Environmental Justice Australia (EJA) appeared in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) in late 2018 over the issue of the clearing of scattered paddock trees on farmland in West Wimmera Shire. EJA acted for Mr Ross McDonald and other objectors who had opposed a planning permit being issued which would have allowed a local farmer, Mr Dyer, to clear a number of large old paddock trees at Serviceton, near the South Australian border, enabling ease of access and use of farm machinery for cropping.

The objectors’ main focus was to constrain the incremental loss of trees across the Wimmera landscape and achieve a better balance between farm production and conservation of remnant vegetation on farms. Existing cropping operations on the land would not be affected. The issue of ongoing loss of native vegetation and habitat on farms is one highlighted in the West Wimmera Planning Scheme itself and, in this case, we put to the Tribunal that new planning rules concerning removal of native vegetation (introduced in 2017) promoted a balance in favour of protecting farm trees, especially where these are large old trees associated with an endangered vegetation community. The Tribunal accepted those arguments and we were successful in having a decision to permit the clearing set aside.

The Wimmera, as with many farming areas across the State, has been subject to historic over-clearing, with detrimental impacts on biodiversity, land management and habitat connectivity across the landscape. Planning rules have an important, if limited and specific, role to play in protection of large old trees, in particular where they provide, as the Tribunal recognised in this case, habitat ‘stepping stones’ across the landscapes. These important remnant features of the rural landscape also provide key building blocks on which communities, through Landcare and other restoration programs, are re-establishing habitat corridors and connections. There is a strong public interest in that work, which contributes to regional biodiversity as well as resilience of landscapes in the face of climate change.

We have prepared a longer, more technical ‘case note’ on the VCAT decision which is available here.