What do the Australian Ploughing Championships and conservation in the Otways have in common?

What do the Australian Ploughing Championships and conservation in the Otways have in common?

What do the Australian Ploughing Championships and conservation in the Otways have in common?

Updated 30 July 2016, 11:35 AEST

He may be the three-times national ploughing champion, but Shayne Neal is more interested in bushland than farmland.

He grew up on a farm, but his path to precision ploughing was not as straightforward as most competitors' — until one day, while out planting native trees, he rubbed shoulders with a couple of ploughing association members.

"I got talking to them and they spoke about this ploughing world competition and, after doing a bit of ploughing with them, they said, 'you better come and have a bit of a go at this competition stuff'," he says.

The Australian Ploughing Championships, held this year in Melbourne, are one of the lesser-known fixtures on the nation's sporting calendar.

"It's not a real spectator sport. It doesn't happen fast. We have three hours to plough half an acre," competitor Brett Loughridge says.

Most competitors follow in family footsteps.

"They carry it on down through the generations. It is an art, good ploughing, and just taking that time to do good ploughing gets remarkable results," Mr Neal says.

The contest hinges on what is known as a mouldboard plough — it is as it sounds, a sharp metal board-like implement that tills the soil.

"Concentration, position and being exact; everything has to be precise with ploughing ... It has to be dead straight, each furrow uniform," Mr Loughridge says.

The main reason for ploughing is to turn over the upper layer of the soil and bring fresh nutrients to the surface, while burying weeds and the remains of previous crops, allowing them to break down.

The competition might sound quaint — but the humble mouldboard plough changed the very course of modern civilization.

"It was essential for food production. The mouldboard plough probably feeds the world," Mr Loughridge says.

In Europe mouldboard ploughing remains standard farming practice, and it remains indispensable for Australian farmers from heavy soil country.

And Shayne Neal has found another benefit, too.

'At the end of the day agriculture is all about sustainability'

Mr Neal's motivation to enter the world of competitive ploughing grew from his quest to find the best way to revegetate the landscape with native trees.

He soon found that, if done well, direct seeding was the most cost-effective and efficient method — so the mouldboard plough was soon being pulled across thousands of hectares of south-western Victoria.

Twelve years later, at his home at the Conservation Ecology Centre at Cape Otway, there is a mosaic of thick vegetation; hundreds of thousands of trees in shelter belts and wildlife corridors.

He says in that time there has been an enormous lift in the birdlife and the number of animals.

"The benefits of those species coming back into that environment, integrating that in with your agricultural practices, has been really quite interesting to watch," he says.

"At the end of the day agriculture is all about sustainability, and farmers are conservationists right from the word go, so getting that natural balance back has been really quite interesting to watch.

"It's a great way of trying to get this beautiful amazing country of the Otways back to a lot of what it used to be, in terms of getting those smaller mammals back into the environment."

Tiger quoll 'the flagship species' for Otway Ranges conservation

One of those mammals is the tiger quoll.

"Our focus on quolls is a major one. He's sort of the flagship species for us," Mr Neal says.

"So, trying to understand why he is not doing so well and if we can try and fix that, being the apex predator will then fix a lot of problems for other species below."

The tiger quoll is a solitary, largely nocturnal animal and dangerously endangered, having lost out badly to carnivorous competitors like feral cats and foxes.

Long thought to be extinct in the Otway Ranges, late last year a visiting biologist from Tasmania spotted something dropped by a tiger quoll.

Seldom has one small dropping generated so much joy — Mr Neal, his biologist wife Lizzie Corke, and some eager volunteers now have a new spring in their step.

They are now educating keen-nosed dogs to sniff out the presence of quolls — all part of a preservation plan for the tiger quoll.

"It's a very, very useful technique using dogs [and] also very engaging for the community as well for having volunteers as part of this program," he says.

This new hope and burst of activity kept Mr Neal from competing in this year's ploughing championships — but competing remains the kicker that spurred his investigation into mouldboard ploughing.

Watch the full episode of Landline on ABC TV on Sunday at noon.