Needle grass concerns aired

Everyone in Marlborough needs to know what Chilean needlegrass looks like, because everyone will suffer if it spreads throughout the district, farmers say.

And high country farmer and Marlborough District councillor Geoff Evans warned it would become impossible to farm in the high country if the pest plant spread that far.

A meeting in Seddon on Monday night, called by the Marlborough District Council and attended by about 60 people, resolved to set up a steering group to step up action against the pest plant. One area under discussion is whether compulsory cleaning rules and spot inspections for vehicles and stock being moved should be brought in.

Phillip Pratt, who farms one of 27 "core" properties where the infestation is strongest, said people didn't seem to realise how easily it was to spread it. He had a protocol where all machinery and stock leaving his property was washed down and a council inspector signed it off as clear of seeds.

The meeting was told about contractors and excavators who moved dirty equipment through infested properties without realising the risks, and even of a national four-wheel-drive bike contest on an infested property that was unpoliced and could have spread seeds the length of the country.

Everyone in Marlborough needed to realise the effects of its spread, Mr Pratt said. It took years and huge effort to deal with it, and it would affect recreational land users and their dogs as well.

Chilean needle grass could form dense clumps, crowding out pasture, but the most significant thing was its needle-sharp seeds that could pierce sheep and cattle hides, causing infections and making the animals worthless for processing.

Vineyard operators weren't as focused on it because it didn't affect their earnings. But the whole community needed to work on its containment and eradication, people at the meeting said.

Mr Pratt proposed holding field trips in June and July, the best time to spray Chilean needle grass, so people could learn more about the plant and the best methods to control it.

Flaxbourne farmer Doug Avery spoke for many at the meeting when he urged the council to stop trying to contain the plant, but to eradicate it.

He used the metaphor of a fire in the Weld Pass. There might not be much there, so you could leave it to burn, but sooner or later, the wind was going to get up, and then the fire would take off throughout the Awatere Valley.

"We're not going to make a difference until we move from containment to eradication. Get rid of the containment policy, that's just nonsense."

Council environment committee chairman and Wairau-Awatere ward councillor Peter Jerram said high country farmer groups needed to be educated about the risk so they could help lobby the Government for more resources to deal with the pests.

The three councils dealing with it had been turned down for assistance, but Mr Evans said if it spread to the high country, farmers wouldn't be able to run animals there any more.

Council senior biosecurity officer Shona Sam said Chilean needle grass had been in Marlborough for about 70 years, mainly around the Blind River area near Seddon.

There were 27 "core" properties, which were the heart of the infestation. Another 51 properties were "fringe", with infestations that were trying to be eliminated, and there were 60 "surveillance" properties, which were being closely monitored in an effort to get rid of the pest plant. Many of these were spread out in Wairau Valley and near Blenheim, and in southern Marlborough.

Under the Marlborough District Council's regional pest management strategy, people with Chilean needle grass on their property are required to destroy all plants, with the exception of properties classified as core, where all plants within 10m of adjacent property boundaries must be destroyed before they produce seed.

In Marlborough, about 2776 hectares are infested, with the worst infestations around the Blind River area.

It is thought to have spread about 200ha in the past seven years.

Chilean needlegrass forms dense swards, which exclude preferred pasture species and during flowering is unpalatable to stock.

An erect, tufted perennial grass growing to 1 metre tall, the margins of the bright green leaves are rough and bristly (400mm long, 1-5mm wide), making it coarse to touch.

Produced from November to February, the aerial seed heads are large drooping, with a purplish tinge turning silver as they mature. The small hard seeds are sharply pointed, with a twisted hair-like tail that can penetrate the skin of animals.

The Marlborough Express