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HomeVolume 29Only biological control can eradicate buffel

Only biological control can eradicate buffel

Buffel on the bank of the Todd.

By ERWIN CHLANDA

The Bradshaw Walk is one of The Centre’s small gems.

Starting at the Overland Telegraph Station, five minutes from the CBD, the slim track winds its way south, along a low range of hills at right.

On the opposite side, from elevated positions, walkers can catch glimpses of the Todd River.

The region’s iconic orange rocks dominate the landscape.

Between them glitter brooks, after the rain we’ve just enjoyed, narrow enough to step across. Tadpoles are celebrating the end of their underground wait.

It’s hard to tell how many of these small water courses there are as you may be crossing the same one several times – maybe five?

Bushes and trees range from mulgas, corkwoods and witchetties to majestic gums.

You’re close to town yet it feels miles away, a mini-version of the Larapinta Trail, an hour return, a hint of the adventures that make up The Centre’s powerful appeal.

This is where the good story ends.

The green that surrounds you is buffel, as far as the eye can see, a malicious plant predator that has overwhelmed much of The Centre, and is continuing its relentless advance.

Renowned Central Australian botanist Peter Latz, who has studied the introduced plant for decades, likens the magnitude of impact on the country of buffel with the megafauna’s extinction.

On the Bradshaw walk there is only one ground cover that is not buffel, interspersed with couch, which is almost as bad.

That patch measures about 30 square metres (pictured).

After decades of warnings and campaigning, and buffel having been declared a weed in South Australia, the NT Government has now taken the significant step of replacing one buffel committee with another.

It is charged with considering declaring buffel a weed but Chief Minister and Minister of the Environment Eva Lawler hastens to add that buffel grass remains highly valued by cattle producers.

Her department says: “All walking tracks are regularly assessed under a walking track assessment framework to ensure they comply the walking track rating against national standards.

“The Bradshaw walk was last assessed on 12 March 2024 to identify a schedule required works.”

The department does not disclose what has been “identified” during what Mr Latz (pictured) describes as the worst buffel season ever. 

The recent heavy rains created an ideal opportunity for spraying the weed which needs to occur during its vigorous growth phase. There is no indication that this is happening along the Bradshaw walk.

Says the department: In 2023 and to date, approximately 144 hours of ranger hours have been spent on slashing and spraying the Bradshaw Walk, Riverside Walk and various other sections of trails and walks that are located within the Alice Springs Telegraph Station footprint.”

That is about 20 ranger minutes a day.

“This includes engagement of Aboriginal Rangers through the Central Land Council, and the use of low security prisoners from the Alice Springs Corrections Facility. This commitment is ongoing.”

The department did not disclose how many of the 600 inmates of the local gaol were engaged in the work, or could be.

The commitment is not quantified but Mr Latz’s own work is a measure of the effort required.

He has a 10 hectare block: “I’ve spent the last four years trying to get rid of buffel. I only succeeded by hard work for half of my full-time work.

“Australia was dominated by browsers in the past. It didn’t involve grasses that were fire and grazing tolerant. Grasses were mostly under trees and water courses.

“The CSIRO said we’ll fix that, so they went to four or five different countries and brought back all the different strands of the buffel grass, a beautiful gene pool to find the best one to take over this country.

“All the pastoralists were very happy. We haven’t had any bad dust storms for 50 years. But are we better off?

“You just have to drive along Ilparpa Road. On the eastern side there’s been three or four buffel fires and there is hardly a tree to be seen,” says Mr Latz.

“But on the western side, which hasn’t been burned for 50 years, there’s lots of mulga scrub with ironwoods and other stuff in amongst them.

“The only way we’re going to do it is by bringing in biological control just as we had to bring in two diseases to deal with our rabbits.

“We haven’t got rid of the rabbit. But they are no longer a bigger problem.”

Widely reported discussion of biological control includes the importation of buffel eating bugs from Queensland where they are treated as a threat to the pastoral industry.

Mr Latz says conventional control was carried out around the Desert Park, but large area removal is impossible without biological control. 

“But the pastoralists will try to stop it happening.”

9 COMMENTS

  1. A good example of the damage that “buffel eating bugs from Queensland” can do was reported only yesterday.
    As usual in Queensland, nature’s “retaliation” on the dominance of introduced pasture species is reported as a major economic problem; however, what’s noteworthy in this example (pasture dieback caused by mealybug infestations of grass roots) is that it’s apparently spreading quickly into drier regions of the country.
    It’s probably only a matter of time before this bug crosses into the Northern Territory.
    Meanwhile, I’m not waiting – at time of writing this comment, I’ve nearly completed the removal of established buffel grass at Pitchi Richi Sanctuary (9 acres), the bulk of it by mattock.
    This work should be completed by the end of this month.

  2. I was just out at the Desert Park the other day. Masses of bright green buffel tussocks coming up, many with seedheads, visible from walking paths within the Park. If they don’t get on top of it soon they’ll be putting all their beautiful native grasses at risk.

  3. There is no doubt that bio-control is needed, but the politics of buffel makes it near impossible.
    It would really need several agents, and even then eradication would not be possible, but buffel would be reduced and control by other methods would be easier.

  4. Are the interests of pastoralists and the rest of us really at odds?
    The most serious economic threat for the pastoral industry caused by buffel pasture may be drawdown of nitrogen and other nutrients with an associated decline in cattle live‐weight gain (Graham, 2000; Puckey and Albrecht, 2004).
    Also a halving of carrying capacity in buffel pastures after 10 to 20 years, predicted to cost the cattle industry over $17 billion over the next 30 years (Peck et al., 2011).
    Furthermore, an undiagnosed and as yet untreatable buffel dieback potentially threatens the future viability of buffel pastures (Makiela and Harrower, 2008).
    The increased risks to infrastructure, drought refuge, livestock, and humans associated with buffel‐fueled fire are probably of most concern to pastoralists.
    The buffel grass seed caterpillar can have an adverse effect on seed crops but does not affect grazing quality of the grass.

  5. Alex, I chased up the story you linked to in Queensland, and noted that there was a studied reluctance to name the “improved pasture grass” that was being killed.
    It also didn’t specify whether the grasses that survived were native.
    I hope both are true, but of course they were talking about re-seeding with other exotic species.
    Oh dear.
    Rule number one, when you’re in a hole, stop digging.

  6. Yes. The time to get onto it is before it seeds set and while the ground is still relatively soft from recent rains.
    While living in Alice I attempted to remove all buffel and three corner Jacks from Davidson Park in Old East side. After many years I felt I was getting somewhere but then I moved south. What’s it like these days?

  7. @ Charlie Carter: Keep following the links to earlier ABC stories, Charlie. You’ll find a report from 2018 that lists buffel grass (among others) withering from a mysterious dieback disease, of which the cause was unknown at the time.
    First reported in 2014, the dieback was observed to kill up to 80% of effected pasture grasses.
    Given the increasing dominance of buffel grass in Central Australia, right up to being effectively a monoculture over large tracts of land, it will be interesting (to say the least) how much of it may be impacted in this region once the root-infesting mealybugs arrive here.
    One imagines a major paradigm shift in land tenure over much of the Territory is a distinct possibility in the not-too-distant future.

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