Buffel grass - feed or weed?

20 Apr, 2005 08:45 PM
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THE pastoral industry is divided on the issue of introduced grasses, following the release of a report by the Cooperative Research Centre for Australian Weed Management (CRC).

The report identified introduced grasses such as gamba, para, mission, guinea and buffel as the crux of a problem that is dangerously altering Australia's delicate outback ecosystems.

Buffel grass is an African grass (buffel is Afrikaans meaning buffalo), and is widely used as a fodder grass on cattle stations across northern Australia.

Pastoralists and environmentalists will always disagree on the merits of buffel grass, but this report has certainly raised the ire of many pastoralists who depend heavily on buffel grass.

Many pastoralists rely on buffel grass as life saving feed for cattle, especially in dry times.

Poor quality country can be readily turned into productive cattle country with buffel grass, known for its drought proofing qualities.

Meat and Livestock Australia program coordinator John Childs said that buffel grass would never be eradicated and was of tremendous benefit to the cattle industry.

"A CSIRO study completed in 1998 found that improved pastures containing buffel grass had a $1.5 billion benefit to the beef industry," Mr Childs said.

"Buffel lasts longer and starts quicker after rain, and is of tremendous benefit to the cattle industry.

"Buffel grass is naturalised in some places and is a legitimate pasture used to improve productivity for beef producers."

Scientists are concerned however that Australia's once fire tolerant landscapes are being burned alive by a spreading invasion of African grasses, which will have follow-on effects to the grazing industry, indigenous communities and tourism.

In a development with profound ecological implications for Australia's native plants and animals, scientists warn that vast areas of woodland in the north and centre of the continent are now at risk from a host of these African grasses.

Professor David Bowman of Charles Darwin University said these African grasses build up huge fuel loads, causing fires of an intensity and timing that native tress, shrubs and grasses cannot withstand.

"These 'fireweeds' are becoming widespread, invading areas of high conservation value in the arid zone and monsoonal tropics of the top end, displacing the native grasses and shrubs," Mr Bowman said.

Dr Tony Grice from CRC says the African weeds produce up to four times the fuel load of native grasses, causing conflagrations which destroy eucalypts, acacias and other shrubs, which normally thrive in the natural fires of lower intensity and frequency.

The dilemma is accentuated by the fact that there is no effective control on the horizon for the invaders.

"This is truly an issue of national concern because it involves the potential transformation of vast tracts of the continent from an Australian landscape into something else," Dr Bowman said.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association (PGA) WA pastoral and wool director Edgar Richardson said he couldn't see how buffel could be eradicated other than by resorting to biological warfare.

"Should buffel grass be eradicated, it would have to be by such means that would surely eradicate our native species as well," he said.

"The destruction of buffel grass would decimate the northern cattle industry."

Mr Richardson was attending a conference in the Kimberley last weekend and had discussed the buffel grass issue with pastoralists from the region.

"The pastoralists I spoke to all vehemently denied that buffel grass choked out native grasses," he said.

"In fact they said that the native grasses and buffel cohabitated the pastoral area quite well.

"Although buffel is in the scientists radar as a weed, mainly because it is an introduced species, how long do you have to be here before you are classed as native?

"Buffel grass has been in the pastoral areas for over 100 years, having first been brought into the northern region by Afghans and their camels," Mr Richardson said.

Mr Richardson concluded by saying that soil conservation and other benefits to the cattle industry far outweighed any other worries regarding buffel grass.

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