The problem with pampas

Feral Herald |

By Andrew Cox

As I looked out the window of my flight coming into Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport I thought I was seeing things. Was that a field of pampas grass right in the heart of Sydney?

I had grown up attuned to pampas grass. In the 1970s the NSW Government ran a high-profile campaign to eradicate the showy grass that grows to almost two metres. It had been pride-of-place in my parent’s front garden, the feathery white flowers were like torches reaching for the sky.

But according to worried government weed authorities it had to be removed. My parents dutifully complied, cutting out and destroying their garden centre piece. It wasn’t easy either, the razor-sharp leaves easily slice through skin.

The weed authorities were rightly concerned, the feathery seed heads of pampas grass are easily picked up by the wind and blown long distances, settling further and further afield in Sydney’s favourable climate.

Now that work is being undone.

After returning home from my flight I analysed the photo I’d taken while in the air more closely. Yep, even at this coarse resolution, it looked clear that a block of land close to Alexandra Canal, an old industrial cargo waterway that drains into Botany Bay, was covered in pampas.

A field trip confirmed my suspicions. The 3.2 hectare vacant block, about 1 km from Sydney airport, contained about 10,000 pampas grass plants, all in full flower. Even worse the land is adjacent to a major container terminal and railway siding, with high walls of containers metres from the weeds. Pampas seed could easily hitch a ride on trucks and trains before geminating throughout the state and beyond.

Hundreds of flowering pampas also lined Alexandra Canal, all within sight of Canal Road, one of Sydney’s busiest roads and which connects the airport with eastern Sydney, on to the Princes Highway and areas to the west.

The 3.2 hectare block infested with a forest of pampas grass on Canal Rd, Alexandria, near Sydney Airport. The western perimeter of the block pictured here is adjacent a major truck and rail container terminal, an ideal vector to facilitate the spread. Four years after a formal complaint to the local weed authority, the problem remains.

I wrote to the Inner West local council, which is responsible for ensuring compliance with weed laws under the new Biosecurity Act. After chasing up the complaint, and more than three months later, I received a response.

I was told the land is ‘not the responsibility’ of the council since it was ‘Airport Land’. They suggested the land may not even lie within council boundaries, even though it clearly does.

Admittedly, there would be difficulty dealing with pampas in this area, since the boundaries of Sydney City, Inner West and Bayside Council all meet where Canal Road crosses Alexandra Canal. But that’s no excuse for inaction.

Caught in the act

All this took place four years ago, in 2017. I had thought NSW’s new statewide Biosecurity Act, rolled out earlier that previous year, would give local councils stronger incentives to act on such flagrant examples of irresponsible property owners harbouring environmentally dangerous weeds.

I was wrong. The new act is unenforceable until compliance officers undergo training and have been authorised to use the legislation. By the time I received a response to my complaint from Inner West Council they had no enforcement officers. As a result of questions in NSW Parliament I later established that a year after commencement of the Biosecurity Act, less than a fifth of Sydney councils had authorised officers.

It gets worse. The new biosecurity legislation replaced specified controls under the old Noxious Weeds Act with a ‘general biosecurity duty’. This places a broad obligation on everybody to avoid creating biosecurity risks, such as harbouring invasive weeds.

The general biosecurity duty that applies to this land specifies that the land manager’s weed obligations are spelt out in the Greater Sydney strategic weed plan. Under the Noxious Weed Act, there was a requirement to eradicate pampas grass from private properties. Under the new rules, the weed plan states that the following actions will demonstrate compliance under the general biosecurity duty:

  • Land managers mitigate the risk of the plant being introduced to their land.
  • Land managers prevent spread from their land where feasible.
  • Land managers reduce the impact on priority assets.
  • The plant or parts of the plant are not traded, carried, grown or released into the environment.

There are similar obligations for many other wind-borne invasive weeds. To “prevent spread where feasible” is an ambiguous and ineffective weed control measure, especially for new and emerging weeds like pampas grass. The only way to stop a weedy plant with easily dispersed seeds from leaving all but the very large blocks is to completely eradicate it from each block of land. No neighbour should be subjected to easily spread weeds.

The general biosecurity duty works well for those who already want to do the right thing. It fails for those who don’t care or see action as too costly.

Over the subsequent years I regularly passed the site and occasionally stopped to check progress. Six months after my complaint the seed heads of the pampas grass growing on a small strip of council land on Canal Road bordering the block had been removed, but the plants remained in place and flowered not long afterwards. About a year later all the seed heads of the plants on the block were removed, but they also flowered again.

Four years later

It is now 2021 and I had not been near Sydney airport for more than a year. I wanted to see if anything had changed.

I was disappointed.

The Canal Road block was still covered with thousands of pampas grass. There may have been less than before, but they were still there and flowering. The neighbouring container terminal was still a hive of activity. Pampas grass was prolific along the banks of Alexandra Canal and in the distance further downstream on industrial land towards Tempe Recreation Park I saw vast fields of it on nearby low hills. The pampas grass infestation was growing.

In those intervening years pampas grass has also spread in many other parts of Sydney and beyond.

Where ten-years ago I had previously been lucky to spot from the train window one or two pampas plants on a journey along most of Sydney’s major railway routes, I now see pampas plants every few kilometres.

Pampas is spreading throughout the Sydney train network, with no meaningful weed control of its rail corridors despite a 2017 law change to make public landholders more accountable.

