Wendy Bradshaw: A life in landcare and regenerative farming

Narrator: Welcome to Heartland Journeys and to Tambellup, where Wendy Bradshaw has lived with her husband Peter on their family farm for over forty years. Wendy’s connection to farming goes back even further – to growing up on her parent’s farm near Kendenup, a bit further to the south.

Wendy is a passionate environmentalist who is constantly learning and experimenting with how we can farm better with nature. Along with her farming background, she has a wealth of experience working in community landcare, and in her own environmental consultancy, where she helps to restore biodiversity and soil health on farms.

Here’s Wendy talking about how her love of the bush and farming started in childhood.

I so loved growing up on a farm. And we grew apple orchards commercially, and we had a Dorset stud so I got really involved and I used to run barefoot in winter, I loved the feel of the grass under my feet. We had neighbours who had beautiful bush and I used to ride my bike around there and climb over the fence and pick big bunches of spider orchids and ride home with them on my bike. it was such a strong connection with nature as a child.

I became a registered nurse – that was my career occupation as a young woman. Farming really attracted me. And when I got married and moved to the farm, and later, when I had a baby, all of a sudden I found myself thinking, ‘What’s my purpose now?’ Because prior to that you know, I was nursing, and everything was kind of mapped out, but then I was here on the farm. So you know, I love being a farmer, but still, I consciously remember that moment. I was in the kitchen, baby in a basinet. What’s my purpose now? And um it took me a few years before it became really clear.

I read a magazine article in a ‘Your Garden’ magazine, and I actually dug it out years later, because I thought it’d be really interesting to see what was so captivating about that article. And it was a story in Germany, about the folkspeople when they first cleared their forests, and they ploughed the ground and the rain would, you know, the clouds would come across and drop their rain over the forest and they’d puff up and blow away over the cleared lands. And they thought they were being punished by the gods. And it wasn’t until they restored their forest that the rainfall came back to normal. And at that moment, I looked around. you know, we always seemed to be looking for rain.  in an over-cleared landscape, or what to me was a highly cleared landscape. And it was just such a moment for me thinking that’s my purpose, to help out the environment while I can.

I set about learning as much as I could about the natural environment, about our plants. I used to buy books and try and learn what all the species were, and all that sort of thing. I just gobbled up all the information that I could get.

Narrator: Wendy became involved in community landcare from the very early days in the 1980s – from helping set up a Tree Society, which provided seedlings to farmers concerned about salinity, to being involved in soil conservation through the local Land Conservation Districts Committee. Wendy worked for Greening Australia’s Bushcare program and most recently the Gillamii landcare Centre in Cranbrook, where Wendy is still on the Board. She has put all this vast experience with revegetation and restoration into practice on her own farm, with some wonderful results. Strategic sites along creek lines and near remnant vegetation have been direct-seeded or planted with seedlings of mostly local plant species.

I think we only had about two or 3% remnant vegetation when I came here, but we’ve restored about 100 hectares in total. So it’s really made a huge difference to the farm. , it’s a beautiful place to live and work now. and the bird life, there is a squeaker that now, quite often when I ride my bike up the paddock, I’ll hear it, you know you can hear him before you ever see him and occasionally you’ll see him. But it’s just such a wonderful thing, because he was never here before. And he’s like a symbol. I always found that you’d only find them in decent size woodlands before. Yeah, he’s kind of symbolic that we’ve done something good here.

And another thrill I had was seeing a Western Yellow Robin in some revegetation that had got quite thick and overgrown and things were falling over and dying and things were regenerating. And to see this little Yellow Robin , that was an awesome moment because they’re like core dwellers of bush. They don’t live on the edges. So even though it wasn’t a very big patch that we had restored, still, it was there. So you know, maybe it was quality habitat.

Narrator: Encouraging farmers to protect their bush and creek lines from livestock has been a vital part of Wendy’s work. This story of finding a spider orchid flowering beside a creek that she and Peter had fenced on their farm, highlights some of the challenges of restoring nature on farms.

I did see one orchid down near the creek I saw a spider orchid – ‘oh, my god I can’t believe that’. I was just amazed that that was there.  It wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t have fenced all that area off and done a lot of revegetating.

But it’s not something that’s easy to restore. It’s more about, well, hopefully one day, they’ll come in on their own, because they can move, they’re very, very fine – their seed, but you have to have the source of the seed and a suitable area for them to move to. So it’s more about creating that.

If there’s domestic stock or whatever going in there, constantly introducing nutrients, that’s where the weeds take hold. It’s like rabbits do the same thing, you see around where there is rabbit diggings, and rabbit droppings, Cape Weed and stuff take hold, and then it gradually spreads, so the longer there’s that disturbance coming in there, the harder it is, the more degraded it becomes.

For me, that was one of the big things that I didn’t understand before I got involved in all this work, is about thresholds and how if you don’t protect the bush before it becomes a weedy understory, it’s very hard to restore it once it has become weedy. So you know that intactness, you need to protect it before it becomes a weedy understory because then the whole chemistry of the soil has changed.

Narrator: Along with the introduction of livestock and feral animals, excess nutrients and weeds into our remnant bush, there has also been a major loss from our landscapes – the devastation of populations of small digging marsupials like bandicoots (or quenda) and woylies.

