Research is being undertaken to measure the carbon-sequestering potential of 1.4 million hectares of native forest on New Zealand's sheep and beef farms.
A Beef + Lamb New Zealand-commissioned report from the University of Canterbury has revealed 24 per cent of the country's native vegetation cover (about 2.8 million ha) was estimated to be on sheep and beef farms - the largest amount present outside public conservation land.
The large expanse of native forest was touted as likely playing a vital, but often unheralded, role in supporting biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Most of it was unlikely to be counted in the current Emissions Trading Scheme.
B+LNZ chief executive Sam McIvor described the sequestration aspect of the report as "really exciting'', saying the industry organisation would be talking to the Government about how to get farmers' contributions recognised.
The release of the report followed B+LNZ's environment strategy which was launched in May.
It aimed for clean freshwater around farms, for the sector to be carbon neutral by 2050, for sheep and beef farms to provide habitats that supported thriving biodiversity and to support healthy, productive soils.
The report was about finding the detail around what was the starting point and what was actually happening on farms, Mr McIvor said.
The amount of native vegetation and forestry was something that not much time had been spent thinking about or looking at.
But once it was raised, Mr McIvor - during his regular travels around the country - started to look carefully at the countryside and, on reflection, found those figures "quite believable''.
The report was undertaken by Prof David Norton from the University of Canterbury's School of Forestry.
Supported by Auckland University of Technology staff, it used satellite imagery to assess the amount of native vegetation, focusing on native forest, occurring on sheep and beef farms in New Zealand.
The 2.8 million ha of native vegetation was critical for biodiversity conservation on farms and for landscape-level biodiversity outcomes.
That finding was particularly important in places where there was little native cover remaining, such as those in lower altitudes, on more gentle slopes, and in drier regions, Prof Norton said.
The figure was influenced by the inclusion of substantial areas of native grassland, especially in the eastern South Island - Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago and Southland, the report said.
Mr McIvor said the report helped highlight not only the role sheep and beef farms played in contributing to New Zealand's biodiversity, but would also help identify opportunities to build on that as a sector.
It was also great acknowledgement for farmers and the work they were doing. At the time of last year's general election, they were feeling "a little bit beaten up'' regarding the environment, as it had become such a political issue.
But their commitment to the environment was long-term and they talked about what they were doing for future generations. Having some hard data sitting behind that was great to have, he said.
As part of its environmental strategy, B+LNZ also aimed for every sheep and beef farm to have a tailored and active environmental plan by the end of 2021.
It would not be able to do that single-handedly; rather it was relying on various partners to help out.
Some regional councils had been working with farmers for a long time to get farm plans in place, B+LNZ had several thousand people through workshop planning meetings, and others such as fertiliser companies and private consultants were providing support.