Wetlands and Agriculture

Department of the Environment, 2014

Fact sheet

Wetlands have been used for agricultural production for thousands of years. They provide a whole range of valuable ecosystem services, such as the provision of food and clean water, the retention of soil and the cycling of nutrients.

However, the indiscriminate use of wetlands can lead to a reduction in their environmental, cultural and economic values. In some areas, the drainage and reclamation of wetlands for agriculture has been significant. Yet there is increasing recognition of the critical interdependencies between agriculture and healthy wetlands and of the potential to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

Australia is a signatory to the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention), which promotes the conservation and wise use of all wetlands.

World Wetlands Day is celebrated on 2 February. The theme for 2014 is ‘Wetlands and Agriculture: Partners for Growth’, in support of the UN International Year of Family Farming.

What are wetlands?

The Ramsar Convention uses a broad definition of wetlands, which includes lakes, rivers, swamps, peatlands, estuaries, rice paddies, coral reefs, water reservoirs and mudflats. Wetlands can be artificial and they do not need to be permanently inundated. In Australia, many wetlands are ephemeral and remain dry for years at a time. Importantly, wetlands contain species that are specially adapted to permanent or periodic wet conditions, often requiring this variability for their survival. Such species may not occur anywhere else.

Wetlands in agriculture

There are many different ecosystem services provided by wetlands that can benefit agriculture and contribute to human wellbeing. Some of these services are direct, while others are indirect and less well known.  

The most direct role that wetlands play in agriculture is the provision of material inputs, such as food, fresh water, fuel and fibre. Additionally wetlands can:

  • support aquaculture or grazing
  • provide habitat for harvestable plant and animal species
  • be a source of drinking water for stock
  • provide a range of raw products such as timber, stock fodder, salt, peat and firewood.

Wetlands can provide other beneficial services to landholders. For example, fertile soils, shade for stock, retention of sediments and nutrients, reduced erosion, water purification, wind buffering, protection from floods and droughts, reduced potential for salinity and acid sulphate soils, waste treatment, climate control and nutrient cycling (nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur).

A well-managed wetland may also provide cultural services, such as aesthetics, spiritual values, education and recreation. While these benefits are not directly relevant to agriculture, they constitute an important contribution a landowner can make to the wider community.

Impacts on wetlands

Stock watering trough installed to provide a water source away from the creek. © John Baker

The services of wetlands can be overused to the point where a wetland’s environmental or production value is diminished. For example, some agricultural practices can lead to increased pollutant loads (in the form of pesticides, fertilisers and animal faeces), resulting in increased phytoplankton and aquatic plant growth. The regulation of water supplies can change the frequency, duration and extent of flows, affecting critical life stages of water dependent species including fish and waterbirds. Some of the largest impacts are through the drainage or conversion of wetlands to cultivated land and the disturbance of ecosystem functions due to heavy machinery use or livestock presence.

Benefits for all

In the long term, the maintenance of a healthy wetland will have significant benefits for both agricultural production and environmental conservation. These two management objectives are interdependent. An increasing number of agricultural landholders are thinking innovatively about how they can use their wetlands more wisely, by investing in production in a manner that simultaneously supports healthy wetlands. A combination of approaches is often the most effective.

‘Wise use’ is about maintaining wetland values and functions, while at the same time delivering services and benefits to people, now and in the future. Human use of wetlands on a sustainable basis is entirely compatible with the Ramsar Convention’s aim. Each wetland is unique and application of the ‘wise use’ principle will vary accordingly.

There are many agricultural practices and actions that can provide benefits to both the environment and the landowner. Some examples include:

  • Integrated pest management solutions reduce the need for pesticides, while practices such as conservation tillage and organic farming can reduce pollutant loads entering waterways. Combined production systems use livestock manure for aquaculture and to fertilise crops. Strategies like these can be particularly effective in small, intensive operations and on family farms.
  • The control of pests such as rabbits, foxes, pigs and weeds has benefits for both agricultural productivity and the environment.
  • Parts of a wetland or waterway can be fenced off to prevent access by livestock, either permanently or at certain times of the year. Alternative stock watering points (for example, troughs) may be provided. These actions preserve areas of sensitive vegetation and provide refugia for animals living in the wetland, enabling them to continue to live in the area. Benefits to landholders include reduced soil erosion and improved water quality, both within the wetland and downstream.
  • Many current agricultural practices are reducing water needs, thus reducing the need to use water from wetlands. Examples include the planting of drought resistant crop varieties, reusing water including wastewater and the implementation of more efficient irrigation technologies.
  • Healthy wetlands can present opportunities for new or diversified economic enterprises. An excellent example is Banrock Station in South Australia, which includes a Wetland of International Importance (Ramsar site) and a successful vineyard. More information about Banrock Station is available in the 24th edition of the Wetlands Australia magazine.

In recognition of the importance of healthy wetlands on private land, there are tax concessions for managing these wetlands and other natural resources. These are available in the form of Landcare Operations Tax Deductions and Conservation Covenant Tax Concessions. Please contact your accountant to discuss how you may take advantage of these concessions.

Lower Ringarooma River, Tasmania. © Michelle McAulay

Targeted wetland conservation can also have indirect benefits for landholders. For instance, it enables them to service the wider community by providing benefits for downstream users, and may improve the aesthetics and value of a property. Conservation activities include planting trees, installing nest boxes, fencing off sensitive areas, allowing wetlands to undergo natural wet and dry cycles, and reducing disturbance of the land.

The future: Partners for growth?

Wetlands have a key role in providing natural infrastructure to support agriculture and provide a wide range of ecosystem services. To maintain this partnership, the environmental functions and economic values of wetlands should be considered in planning for agricultural production. This can be achieved through efficiencies in agricultural production and innovative ideas for arrangements that are beneficial to both the environment and agriculture.

Further information

The Ramsar Convention Secretariat has released a number of useful information documents and materials for World Wetlands Day 2014.

The Wetlands Australia magazine is produced twice annually and includes contributions from a range of wetland managers and interest groups. The February 2014 edition contains a number of articles and case studies on the theme of ‘wetlands and agriculture’.

The Ramsar Convention has produced handbooks on the wise use of wetlands, bringing together the most current information and guidance on implementing the wise use concept.

The Department of the Environment has also published a factsheet on the wise use of wetlands in Australia and a series of national guidelines on implementing the Ramsar Convention in Australia.

For information about current grants and funding offered by the Australian Government, please visit these sites:

You may also like to contact your local Catchment Management Authority, Natural Resource Management group or Local Land Service.

If you have any questions about the information in this factsheet, please contact the Wetlands Section of the Department of the Environment by sending an email to: wetlandsmail@environment.gov.au.