Town’s old prickly prob­lem

Re­flect­ing on Chin­chilla’s claim to cac­tus fame

Chinchilla News - - LIFE - Janette Jenyns

CHIN­CHILLA wrote it­self into the history books as the town at the heart of the erad­i­ca­tion of the dreaded prickly pear.

It is hard to imag­ine to­day but by the 1920s there were more than 24 mil­lion hectares of Aus­tralia cov­ered with prickly pear.

The cac­tus had been in­tro­duced into Aus­tralia in 1839 and by 1862 it had reached the Chin­chilla area.

By the turn of the cen­tury it was in­creas­ing at a rate of 400,000ha a year.

Farm­ers tried to fight it by cut­ting and burn­ing but their labours met with lit­tle suc­cess.

By the late 1920s graz­ing lands from west of Rock­hamp­ton to cen­tral NSW had been over­taken by this in­tro­duced pest from South Amer­ica.

Up un­til the in­tro­duc­tion of the cac­to­blastis moth, the best pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sure for gra­ziers to con­trol the spread of prickly pear was spray­ing or in­ject­ing a poi­son called ar­senic pen­tox­ide, a toxic poi­son.

The sale of the chem­i­cal was con­trolled by the lands depart­ment and they su­per­vised the use of it.

Most land­hold­ers had only an oc­cu­pa­tional li­cence in those early days, not free­hold ti­tle of their land.

Land rangers, work­ing for the lands depart­ment, mon­i­tored the im­prove­ments made by each land­holder on the block he had se­lected.

If the prickly pear was al­lowed to flour­ish unchecked, land rangers would threaten to con­fis­cate the land and re­claim it for the Crown.

This was just one more blow for the gra­zier who, af­ter hav­ing cleared his block of trees to en­cour­age the growth of pas­ture, now had the prob­lem of en­croach­ing cac­tus.

It was par­tic­u­larly bad in the heavy river soils and along wa­ter cour­ses.

Some gra­ziers were de­feated by it and walked off their land.

How­ever not all gra­ziers viewed the cac­tus as a pest – with the threat of drought al­ways loom­ing on the farm­ing hori­zon, gra­ziers were turn­ing to the cac­tus to feed their stock.

Some even wor­ried that with­out it they would never survive another drought.

By 1932, then three-yearold Arthur Hurse re­mem­bers only the ef­fects of the cac­to­blastis moth on the pop­u­la­tion of cac­tus around Chin­chilla.

The stands of prickly pear had been re­duced to an eerie for­est of skele­tons, white, frail and ready to dis­in­te­grate at a touch.

Many years later he re­calls fill­ing the back of his truck with pieces of cac­tus to feed hun­gry stock.

Over an open fire the long nee­dles were scorched off to pre­vent in­jur­ing the mouths of cat­tle and sheep.

By this time the prickly pear was al­most erad­i­cated.

There re­mained enough of the cac­tus plants to keep the cac­to­blastis moth alive, which was im­por­tant be­cause af­ter its first tri­umphant sweep not enough plants re­mained for the sur­vival of the moth and a few years later there was a resur­gence of the pear.

Sci­en­tists at the Bug Farm worked hard to pro­duce more eggs from the cac­to­blastis moth, af­ter that first reap­pear­ance and gra­ziers pur­chased th­ese as a “stick of eggs” to take home and dis­pense among the new cac­tus plants on their prop­erty.

The moth and its eggs were highly val­ued by this time and care was al­ways taken never to harm or dis­turb th­ese muchap­pre­ci­ated lit­tle work­ers.

The cac­to­blastis moth lays her eggs, about a hun­dred at a time, stacked one on top of the other in a lit­tle tower.

When the cater­pil­lars hatch they bur­row into the fleshy seg­ments of the plant.

This dra­matic trans­for­ma­tion had taken place as a re­sult of ef­forts by the Com­mon­wealth Prickly Pear Board.

They im­ported 3000 eggs from Ar­gentina and from th­ese eggs were able to hatch enough fe­male moths to lay more than 100,000 new eggs.

Half of th­ese were sent to the Chin­chilla Prickly Pear Ex­per­i­men­tal Sta­tion, later dubbed the “Bug Farm”, where sci­en­tists were to pro­duce up to 14 mil­lion eggs a day to wage the bat­tle against the prickly pear.

An in­for­ma­tion site on Clarkes Rd dis­plays pho­to­graphs and arte­facts from the old Bug Farm.

PHOTO: CON­TRIB­UTED

WHAT A PEST: Prickly pear in­vades Chin­chilla graz­ing land in the 1800s and early 1900s.

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