For me, this has been a big thing – bandicoots, or quenda, we need them back in our bush, because they have such a crucial role, as ecosystem engineers, .  the early explorers said that woylies and bandicoots swarmed across the landscape they’re both diggers, you know they dig and they eat fungi, and some research was done by Mark Garkarklis et al at Curtin University, I think it was in the early 2000s, in the Dryandra forests near Narrogin because there was quite a lot of woylies in there at the time, and they researched what was the impact of that area of digging on water efficiency or cycling. And they found that within that entire area of the digging it sped up the water infiltration rate, and also the nutrient cycling rate was sped up. So, it helps to overcome that non-wetting soil just sitting there, biomass not recycling as fast as it needs to to keep the ecosystem function really cranking over, and also the role of the fungi in helping to keep the bush healthy, and the fact that they eat the fungi and spread it around. So these are really important parts of our ecosystem that we have lost here. So yeah, that was one of my goals was to get quenda back across the landscape  

Narrator: Wendy was an early leader in regenerative agriculture, publishing a book back in 2001 called Critters and Crops: The Critical Connection.

The whole thing of farming is such a challenge of how you farm with nature. for me, that’s always been my thing, trying to work out how we can do that more effectively.

And this idea came to me that I could write a publication about, the connection between nature and farming.

At the bottom of it would be biodiversity, the role of biodiversity, such a critical role. The way that I characterise that in a sentence would be that deserts are formed when we lose biodiversity. Because all the web of life that maintains life gradually falls apart, and there’s not enough species left to maintain a complex ecosystem. we’ve got this massive opportunity. in a farm because we benefit from having the biodiversity there’s so many ecological functions or ecosystem services that are provided by biodiversity, like pollination and insect management, and recycling of nutrients, and it just goes on and on. from a perspective of our inputs, how we can get better use of them, because, you know, we spend a lot of money on inputs, how can we retain them on site so that we get the benefit of them and they don’t cause damage in the broader environment, I think that’s huge as well. So that’s where things like fencing off your creeks and buffering them so that anything that might escape from the farm is still trapped there and doesn’t end up down the estuary or in the waterways or causing all sorts of problems elsewhere. As well as having shelterbelts and things like that, and trying to connect up your remnant vegetation and restore understory and, just try and get as much diversity of fauna and flora to try and maintain a nice, healthy, vibrant ecosystem.

It is an industrial food system isn’t it, the way that agriculture has developed since the Second World War and you know, artificial fertilisers, synthetic fertiliser, huge leaps forward in our ability to, increase yield, etc. But it’s coming to the point where it’s not sustainable and its starting to cost money because things are falling apart. So the big thing for me is looking, well what is the cause of the problem? So I think that mainstream farming, and I’m not meaning this in a derogatory way, I’m just meaning this is a fact of how the thinking has been, and the science hasbeen is that we tend to treat symptoms rather than ‘Well, what’s the underlying cause?’ Like, for example, if we have insect problems, the solution is to go and spray insecticides. Well, what’s causing the insects to be there in the first place?

So we had a really interesting experience with that this year, with um red-legged earth mite not attacking our vetches when they came up. And last year, they were seriously crawling with red-legged earth mite, and we did spray. But um we did something different, and this year, the plants were so healthy, that there was hardly any red-legged earth mite, and we didn’t have to spray. So what did we do differently? Why was that, that we don’t have that problem now, or in this particular year? And, you know, that’s the kind of thinking that I think it’s really important to address the cause of the problem. Because if we just keep on spraying insecticides, it’s having a huge impact on, insects diversity, and bees. And they’re so vital, because insects are at the bottom of the food chain, above the microbes, but they play such critical roles in maintaining biodiversity.

I think this whole industrial agriculture thing has become the dominant paradigm. And it’s all about you can be more profitable if you’ve got scale, you know, because you’ve got a bigger area to use that machinery on – it’s the economy of scale everything’s just got big. And we’ve lost sight of the fine scale, you know, what underpins all of that.

Narrator: While Wendy helps to tackle the big causes of decline in our farming landscapes, she is clearly sustained by the beauty she has helped bring back to the home farm at Tambellup through protecting remnant bush and revegetating cleared areas.

When we’re trying to restore areas, you have to be aware of what grows naturally in those conditions and those soil types etc. there’s certain species that are going to occupy the different niches to help it restore.

And quite often the whole hydrology of the area might have changed, so you have to be focusing on well what plants would grow really well here. So for example, around here, we get what we call hillside seeps. So there might be a quartz outcrop you know, or a granite outcrop or something that stops the water from going down in the subsoil to the bottom of the valley. And the water pushes up to the surface halfway down a hill. So you end up with what you call a saline seep or a hillside seep. And so those areas become salt affected and waterlogged but if you fence them off, and plant the right things in there, you can create an amazing ecosystem out of it and things like Juncus kraussii, which is sea rush, it loves that upwelling of water that you get in those sites.

And once you get a few established they just self-seed and they become this beautiful sea of rushes. And you know, things like the salt-water paperback, which grows naturally around here, they all colonise those areas as well, you just have to inoculate the site with the key species that will do the job that are suited to that soil type and hydrology and landscape position.

So, it’s very important to understand what are the species we need to have here, and now, the fauna that goes in there is awesome and it’s just a beautiful place, I love going there, the bushes are so dense all the way around it and you peer through there, to see what’s going on. And all these elegant parrots fly out of the bushes and there’s a lot of life, a lot of blue wrens and you never know what you’re gonna see in there. So it’s become a beautiful place. So, islands of biodiversity in amongst the sea of production that you need a certain amount of to keep the whole landscape working properly.

Narrator: This has been a Gondwana Link production with story development by Nicole Hodgson, Margaret Robertson and Keith Bradby. Narration by Nicole Hodgson and music by Rod Vervest. Our warm thanks to Wendy Bradshaw, audio editor Teresa Ashton-Graham and producer Kim Lofts of Blue Manna Studio.

And please note that in Western Australia, picking of wildflowers on all land that is not privately owned is prohibited.