recommend the following interrelated priorities
for future research of the use of rice fields by the
APS in the Riverina region of New South Wales:
1. To determine spatial and temporal variation in
abundance of the APS in rice fields throughout
and between rice-growing seasons through an
extensive long-term targeted monitoring
program. Ideally, sites could be surveyed
weekly or fortnightly and include all sites with
previous APS records. Potentially, this work
could be incorporated into the Bitterns in Rice
Project (Bitterns in Rice Project 2014b),
although the survey method for APS would need
to be different, incorporating the association of
APS with shallow edges. We recommend that a
standardised 1-hour APS survey in rice fields
consist of approximately 30 minutes of driving
along tracks adjacent to rice fields and
approximately 30 minutes of walking 1 km, both
in an attempt to flush birds. Surveys could begin
as early as one month after sowing, when some
cover would have emerged, and be conducted
throughout the day to maximise the number of
sites covered each day.
2.To explore the relationship between the APS,
rice fields and natural wetlands. This work could
test the sub-optimal habitat hypothesis and
investigate the potential association of
significant numbers in rice fields with
population booms following exceptionally wet
Stilt 66 (2014): 2029 Use of rice fields by Australian Painted Snipe
3.When APS are located in rice fields, intensive
systematic monitoring should aim to determine
the extent to which they breed therein and the
factors affecting breeding success.
4.To investigate which agronomic factors, such as
water management and pesticide application,
influence APS use of rice fields and any
potential impacts, with particular attention being
paid to prey availability and breeding. This
would inform the development of APS-friendly
rice-growing guidelines in conjunction with
guidelines for managing habitat for the
Australasian Bittern.
Raising awareness of the APS among rice farmers
and encouraging them to report sightings to Birdlife
Australia is a priority for education and advocacy.
We thank Neil Bull, Mark Robb and the entire
Bitterns in Rice Project committee for their crucial
role in what ultimately lead to this study. Neil Bull
also provided valuable input on the rice growing
sections. Thanks to John Hand, Peter Merritt, Les
Moore, Gerard O’Neill, Robert Ryan and Norm
Thomas for providing additional information on
their APS records, and to Keith Hutton, Phil Maher,
Chris Purnell and David Webb for important
discussions about the APS and its use of irrigation
areas. Thanks to Evan Thomas for permission to use
his photographs. Funding and support for the field
work was provided by the Rural Industries Research
and Development Corporation, the Murrumbidgee
and Murray Catchment Management Authorities,
the Rice Growers’ Association of Australia, Birdlife
Australia, Coleambally Irrigation, Murrumbidgee
Irrigation, Murrumbidgee Landcare, the
Murrumbidgee Field Naturalists Club and the New
South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service.
Special thanks to all of the rice farmers for access to
their properties and for their ongoing support of
waterbird research and conservation. And lastly,
many thanks to Danny Rogers and one anonymous
referee who all helped improve the manuscript.
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... Unlike other fields that dominate global agriculture, such as corn, wheat and soy, rice farming involves the creation of agricultural wetlands, and has traditionally supported substantial and important aquatic biodiversity (Czech and Parsons, 2002;Elphick et al., 2010;Hasegawa and Tabuchi, 1995;Herring and Silcocks, 2014;Kasahara et al., 2020;Katoh et al., 2009). Given that around 160 million hectares of rice are planted annually, and that rice is eaten by three billion people every day (FAO, 2020a), the contribution of rice wetlands is significant at a global scale. ...
Many species have adapted successfully to traditionally cultivated agricultural environments but, as production systems are intensified, this adaptation is reaching its limits. Conflicting facets of sustainability compound the problem. Here we describe how reductions in the use of water in rice fields is compromising the persistence of the largest known breeding population of the Australasian Bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), a globally endangered waterbird. In fields with traditional, early permanent water, bitterns began nesting around 77 days after inundation, with 65% of nests having sufficient time for all chicks to fledge before harvest. Our breeding success model showed that all nests could potentially be successful if permanent water was applied by early November, with a ponding period - the phase when fields are flooded - of at least 149 days. The modelling suggests that successful bittern breeding was unlikely where rice was grown using new water-saving methods - drill-sown and delayed permanent water - because the ponding period is too short. These methods have become the rice industry standard in Australia, rising from 34% of fields in 2014 to 91% in 2020. While this saved 1.5-4.5 megalitres/ha per year, it has undermined the habitat value of these agricultural wetlands. 'Bittern-friendly' rice growing incentives could encourage timely nesting and maximise breeding success. Early and sufficient ponding can be complemented by establishing adjacent wetland habitat refuges, maintaining grassy banks, and creating dedicated patches to fast-track nesting. Increasing water-use efficiency in agro-ecosystems is widely touted as being beneficial to the environment, but our research demonstrates the urgent need to manage trade-offs with biodiversity conservation.
