By MIKE GILLAM
Part three in a series of four.
Given such a horrifying political landscape, where only one of five affected States and Territories have taken action, what is the future of biodiversity in the 70% of Australia that invites buffel grass invasion?
For hopeful answers we must look to Queensland where varieties were first introduced in the 1920s. The state government there is still protecting buffel pastures from a mealybug. That bug could be the very species to fight Central Australia’s flora scourge.
It’s a biological truth that monocultures are prone to disease, to peaks and eventual declines. (The same is often said of great civilisations).
Agricultural enterprises are beset with problems and some such as salinity are well understood but the downside of buffel is more difficult to articulate especially given the shameful history of Government marketing and patronage. The absence of biodiversity, much more difficult to restore than protect, can lead to disastrous consequences for all.
A number of pathogens offer promise for buffel grass control and I’m hopeful that CSIRO are well advanced with contingency plans to put biological control measures into action. A PIRSA information bulletin suggests that the buffel grass seed caterpillar (Mampava rhodoneura) is the only documented major insect pest. Ralph Folds, an Alice Springs News reader has alerted me to others that I was unaware of including the fungal pathogen Pyricularia grisea and the ergot fungus, Claviceps spp. Thank you!
The hero in my essay is the invertebrate pest known as pasture mealybug, Heliococcus summervillei that causes buffel grass die-back.
While the signs of dead grass are widespread and pronounced in Queensland it seems possible that patches are being overlooked in the vast leases of the Northern Territory. It must already be obvious to Territory pastoralists that the pressure of responding to devastating wildfires, largely fuelled by the spread and density of buffel grass, is eroding the benefits.
Repeated over time this burning regime threatens the long term viability of their stocking rates because it’s a factor driving pasture “rundown”. Essentially a buffel grass monoculture benefits those pastoralists who intend to profit in the short to medium term and sell before the music stops. Other beneficiaries include seed merchants and allied service industries from scientists to transport companies.
Generous Government grants and subsidies to the agricultural sector are further enhanced by a dazzling raft of scientific expertise including a biosecurity focus for the insect pests that attack exotic pastures. Meat and Livestock Australia have funded research by Queensland University of Technology (partnered with Queensland Biosecurity) that confirms “this is the same mealybug that caused pasture dieback in Queensland in 1926 and the 1930s, in New Caledonia in 1998, and currently in Barbados and Puerto Rico”.
Kalka, SA, roadside buffel.
Lead Researcher, Associate Professor Caroline Hauxwell of QUT also recommends adding phosphorous to depleted soils.
The following excerpts come from an online research publication produced by a private research organisation Ahr (Applied horticultural research), for their client, Meat and Livestock Australia. MLA is funded by producer levies and receives matched funding from the Federal Government: “In 2018-19 MLA invested $170m in a range of research, development and adoption programmes” (from their website).
This amount towers over the 2023 funding by SA Government of $2.2m to assist the Alinytjara Wilurara Landscape Board (AWLB) “that has led the fight against buffel grass in remote parts of the state for more than a decade. The State Government’s Landscape Priorities Fund and AWLB will jointly contribute … to a multi-agency buffel grass program”.
BHP has been monitoring and eliminating the weed around Roxby Downs since 2000 and recently provided $82,000 donation to AWLB in recognition of their efforts.
For the record I can see no comparable effort further north, in the major watercourses of the Lake Eyre Basin. As I write, buffel has now established on the main access road to Coober Pedy, fringing the wonderful mosaic of plants on the nearby flats where hovering kestrels may be seen hunting on any day.
I think of the advertising mantra “he first law of marketing is break the pattern” and feel sure tourist destinations like Coober Pedy have a great incentive to protect and manage natural advantages.
Keeping this invasive grass out can only benefit the wellbeing of the town’s residents and equally those visitors wanting to visit a truly unique desert community. But the town of 2,000 has little status in the eyes of a remote and aloof South Australian Government and we know that buffel thrives on Government neglect and inertia.
