A prickly acacia eradication program that few believed possible has finished its first five-year step covered in achievements but with an uncertain funding future.
The ambitious goal of eradication from the Mitchell grass bioregion was set after the weed’s footprint, around 22 million hectares, tripled in 20 years, hugely multiplying the impact on grass production and property management as well as affecting 25 rare and threatened species.
Most of the impact was felt in the Desert Channels Queensland NRM region and the goal for eradication came from discussions with desperate landholders in 2013 and 2015.
CEO Leanne Kohler said a belief in eradication was critical to the program’s success, as it needed everyone, from grassroots community members to the top levels of government, to rethink the previous 25 years of control.
“It was imperative that we looked critically at why ideas had failed and learn from them,” she said.
“If we set the bar low, we would just get more of the same, so I set my staff the task to challenge every assumption and, while this can be uncomfortable, if done properly, the opportunities quickly fall out.
“We found that landholders were tired from the losing battle: treating an area with traditional sprays, only to find that the weed bounced back with a vengeance due to the massive seed bank in the soil.”
A need to neutralise the high seed production areas along watercourses, so that efforts weren’t undermined by stock walking seed back to paddocks, and a framework to guide landholders, were critical issues, as well as long term protection of the substantial investment required to get there.
Ms Kohler said while the journey had been no yellow brick road, DCQ was now rolling out a very mature program that was delivering ground-breaking results, erasing scepticism and boosting landholder morale.
“What started in 2013 with a single hectare had turned into 1.85 million hectares under active control by the end of June 2018,” Ms Kohler said. “We’re incredibly excited at the moment with the first of our partner properties becoming weed free, something that was unthinkable five short years ago.”
Being able to switch from wet chemicals to residual pellets and being able to use them in watercourses, to kill parent trees and prevent germination for four years, has been critical to the revolution but only came about after many hoops had been jumped through to gain government and industry support.
As well, hand spraying has been reduced by 90 per cent so that what used to take a day can now be done in less than 20 minutes, and with kill rates over 99pc.
Ms Kohler said setting the ambitious objective had encouraged people in the region to think up new and better ways to kill the weed.
“After decades of little real change in control techniques, there has been, in the last five years, a great variety of locally-developed ideas being implemented, and landholders are now working together on a strategic, landscape level that ignores the boundary fence,” she said.
In the first five years of the program, DCQ worked with 130 landholders, controlled weed infestations on hundreds of kilometres of watercourses, delivered all the necessary steps for landholders to move to weed-free status, worked with a range of contractors, and treated some of the worst infestations in the region.
However, the next five-year plan, targeting infestations in the Barcaldine, Aramac, Winton and Middleton areas, will start well under-funded.
Despite strong co-investment by landholders involved in the program, significant funding shortfalls for future work will severely curtail potential gains, Ms Kohler said.
Because weeds are like a drought, sneaking up on people rather than suddenly impacting them like a marauding pack of wild dogs or a cyclone, the funding argument doesn’t come with an emotive punch.
“Weeds (are) like a choking blanket of lost production, so the arguments and pleas for funding don’t tug at the heart strings,” Ms Kohler said.
“But the simple reality is that a property with an average infestation of prickly acacia now, will have lost substantial carrying capacity in 20 years and the cost of recovery will be extremely high.
“With a modest investment now, that same property can be back to full carrying capacity in five years.
“While it’s great to build a fence to exclude wild dogs and kangaroos, the resulting increase in stock numbers on one place will be more than eroded by continuing reductions in carrying capacity somewhere else due to prickly acacia.”
Ongoing funding for the DCQ program is now less than what they struggled by on over the last five years, despite the advocacy of local state MPs and Senator Barry O’Sullivan.
Government interest now centres on rehabilitation rather than control, which presents challenges to landholders still trying to deal with very large infestations.
Many of them have financially co-invested strongly and stand to see potential gains severely curtailed by significant funding shortfalls.
“What rankles with many landholders is that this prickly cacia was introduced and promoted by government in the 1880s – like many ideas, it was going to be the economic saviour of the region, but it has become a nightmare,” Ms Kohler said. “Many landholders feel that government is, again, abandoning its responsibility.”
Some have been independently clearing their weeds, knowing the savings to be made, but in places the infestation is beyond them.
“They are willing; they just need support,” she said.