Native Animal Welfare (Habitat Clearing)
Ratification Date: 04 May 2021
Where clearing of wildlife habitat is proposed:
- Operators should adhere to the principles of ecologically sustainable development;
- Every effort should be made to minimise the animal welfare impacts on native wildlife;
- A native wildlife assessment to evaluate the potential impact on wildlife and biodiversity in the bioregion should be performed if the habitat is remnant or mature regrowth habitat, an area of high conservation status, or where clearing approval is required under existing legislation and;
- Land should be set aside as designated national parks or reserves and wildlife corridors in each bioregion, for the maintenance of a balanced and healthy ecosystem.
Habitat clearing is conducted for agriculture, resource extraction, urban expansion and infrastructure placement (such as roads, railways, communications and renewable energy structures) amongst other purposes.
Clearing of previously cleared habitat is not the focus of this policy. However, clearing of existing wildlife habitat will inevitably have negative impacts on resident wildlife and biodiversity. In recognition of this, current legislation to control and regulate the clearing of wildlife habitat is backed by the principle of ecologically sustainable development. This requires the effective integration of social, economic and environmental considerations in the decision-making process.1 At the core of ecologically sustainable development is the principle that biodiversity outcomes should be no worse after the activity has occurred.
Improving animal welfare is one of the AVA’s three strategic priorities. The welfare of native wildlife is affected by any process that disturbs or reduces their habitat, including clearing for human activity.2,3 The effects of habitat clearing are both direct (killing and injuring animals), and indirect (displacement and disruption, and allowing the encroachment of invasive plant pests). These indirect effects may be enough to compromise the long-term survival of a species.
Habitat clearing affects large areas of remnant vegetation and regrowth in Australia. Reports indicate significant wildlife loss likely exceeding 10 million animals per year including mammals, birds and reptiles. Several reports are available that analyse potential losses.4,5
Clearing of native habitats is likely to have had a role in zoonotic disease spill over to the human population, but direct evidence is difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, zoonotic disease spill over is a risk with potentially extreme consequences as we have seen with zoonoses such as Hendra and COVID-19.6,7
The World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), which sets minimum standards for animal welfare internationally, has contributed to a draft “Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare”, which states that animal welfare standards should apply universally across species, geographic zones and nations.
Native animals are as much at risk from mismanagement of conservation areas and other habitats as from land clearing. Land Clearing is only a small part of land management and management of remaining areas of native anima habitat must be intrinsically linked to any land clearing. Appropriate management of plant ecosystems directly affects native animal welfare.
Each state and territory has its own legislation which regulates the clearing of rural and urban land; this serves as one of many measures available to mitigate the impact of habitat clearing. However, additional measures to reduce both the direct and indirect impacts on wildlife are recommended, as follows:
Wildlife impact assessments
Crucially, the welfare of wildlife can be improved through the use of impact assessments before habitat clearing takes place. These should review the potential impact of the proposed activity on wildlife, and if clearing is to proceed, outline what mitigation steps can be taken before, during and after clearing to ameliorate those impacts. Comprehensive models currently exist for these assessment protocols, including Codes of Practice and Standard Operating Procedures.8 Through the adoption of such pre-clearing wildlife assessment processes in legislation, clarity will be provided about who is responsible for conducting them, and the steps to be followed.
Undoubtedly animal welfare benefits will occur if wildlife assessments are conducted wherever habitat clearing is proposed, but the AVA recognises the onerous impact such a requirement could impose upon landowners. The AVA recommends that wildlife assessments only need to be conducted where the proposed area has been determined by experts to be of a high conservation value or is already subject to the requirement for approval under existing legislation.
In most states and territories, legislation that regulates land clearing generally provides landholders with an exemption from prosecution under animal cruelty legislation. This means that if animals are injured during the process, the landholder will not be prosecuted. There are some exceptions to this, such as when peri-urban land or koala habitat is cleared, where it is a requirement that wildlife is managed to minimise welfare impacts.8
It is recommended that the exemption be removed from the legislation, and that an amendment be added which imposes a duty of care on those undertaking habitat-clearing activities. Further, state and territory animal welfare legislation should adopt standards or codes of practice for the welfare of wildlife that may be affected by clearing of their habitat. Humans have a responsibility to protect animals. Where a person does not meet his or her obligations to the animals in their care, animals may suffer. The law must be able to adequately intervene to prevent suffering and to enforce compliance.9
Biodiversity impact assessments
Without sufficiently large intact ecosystems or habitat, the quality and diversity of wildlife as we know it cannot exist, and further extinctions are inevitable. Loss of habitat and biodiversity puts wildlife at risk of starvation, predation or traffic injury when they are on the move; all of these may result in a prolonged and painful death. Every hectare of habitat not cleared has an environmental and wildlife welfare benefit2 and also reduces the human contribution to climate change.
