Hand-wringing main response to buffel inferno

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By LINDSAY “LINZ” JOHANNSEN

Buffel grass (Cenchrus Ciliaris) is not just invasive. Environment-wise, it is utterly transformative. And it is here to stay.

Yet, in the latter, above, to some extent, I hope to be proven wrong.

AT RIGHT: Buffel grass seed head eating caterpillars in Central Queensland, Mampava rhodoneura. © Chris Gardiner.

See my hope is that, one day, an efficient, environmentally friendly controlling agent for buffel will be found … a cost effective means of completely eliminating it from large areas like the West Macs national park, for instance, while at the same time leaving the pastoral industry able to enjoy its undeniable economic benefits.

That said, here – like it or not – is what we are faced with:

Buffel grass is a deep rooted, “woody stemmed” perennial.

Buffel thrives on being burned. Vigorous new growth follows subsequent showers of rain, so recreating (and episodically contributing-to), a new fuel load.

This is how buffel was introduced.

Buffel’s fuel-load mass, at any given moment, is determined by the number, duration and intensity of rain events since the previous fire event.

Little degradation occurs to this fuel build-up in areas not stocked and grazed. It just builds, and builds, and builds … until it burns – generally as a result of a lightning strike.

Buffel fires are often intense and prolonged. It presents to an oncoming fire-front as an upright, well ventilated, high surface-area fuel, with both intensity and duration being determined on the day by fuel load density and mass, plus wind conditions and temperature.

Buffel’s burn / rapid-growth rebuild / ready to burn again fire cycle will, over time, simply kill or destroy everything that is not protected or cannot evacuate – everything!as its fire repeat-time is far too short for most of the native species to advance beyond the early juvenile stage, let alone reach reproductive maturity.

And this applies in particular to an area’s macro-flora species – the big plants.

Hills country that is already dominated by buffel (such as that immediately north of Alice Springs) is almost totally undefendable, and will, in time, be reduced to bouldery grassland, with few new or surviving shrubs and trees.

And (as much as I hate to write these words), so too the Western Macs, which region, even now, is primed and ready to burn again – along with any other areas that buffel has fully exploited.

Fire risk on low-relief, buffel-dominated pastoral rangelands is reduced to a lesser or greater degree by grazing, depending on stock numbers. And lightning-strike fires can be area-limited by well maintained cross-paddock and fenceline fire breaks, their width factored by cost and practicality (with many of the latter already in place).

As for the West Macs … Well, its great attractions are the magnificent escarpments, its ephemeral river gorges and other high-relief geology, especially viewed in contrast with its extensive rangeland country.

And so, wanted or not, here’s my two dollar fifty’s worth: I reckon that some of its less-visited, less-travelled, low relief rangeland could be well served by having (shock-horror!) some fenced grazing mitigation and/or a few well maintained, fire-size limiting, fire breaks … instead of the anguished hand-wringing that seems to be the response so far, to those horrible and devastating, West Mac infernos.

Correct me if I’m wrong.

PHOTOS at top (Alice Springs News archive): Palm Valley, as many other jewels in The Centre’s tourism crown, is surrendered to buffel.

