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Nature Notes - Buffel Grass

Buffel GrassAn Afghan Hitchhiker

Buffel Grass, Cenchrus ciliaris, is strong, deep-rooted, perennial grass which is believed to have come to Australia with camels in the 1860s. It is a native of eastern Africa and Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. 

Until the 1920s, Afghan camel trains carted most of the goods needed by the people settling the dry heart of the continent. It is thought that the saddles that the Afghan camel drivers brought with them contained Buffel Grass for padding. The seeds escaped as the saddles got torn or wore out.  If you visit any old Afghan camp sites you’re likely to find some Buffel Grass growing. 

One of the first places where it became established was at Wallal, on the northwest coast between Broome and Port Hedland. Camels were landed there in the 1880s. Local cattlemen took an interest in Buffel Grass when they saw that it was drought-hardy and able to withstand heavy grazing. So, after the 1914-1918 war, the WA Department of Agriculture started spreading the grass in the northwest of the state. They were using seed sent by General Birdwood, former commander of the ANZAC troops at Gallipoli, who was then in charge of British forces in India. 

In the late 1920s, Queenslanders were experimenting with Buffel Grass and its close relative Birdwood Grass Cenchrus setigerus in Cloncurry. Buffel is now widely planted in northern Australia as a pasture grass.
It didn’t take long for the grass to make its way to Central Australia. Camels were used to cart goods and equipment during the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line from Darwin to Adelaide between 1870 and 1872. In the following years, Buffel Grass appeared around Afghan camp sites in Alice Springs, Ti Tree Well, Barrow Creek and Tennant Creek.

In 1961 Government officers and cattlemen started releasing seeds on 31 stations in the Centre, ranging from Mongrel Downs in the northwest and Argadargada in the northeast, down to New Crown and Mt Cavanagh in the south. Seeds were also sown in the Alice Springs farm area and at Maggie Springs (Uluru). 

The Buffel Grass was a variety called West Australian Purple. In the 1970s the CSIRO introduced a new strain, called American, which was developed at Texas A & M College. This was planted around the Alice Springs airport to control the town’s dust problems. There is no disputing its success in this regard because the severe dust storms that plagued Alice in the 1950s and 60s have not recurred. However, its value as a pasture grass is now debated. Buffel Grass responds quickly to rain and soon produces green shoots but has poor food value despite its attractive appearance.

Buffel Grass is an aggressive colonizer which grows vigorously after rain. It takes a lot of nutrients out of the ground and is displacing native grasses and sedges along riverbanks, alluvial flats and moist localities.  

Buffel Grass is also significantly more flammable in creek beds than the soft native grasses. This can fuel very hot fires which damage River Red Gums and other trees. Prior to the introduction of Buffel Grass, sandy creek beds acted as firebreaks but now the opposite is occurring. Buffel-infested watercourses provide channels for spreading fires rather than stopping them.

Many people believe Buffel Grass is a major threat to biodiversity and maintaining a healthy and productive environment. One expert has gone so far as to describe it as ‘the botanical equivalent of the Cane Toad“.

Compare with the Sonoran Desert Buffel Grass problem.