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EMU = Ecosystem Management Understanding
Supporting wise use (conservation) of land, based on local knowledge, supported by science

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About EMU

The EMU Exercise provides an information and learning framework that can be used in developing existing and new land uses in the rangelands. 


The primary purpose of the Ecosystem Management Understanding (EMU) exercise is to introduce pastoralists (and other managers of land) to the ecological management of landscapes and habitats in the outback. Ecological management involves reading and recognising landscapes (the terrain elements), internal and linking processes (function), condition and trend.

This is achieved by working with pastoralists to record their station knowledge in a baseline mapping exercise, followed by ground and air traverses of key areas identified. A simple landscape and habitat monitoring technique is demonstrated during ground traverses augmented by ground and aerial photographs. This is summarised on clear overlays on the station map annually as a permanent record.

A range of issues can also be brought into the management system, including key areas for grazing, conservation of nature, cultural heritage, harvesting for craft woods and oils, ecotourism, and so forth.

The fact that a landscape changes, evolves and develops both singularly and in relation to other landscapes is central to the EMU approach. Furthermore, the movement of water through landscapes is pivotal. Wind is equally important in certain landscapes, such as coastal dunes.

Recognising drivers of change, mapping them and then summarising them on a station map has generally had a profound effect on EMU participants. The distillation of their knowledge allows them to quickly see their station land as a whole system of interconnections. This holistic perspective of the outback allows pastoralists to identify and design “best fit” ecological management; a key outcome of this project.

Though initiated and guided by the EMU ecologists, the exercise engenders the reciprocal exchange of knowledge and experience between all participants. The mutual respect that is built in doing so, coupled with a rich diversity of ideas, can build the capacity and enthusiasm for ecological management at an enterprise and local community level.


Hence the primary purposes of the EMU Exercise on pastoral stations are to:

    • focusing on the key areas and drivers of change,
    • reorganising grazing management to “fit” landscape patterns and processes, and
    • exploring alternative and complementary land uses.
    • Persuade pastoralists that though they are sometimes managing a legacy of degraded landscapes, substantial landscape restoration is entirely feasible, particularly in key areas.
    • Appreciate that by working with natural patterns and processes they can improve feed on offer and its use, and hence productivity.
    • Motivate pastoralists to take responsibility for managing change using a variety of response decisions, depending on the situation, and providing them with the skills to do so.
    • Provide participants with the fundamentals for an accredited Environmental Management System, demonstrating that pastoralism and active conservation can coexist successfully.
    • Leave each participating group with a sufficient understanding of landscape ecology for them to trial and monitor various management methods, and exchange information with each other regarding outcomes.
    • To activate a level of capability in pastoralists to mutually support each other towards self-reliance and a viable triple bottom line.

In summary, the EMU Exercise identifies and analyses the constraints and opportunities that will make a real difference in pursuit of more effective management of the outback. It aims to empower the people who manage land and can make the difference they and the wider community desire. The EMU Exercise is a simple yet profound way for developing competence in land literacy and to work with, not against, the natural processes. It is an exercise and technique that engenders adaptive and innovative management, and other creative ways of seeing and doing in landscapes of diverse resources

EMU Exercise Framework

The framework for the exercise is based on an ecological understanding of natural patterns and processes.

The EMU Exercise usually involves the following steps:

  1. a preliminary meeting of pastoralists and the EMU team to discuss the Exercise and whether and how to proceed
  2. a two day workshop at which pastoralists commence the EMU Exercise by mapping salient features on clear overlays
  3. one day follow up visits to individual stations by members of the EMU team
  4. pastoralists install additional monitoring areas as they see necessary
  5.   periodic review meetings called by pastoralists with the EMU team and other district staff from the Departments of Agriculture (DAWA) and Conservation and Land Management (CALM).

Participating pastoralists are encouraged to pursue complementary projects and to hold field days of their own to discuss problems and progress in implementing the Exercise.