15 COMMENTS

  1. I’d like to think that there is a magic potion that would rid us of buffel, but I suspect any poison will destroy yet more of our fragile eco-system. Meanwhile here is a rant!
    The Canberra Wall of Shame. A proposal.
    I’ve spent much of the last two years dutifully clearing my backyard of buffel grass. This noxious weed that has been strangling native flora for decades and like most imported pests, the situation has gone from bad to catastrophic in recent years.
    In 2015 South Australia finally declared buffel to be a weed; up north they are still seeding the stuff because pastoralists only care about profit from their cattle, not environmental collapse.
    If you have to eat meat, then eat Kangaroos, at least they adapted to living here!
    In typical racist nonsense the introduction of buffel has been blamed on the cameleers who created the transportation system of Central Australian prior to the motor car.
    I doubt it as that system of communication was minimal and barely touched the top end. Regardless, the infestation problem has been amplified by a posse of idiots eg. Alice Springs airport in the 1960s seeding buffel to stop dust storms – as if!
    They could have used their brains and planted salt bush which is indigenous and does a similar job of binding the soil together – just grows a little slower if we have the patience.
    As for the tourists industry’s promotion of the Red Centre? You try finding it around Alice Springs. Most of the hills, dry river banks, kerbsides, and spectacular rock formations are covered with green buffel. The only red you will see is over the Simpson desert while flying in.
    Anyway – The Canberra Wall of Shame. I suggest we erect a memorial to our War on the Environment. Right next to the other war memorial please, the one celebrating our wars on various peoples and nations (except strangely by omission, Indigenous Australia). Doesn’t have to cost $500m for refurbishment, just a suitable ugly block of concrete will do with hand painted characters in thick red, sponsored by Gena Rinehart.
    According to the Invasive Species Council the list of invasive alien plants in Australia has grown to more than 2700, a figure that climbs by about 20 new species every year!
    This proposal is about flora but “we shall not forget” the idiots who gave us the following fauna (look ‘em up) rabbits, foxes, cane toads, cats, goats, etc. Give ‘em a spot on the Wall of Shame too.
    The list should include those good citizens who introduced the following (by name if we can find them):
    I’m sure this list can be extended but here’s a start:
    Privet (Ligustrum vulgare), Lantana (Lantana camara), Groundsel Bush (Baccharis halimifolia), Cat’s Claw Creeper (Macfadyena unguis-cati), Mother of Millions (Bryophyllum delagoense), Red Guava (Psidium cattleianum var. cattleianum), African Olive (Olea europaea subsp. africana), Broad Leaf Pepper (Schinus terebinthifolius), Mist Flower (Ageratina riparia), Formosan Lily (Lilium formosanum), Bleeding Heart (Homolanthus populifolius), Morning Glory (Ipomoea cairica), Sweet Acacia (Acacia farnesiana), Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima), Broom Sedge (Andropogon virginicus), Alligator Apple (Annona glare), Madeira Vine (Anredera cordifolia), Shoebutton Ardisia (Ardisia elliptica), Prickly Pear (Opuntia spp), Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), St.John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), Paterson’s Curse (Echium plantagineum), Madeira Vine (Anredera cordifolia), etc.

  2. @ Jon Rose: There may well be a magic potion that could control buffel, and it wouldn’t be poison.
    A biological control could repeat the successes of Cactoblastis cactorum, a stem-boring moth, that has been extremely successful in controlling common prickly pear.
    With millions of acres overrun by buffel a biological agent would thrive and spread very quickly.
    Perhaps the Queensland Buffel Seed-head Caterpillar could be a natural control agent for buffel grass?
    A Queensland Agriculture Department paper provides advice on how to manage this “pest” so it doesn’t destroy buffel pasture.
    That is a strong recommendation for its use in Central Australia.
    But it also explains why AZRI has not been experimenting with the Buffel Seed-head Caterpillar and other natural control agents.

  3. On a recent trip into Queensland I was astounded to see buffel seed advertised in the rural press for sale.
    While I can understand the thinking of the pastoral industry it seems that no one is thinking nationally again as it has certainly been declared a weed in SA.
    On My own small holding I observed its behaviour and noticed that it was accumulating under the acacia bushes because the airborn seed was captured by the dense mid level foliage and germinated at the base of the tree, smothering the new mid level growth.
    Once I got that under control the rest was easier – bit here bit there and I felt I had it under control until the rain came.
    Now I don’t hold any hope because there are not many votes in it. I have read that overseas there is interest in using gene drives (Crispr/Cas9) to control many invasive species of both plant and animals to breed some nasty organisms out of existence. But just imagine the outcry if that happened here based on environmental grounds. No votes in that.
    The really sad part is that no government in the 40 years that I have lived here has looked seriously at developing the native grasses – paricularly native legumes – to replace buffel as it can be removed or replaced. There are probably more nutritious native legumes here, but never been explored. Once a far sighted pastoralist fenced off a plot on the bore between Old Andado and the main homestead to see what happened without grazing animals.
    It would be interesting to look at what resulted. This was done in other parts of the country and overseas with various stylos and phaseolus to name but a few, but like so many other sections of food production, never seen as a priority here.
    Unfortunately this is true in other areas of food research as well. Look at Leucaena in the Top End as a prime example and michoriza research.

  4. @ Ralph Folds: Appalling that ALEC and other environmental protection groups haven’t taken the initiative on this.
    Import the caterpillar from Queensland, breed and release.
    Surely not difficult with little chance of being caught or prosecuted.
    The powerful grazier lobby will stop any government action so it’s up to green groups to step up.

