ILWS - Charles Sturt University
ILWS - Charles Sturt University

Predicting the delivery of ecosystem services in agricultural landscapes, (2014-2017)

Strategic Research Area

Biodiversity Conservation


ARC Discovery grant, $360,000


Professor Gary Luck, Dr Manu Saunders (post-doc) and PhD student Rebecca Peisley


The ecological sustainability of Australian agriculture relies on services (for example, pollination) provided by ecosystems. Service provision is threatened by environmental change, but there is no established approach for predicting the impact of change on services.

This project undertook the most comprehensive experimental examination of ecosystem-service delivery ever conducted in Australia, testing the predictive capacity of an approach that links environmental change with variation in service provision through species' traits.

The project consisted of three sub projects.

1. Activities of birds and insects in apple orchards

For this activity, the researchers examined the contribution of birds and insects to the biological control of pests, the contribution of insects to crop pollination, as well as the damage these organisms can cause to the crop. Exclusion field experiments were conducted over two growing seasons from September to March in 2014/2015, and 2015/2016 in six apple orchards with two orchards each in Shepparton in Northern Victoria; Batlow in the South West Slopes region, NSW, and Harcourt in the Central Highlands, Victoria. The orchards were graded from the lowest intensity management (the most organic) through to the highest intensity management (greater use of pesticides, clearing of understorey.)   Silver eyeFindings so far are:

  • There is a pattern related to regions (landscape history and the level of management across an entire landscape affects what is happening on individual farms)
  • Insect damage to apples was higher in netted branches (bird exclusion) which suggested birds were providing some service to growers by reducing pest insect abundance
  • More services are generally provided in orchards where there are more insect-eating birds
  • There was very little damage to the orchards, overall, from birds
  • Earwigs have a potential role (as a predator of other insects) in controlling damage to fruit

The silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) provides potential benefits and costs in apple orchards.  They eat pest insects (benefit of increased yield) and waste fruit after harvest (benefit of nutrient breakdown and reduced disease).  However they may also eat beneficial insects (e.g. pollinators) and rob nectar during flowering (cost of reduced fruit set). Pic R Piesley

2. Carcass disposal in grazing landscapes

Little eagleIn grazing areas, the researchers investigated the contribution of scavenging birds and insects to the breakdown of animal carcasses, how this might provide a service to farmers and the ecosystem, and how landscape context influences the provision of this service. Seventy-two platforms, about 2m off the ground, were erected in autumn in 2014 and 2015 on a property at Docker Plains in North East Victoria with rabbit carcasses (wired down) placed on the platforms and also on the ground for eight days. The platforms were placed in different landscape contexts –open paddocks, near remnant vegetation along the river, next to isolated paddock trees and within a National Park. Bird activity was monitored using motion sensing cameras and insect abundance (maggots) on the rabbit carcasses was measured.

Findings were:

  • A number of raptors  contributed to the breakdown of carcasses, with common species being the Whistling Kite and Brown Goshawk. Australian Ravens also visited carcasses, but their numbers varied greatly across years
  • Foxes seemed to have a minor role in carcass disposal, visiting < 5 ground carcasses
  • Raptors preferred to feed on the carcasses when they were on the ground rather than on platforms
  • The highest rate of carcass disposal occurred in paddocks where large isolated trees had been retained.
  • The retention of large paddock trees is crucial in grazing landscapes to provide raptors and other birds with roosting and nesting sites, and facilitating the delivery of waste removal services

Little eagle (Hieraaetus morphnoides) feeding on rabbit carcass in 2015. Pic R. Peisley

3. Contribution of raptors to pest bird control in vineyards

The researchers examined whether the provision of perches in vineyards for raptors altered pest bird behaviour to the point where it reduces the damage being done to grapes. Twenty five perches were erected in vineyards in North East Victoria in 2015/16 and monitored with motion sensor cameras. Raptor and pest bird activity was measured, and grape damage was assessed at varying distances from perches and other landscape features.

Findings were:

  • The perches were used mostly by Australian magpies rather than raptors
  • Damage to grapes was less underneath the perch sites, possibly because magpies, as a larger, aggressive species, modified the behaviour of the smaller pest bird species
  • Pest birds did not use the perches and further research is required on the effectiveness of providing perches for predatory and aggressive birds in reducing damage to grapes


Saunders, M.E. & Luck, G.W. (In review). Enhancing earwig populations for biological control in organic fruit orchards. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

Saunders, M.E. & Luck, G.W. (In review). Interaction effects between local and landscape factors on pest and beneficial insects in apple orchards. Agricultural & Forest Entomology

Peisley, R.K., Saunders, M.E. & Luck, G.W. (In press). Providing perches for predatory and aggressive birds appears to reduce the negative impact of frugivorous birds in vineyards. Wildlife Research.

Peisley, R.K., Saunders, M.E., Robinson, W.A. & Luck, G.W. (2017) The role of avian scavengers in the breakdown of carcasses in pastoral landscapes. Emu: Austral Ornithology 117, 68-77

Morán-Ordóñez, A., Whitehead, A.L., Luck, G.W., Cook, G.D., Maggini, R., Fitzsimons, J.A. &Wintle, B.A. (2017) Analysis of trade-offs between biodiversity, carbon farming and agricultural development in northern Australia reveals the benefits of strategic planning. Conservation Letters 10, 94-104.

Peisley, R.K., Saunders, M.E. & Luck, G.W. (2016) Cost-benefit trade-offs of bird activity in apple orchards. Peer J. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.2179.

Saunders, M.E. & Luck, G.W. (2016) Limitations of the ecosystem services vs. disservices dichotomy. Cons Biol.

Saunders, M.E. & Luck, G.W. (2016) Combining costs and benefits of animal activities to assess net yield outcomes in apple orchards. PLOS One. 11(7): e0158618

Chan, K.M.A., Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., Chapman, M., Díaz, S., Gómez-Baggethun, E., Gould, R.K., Hannahs, N., Jax, K., Klain, S.C., Luck, G.W., Martín-López, B., Muraca, B., Norton, B., Ott, K., Pascual, U., Satterfield, T., Tadaki, M., Taggart, J. & Turner, N.J. (2016) Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. PNAS. 113, 1462-65

Saunders, M. E., Peisley, R.K., Rader, R. & Luck, G.W. (2016) Pollinators, pests and predators: recognising ecological trade-offs in agroecosystems. Ambio 45, 4-14.

Peisley, R.K., Saunders, M.E. & Luck, G.W. (2015) A systematic review of the benefits and costs of bird and insect activity in agroecosystems. Springer Science Reviews 3, 113-125.

General publications

Luck, G.W. & Saunders, M.E. (2015) Nature – how do I value thee? Let me count the ways. Wildlife Australia, Autumn 38-39.

Luck, G.W. (2016) 'Service Providing Units' in Potschin, M., Haines-Young, R., Fish, R. and Turner, R.K. (eds) Routledge Handbook of Ecosystem Services. Routledge, London and New York.


The expected major outcomes include greater capacity for agriculturalists to maximise ecosystem benefits and increase economic returns, and improved biodiversity conservation through recognition of its contribution to agriculture.


Professor Gary Luck
Charles Sturt University- Albury

April 2017