Farmers want a bigger say in weed management

Published: January 2018 | Edited By: Joanna Webber

Piney Range farmer and NSW Farmers local branch chair Harvey Matthews questions why farmers feel they have to take responsibility for weeds that aren't on their land. 

Harvey Matthews with his son Tom and dogs Susie, Elsie and Liz.
I run a Merino sheep and cropping operation between Forbes and Grenfell in an area called Piney Range with my 29-year-old son Tom and my wife Jackie. My family has been farming this land in Central West NSW for six generations and we’ve all been members of NSW Farmers during its various incarnations over the decades. I am chair of NSW Farmers’ Grenfell branch.

Farmers here in the Weddin Shire have always been vigilant about weed control and there is good compliance. We know that managing weeds is a year-round necessity for successful and profitable livestock and crop production. Weeds not only lessen pasture quality and crop yields, they can also harbour diseases that are harmful to livestock.

Wet conditions help drive noxious weed infestation 

Despite our best efforts, ideal weather conditions coupled with insufficient funding of local government bodies means that we are now facing a growing weed problem that’s affecting the whole shire. It was after the Millennium Drought in 2010 that things started to get out of control. That drought was followed by a wet summer that resulted in an escalation of weeds growing along a disused railway line that once ran from Grenfell to Koorawatha. 

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Weeds quickly spread along the line and into private properties. Because of the wet, not a lot could be done about them, so they went to seed. The following year saw another wet, damp summer and the weeds grew out onto the roads and into neighbouring farms. That’s when the Grenfell branch of NSW Farmers asked for representation on the Shire Weeds Committee, which was granted.

A paddock infested with St John’s wort and Paterson’s Curse. Source: Getty Images.

Weeds also spread into the state forests and national parks around Grenfell. While Local Land Services (LLS) do a good job of controlling weeds along the stock route and stock reserves, weeds in the state forests continue to thrive because they say they lack the funds to spray them.

Government agencies cannot meet their obligations and responsibilities unless they’re adequately funded. Currently, even fences around the region’s state forests have not been maintained and, in many cases, firebreaks have not been refurbished and no thinning has been carried out.

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So who is responsible for weed management?

[Country Regional Network operator] John Holland Rail is helping control the weeds around the disused railway track, and the Weddin Shire is responsible for the weeds that grow out to a certain distance on the sides of the shire roads. But this has created a no-man’s-land in between these sections and the farmers’ fences.

“Some local landholders have taken it upon themselves to spray the disused railway track. Their good work has made a massive difference, but it’s a lot to ask them to carry out the work on land they don’t own.”

The new biosecurity regulations that were passed in 2015 are meant to apply as equally to state forests, national parks and other government bodies such as State Rail as they do to private landowners.

When a noxious weed turns up, farmers are issued with a notice to get rid of it, and if he or she doesn’t, fines apply. These fines have increased significantly since 2015, and some have doubled and even tripled.

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If the state forests cry poor because they’re not properly funded, all the responsibility to carry out the destruction of weeds falls back onto the shire, and the cost is being borne by the shire and adjoining landowners. They have to comply and spend what limited resources they have on killing weeds.

 The unstoppable St John’s wort removed from priority weeds list

Thirty years ago, there was no St John’s wort in this region, but now it’s well established in the state forests and in sections of the national parks around Grenfell – and little or nothing is being done about it. The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and LLS agree it’s now out of control – so they have taken it off the priority weeds list, because they have deemed it to be unstoppable.

St John’s wort, a noxious weed that is hazardous to stock. Source: Getty Images.

But we want it back on the list so at least they can try. St John’s wort produces photosensitisation in sheep. During dry times, sheep will eat it and it reduces their ability to cope with sunlight. Their ears can become so affected by sunlight that they start to wither away, eventually they lose their eyelids and get lesions around their lips, which become so sore they can’t eat. One local agronomist had to view a situation where more than 30 sheep needed to be put down because of the trouble St John’s wort had created. 

The 2015 Biosecurity Act allows for shire areas to create their own list of all the local weeds that need to be controlled – but LLS has the final say, and is making a blanket decision for the whole region. We are hoping our neighbouring shires will come together as a group and use the power of numbers to persuade them to take action, not only on St John’s wort, but Paterson’s curse, horehound, bridal creeper, Bathurst burr, Noogoora burr and purple and silverleaf nightshade, which are also poisonous or hazardous to stock.

Every shire has its own weed problem. Along the Lachlan River in Forbes, khaki weed is a major issue because it’s spread by the flood water. Scotch thistle grows in between the granite rocks on the Hilltops shire, where it’s very hard to control.

“Our vision is to formalise a local shire weeds list that we all agree is viable, so that we don’t lose all the positives we’ve fought for in the past.”

*These are Harvey’s personal views. If you would like to be ‘On my soapbox’ in a future issue of The Farmer, email: [email protected] or write to: The Farmer, Suite 53/26-32 Pirrama Rd, Pyrmont, NSW 2009. If your topic is chosen, a journalist will be in touch.

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