A review published online was conducted by Ahr research scientist, Dr Jenny Ekman for project partner, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) in 2019. Online reference: Pasture Dieback in Queensland – a review of relevant literature v7.docx ”Section 1.2 Areas in Queensland currently affected by dieback may also be affected by pasture rundown, with losses of 50% productivity in buffel pasture reported compared to when the pasture was first established. In 2011 it was estimated that the economic impacts of pasture rundown would be $17 billion over the next 30 years.
Red tailed black cockatoos.
“Buffel grass dieback [was] first observed in the Baralba district, south-west of Rockhampton, during the drought years of 1993-4. However the dead areas did not recover after the following wet seasons, but continued to expand. By 1997 patches of dead grass were appearing over wide areas”. p.5-6
Mealybugs and dieback symptoms. 3.1.5 “found that the roots of buffel grass with dieback were stunted with soft, sunken regions. They also lacked smaller feeder roots when compared to healthy plants. Although no mealy bugs were recorded, this damage appears consistent with the necrotic lesions that can be caused by mealybugs injecting saliva, feeding on sap and suppressing the plant defences (Figure 24)”. p.39
An updated document, citing a research duration of 2021-2022 was provided by Ahr: “MLA Buffel Grass Dieback. Summary: Pasture dieback is causing major feed losses in Australia. Because of this there is an urgent need to develop strategies to provide feed for livestock while a solution for the disease is being developed.”
This update attracted media attention. Article: ABC RURAL – Mealybugs identified as cause of mysterious pasture dieback costing graziers billions in Qld, NSW. Posted Wed 12 April 2023 by Abbey Halter: “For more than a decade, graziers across Queensland have been baffled … as their lush green pastures turned yellow and died. With a crime scene between 40,000 and 4.4 million hectares in size, researchers struggled to identify the culprit … the suspect is four times smaller than a five cent piece …The first signs of a problem in Queensland’s pastures was discovered in 2011 and since then it has spread through central and southern areas and into northern New South Wales.
“Gympie’s [grazier who] used to take pride in his ‘great pasture’ …has reduced his breeding cattle by one-third due to lack of feed, and as a small stud it has been a significant loss … a member of the Meat and Livestock Association’s (MLA) oversight committee working to tackle pasture dieback. The committee estimates the economic hit to productivity because farmers cannot use their paddocks exceeds $2 billion.”
The incoming El Niño might buy us some time. Moist years are optimal for mealy bugs to establish and spread and the following dry years, may be best for killing the already stressed buffel. Regardless, the application of mealy bugs should be fast tracked for riparian systems and areas of vulnerable old growth trees, for biodiversity hotspots and to safe-guard native seed banks. Concurrently, a variety of herbicides need to be urgently applied while buffel is still actively growing to control the critical spread along roadside and river corridors.
South Australia is making a valiant effort to plan strategically and coordinate agencies in the battle against buffel but more is needed fast. They regularly use vehicle mounted boom sprays and have even experimented with a helicopter spray unit.
Multi-state cooperation, strategic planning and resourcing is essential but this requires the Northern Territory to admit some responsibility in this great debacle and stop sitting on the fence.
Given its central role in the promotion, development and establishment of buffel grass the Federal Government must urgently and ambitiously, step up. I was dismayed to find the biggest, most terrifying tussocks growing unmolested, in the grounds of the recently abandoned CSIRO Research Station in Alice Springs. The landlord must be appalled.
The myriad organisations, communities and individuals trying to retain biodiversity have been left with no remedy for this unwanted invasion. They have been abandoned by Government and industry, expected to accept immense losses and, totally unsupported, shoulder the impossible future that is imposed by buffel’s spread.
By creating such a shocking imbalance of winners and losers, the use of buffel by agriculture certainly makes a lie of the cooperative theory of multiple land use. I do wonder at the outcry if the choices, causes and consequences were reversed and the pastoral industry were asked to take this outrage on the chin.
Pastoralists anticipate increased yields from a developing buffel monoculture and this coupled with the granting of water licenses is possibly driving a surge in property prices over the past decade. The Crown (Pastoral Lands Act) uses formulae that appear very generous by business standards, given that some properties are achieving market values of $10m or more.