  5. “The undeniable economic benefits” of pastoralism are often touted as undeniable, yet I cannot find evidence for this beyond private benefit to lease title holders (especially those who flip titles often):
    • No comprehensive economic evaluation of this industry, which seriously measures public and environmental costs, seems to have been undertaken.
    • NT govt data suggests the entire NT pastoral industry which takes up 54% of the NT, contributes only 1.4% to the GSP.
    • The entire NT agricultural industry (including horticulture, fisheries, forestry and pastoralism) employs less than 2000 people.
    • No real data on contribution ancillary service and product sales
    • Rent paid for pastoral leases seems incredibly low, and capped: 224 pastoral leases. Total rent about $5m p.a. If divided equally that’s less than $500 per week per station!
    • The most productive rangelands further north are moving to cotton, justifying this on the grounds of the poor economics of pastoralism.

  6. @ Jacqueline Arnold: Apart from little economic benefit to the NT there is zero benefit to Aboriginal communities on grazing leases.
    Aboriginal people are neither trained nor employed.
    But they are exploited.
    The prices charged by stores run on the leases are staggering.
    20 years ago “killers” were provided on some stations.
    Not now.
    What is the economic and social advantage of grazing compared with tourism and our environment?

  7. @ Susan Sidler: Indeed.
    I’m an admin of the facebook Buffel Information and Action Group. We are organising a Buffel Grass Information and Action Night on March 16, 6-7pm (gates open until 8:30pm) at Olive Pink Botanic Gardens.
    Speakers will include Traditional Owners, CLC, ALEC (who have been strongly advocating for research into biological control recently) and Landcare.
    Scientists, and representatives from tourism, the NT and Federal governments will also be there.
    There will be time for community to ask questions / express themselves!
    We are hoping it’s an opportunity to:
    • Demonstrate community concern about buffel grass.
    • Increase understanding and hope that something can be done apart from individual clearing efforts (Federal Buffel Grass Threat Abatement Advice implemented, known biological threats to buffel grass (the buffel seed head eating caterpillar, buffel dieback) researched as potential control.
    • Plan for collective action / how to keep up community pressure / support for better management / funding etc.

    PHOTO: Buffel grass seed head eating caterpillar in Central Queensland, Mampava rhodoneura. © D H Fischer.

  8. The heavier rains brought by La Niña have made my attempt over many years to restore native grasses along Schaber Road in the farm area and on a couple of neighbouring two hectare blocks exceedingly difficult.
    At my local level of interest the horse (or in this case the buffel, tumbleweed and love grass seeds) has bolted in some areas.
    I might get to remove the ferals eventually but not before they’ve dropped their load.
    All things are relative but as written above it’s exceedingly sad and concerning to observe the harm we’ve done to the land, its diversity and its inhabitants over such a short time.

  9. Interesting – introducing one potentially invasive species (cattle) to control another (buffel) – essentially a biological control and therefore must be approached with utmost caution!
    Research from NSW and Vic suggests stock grazing in parks is an ineffective fire management tool, as far as I can find there have been no studies on this related to buffel invasion.
    The idea of introducing stock to parks seems proposed as a solution by the pastoral industry after every fire down south. It has been investigated at length by scientists in those areas and found to be ineffective.
    There seem to be a lot of rip roaring buffel fuelled fires on pastoral leases which suggests
    grazing does not necessarily mitigate fire risk. Are there comparison studies out there between fire activity in parks and on pastoral leases? At what point is buffel fuel load sufficient to cause catastrophic fires?
    Like any biological control introduction risks losing control and increasing / creating feral cattle populations in parks.
    Significant costs (unlikely to be compensated by stock sales) include:
    • Transporting the cattle in and out of the park (whether droving or by truck).
    • Construction and deconstruction of barriers (fencing / stock handlers etc) to keep stock in check.
    • Mustering of loose stock if required.
    • Further degradation / transformation by stock (erosion, contamination etc) of natural ecosystems already on brink of collapse.
    • Spread of buffel and spread / introduction of other weeds with stock movement.
    There are examples of where using more controlled, coordinated current management tools have been effective. An example is the Oak Valley Buffel recommendations for management in SA.

