Farmers warned against needle grass apathy

NEEDLED: Environment Canterbury's newly appointed Chilean Needle grass co-ordinator Jenna Taylor, with one of the offending plants.
NEEDLED: Environment Canterbury's newly appointed Chilean Needle grass co-ordinator Jenna Taylor, with one of the offending plants.

North Canterbury farmers have been warned that if they don't show more interest in stopping the spread of the potentially devastating pest plant chilean needle grass, they risk losing Environment Canterbury funding for the control programme.

ECan has budgeted $154,000 to fight the weed - which could put pastoral farming at risk - this year, but commissioner David Bedford said farmer apathy could put funding in danger.

He said funds were initially made available after he and fellow commissioners visited district councils to find out what their priorities were.

Hurunui Mayor Winton Dalley convinced them that the threatening weed needed urgent attention, and $45,000 was initially granted, which has since been boosted by more than $100,000.

But a disappointing turnout at field day this week prompted Bedford to warn against apathy.

"The Canterbury pest management strategy is going to be totally reviewed in the next year or two, and that opens up the whole spectre of pests that we've got and how we want to manage them," he said.

"The new strategy will basically be a reflection of whatever the community viewpoint is, and that's what people don't get. So if the farming community of Canterbury decide, say, 'We think chilean needle grass is the number one issue that we need to deal with and that's where we'd like to see the real effort in the next five years to control it', that gets listened to by the council."

If farmers did not show a commitment to stop the spread of the invasive grass, the funding could be put into fighting other pests, he said.

As well as ECan funding, the Sustainable Farming fund has put up $100,000 a year for the next three years. Beef + Lamb, the Marlborough District Council, the Hawke's Bay Regional Council and Teece Family vineyards have together contributed $35,000 a year.

Chilean needle grass has already made 2500 hectares in Marlborough useless for sheep farming, and is also a major problem in Hawke's Bay.

It was discovered near Cheviot in 2008, and since then has been found on another 14 North Canterbury sites.

The seeds have a needle-like point and a corkscrew-like tail, and can drill through a sheep's skin and into the flesh below. The seeds can be spread from farm to farm via stock, vehicles, machinery and hay.

A newly released residual chemical called Taskforce selectively kills chilean needle grass and the related nassella tussock, but has yet to be proven. ECan says other measures, such as washing vehicles before they leave infested farms, warning signs, and stopping the movement of stock from farm to farm, are needed as well.

"The apathy of landowners is a big issue," said ECan principal resource management adviser biosecurity Laurence Smith.

"It's a bit like cigarette smokers - 'It's going to happen to someone else, it's not going to happen to me'. And all of a sudden, what you think is the impossible is happening to you.

"People aren't that interested, and want to bury their heads until it's actually their problem."

The Press