... Considering that wet or flooded fallow fields provide valuable habitats for various aquatic plants and animals (Fujioka et al., 2001;Koshida and Katayama, 2018), the loss of fallow fields may have detrimental effects on some rice paddy organisms, including threatened bird species. Information on these effects is necessary for planning appropriate conservation measures, including 'wildlife-friendly' rice production systems (Amano et al., 2010b;Herring and Silcocks, 2014;Katayama et al., 2019). ...
Fallow fields provide suitable habitats for many farmland species in agricultural landscapes. Although the loss of fallow fields in the last few decades may be one of the major causes of the decline in farmland biodiversity, quantitative studies investigating the spatial and temporal associations between fallow fields and abundance of rice paddy organisms are few. This study focused on the Greater Painted Snipe (Rostratula benghalensis), a widespread wetland bird species in Asian rice paddies. We conducted replicated playback surveys in three regions of central Japan during the breeding seasons of 1997, 2006, 2007, 2018, and 2019. N-mixture models and model-selection approaches revealed positive associations between the immigration rate of Greater Painted Snipes and the area of wet fallow fields in 1997, when the species was still relatively common. Both observed and estimated densities showed (1) a severe decline in the population of Greater Painted Snipes in the Tsuchiura and Kasumigaura regions over a recent 22-year period in accordance with the reduction of fallow fields and (2) persistence of both wet fallow fields and Greater Painted Snipes in the Abiko region in 2018 and 2019. These results indicate that the loss of wet fallow fields since the late 1990s was associated with the decline of the Greater Panted Snipe population in Japanese agricultural landscapes. Our study highlights the potential importance of fallow fields for population trends of farmland birds and the necessity for their maintenance through, for example, agri-environmental schemes, in rice-producing countries.
... Waterbirds have been a focal group for much of this research, particularly in North America and Europe (e.g. Czech and rice fields by Australian waterbirds, especially for cryptic and threatened species (Elphick, 2015;Herring and Silcocks, 2014;Ibáñez et al., 2010;Taylor and Schultz, 2010). ...
Novel, agricultural habitats are increasingly recognised for the conservation opportunities they present. Ricefields show particular promise for waterbirds and 'wildlife-friendly' farming initiatives, but most work has focused on conspicuous, well-known species and the value of flooding harvested fields to provide non-breeding habitat. The Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus) is a cryptic, globally endangered waterbird that breeds in rice crops in the Riverina region of New South Wales, Australia. To assess the size of the population, we surveyed rice fields from 2013 to 2017 on randomly selected farms in the Murrumbidgee valley. Occupancy modelling yielded population estimates ranging from 368 to 409 for 'early permanent water' crops. With conservative estimates for the unsurveyed Murray region, and for fields with 'delayed permanent water', we suggest that in most years the Riverina's ricefields attract approximately 500–1000 individuals to breed, representing about 40% of the global population. Water allocations for irrigation drive the area of rice grown, with the total Riverina rice crop ranging from 5,000-113,000 ha during 2010–2019. Previously overlooked, ricefields can play an integral role alongside natural wetlands in the conservation of the Australasian bittern. Contraction of the ponding period to increase water use efficiency and the transition of Riverina irrigators to cotton farming are immediate threats to this population. We recommend trialling 'bittern-friendly' rice growing incentives, development of supportive policy and acknowledgement that some water allocated to agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin can have explicit environmental benefits. The significance of rice fields to other cryptic wetland species should also be assessed.