Annual Pastoral Rent (PLR) is based on several factors as defined by the Pastoral Land Act but principally on “the estimated carrying capacity expressed in animal equivalents as determined by the Agency under section 54.” Of great significance to the buffel story, “the determination must be made based on the unimproved native pasture on the land and ignoring any improved pasture on the land.” This could mean that a property routinely carrying 6,000 head on a buffel “improved” pasture might be paying for a carrying capacity of only 3,000 head at $3.26 each.
In my humble opinion this formula should be reversed so that pastoralists are greatly rewarded when they strive to maintain native pasture, ie. contribute to biodiversity and are charged a premium when pasture “enhancement” using exotic species is in play.
The latter scenario would clearly anticipate higher profits but at the nation’s expense ie. causing potential damage to the natural environment! Perhaps a review of this rental charge, based on stock numbers that are sometimes difficult to verify, could be modified to include a charge for turn off, for each beast when they’re trucked to market. I should note that most but not all 99 year leases in the NT have been converted to perpetual leases, ushered in by the Pastoral Land Act of 2016.
Polluter pays model
In the absence of resolute Government action and prohibitions on the deliberate spread of exotic grasses such as buffel, positive change will progress much more slowly. As dieback accelerates pastoralists have a couple of options. Having enjoyed times of plenty, of elevated production, they could allow declining exotic grasslands to revert back to more resilient native plant communities. Hopefully this will accelerate, when biological controls are established.
Recognising inescapable trends of the future and wishing to benefit from financial incentives, pastoralists may become actively engaged in spreading pathogens to hasten the control of buffel grass and regularly re-seed and refresh their pastures with native species.
The Pastoral Lands Act exposes the nation to compensation of owners for infrastructure improvements but there appears to be no avenue for compensation to the nation for ecosystem degradation due to exotic grasses and a history of grazing impacts.
Obviously, any use of “refresh” buffel should be strictly forbidden beyond its current areas of distribution and seed merchants audited. In the extreme example that buffel exemptions are provided by Government, the seed of approved strains could be heavily taxed to provide some revenue for buffel control programmes and habitat restoration.
From: New pasture plants intensify invasive species risk, Don Driscoll, J.Catford, (Deakin University) 04-12-2014: “The vast majority of agribusinesses, including government agencies and private companies, do not manage the environmental weed risk of taxa they promote … Why is this the case?… Agribusiness … is not financially liable for environmental impacts or control of pasture taxa that invade natural areas … Instead the public pays to manage environmental weeds that have escaped from pastures … The risks for agribusiness are minimal, and therefore there is little incentive to address potential environmental impacts … Insurance or environmental bonds may be practical mechanisms for linking the risk of environmental impacts with commercial responsibility … following the well-established polluter pays principle … motivate agribusiness to pursue strategies that reduce environmental risk.”
Red gum fire.
Is it too much to ask that environmental agencies and communities battling buffel receive similar funding, to that provided by the Federal Government to MLA? Funding is urgently required to protect the natural estate from the accidents and excesses of the agricultural industry and dare I say a diabolical failure, orchestrated and encouraged by Governments.
When I review the impressive scientific and support staff working at Applied Horticultural Research I find myself wishing for equivalent expertise and resourcing in the fight against buffel. Do conservation landowners have legal recourse for the loss of biodiversity?
Certainly the plethora of Government subsidies to commercial land use endeavours from mining to agriculture versus the survival needs of biodiversity conservation, the money story, needs proper analysis. “Providing independent research and advice to Government on economic, social and environmental issues affecting the welfare of Australians” the Productivity Commission would be a good place to start.
While I wait for a glacial Government response I dream about a favourable mealy bug laden wind from the east or perhaps waves of contaminated Territorians returning from holidays in Queensland with a bevy of hitch-hikers. I am torn because the mealy bug is an exotic pest that will likely affect other grasses but …
PHOTO at top: Emu incinerated in bushfire. All photos MIKE GILLAM.
Essays about buffel by MIKE GILLAM
ESSAY TWO Buffel: South Australia leading the way
ESSAY ONE From grass castles to fiery ruins