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- a creative approach to weed control on Lord Howe Island

The third part of this Lord Howe series is an article from Ian Hutton on their Weeding Project. They have expanded this from a small group of volunteers filling a need that the locals could not, to a great holiday adventure for people from offshore. The participants contribute to the ecological restoration of the island and enjoy a real life conservation experience with expert guides. And the islanders benefit from the weed control and the income that this ecotourism venture provides.

Ecotouring on Lord Howe Island - a group of enthusiastic Australian weed cullers.Volunteers, for a long time, have provided a major force for dealing with weeds, particularly in bushland sites in and around capital cities and major country centres. The goodwill of people desiring to do something to preserve special environments has proved to be a most useful adjunct for land management agencies to deal with weeds. However, what do you do if the weed infested area only has a small human population of 300, and is isolated by 700km of ocean with a very expensive airfare? This is the case with Lord Howe Island.

The natural history of Lord Howe Island has long been recognised as unique and worthy of preservation - in fact as early as 1870 the whole island was declared a botanical reserve, and has always had some conservation status, culminating in World Heritage Listing in 1982. The island has a rare and unique flora - having plants related to Australian, New Caledonia and New Zealand, with about fifty percent of its plant species endemic to the island, including seven endemic genera. Certainly an environment worthy of protection from being overun by weeds.

The island has had a small settlement for over 150 years, and like most places that Europeans have settled, weeds eventually found their way into the environment. Many of the plants introduced to Lord Howe Island are a minor nuisance around the settlement area. However there are a number of introduced plants that have colonised areas away from the settlement and which pose a threat to the long term integrity of the native forest. In fact the 1997 review of World Heritage values of Lord Howe Island identified weeds as the major threat to the conservation of the islands unique flora and fauna.

Weed problem. The main weeds of the island include two species of "asparagus fern" - Climbing Asparagus (Asparagus plumosus) and Ground Asparagus (Protasparagus aethiopicus) as well as Cherry Guava (Psidium cattleianum) and Sweet Pittosporum (Pittosporum undulatum). The two asparagus fern species were both brought from South Africa as ornamental plants into Australia, where they are also considered a major weed in many coastal areas. They were brought out to Lord Howe Island some time in the 1930s. They both have water storage tubers and so the climate and the sandy soil of the lowlands suit this plant very well to flourish and invade the native forest. Bird dispersal has ensured they have slowly spread around the forest of the settlement; but, since the 1980s, they have rapidly increased their rate of spread. The management agency responsible for the island, the Lord Howe Island Board, had a weed strategy prepared in 1992 and have had some World Heritage funding to provide control measures. A dedicated Environmental Section puts in many weeks labour each year on weeds - but also has responsibility for other aspects of the island; walking tracks, visitor facilities, feral animal control, wildlife monitoring etc. The Lord Howe Island community numbers just 300, and this is not enough to draw on for a strong and active volunteer group. Over the years, some small groups have formed but folded; and some individual residents have made some impact doing their own patch. But the weeds are winning.

A novel approach. In what seems an impossible situation, a novel approach to the problem has evolved and is proving effective - ecotourism. A chance meeting in 1996 between myself and Sydney bush regenerator Rymill Abell has developed into what is proving to be a major contribution to the weed solution on Lord Howe Island. Rymill had been involved with coordinating bush regeneration in Lane Cove National Park for many years and thought he could raise interest with a few fellow regenerators.

So a plan was struck to offer people a weeks holiday on Lord Howe Island, with a few hours weeding in the mornings and guided walks around the walking tracks in the afternoon to learn about the flora, fauna, geology and marine life. We decided to stay at Pinetrees - the oldest guesthouse on Lord Howe Island with a reputation for fine food and hospitality.

In June 1998, a team of 30 visited the island and (under direction of the LHI Board rangers) tackled a major Ground Asparagus infestation on Transit Hill. In total, 380 hours was contributed - a great effort against the weeds. Everyone agreed it was one of the best "holidays" they had ever had. A second trip was organised for 1999. This trip very quickly filled and was again very successful, with many of those from 1998 returning.

The interest in the weeding trips was accelerated by 2 community grants from the Threatened Species Network, a program of the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Endangered Species Program of the Natural Heritage Trust. The funding helped to purchase equipment and materials as well as helping with the volunteers accommodation and travel costs. This incentive provided the catalyst for volunteer interest, raising the number of volunteers from 28 in year 1, to 70 in year 3, and now 150 participate each year.

The participants in initial trips were mainly experienced bush regenerators; but subsequent trips have had a mix of experienced hands and newcomers. Theoretical and practical tuition is provided, so participants quickly become confident in techniques. All activities are optional and volunteers only work where they wish.

The groups co-ordinate closely with the LHI Board Rangers, so that with heavy infestations the Board team brushcut and poison prior to the volunteers coming in. Follow up over the treated area is an important part of the program to ensure all plants have been removed. With nearly four years since the program started, the initial areas are growing back with natives very strongly and it is heartening to see this happening.

Through communicating with participants we have been able to find out just what it is that makes these trips so successful. Certainly the beautiful environment of Lord Howe Island is something that appeals to many people to visit; but for people to pay around $1600 for this type of trip it needs more. It is the combination of strong leadership, high quality natural history interpretation, contributing to preserving the environment, good company with people of similar outlook, close cooperation with the land management agency and a high standard of hospitality - It appears to be only successful because all of these ingredients are present.

So we suggest that, for areas of isolated natural bushland remote from large population centres with a serious weed problem, organised ecotours where people actually get on the ground at the problem (not just look out the coach window or talk about it) can make a major contribution. Find a strong bush regenerator leader, a person who knows the natural history of the area and can convey it in an interesting way, provide good hospitality, liaise closely with the local land managers and you will have a successful way of contributing to weed control. It is working on Lord Howe Island.