By ERWIN CHLANDA
“It wasn’t us.”
This could be the shorthand for what two prominent former employees of the CSIRO, Dr Margaret Friedel and Des Nelson, are saying about the introduction of buffel in Central Australia.
There is a broad view that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation triggered an environmental catastrophe as buffel has spread throughout much of The Centre, including the iconic East and West MacDonnell Ranges, even prime tourism locations such as Palm Valley, displacing native flora and fuelling ferocious wildfires.
There is some effort by the current NT Government’s parks authorities and Aboriginal ranger groups to contain and reduce buffel, now a declared weed in South Australia. But it still infests many of the key beauty spots, including Palm Valley (pictured) where removing it entirely would create the additional benefit of seed banks for native plants.
So how did buffel get here, and who’s to blame?
Mr Nelson contributed to these pages an impassioned defence of his former employer.
Writing from his own observations, Mr Nelson said the CSIRO in Alice Springs had limited direct participation in propagating the now notorious buffel.
But it was clear that other employees of the same government – under the nose of the CSIRO – went all out to get it established.
The organisation is a instrumentality of the Commonwealth Government which ruled the Northern Territory until it gained self-government in 1978. It was prior to that when there was wide sowing of buffel, by cattlemen and the government. So, clearly, the question of what CSIRO was doing about buffel, or not doing, has a place in this debate.
Mr Nelson has a document about the Alice Springs dust control project, which says from 1972-73 the Land Conservation Unit was sowing buffel on an estimated 1200 hectares annually.
This was still going on in 1979, the date of the document.
Trial work south of the airport started in 1970-71. Other plants were trialled as well but buffel was the best performer and was the “major constituent,” says Mr Nelson.
Dr Friedel, who remains an Honorary fellow with the CSIRO, provided a 1997 telex from Robert “Winky” Winkworth, the CSIRO’s first officer in Alice Springs, arriving in 1953: “During a recent visit I was surprised to hear erroneous claims that buffel grass was brought here by CSIRO or other official agencies.”
He says in the 1950s he’d noticed the plant in town and surrounding areas, and the first government botanist, George Chippendale, arriving in 1954, had found “buffel grass growing at spots from Tanami to the fringes of the Simpson Desert”.
There was little buffel “until the greatest deluge of the century in the summer of 1973/74 when 700 mm of rain fell (equal to a Katherine wet season)” after which “areas of buffel grass were seen to expand as, for example, over the Todd River floodplain … and many other places.
“It is not possible to work out how each and every area of buffel grass got to be where it is,” Mr Winkworth writes.
Renowned botanist Peter Latz, who grew up in Hermannsburg, has studied the spread of buffel in The Centre over decades.
He says the CSIRO brought in several different types of buffel from which two “really vigorous” hybrids resulted, especially suited to Central Australian conditions.
Seed came from WA, the only place where it was available.
Mr Latz says a similar disaster unfolded when the CSIRO brought in African lovegrass: “It was watered for 30 years and then really took off in the 2000 rains.
“Now it’s between Elliott and Port Augusta.”
Mr Latz says there is no doubt something needed to be done about dust around the airport.
“But they could have planted native grasses,” he says. “Perhaps it would have taken a year longer.”
Dr Friedel said in an email to the Alice Springs News Online: “I’d be surprised if there wasn’t sharing of information between the NT Administration people at AIB Farm and CSIRO, although they were independently administered by the Commonwealth.
“If Bob Winkworth’s statement in 1997 is to be accepted, his Todd floodplain trials were ploughed under.
“Clearly there were sources of seed around because AIB personnel built a harvester to collect seed.
“Whether the sources were escapees from Bob Winkworth’s floodplain trial or seed from elsewhere (we know buffel grass was being grown on pastoral properties, and there was a local variety from camel days) it’s not possible for either of us to say at this distance in time,” writes Dr Friedel.
“As Des’s article and other sources attest, there were a number of individuals and organisations planting buffel grass in central Australia. One record I have is as early as 1948. I expect seed from any number of sources would have blown on the wind, as it does today.
“I also have publications prepared by Rolf Albrecht. In one he refers to accidental introductions of buffel grass ‘most likely introduced into the Alice Springs District from the Kimberleys’ which references camel saddles as the source (already mentioned).
“He also says, regarding planned introductions: ‘Following early settlement, interested cattlemen tried to sow Buffel grass on their grazing lands’, but the impact was limited.
“He then goes on to say: ‘The Department of Primary Production began introducing Buffel grass in the arid zone in 1961. Test sites were established under widely varying soil and climatic conditions’ (he was writing in 1985, when DPP was the current name). ‘From 1961 to 1971, 53 introduction sites were established on 31 stations in the Alice Springs region’.
“Then follows details of where. Seed mixtures included WA Purple Buffel grass and other commercially available strains Gayndah, Biloela, Cloncurry, USA and Molopo and, from 1963 onwards, locally harvested strains.”
Says Dr Friedel: “So my purpose in providing this information is not to ‘defend’ CSIRO from suggestions that it was responsible for the spread of buffel grass in central Australia but to illustrate, as Des did, that the story is much more complex – and interesting – than this.
“I have tried to provide information for which I have factual support, and to avoid speculation.”
UPDATE May 27
Dr Friedel wrote: I have the complete list of ‘accessions’ (varieties of different species) that were tested in a series of trials at the AIB farm by Bob Winkworth, sown from November 1960 to November 1963, as well as the methodology used.
Included in the list were five local accessions of buffel grass from Alice Springs, and others from Elkedra and Mt Doreen, as well as from interstate and overseas. Subsequently seedlings of all accessions, not just buffel grass, were transplanted in 1963 and 1966 and watered until the plants were well established.
Final harvests for ‘dry matter production’ were in April 1967, and there was no watering after 1966 when good rains fell. As you will recall, Bob said that the trials were ploughed under at the end.
I’m not able to identify the African lovegrass Peter Latz mentions, because there are a number of different Eragrostis species lumped under that name.
Bob Winkworth’s list of lovegrass accessions in his trials is Eragrostis chloromelas, Eragrostis curvula, Eragrostis lehmanniana and Eragrostis superba. Plant names change over time, so now E. chloromelas is synonymous with (the same as) E. curvula. Only E. curvula and E. superba appear in herbarium records in the NT, just once each.
I’ve understood Peter to say in the past that the weedy Eragrostis which has been spreading rapidly is Eragrostis cylindriflora (synonymous with Eragrostis trichophora), and there are 67 records of it in the NT, some provided by Peter.
I have no evidence that it was deliberately introduced by anyone but would be keen to have any evidence because I am writing a history of weed invasions in arid Australia.
Buffel grass legacy started under Canberra rule
By ERWIN CHLANDA