LITTLE GRASSFIRE

Grasses make my head spin. There are so many of them and I can still only identify about a dozen types confidently. About half of those are non-native, and the worst of them is African Lovegrass (eragrostis curvula).

It was accidentally planted in the Monaro area, south of us, as a contaminant of the closely related Consol Lovegrass seeding to control erosion.

Since then it’s been spreading.

I went to a workshop in Bredbo a few years ago and was horrified to see huge areas with just one species – African lovegrass. For a lot of sheep farmers, that’s reduced their carrying capacity by 60 percent, because the grass just doesn’t have the palatability or nutritional value of a good diverse pasture on the same soil.

In the last five years the distinctive Christmas tree-shaped seed heads have been spreading through the road verges of Canberra, encouraged by the bad practices of the city mowers, who get complaints if they don’t cut the grass, but don’t spray the grass before it seeds because that’s somebody else’s department.

So it keeps spreading.

It started coming in along the Murrumbidgee (which comes from south of us) much earlier, a couple of decades ago, and spread along the banks. It grew particularly thick where Mum had fenced off the riverbank to plant trees under a Greening Australia grant in 1999. Although the fences were eventually washed away by floods, the sheep still couldn’t get into those areas to graze it down (one method of control) because it was in such tall, thick tussocks.

Thick tussocks under the casuarinas by the river

After we moved back here, Craig tried spraying it, but that had little effect on the leaves. Then I got the information that the tussocks were more vulnerable to spraying if they were burned. Also, the sheep can graze the new shoots harder, because they’re more accessible and palatable when they’re green and small.

The fires were spectacular, because another danger of African Lovegrass is that it’s so flammable. In the January 2020 Pialligo fire south of Canberra, the lovegrass helped it spread because it burned so quickly.

A lot of native grasses actually burn quite slowly in comparison. That’s why the flames stopped promptly when they had consumed the lovegrass.

Where we’ve treated along the river not much else native has regrown, which was the situation before. African lovegrass will grow on straight sand. In one area on Adnamira, however, there’s been some recolonization of river poas, or at the very least some survival.

Luxuriant poas

I remember enjoying throwing myself on similar tussocks as a sort of mattress as a child, but made the mistake of telling Dad how great they were. He replied “We don’t want them. The sheep can’t eat them.” Then they were gone.

Anyway, when we started planting in the two gullies on Adnamira in 2020, I was horrified to see that some lovegrass had made it’s way hundreds of metres from the river, covering a steep, eroded slope. We planted around that patch, because I intended to come back and treat it later.

However, in 2021 there was never a time when things were dry enough to burn. The wet weather finally eased up this year and we had a few dry weeks in April 2022. We got permission to burn and notified Fire Control.

Because it was a bit breezy, we’d taken the spray unit, which could also be used for other weeds afterwards. We’d armed ourselves with rakehoes- the best implements for casual fire control. Working from the least infested areas inwards, we used the drip torch on individual clumps. The surrounding native grasses mostly didn’t light at all, once again leaving a clear line at the edge of the lovegrass.

Unfortunately the main patch of lovegrass was lit at the same moment as a big gust of wind, and went racing up the slope towards my little trees. We had to scramble to get the hose unwound and water around the trees, but probably lost one wattle. It’s a good reminder of how things can go very quickly from tedious to out of control.

It also turned out that Craig had already put some chemical in the tank, ready for spraying. Oops.

Another thing for the list this spring – check which trees survived and spray the new shoots of lovegrass.

Hope for some native grasses.

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