UNE leads research into hot topic: fireweed

Published 21 October 2010

fireweed_smlA new project led by the University of New England and the CSIRO is exploring options for control and management of fireweed.

Fireweed (Senecio madagascariensis) is the worst weed of coastal pastures in south-eastern Australia.

The two-year project is funded by the Australian Government through the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry (DAFF).  Community groups such as the Bega Valley Fireweed Association (BVFA) have been instrumental in getting this research off the ground, highlighting the impact of this weed within their districts.

The goals of the project are to expand the current knowledge of the ecology, impacts and best practice management of fireweed and investigate biological control options.

The project team has also applied to the Australian Weeds Committee to have fireweed declared a Weed of National Significance (WONS) which, if successful, should raise the profile of this important weed and encourage further government-funded research.

A native plant of southern Africa, fireweed commonly invades temperate and subtropical pastures in coastal New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland and is also extending up into the Southern and New England Tablelands of New South Wales and the Atherton Tablelands in far north Queensland.  It is poisonous to livestock, particularly cattle.

Fireweed is capable of germinating and flowering throughout much of the year, making year-long management difficult.  It can significantly reduce the output of beef and dairy farms, and has increased pressure on farmers through years of consecutive drought. The weather this season has been ideal for fireweed to increase its dominance over pasture in regions such as the Bega Valley in New South Wales.

Various landholder groups have been formed in heavily impacted communities to lobby for more effective control of the weed.

Professor Brian Sindel from UNE is a world authority on fireweed, and is leading this project.

Prof Sindel said: “With this research, we want to reduce the impact of fireweed on rural communities by giving farmers a better understanding of how to manage the weed more effectively.”

As part of the project, the ecology of fireweed, and its impact on agriculture and biodiversity, will be assessed at several field trial sites.  This research will include seed longevity and seedling emergence studies, and assessing the impact of fireweed on pasture production.

Landholders will also be surveyed to identify methods currently used to manage fireweed in agriculture.  Professor Sindel said: “This information, and the ecology and impact studies, should identify ways to improve integrated management of fireweed to help reduce its presence and impact.”  A best practice management guide summarising these results will be published and distributed to farmers.

Previous research has been unable to identify suitable biological control agents for fireweed, because of its very close relationship with several native species, and difficulty in identifying the origin of the weed.  More recently, the KwaZulu-Natal region of South Africa was identified as the native region of fireweed, and this region has not been fully explored yet for biological control agents.

Dr Andy Sheppard, Invasive Species and Plant Biosecurity theme leader at CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences, will lead the biological control research, and is currently negotiating with South African authorities to undertake the research in KwaZulu-Natal.  “There is possibly only a 20% chance of finding a suitable biological control agent for fireweed in Australia,” Dr Sheppard said, “but until we’ve searched we just won’t know.”

“It is also important for us to determine why this weed is not a major problem in its native range in South Africa. We need to investigate what biological antagonists to fireweed exist in KwaZulu-Natal, and whether these can be safely introduced in Australia.”

Further information on the fireweed control research project as it progresses will be made available online at www.ruralfutures.une.edu.au.  Email updates will also be sent out to those interested in the research.  Subscription to these updates will be available via the project web pages.

Media contact: Prof Brian Sindel on 6773 3747 or email bsindel@une.edu.au.