The hills are pretty steep up here, near the edge of Bass Coast. From the shade of a back veranda Lew Potter points at a hill so tall that it forms the local horizon.
“That land used to glow at night, there was that much ragwort. Bright yellow,” Lew remarks as he shakes his head. As the president of the Bass Valley Landcare Group he knows how hard it was to clear those weeds. People spent days up there, clinging to the edge while they chipped away with hoes and bagged up the plants.
Weed vigilantes struggled up the incline the next year and the next one. That was a few owners back and the present custodians are up there most weekends chipping away. Good neighbours, who care about the land and know how to keep the weeds at bay.
Put simply, a weed is a plant out of its place. Ragwort might have a use, a purpose, but it’s not welcome here. Neither are scotch thistles or blackberry.
Lew points out that blackberries could be used to make jam but each jar would only rid him of 1kg of berries.
On the other side of the valley a rusted Duetz tractor negotiates a series of steep inclines.
A generation of farmers have grown up learning how to negotiate the abrupt rise, and fall, of this country and this farmer is driving a little slower nowadays. He navigates to a spot in a paddock only he can recognise.
Hand brake firmly applied, he starts the pump, grabs the spray nozzle and walks until he reaches the limit of the 100 metre hose. Then he starts walking back, looking down at the ground and carefully spraying the thistles and blackberries.
It takes an hour to circumnavigate back to the Duetz and then he moves it to the next stop to run out the hose, again. And again. It’s a bloody big paddock on a sunny day.
Some days he can spray two paddocks between milkings. He had to spray 30 paddocks this season.
Earlier this year, a large group of stakeholders met under the awning of the Kernot Store to demand action about the spread of weeds across the region.
The problem is that not all land managers and owners are maintaining the effort as costs rise, incomes fall and absentee ownership increases.
Weeds don’t recognise boundary fences or roads and a biosecurity emergency is unfolding as seeds spread on the wind.
Historically, there was a state government department that funded patrol officers to advise about and enforce mandated weed control. Locally, dedicated weed control officers who advised and often helped, in the control of uninvited plants.
In Bass Coast the council has the authority to fine holders of small parcels of land but the large farms are all under the oversight of the Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions DEJPR.
Landcare is the driving force for weed management around here. Dave Bateman, Bass Coast Landcare co-ordinator, tells everyone that weed control should be the number one priority for landowners. “Landcare tries to get to everyone, to educate and advise.”
As well as the usual suspect weeds, Dave is concerned about box thorn, hawthorn, sweet pittosporum and willow trees, perhaps the mightiest weeds of all.
After that crisis meeting in Kernot questions were raised in State Parliament. Why aren’t landowners being fined when weed infestations are so blatant?
The answer from DEJPR is that they will only support weed management in areas where local communities are vigilant and active.
The Kernot meeting bought about the resurrection of the Community Weeds Taskforce which includes representatives from local government, Agriculture Victoria, other agencies and Landcare groups across the Bass Coast/South Gippsland region.
Their recent meeting highlighted the extent of the crisis and the lack of enforcement. One document tabled concluded that the message being broadcast was that weeds do not matter as there were no consequences for non-compliance.
A letter from Victorian Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio pointed out that weeds such as blackberry are beyond eradication in the state.
There is a long list of unwelcome plants. The need for eradication of sweet pittosporum is contentious since, although it is not locally indigenous, it is native to Eastern Victoria, NSW and Queensland.
Across our region the weeds that need to be controlled and the measures vary. In some inaccessible places helicopter spraying is the most cost effective. Wielding a mattock or spot spraying is at the other end of the scale.
According to Paul Stewart and Ann Bullen, of Tetoora Road, in three years you can blitz all those blackberries.
In four years you will kill Californian thistle, in six years you could be rid of ragwort and in 15 years you will be done with all thistles.
That might sound like a long time, but remember that 15 years is just as long if you don't clean up your weeds.