Buffel, the canetoad of the plant world

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By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

 

Is buffel the botanical cane toad, only worse? That’s the question PETER LATZ (pictured) is raising. He is Central Australia’s most prominent botanist, Hermannsburg born, fluent in the Arrernte language and widely published. He is the owner of a 20 acre rural block with some 120 native plant species and no buffel – after “2.5 man years over 15 years” of hard work controlling what South Australia has recently declared a weed. He started studying buffel 30 years ago. It’s a troubling account of short-sightedness and government incompetence. This is his story.

 

 

The cane toad is an ugly, poisonous pest. Cane toads have now grown longer legs so they invade new territory more quickly – as buffel has manipulated its genes to take over the country quickly.

 

 

Yet the Chinese, the curlews and the crows love cane toads. It’s an easy animal to catch and eat. I love eating their legs as the French love frogs’ legs. Cooking destroys their poison. The Chinese breed them to eat – you can eat all of the animal after cooking it. Curlews just eat their tongues which kills them eventually. Crows turn them over to eat them from the bottom up, avoiding the poison in their backs. So the hated cane toads are edible – it just goes to show: Nothing is all bad.

 

 

However, I drove along the Stuart Highway the other day, 10km north of Alice, keeping my eye open for any native grasses. I saw only three individual natives, and five million buffel.

 

 

It is now dominating the region. When I was a child in Hermannburg we already had a little buffel in the Finke river, a plant a third the size of present day buffel. It had come in Afghan camel saddles. It was not intrusive, not a problem.

 

 

Later CSRIO personnel were paid to travel the world to look for superior grasses to replace our “inferior” native grasses. Seeds from Africa, India and other countries were brought back, including five strains of buffel.

 

 

In 1970 a big area on the AZRI block – [where the Kilgariff suburb is now under construction] was planted with those seeds, in neat little rows, names proudly displayed. Buffel was the only useful grass that took off, alongside grasses unpalatable to cattle.

 

 

p2134-buffel-headsBuffel (at right) is unique. It has very exchangeable genes. A different strain hybridised to form two new strains, and they took off like the cane toad.

 

 

Why did Alice Springs end up being the major town in Central Australia? It could have been Barrow Creek or Charlotte Waters, between Finke and New Crown, on the Overland Telegraph Line. The reason was the rich and varied soils around the Alice township.

 

 

This allowed stockmen, miners and so on to stay in town, having a beer, while their horses, donkeys and camels had something to eat. It allowed the Telegraph Station to run cattle, sheep and goats.

 

 

In the big drought of 1960s the surrounds of Alice Springs were totally eaten bare. Horses were feeding at the base of the cliff of Mt Gillen, the only place that had grass.

 

 

Buffel, with its new genetic setup, had no competition. Buffel requires fertile soils, it is phosphorus hungry. Most soils here are low on phosphorous.

 

 

Hopefully buffel will be restricted to only our most fertile soils, and not invade the two thirds of Central Australia with red earth and sands which are low on phosphorous.

 

 

An exception in sandy country is under desert oaks which bring up nutrients from deep down under the sand. A quarter of our sandy areas have desert oaks.

 

 

The pastoral industry likes buffel although the cattle don’t love it. In its younger days Central Australia was considered to be the best fattening country in good seasons. Cattle could recover and put on weight in a good season, on very nutritious sweet native grasses.

 

 

With the mixture between natives and buffel cattle do extremely well, but what makes them fat are the natives. In dry times cattle can fall back on buffel which shoots quickly after rain.

 

 

Unfortunately, cattle quickly exterminate the natives, and the stations will end up with a monoculture of one grass – buffel. Cattle prefer natives, they will eat them first, allowing buffel to take over.

 

 

There is toxin in buffel which causes “big head” – tumours – in horses. It will kill ponies if they have nothing but buffel to eat.