On the western side of the Blue Mountains near Lithgow, where the Greater Sydney weed plan doesn’t apply, pampas grass is spreading from a sawmill, rock quarries, a coal mine and railway land near Clarence and Lithgow into federally-listed endangered upland swamps and the Blue Mountains World Heritage-listed national park.

You can measure the success of weed management by spotting whether the weed is present or not. While there may be a lag of a year or two, a weed outbreak tells you something is wrong.

Weed management is not working in NSW and needs a rethink. Pampas grass is the standout example, but there are many others.

We’d love you to tell us your weed management experiences, especially since weeds have had a big leg-up in eastern Australia with mild wet weather over the past year.

Email us your weed management experience via our Contact page.

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Help protect NSW!

Our expert team has written a list of policy asks detailing exactly what the next NSW government needs to do to stamp out some of the worst invasive species impacts across the state. But they will only become a reality if every key political candidate at the 2023 NSW state election hears about it from you!

Dear National Deer Management Coordinator,

Please accept this as a submission to the National Feral Deer Action Plan.

[Your personalised message will appear here] 

I am very concerned about the spread of deer and am pleased that a national plan has finally been developed. Without urgent action, funding and commitment from all levels of government it is clear that feral deer will continue to spread and damage our environment.

The feral deer population in Australia is growing rapidly and spreading across the country, damaging our natural environment, causing havoc for farmers and foresters and threatening public safety. Unlike much of the world where deer are native, our plants and wildlife haven’t evolved to deal with these heavy hard hooved animals with a voracious appetite.
With no natural predators and an ability to adapt to almost all environments, they could occupy almost all of Australia unless stopped. Despite this, state and territory governments have been slow to respond and in Victoria and Tasmania they are still protected by law for the enjoyment of hunters.

This plan should be adopted by all governments but must also be underpinned by dedicated funding and clear responsibilities. A plan without funding or accountability is a plan that will fail and Australia cannot afford for this to fail.

In order to prevent the spread of feral deer and reduce their impact on our native wildlife, ecosystems and agriculture, I ask that the following recommendations be adopted for the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

1. All federal, state and territory governments should adopt the National Feral Deer Action Plan and declare feral deer to be a priority pest animal species.

2. All federal, state and territory governments should commit to:

  • Contain deer to the existing large population areas.
  • Reduce and eradicate smaller and isolated populations.
  • Protect important environmental assets such as world and national heritage areas.
  • Develop and fund regional plans and strategies to manage deer populations which involve land managers across all tenures.

3. In order to drive action and the success of this plan, there should be dedicated Commonwealth funding and support for:

  • A permanent national feral deer coordinator position.
  • A permanent federal feral deer action committee with representatives from the commonwealth and state and territory governments and the environmental and agricultural sectors.
  • An ongoing public education campaign on feral deer.
  • A network of regional feral deer coordinators to drive local action across tenures.

4. The expected outcomes for the plan need to be more ambitious, with clear interim targets including:

  • Within one year, all States and Territories should have in place arrangements to implement the National Feral Deer Action Plan, including allocating dedicated funding for implementation.
  • Within one year, feral deer management plans should be developed for key environmental assets of national significance, including the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the Greater Blue Mountains, the Australian Alps, the Gondwana Rainforests and the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
  • Within five years coordinated landscape scale management should be in place where land owners, land managers, government and community are demonstrably working together.

5. A national feral deer containment map with three zones should be adopted. It should be more ambitious than the zone map in the current draft plan and there should be greater clarity in the naming of the zones. Improvements that should be adopted include:

  • Renaming the zones to better reflect the management intention to ‘Containment Zone 1’ (the current large population zone), ‘Containment Buffer Zone 2’ (the current buffer zone) and ‘Eradication and prevention Zone 3’ (the current small isolated population zone).
  • The NSW northern rivers area should be in the eradication and prevention zone as there are few feral deer currently in this region and eradicating isolated populations and preventing spread into this area is still possible.
  • The whole of South Australia should be in the eradication and prevention zone as eradication is the goal of the SA Government.
  • The Tasmanian region in the containment zone should be smaller to reflect greater ambition and potential for eradication of deer populations.
  • In eastern Victoria areas such as Wilson’s Promontory, Westernport islands and the Mornington Peninsula should be in the eradication and prevention zone.

6. There should be consistent laws and regulations across all states and territories that:

  • Recognise feral deer as a pest animal and treat them as such.
  • Establish a clear responsibility for all landholders and managers to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • Set clear penalties to stop the wilful or negligent release of feral deer.
  • Prevent new deer farms in areas where no feral deer are present and phase out all deer farms in the eradication and prevention zone.
  • Enable enforcement of compliance, including on government land.

I support the follow principles being adopted in the final National Feral Deer Action Plan:

  • Feral deer are a pest and should be treated as such on all tenures, except on approved deer farms.
  • Federal, state and territory governments have a responsibility to fund the outcomes under this plan.
  • All land managers in areas where feral deer are present have a responsibility to be involved in feral deer control programs.
  • The focus of management efforts should be on eradication of isolated, satellite populations, protection of key environmental assets currently impacted and stopping the spread to new regions.
  • Feral deer control should be undertaken humanely, safely and professionally according to agreed protocols and all tools which meet this criteria should be adopted, including aerial control.
  • Funding for coordination, regional planning and community engagement is necessary for effective feral deer management.
  • Ongoing management and follow up control efforts are required to achieve long lasting results.
  • Rules and regulations should be consistent across jurisdictions and land tenures.
  • Recreational hunting is not an effective strategy for feral deer control and should not be relied upon.
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