  10. @ Bruce Simmons: Depending on the source, tumbleweed (or buckbush as I’ve known it) is described as a native, exotic and / or naturalised species – at any rate, its distribution is ubiquitous and worldwide.
    In terms of being a weed, I consider it relatively harmless and it’s certainly easy to manage.
    A long time ago I also discovered buckbush makes a very useful mulch if it’s crushed down around desired young plants, as the spiny dry foliage works as an effective barrier against rabbits.
    When I was living out west of town during 1997/8 I observed buckbush growing happily on rabbit warrens – the bunnies never touched it.
    However, I was having trouble with rabbits nipping stems off young shrubs so I hit upon the idea of spreading some buckbush as a mulch around them. Bingo! No more trouble from the rabbits!
    I’ve used the same method recently with a couple of young emu bushes I discovered hidden by thick buffel grass at Pitchi Richi.
    I cleared the grass but the emu bushes copped some heavy pruning from rabbits – turns out these plants are highly palatable to them.
    I resorted to my old trick of spreading and crushing down some buckbush as a prickly mulch around the two young emu bushes and the rabbits have avoided them from that time on.
    Couldn’t be simpler!

  11. Hand-wringing butters no parsnips. Start by declaring buffel a weed. Get prison teams to establish and maintain demonstration buffel free areas around town and along the bike trail and highways.
    Publicise them, install information signs. Show the people of Alice Springs what the various ecosystems around Alice Springs should look like.
    See if we motivate people to adopt buffel free areas themselves, and put pressure on our pollies to get research done and take action.

  12. @ Ian Sharp. I like your idea that public signage and small exemplar buffel-free biodiverse sites could educate residents on the ecosystems of this region and motivate them to adopt buffel free areas themselves. Hopefully they will also get involved in advocating for a weed listing and well resourced, coordinated, Federally funded action on buffel grass.
    Prisoners are already made to suppress buffel along the banks of the Todd River. Making prisoners work under duress on a problem that the CSIRO and pastoralists created is unfair and, given that they are just whipper snipping the buffel, produces few ecological outcomes beyond protecting river red gums from fire, and for that reason probably feels less than satisfying.
    Work performed under duress is demeaning and doesn’t lead to good ecological outcomes.

  13. @ Jorgen Doyle: The only coercion used on prison work gangs is that if they don’t pull their weight they won’t be allowed the privilege again.

  14. Jorgen Doyle: Prisoners constructed large sections of the Larapinta trail happily enough, so I assume the same here.
    As I recall they were all volunteers.
    The work wouldn’t involve whipper-snipping, that’s useless, more likely mattocks.
    The areas I cleared under corkwoods and ironwoods along the Simpson Gap bike trail over a decade ago was hard work for a 65 year old but doable.
    To see native ground over return over a period of time was very satisfying. My areas were only small, to protect individual trees, and maintenance need to be done every year to keep buffel from re-invading. The visual effect was dramatic.

  15. There’s one very big piece of the buffel jigsaw puzzle that is continually ignored, and it’s this. I believe it was over 10 years ago at one of the Friday arvo talks hosted by CSIRO.
    The guest speaker was reporting on her PhD field research in Central Australia. She was studying the spread of buffel here by use of DNA sampling.
    She reported than not one sample taken in areas buffel had spread to, could be matched to the DNA of the cultivars known to have been introduced. Not only that, there were substantial variation within the unidentified samples.
    This very much supported the earlier fears by Peter Latz that buffel was hybridizing in the field – remember that the introduction of buffel was considered to be a dismal failure until the mid ’70s, now we partially know why.
    The implications of this is that putting it bluntly, we’ve facilitated the emergence of a super weed. It follows that discussing the impact of the hybridised buffel causing all the problems we know about so well, v. any value buffel may have in the pastoral industry, so far has been very misdirected.
    This is not new information, but not information those in power (or the pastoral industry) are interested in.
    I can only surmise that perhaps it is because if those in power took it on board, they would have no excuse not to do what so many of us know needs to be done, and that’s to get on with it.
    The rest of the pastoral industry also need to seriously take this on board, because one of the side effects of cattle overdosing on buffel (which will happen to them, we’ve had first hand experience of it) if we keep going as we are, are quite serious, and documented but unfortunately, so far ignored.
    Hybridized buffel knows no boundaries.

    Hi Rod, Thank you for your comment. Three of the many reports (google them!) about buffel in the Alice Springs News:
    BUFFEL BATTLE: SEND CATTLE INTO THE FRAY? IN A PARK? Report by KIERAN FINNANE.
    BUFFEL MAY COVER HALF THE COUNTRY.
    Buffel grass legacy started under Canberra rule.
    And this is a quote from a CSIRO published report co-written by Alice Springs scientist Dr Margaret Friedel:
    Buffel grass has demonstrated a strong propensity to naturalise in Australia. Avoiding the introduction of new varieties may also reduce the development, through mutation and/or hybridisation of genotypes that are better adapted to particular environments.

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