 

 

The biggest problem is that monocultures are very dangerous. Biodiversity is extremely important. The worst grassy weeds are wheat, barley, sugar cane and corn. They have taken over our best land. We have to breed new strains of wheat all the time that are rust resistant.

 

 

In a monoculture, fungi and insect pests take over and have a glorious time. In Queensland, where buffel has been around for a long time, there are now diseases in buffel because the soils are running out of phosphorus.

 

 

Farmers are topdressing with superphosphate. The cows have eaten out everything else, and buffel is the only thing left.

 

 

There is a much worse scenario in the future: in some rangelands in the US palatable grasses are gone and introduced grasses which cattle don’t eat have taken over.

 

 

It’s already happening. Ranches are closing down. Wildfires are burning away the shrubs.

 

 

In Central Australia we already have 10 unpalatable grasses infesting better soils. If buffel goes, we can end up in the same situation as parts of the US. Having widely displaced native grasses, we may need to look after buffel to save our cattle industry.

 

 

All this could spell the end of the cattle industry in Central Australia. “Top feed” – mulga – is safe. Cattle can survive on mulga, but they can’t breed and fatten on it.

 

 

The Central Australian desert is a tough organism which may have a Joker up its sleeve – we hope.

 

 

I’ve studied buffel in Simpsons Gap since 1971, and there is a glimmer of hope. The CSRIO in the ’60s set up an experimental plot. I recorded buffel on one of the 25 plots.

 

 

The plant died out after 30 years. We know now it can live for 30 years. The good news is that long established buffel is losing its vigour. Ten years ago we thought it would take over all richer soils.

 

 

p2128-perennial-daisy-4In the national parks, without cattle there to eat the more palatable natives, some are starting to fight back, especially the perennial daisy (pictured at left), with its attractive yellow flowers. Cattle eat it out of existence.

 

 

We can’t expect total recovery from buffel in the National Parks, but there may not be a total takeover by it.

 

 

Some 20 years ago Ken Johnson re-introduced bilbies to Simpsons Gap. To survive they need two plants to feed on, bush onion, which they dig up and eat, and annual grasses with lots of seed. Both are extinct in this study area, swamped out by couch and buffel. Good-bye bilbies.

 

 

So, buffel is worse than canetoads which have not caused the extinction of a single species or plant.

 

 

Drive towards Glen Helen and where the road crosses the Hugh River, turn right and follow the river to Hugh Gorge.

 

 

Mixed in with buffel and couch is an introduced pink grass (Red Natalgrass, pictured at bottom. There is buffel behind it). It is poisonous, nothing can eat it. The nasties are already well established here.

 

 

Our national parks are in big trouble. We now have three times as much grass fuel to burn away our shrubs. We have not found a good method for preventing fires devastating our parks.

 

 

[The most beautiful areas in the parks, the gorges, gaps and waterholes which are the backbone of our tourist industry, are also the areas with the best soils which buffel has invaded, displacing natives. Tourists are not coming here to see an ocean of buffel. NT Parks Minister Bess Price has washed her hands of the parks management fiasco, saying buffel is not a weed.]

 

 

We need to select areas within our parks for keeping alive native plants, as a seed source for the future. It’s too late for anything else. Besides, if you control buffel the risk is other weeds will come in.

 

 

Cane toads get all the attention, although they have not caused any extinctions at all. Why has money spent on them not been used for proper conservation? I guess, it’s because plants are not cuddly little creatures.

 

 

To be fair, buffel isn’t all bad: it is holding our soils together, reducing erosion, and putting carbon into the soil in areas that were formerly bare.

 

 

For dust control projects, natives take a bit longer to establish. It’s the old story: short time gain, long time pain. There are no free lunches in nature conservation.