Traditional pastoral management has introduced a mosaic of roads, fences and watering points that are generally unrelated to terrain features and processes and eventually cause significant land management problems. Many pastoralists already recognise the need to work within the natural structures of their station.

'Ecological management' of land is about increasing understanding of natural patterns and processes, rejoicing their diversity (particularly when they are restored successfully) and creating rewarding enterprises within this framework. Importantly, 'ecological management' is a way of seeing the world.

The ecological way of managing and living acknowledges and respects interconnectedness. Many of the problems facing pastoralists cannot be addressed quickly and independently within station boundaries. Pastoralists need to work co-operatively because the problems (and opportunities) do not respect station boundaries.

In the rangelands, there is a tradition of talking about how to manage types of country, rather than how to manage mixes of country and their linking drainage systems. This is a more complicated view of rangelands, but through the EMU mapping process, it can be easily applied to make more efficient use of landscape diversity.

During the EMU workshops several examples of landscape interactions and critical control points are discussed. Most examples are intrinsically about how water moves within landscapes and through sequences of landscapes. In healthy landscapes water flows are relatively slow and spread out, whereas in dysfunctional landscapes water flows are rapid and canalised (contained within widened and deepened drainage lines).

Erosion goes hand-in-hand with canalised water flows. Successful plugging of gully heads can help manage critical control points down-slope to spread water back out onto adjacent plains. That means stabilising the actively retreating gully head and then, starting from there, putting in permeable (e.g. scrub wood or rolled chicken mesh) filters working downslope. 

An ecojunctions is an area where several different types of landscape meet. They are associated with the meeting of different terrain, rock types and vegetation, such as the contact zone between widespread granites and greenstone belts or sedimentary outcrops. 

Ecojunctions are core biodiversity areas that are important for the following reasons:

1.   Examples of most land types occurring across a station are repeated in a relatively small area. These areas provide potentially the largest variety of landscape patterns and processes and of native plants and animals. Careful, conservative management of ecojunctions can contribute to the understanding of landscape processes and ecologically sustainable pastoral management, including the goals of water, soil and habitat conservation, both locally and at broader scales.
2.   Ecojunctions contain many edges between different country types that are preferred habitat for many plants and animals. If sympathetically managed, these 'special habitats' can be maintained with major contribution to both conservation and production.

3.   Because ecojunctions bring together mixes of major country types in a relatively small area, they are practically amenable to close monitoring to gain better understanding of landscape linkages how sequences of landscapes from hills (at the top) to rivers or salt lakes (at the bottom) interact. In particular, changes in patterns of water flow can be studied from top to bottom. In effect, ecojunction areas represent potential 'pastoral landscape management laboratories', the station's benchmark paddock.

In addition to ecojunction reserves, a complementary network of lightly grazed, water-remote areas would also serve as useful yardsticks and make a major contribution to the ecological sustainability of a station. 

Ecologically Sustainable Pastoral Management is not achieved while landscapes not suited to pastoralism are left unprotected, or grazing management continues to compromise sensitive and threatened habitats and species.

Traditional Government approaches to station conservation have involved remote prescriptions of outcomes that pay little regard to local management issues, predicaments and aspirations. Through the EMU Exercise, pastoralists can learn to better identify and manage important biodiversity values, rather than being told what, where and how to manage. EMU relies on the good will of pastoralists, and tries to support any innovations that are a priority on individual stations.

The EMU process should help you to fine-tune your shorter-term management by reading your landscapes increasingly well. This should lead to positive longer-term changes. Scientists may tell you that you need exhaustive data (multiple counts and measurements) to prove change scientifically. However, the EMU monitoring process should be sufficient to achieve positive trends by improving your ability to read your landscapes and make informed management decisions.  The photographs and recorded observations that you generate through the EMU process should enable you to assess and demonstrate the effectiveness of your pastoral management practices.