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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20538

Ms LEY (4:35 PM) —I rise tonight to speak of the enormous blackberry problem that is affecting the tableland areas of the Farrer electorate, especially across Kosciusko National Park in the Tumut and Tumbarumba shires. These weeds have caused inaccessible infestations and are choking creeks and flats. Whilst costly control chemicals are being applied today and have a cosmetic effect for a time, I fear the battle is being lost—blackberries continue to spread rapidly.

The communities in the east of my electorate can attest to the dangerous hindrance these weeds caused firefighters when trying desperately to combat the Kosciusko National Park fires in January of this year. Following the bushfires, it was the blackberry that was the first plant out of the ground.

The blackberry is, as we know, an aggressive perennial woody weed that is proclaimed noxious throughout the Australian continent. It can reproduce from seed, root parts or cuttings. I understand the roots take over the soil and inhibit the growth of fungi and micro-organisms that transfer nutrients to native plants through the root systems of the native plants. So native plants are inhibited and, if they do get going, they have great difficulty getting up through the canopy of thick blackberry in order to reach the light.

Since its introduction in the 1850s, the blackberry has spread through southern Australia. Today it occupies large proportions of state forests, national parks, crown lands and private lands, and it is still spreading. Blackberries are the single biggest plant threat to southern Australia. The economic cost of blackberry alone is enormous. It dominates pastures and native ecosystems and invades urban areas. I know that farmers who border national parks are forced to spend huge sums of money either on aerial spraying, usually by helicopter, or by manually spraying the weeds. We really feel for farmers who spend hours on summer days dragging heavy hoses uphill, wearing hot, uncomfortable face masks and applying chemicals such as diazanon, whose long-term effects on the body are not necessarily known. I can imagine how, on these occasions, they must curse our state based parks and national parks bodies who inflict this nuisance on them.

I wish to pay tribute to those in the Talbingo and District Bushwalkers Club, who are based in the Tumut area and spend time walking in, understanding and caring for the Kosciuszko National Park. They have noticed how the blackberry is spreading from the lower creek areas, where it completely cuts off access to creeks as it grows along their banks, making them impenetrable even up on the higher ground. Marjery Smith, the secretary of the bushwalkers group, and others have expressed concern to me about just where we are going with this weed and how we really must tackle new methods of controlling it.

Reduction in crop and pasture yields from weed competition, illness in livestock, disruption in water flow in irrigation channels as well as physical damage to urban infrastructure are just some of the economic impacts that are caused by this weed. A result of all these impacts is a desperate need for weed control programs. The challenge is to determine ways of reducing spread. Each year the infestation spreads further into the mountains and also reinfests farming land through the spread of its berries by foxes, feral pigs, native birds and English blackbirds.

Blackberry leaf rust was brought into Australia and assessed as a possible biological control agent. Some strains were released illegally in Victoria at Easter in 1984 and an additional strain was widely released in temperate Australia in 1991 and 1992. Research is being carried out in New South Wales and Victoria looking at the effectiveness of the rust. It has not worked as well as has been hoped, especially in drier areas. It appears that the present strains require a specific climate and are highly moisture dependent. The rust requires weekly rainfall and low temperatures and it is not so effective in dry years. It is not effective in areas with rainfall of less than 700 millimetres per annum.

There are 14 different strains of rust that have been brought into the country over recent years and assessed. They will start to be released into the wetter areas from October this year and over the next few years. CSIRO indicates that researchers are working hard on the rust as a biocontrol agent. However, given that there are at least 40 genotypes, much work is yet to be done.

There is no comprehensive biological control program at present in Australia. Such a program would require funding of the order of $100,000 to $200,000 per annum over 10 years. New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria are looking for organisations to provide funds. Such a program would look at biological control agents that would be effective in drier areas. Some possibilities would be a leaf clumping mite, sawflies to damage the blackberry canes, as well as root organisms.

Blackberry was included in the inaugural list of weeds of national significance published in June 1999. A blackberry strategy was developed and released in 2001. That proposed that a national blackberry task force be established. It has not been to date and I think it needs to be. Weeds remain and will continue to remain one of the most important land management issues in Australia—a point that remains underappreciated by the public. Weeds probably cost more and are a greater threat to Australia's agriculture and biodiversity than many other things. It is not fair to leave future generations with enormous control costs and a badly damaged environment.