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18 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Posted July 22, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    I enjoyed the read. I particularly liked the paragraph.
    “[The most beautiful areas in the parks, the gorges, gaps and waterholes which are the backbone of our tourist industry, are also the areas with the best soils which buffel has invaded, displacing natives. Tourists are not coming here to see an ocean of buffel. NT Parks Minister Bess Price has washed her hands of the parks management fiasco, saying buffel is not a weed.]”
    I traveled through central Australia years ago and asked numerous overseas back packers why they chose to come particularly to Australia and Central Australia. The majority answers were to see the bush and native animals.

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  2. Observer
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I was intrigued by Steve’s lament that there is not enough emphasis on “employing botanists with our taxes to try and assist the productivity of our nation, to help feed the masses”.
    I think that emphasis on short term productivity is a mistake that has been made all over Australia, often with ongoing disastrous consequences – buffel being one of them.
    Ecosystems are far too complex and fragile to risk the approach that Steve recommends. And what is productivity anyway?
    Maintaining a natural environment that tourists will come and marvel at, and is not subject to ferocious wild fires, is a far more productive use than creating a buffel plain for cattle grazing.

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  3. Ian Sharp
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 1:18 pm

    Thanks Erwin for posting Latzy’s thoughts on buffel, he has enormous expertise and knowledge in this area. Good to see the various responses too. Even enjoyed Steve Brown’s, he continues to be so remarkably confident of his knowledge on so many topics.

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  4. Trevor Shiell
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 9:51 am

    I have eliminated buffel from my block by observing its behavior. The wind blown seed is stopped by the witchetty bushes and accumulates under them where it germinates and prevents re growth of the witchetties. It works!
    The shortsightedness of Governments in the area of finding better replacements to buffel is astounding.
    Every other area in Australia (and now overseas) has significantly improved the productivity of its grazing industry by development of legumes. In the south it has been lucernes, clovers and medics.
    In tropical areas it has been stylos phaseolus, leucaena etc. but in the arid zones there has been no effort made to develop native strains of leguminous plants for the benefit of the local pastoral industry, and for environmental reasons.
    Unfortunately much of the research in this area is currently being done in Africa, India and Malaysia in developing strains of Rhizobium inoculation and Michorriza fungal infection to better utilize the poor nutrient status of many of their soils and thus plant and animal productivity.
    They have seen the need. This should have been a major initiative / priority of either or both Desert Knowledge Australia or Department of Primary Industries at what is now Kilgarriff and that is why I get mildly angry each time I go past it.
    This is the shortsightedness of current Government planning. I had extensive experience in propagating tropical legumes in the 70s and often wonder where the Queensland grazing industry would be now had that research not been done.
    We are in much the same position now as Queensland was in the 60s and Governments seem to ignore it. Perhaps its a question of scientific illiteracy, but its going to cost us.
    I have an extensive file on Rhizobium research conducted in other countries with our native Acacias of which we have many, and to illustrate the point, and benefits of inoculation and selective breeding, I have a small trial in my front yard which is beginning to show the benefits of commercial rhizobium inoculation on A. Victoriae.
    There are many suppliers of commercial inoculants interstate (see Murdoch Uni in WA, which has a specialist research unit in legume biology) and to establish demonstration plots where Kilgariff is now of what could be much more suitable local plants as a substitute for buffel, would be a good start.
    Can I suggest that the research start with native Glycine and or some of the Acacias, but be aware that there is along lag on food production lead in time – up to 15 years between results of research and commercial application.
    If any of your readers are interested in looking at what I am doing here with inoculation, they would be more than welcome. It is in very preliminary stages yet and very primitive research but it is indicative of what could be done here, given the right political conditions.
    If anyone is unconvinced as to how important this current emphasis is on food security, can I refer them to the 2012 food security conference in May in Sydney and the report of Pt Jackson partners consultancy to that conference, then google the annual report of Potash West, a public company and the population / land use graphs in that report to see the extent of the problem. (I have it on line here if anyone is interested. Government does not appear to be!) This thing makes small scale philosophical and political bickering quite silly.