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Some of the most difficult to detect Australian wetland birds include bitterns and snipes. Here I present novel nocturnal observations of the Australian Painted-snipe Rostratula australis and the Australian Little Bittern Ixobrychus dubius on Kooragang Island, NSW and discuss possible alternative survey methods based on these observations, in hopes of stimulating ideas for methods that increase the detection probability for these birds. The site contained 2.6 ha of wetlands which were surveyed for birds almost weekly (once during the day and once at night) from September to March during 2016 – 2019. During this time, a female Australian Painted-snipe was observed on three separate nights in September 2017, and a female Australian Little Bittern was observed once at night with certainty in November 2018. A male Australian Little Bittern was flushed during the day on 22/10/2019. There were several similarities for these observations: they all occurred within the same wetland, they occurred in spring when the wetlands had been charged with water for ~7 months and were in the process of drying, and most of the birds (with one exception) were observed at night. The snipe was detected from its eye-shine while the bittern was detected during a nocturnal reed search. Both species did not flush immediately when found in close-quarters at night time. I hypothesise that nocturnal visual encounter surveys in drying ephemeral wetlands during spring will lead to a higher detection probability of these species compared to traditional survey methods.
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The Australian Painted Snipe Rostratula australis is one of Australia's most cryptic and unpredictable endemic wetland birds. Until the early 2000s, the Australian Painted Snipe was considered a subspecies of the widespread Greater Painted Snipe R. benghalensis. As a consequence, little was known about the species' ecology, abundance and distribution. So in 2001, BirdLife Australia's Threatened Bird Network and the Australasian Wader Studies Group initiated targeted studies to address this knowledge gap. Twelve years later and, with valuable contributions from experts around Australia, we continue to identify conservation priorities for the species. Although the Australian Painted Snipe occurs across much of Australia, the Murray–Darling Basin is the species' stronghold (Lane & Rogers 2000; BirdLife Australia's Atlas of Australian Birds) — 34 per cent of all sightings originate from the region and many records are of multiple birds. In total, 39 per cent of all recorded individuals have been from the Murray– Darling Basin, with regular flocking events at historically significant sites in the Riverina and in floodplain wetlands. A record 57 birds were recorded at the Macquarie Marshes in 2011. There is a strong seasonal trend in Australian Painted Snipe records in the Murray–Darling Basin, with 81 per cent of records made between October and February (Fig. 1). It is thought that many birds leave other parts of Australia (particularly northern Australia) during this period to seek feeding and breeding habitat in the fertile ephemeral wetlands of the Murray– Darling Basin. Most breeding records (89 per cent) occur during spring and summer, when birds utilise abundant invertebrate communities as floodwaters drop and vegetation decays.
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Context Farmland crops may suffer damage from native animals, but also provide a critical resource during times of food scarcity. We know little about bird use of almond crops. Aims To examine factors influencing temporal and spatial variation in the use of almond crops in north-western Victoria by bird species, including the threatened regent parrot (Polytelis anthopeplus), and to record levels of crop damage. Methods We measured bird occurrence in 15 transects during the almond-growing season of 2009/10, and 32 transects during 2010/11. Crop-damage assessments were conducted in 2010/11. Spatio-temporal variation in bird occurrence was related to seasonal factors, landscape variables and bird-control activities. Key results Significantly more regent parrots and small parrots (e.g. Platycercus elegans and Psephotus haematonotus) were recorded in almond plantations in 2009/10 than in 2010/11. Rainfall and wheat production was much higher in 2010/11, and we hypothesise that the availability of alternative foods reduced parrot dependence on almonds. Regent parrot occurrence did not differ across months within a season, but more small parrots were recorded during almond nut maturity. Regent parrots appeared to prefer locations where almond crops abutted native vegetation, but only during 2009/10, a dry year with likely limited food availability. Small parrots occurred more often in crops close to riverine vegetation and distant from farm offices. Nut damage was generally low, with only 7 of 32 transects sustaining >4% total damage, but damage assessments were conducted during a season of high rainfall, with likely greater availability of alternative food. Percentage damage was significantly correlated with the number of regent and small parrots. Shooting activity did not deter birds from using almond crops. Conclusions Parrots appear to rely more on almond crops for food when environmental conditions limit other food resources. A key strategy for managing bird impacts on almonds while supporting species conservation is to provide decoy crops of preferred native plants. Implications Rapid loss of almond plantations may lead to population declines in the threatened regent parrot if the availability of alternative food is not simultaneously increased. The role of production land uses in supporting native birds needs to be recognised by conservation management agencies.