Thus, biodiversity needs to be assessed on a bioregion basis; any region’s status will change over time as a larger proportion of the bioregion is cleared. Clearing that might have been appropriate when the bioregion was first settled may not be appropriate when the residual area has been reduced. Preserving 15-20% of each ecosystem in its native or near-native state is required to preserve its biodiversity and resilience.10,11
Responsibilities – private and government owned land
A significant proportion of native fauna and flora exist on privately owned land and these land managers have a crucial role in conserving biodiversity through the use of sustainable land management practices.12 Many private land owners already voluntarily provide and enhance habitat for native wildlife on their properties, through management of wildlife corridors connecting separate habitat areas. At the same time, the provision of adequate native habitat and corridors should not be the sole responsibility of private landowners; a significant responsibility resides with governments to ensure that adequate protected areas remain intact. In many parts of Australia this requirement is not being met, particularly in the developed and productive agricultural areas of south-eastern Australia.
Recommendations - summary
Where habitat clearing occurs, the following measures should be in place to improve welfare outcomes for wildlife:
- The minimum area of native or remnant habitat should be cleared.
- Wildlife potentially affected by habitat clearing should be protected from harm by animal welfare legislation and codes of practice.
- The landowner or lessee must meet their duty of care to take all reasonable steps to mitigate death and suffering of wildlife as regulated by the relevant State and Federal legislation
- Management of National Parks and other Reserves must be in accord with nature or managed by legislation sensitive to the natural order to prevent catastrophic destruction of habitats and the subsequent impacts on the welfare of native animals.
- Exemptions from prosecution for animal welfare infringements during habitat clearing should be removed from legislation, and replaced by a duty of care requirement.
Other relevant policies and position statements
- Philosophy on animal welfare and the veterinarian
- Animal abuse
- Climate change and animal health, welfare and production
- NSW Government. 1991. “Protection of the Environment Administration Act.” http://www.legislation.nsw.gov.au/fullhtml/inforce/act+60+1991+FIRST+0+N.
- Neldner, V.J. 2017. “A Scientific Review of the Impacts of Land Clearing on Threatened Species in Queensland.” In . Queensland Herbarium.
- Ward, Michelle S., Jeremy S. Simmonds, April E. Reside, James E. M. Watson, Jonathan R. Rhodes, Hugh P. Possingham, James Trezise, Rachel Fletcher, Lindsey File, and Martin Taylor. 2019. “Lots of Loss with Little Scrutiny: The Attrition of Habitat Critical for Threatened Species in Australia.” Conservation Science and Practice 1 (11). https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.117
- Johnson, C., Cogger, H., Dickman, C. and Ford, H. 2007. Impacts of Landclearing; The Impacts of Approved Clearing of Native Vegetation on Australian Wildlife in New South Wales. WWF-Australia Report, WWF-Australia, Sydney.
- Cogger H, Dickman C, Ford H, Johnson C and Taylor MFJ, 2017. Australian animals lost to bulldozers in Queensland 2013-15. WWF-Australia technical report.
- Marco, Moreno Di, Michelle L. Baker, Peter Daszak, Paul de Barro, Evan A. Eskew, Cecile M. Godde, Tom D. Harwood, et al. 2020. “Sustainable Development Must Account for Pandemic Risk.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 117 (8): 3888–92. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2001655117.
- Plowright, Raina K., Peggy Eby, Peter J. Hudson, Ina L. Smith, David Westcott, Wayne L. Bryden, Deborah Middleton, et al. 2014. “Ecological Dynamics of Emerging Bat Virus Spillover.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Royal Society of London. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2124.
- Hanger Jon; Nottidge, Ben; 2012. “Code of Practice for the Welfare of Wild Animals Affected by Land-Clearing and Other Habitat Impacts and Wildlife Spotter/Catchers.” http://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=42991366-5939-4305-90be- c56e3365947e%0A5.
- Australian Veterinary Association. “Statement of Principles.” Accessed March 23, 2020. https://www.ava.com.au/policy-advocacy/policies/
- UNEP-WCMC and IUCN. 2016. “Protected Planet Report 2016.” Report. https://wdpa.s3.amazonaws.com/Protected_Planet_Reports/2445 Global Protected Planet 2016_WEB.pdf.
- McAlpine, C.A.; Frensham, R.J.; Demple-Smith, D.E. 2002. “Biodiversity Conservation and Vegetation Clearing in Queensland: Principles and Thresholds.” The Rangeland Journal 24 (1): 36–55. https://doi.org/10.1071/RJ02002.
- Booth, Carol. 2014. “Natural Victoria: Conservation Priorities for Victoria’s Natural Heritage.” Victorian National Parks Association. http://www.vnpa.org.au/
Purpose: to advocate for better management of wildlife whose welfare may be affected by clearing and development of their habitat.