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  5. Paul Lelliott
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 9:30 am

    Cenchrus Ciliaris [buffel]. Once again Peter you are right on the money. We need to manage it.
    I have completed a definitive study on this plant and the overwhelming evidence is that it does have to be controlled to protect it from consuming other plant species.
    That my friends is the end game in this debate. All other positions are annulled.

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  6. Interested
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 8:40 am

    I was wondering when you would comment on this subject. It has taken I while for you to look all this up. I’m not going to comment on all of this but there are two things
    One. Cattle do eat a lot of the natives which then leaves buffel last on the list. This then takes over and leaves no room or nutrients for the natives to regenerate. Surely you can understand that.
    Two. You keep talking about fires. You don’t understand that if burning off does not occur it can cause so much destruction to the environment and buildings e.g. the good old white gums.
    You say just wait till the natural fires to start, you obviously have not stood near a fire front working your arse of to put it out.
    If burning off does not occur we will be in a lot of trouble. I can tell you that not many burning offs lose control unless it is a station owner.

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  7. Steve Brown
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 8:03 pm

    Mr Latz, in scientific research, don’t you have to take into account all the variables and all the facts related to the subject being studied? Or is it OK to simply take a set against something and only take note of the bits of information that suit your theory?
    Do you think this article would stand any scrutiny at all, from your peers?
    While you are of course correct in saying that buffel is not all bad I will support you in saying that it’s certainly not all good either. However it’s a whole lot better than nothing to eat at all believe me!
    When you make comments like horses can get tumors if they only have buffel to eat, I can tell you from first-hand experience, not from driving by peering over people’s fences, that horses and cattle don’t live long enough to get tumors when they have nothing to eat.
    Buffel produces many, many times more food off the same rainfall as local grasses do, and don’t get me wrong, we love the local grasses, and so do the cattle, but there is simply no comparison between the two.
    So tell me, Mr Latz, Simpsons Gap was one of the Centre’s most stocked – some would even say over-stocked – stations for over 100 years.
    How come the cattle didn’t wipe out the native grasses then? Or are you actually saying that the natives don’t regrow once they are eaten alongside the buffel? Because that is not what we are observing here on White Gums where the buffel is grazed.
    Could it be that what you observe on Simpsons Gap has something to do with the regime of constant burning which you acknowledge is extremely damaging to our environment, our shrubs, trees and native grasses.
    Do you really think that the re-established bilbies were wiped out by loss of native grasses? What about the possum colonies – the same? Nothing at all to do with half a dozen major uncontrolled bushfires started accidentally by burning off? Are you really sure that it wasn’t fire that caused the loss?
    And if, as your article states, you are really concerned about fires in national parks, wouldn’t it be a good idea not to light them?
    And to put them out when they start? I’m curious: as a Government employed botanist you would have had, and probably still do have, access to the photographic records of this part of the world held, out there in the AIB library.
    I wonder why you didn’t choose to include some of those to demonstrate just what this country was like in the sixties while you were experimenting with buffel?
    Also, I’m a bit curious if Queensland was well ahead of us on the buffel front, why you people in the department didn’t get your seeds from there, or even research the buffel on site?
    You also claim that you have a singular buffel plant living for thirty years, then beginning to shows signs of weakening. Frankly, I’m not surprised, if we are talking about one plant.
    Further I’m curious how did it hybridise, and did it shed any seeds in that lifetime, do you think?
    In closing and in reference to your own acres lovingly cared for and developed, soils included, by the Brown Family, do you produce anything from it? Does it feed anyone?
    Once upon a time we employed botanists with our taxes to try and assist the productivity of our nation, to help feed the masses. Do you think the need for that has in anyway declined? Because last time I looked, the world population was growing at a frightening rate. Do you see any future in feeding them native grasses, I wonder?