Technical Report
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Waterbird communities were a useful indicator in identifying long-term trends and effects of water management. • We have high confidence in use of waterbirds as an indicator at the scale of the entire Murray-Darling Basin, indicated by our analyses which showed stable modelling and long-term significant declines. • This confidence was extended to the catchment scale, through the analyses of long-term changes in waterbirds in the River Murray catchments • We also had high confidence in the use of waterbirds as an indicator at the wetland scale because it was able to be collected over an entire wetland and showed long-term variability that could be used to determine not only differences over time but differences among wetlands. • There were significant long-term declines across all indicators of waterbird communities at the scale of the Murray-Darling Basin, including abundance, species richness, each of the functional groups and breeding indices and these probably reflected effects of reductions in flooding frequency caused by river regulation. This was supported by declines in waterbird response variables at the River Murray catchment scale and in six individual wetlands within the Murray-Darling Basin. • There was no evidence of any declines in waterbird communities following similar analyses of the waterbirds of the Lake Eyre Basin which was not subject to river regulation. • There was increasing confidence in the ability to detect these changes with the number of surveys. For three years of data for the Hydrological Indicator Sites and five years of data for the Living Murray sites, there were insufficient data to develop robust models explaining changes in waterbirds. • Waterbird communities could also be separated into five functional groups, ducks, herbivores, large wading birds, piscivores and shorebirds, allowing for assessments of long-term changes in wetland function. • Waterbird communities reflected long term temporal changes and spatial differences detected using different waterbird metrics from aerial surveys including total abundance, species richness, composition of functional groups, individual species and breeding indices (nests and broods; species breeding).
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The natural wetlands of the Mediterranean have been reduced to 10-20% of their original area over the past few centuries. However, the rice fields that have supplanted them in some regions may be valuable habitats for waterbirds. We describe the use of rice fields by waders, gulls, terns, ducks and herons in Italy, Spain, France, Greece and Portugal where this cultivation is most prevalent in certain restricted areas. Rice field systems, including the irrigation canals, are used by a variety of waterbirds, primarily as feeding habitats, and to a lesser extent as breeding sites. The long duration of flooding allows waterbird use through winter in Spain and France; it is limited to spring in other regions. However, the heavy dependence of waterbirds on rice fields is hazardous, because rice cultivation is subject to suddenly changing agricultural practices. Threats include risk from pesticide contamination, changes in the management of rice cultures, the rapidly spreading practice of cultivating rice on dry fields, and from large-scale hydrological changes. We urge authorities to recognize the importance of rice fields for the conservation of Mediterranean waterbirds and propose that cultivation and bird conservation issues be addressed in a holistic fashion.
The Action Plan for Australian Birds 2010 is the third in a series of action plans that have been produced at the start of each decade. The book analyses the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) status of all the species and subspecies of Australia's birds, including those of the offshore territories. For each bird the size and trend in their population and distribution has been analysed using the latest iteration of IUCN Red List Criteria to determine their risk of extinction. The book also provides an account of all those species and subspecies that are or are likely to be extinct. The result is the most authoritative account yet of the status of Australia's birds. In this completely revised edition each account covers not only the 2010 status but provides a retrospective assessment of the status in 1990 and 2000 based on current knowledge, taxonomic revisions and changes to the IUCN criteria, and then reasons why the status of some taxa has changed over the last two decades. Maps have been created specifically for the Action Plan based on vetted data drawn from the records of Birds Australia, its members and its partners in many government departments. This is not a book of lost causes. It is a call for action to keep the extraordinary biodiversity we have inherited and pass the legacy to our children. 2012 Whitley Award Commendation for Zoological Resource.
Waterbird use of agricultural wetlands has increased as natural wetlands continue to decline worldwide. Little information exists on waterbird use of wetland crops such as taro, hasu, and wild rice. Several reports exist on waterbird use of cranberry bog systems. Information exists on waterbird use of rice fields, especially by herons and egrets. Rice fields encompass over 1.5 million km2 of land and are found on all continents except Antarctica. Rice fields are seasonally flooded for cultivation and to decoy waterfowl, and drawn down for sowing and harvest. A wide variety of waterbirds including wading birds, shorebirds, waterfowl, marshbirds, and seabirds utilize rice fields for foraging and to a lesser extent as breeding sites. In some areas, especially Asia, waterbirds have come to rely upon rice fields as foraging sites. However, few reports exist on waterbird use of rice ecosystems outside of the Mediterranean Region. Species that are commonly found utilizing agricultural wetlands during the breeding season, migration, and as wintering grounds are listed. General trends and threats to waterbirds utilizing agricultural wetlands, including habitat destruction and degradation, contaminant exposure, and prey fluctuations are presented.
We reviewed literature describing the potential for freshwater anthropogenic waterbodies to act as refuges from disturbance. We identified research related to the refuge potential of a wide range of waterbodies, using waterbody names as keywords along with 'artificial' and 'freshwater'. Potential freshwater anthropogenic refuges were more often standing than running waters. Agricultural ponds, rural and urban drainage ditches and transport canals were the most diverse for all aquatic taxa, whereas irrigation infrastructure was least diverse. Comparatively little is known about the refuge role of fire dams, urban artificial ponds, golf course lakes, disused industrial ponds and retaining walls. Local-scale attributes associated with high biodiversity were: presence of macrophytes (for animals), absence of fish (for amphibians, invertebrates), natural bed materials and hydroperiod (all biota). Landscape variables associated with high biodiversity were proximity to and connectivity with other waterbodies and to natural terrestrial vegetation. Moderate levels of management intervention were also associated with higher biodiversity. Many knowledge gaps about the function of anthropogenic refuges within landscapes exist and require further research. One of the most important limitations to the provision of refuges for freshwater biodiversity by anthropogenic waterbodies is the lack of recognition of their actual or potential biodiversity value. Anthropogenic waterbodies need to be recognised for their potential to support biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation for freshwater species, while being managed to prevent the spread of invasive species.
Many studies have reported population declines and range contractions of bird species in agricultural landscapes around the world. However, few studies have described population trends of bird species in rice-paddy areas or identified causes of decline in these areas as opposed to other types of farmland. The Greater Painted Snipe Rostratula benghalensis is strongly dependent on rice-paddy areas for habitat. This paper uses the results of local field surveys and national survey data to document the population trends of Greater Painted Snipe in Japan. Field surveys conducted in Ibaraki Prefecture indicated a severe decline over a recent 10-year period. Data from the National Surveys on the Natural Environment also showed that the distribution of the Greater Painted Snipe has decreased nationwide from the 1970s to the 1990s. This population decline might be due to (1) the introduction of an efficient drainage system in rice fields and/or (2) a reduction in the area of flooded fallow fields with short vegetation at both breeding and wintering sites. Further work on the conservation status of this species is urgently needed.
As the demands on agricultural lands to produce food, fuel, and fiber continue to expand, effective strategies are urgently needed to balance biodiversity conservation and agricultural production. "Land sparing" and "wildlife-friendly farming" have been proposed as seemingly opposing strategies to achieve this balance. In land sparing, homogeneous areas of farmland are managed to maximize yields, while separate reserves target biodiversity conservation. Wildlife-friendly farming, in contrast, integrates conservation and production within more heterogeneous landscapes. Different scientific traditions underpin the two approaches. Land sparing is associated with an island model of modified landscapes, where islands of nature are seen as separate from human activities. This simple dichotomy makes land sparing easily compatible with optimization methods that attempt to allocate land uses in the most efficient way. In contrast, wildlife-friendly farming emphasizes heterogeneity, resilience, and ecological interactions between farmed and unfarmed areas. Both social and biophysical factors influence which approach is feasible or appropriate in a given landscape. Drawing upon the strengths of each approach, we outline broad policy guidelines for conservation in agricultural landscapes.