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  8. Janet Brown
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    @ Interested: Have you read the article? It is for and against. And station owners offset the food supply to cattle to ensure good health and to ensure good financial out comes. The manure is good for the soil and if areas are grazed correctly native grasses and plants prosper. There is no substantial financial or environmental outcomes for over grazing. Good management and best practice achieves good outcomes.

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  9. Interested
    Posted July 17, 2014 at 10:20 am

    Janet, you may care for the environment and that is great to hear but what you have written in the past shows no evidence that you know much about it. So that is not judging. I am not a “greeny” as you put it. But I look to the future and wants what is best for the environment.
    Politics is a waste of time as they do not put any effort into what’s important (both parties). There is no compromise at all. The answers are out there and we should use these resources e.g. this article to maintain our flora and fauna. You and Steve should ignore your political views in this subject.

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  10. Cogs
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    Oh, and Janet, getting back on topic. I’m sure I’m not the only one eagerly waiting your demonstration of compromise between the flat earth society and the others, with or without “good conducive dialogue”. Should be good.

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  11. Cogs
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    When someone claims publicly, as you did: “The science is in and the Bu####it is exposed. Arid Lands has one agenda – shutting down our town based on fiction not facts” it is more than quite reasonable to expect some basis for those claims.
    To state (on the same subject) that Steve Brown “has the knowledge and researches well his subjects” suggests further strong support for such a claim.
    But as I know there is no substance at all to the first two, and little evidence of the third, I, in defence of the truth (leaving me no time nor inclination to play games), have called your bluff. Right up the mula.
    So I’m not at all surprised that you or Steve feel “personally attacked”. You put it out there, for whatever reason. You made the bed.
    You have a choice – back it up, or . . . . (I suspect a public apology is too much to hope for).
    For the record, I am apolitical, and am not, nor ever have been, a member of ALEC, nor any political party.

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  12. Janet Brown
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    @ Interested: You assume that I do not know anything about environmental care and responsibilies. You are so wrong and you pre-judge without any informed information.
    I love the manner at which greens automatically believe anyone who is not a greens supporter is anti environment. As I stated earlier water and environment is important to everyone in Australia and so is fact and truth. Each side can have both that does not mean either side is right or wrong it just means compromise is needed and so is good conducive dialogue.

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  13. Interested
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Janet, Steve:
    I am not having a go at you. I just ask you to write something you really know what you’re talking about. Water and the environment you do not. If you ignore my comments that is fine but you cannot disagree with this article. I’m afraid, in these topics you are the minority.
    Joel, National Parks are not for grazing, and yes I would take Latzy’s advice as well. Why? Because he understands the environment and I have worked with him!

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  14. Janet Brown
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 9:38 am

    @ Cogs and Interested: We are not interested in your political motivation based on party politics. Water and buffel – these are subjects that concern the very exsistence of Alice Springs. The are not pawns in your game of truth or dare. And you always take the dare because the truth is an unknown quantity to you.
    I believe in adding to conversations and discussions that I am a strong supporter for. The need by minorities to resort to personal attacks that dissipates from the debates and open conversation clearly signifies their lack of knowledge of subjects and signify the need to attack anyone personally who disagrees with the minorities.

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  15. Joel Liddle
    Posted July 16, 2014 at 9:16 am

    Interested, et al: Didn’t Janet say we should introduce cattle and grazing to National Parks to control buffel? 😐
    I’d take Latzy’s advice on buffel management ahead of “others” any day.

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  16. Cogs
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:50 pm

    Steve’s probably still too busy looking for the “evidence and research” to back up his conspiracy theory on on the Water Advisory Committee, in the vain hope that Janet and he can wipe the egg off their faces.
    Still not holding my breath.

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  17. Observer
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    Come on Steve. You know about all about buffel. Let’s hear from you.
    And where is your regular column?

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  18. Interested
    Posted July 15, 2014 at 8:33 am

    Great story and article. I would like Steve to read this. Latzy knows what he is talking about, unlike others.

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