Biosecurity – Chilean Needle Grass

May 2022

Marlborough District Council and a community-based group is spearheading the battle against Chilean Needle Grass.

People power is making the difference in combating a number of biosecurity issues threatening the Marlborough region. The numerous pest species (both plant and animal) there, which is home to world-acclaimed wineries and a significant sheep and beef farming sector, are a threat to landscape and livelihoods alike. 


The Marlborough District Council (MDC) is teaming up with a community-based group to spearhead the battle against one such pest - Chilean needle grass. This highly invasive plant is unpalatable to livestock, and a serious animal health and welfare issue.


The on-going challenge of managing the threat of this (as well as other) invasive species in the Marlborough region has developed into a number of partnerships between committed community groups and the Council.


“It just makes sense,” says MDC environmental science and monitoring manager, Alan Johnson, of the partnerships.  “The community action groups are made up of dedicated people whose lives and livelihoods are here – farmers, grape growers and winemakers, workers and lifestyle block owners. All are people who have a vested interest in the long-term control of these threats.” 


At present there are 34 pest species led programmes run by MDC, and all of those species threaten either economic or environmental values in the region. These threats are being approached through: regulation (where the onus is on the landowner to manage or control a pest), service delivery (where council-paid staff and contractors manage certain species), monitoring and surveillance (to keep track of how the programmes are being managed and defining what threat species are in the region), education and research, and community and individual partnerships. 


“Of course funding is essential and from a purely practical perspective, a community group can establish itself as a charitable trust, which means it can attract third party funding support, often using the likes of seed funding from council as leverage.”

Chilean needle grass is a pest plant that is also present in two other areas in New Zealand (North Canterbury and Hawkes Bay) but it has the potential to spread across large swathes of the country. It can easily out-compete desirable pasture species, particularly in regions with traditionally low annual rainfall, leading to a reduction in pasture and crop yields. It is unpalatable to stock, especially when seeding from late October to March, so spreads rapidly without grazing pressure.


Added to this, the sharp, needle-like seeds readily penetrate skin and muscle, causing major health and welfare issues for stock, including painful abscesses and blindness. Fleeces and animal carcasses affected by the grass are downgraded because they require additional trimming to remove damaged meat, or skins used for rugs and apparel are rejected. 


The council works hand-in-glove with the Chilean Needle Grass Action Group (CNGAG), chaired by sheep and beef farmer, Warwick Lissaman. Warwick explains that in Marlborough the problem is significant, with 198 properties infected, covering an area of two and a half thousand hectares. His concern extends to the downstream impacts on the environment and water quality, if sheep farming no longer is viable on the east coast of New Zealand.


Practically minded, the group is involved in helping to source funding, as well as inspiring, advising and providing hands-on help to landowners and land-occupiers, as a significant area of the South Marlborough region is either crown reserve or leased from the crown.


CNGAG was set up nearly a decade ago as part of a 30-year strategy which outlined the extent of infestation, established goals and set out practical steps to control and manage the needle grass pest. The farmer-led action group links with the New Zealand Landcare Trust, as well as MDC. 


It is a collaborative relationship making for “really great integration – certainly not a them and us”, says Warwick Lissaman. “There’s also the fact that while those who have needle grass on their property certainly have a big problem, it’s also eventually going to be a problem for everyone if it’s not brought under control, so it makes sense for all of us to work together,” he says.


Check, clean and clear is the group’s mantra as it works to create awareness amongst landowners (whether farmers, grape growers or lifestyle block owners) supporting their understanding and management of the needle grass problem, advising on what herbicides to use, referring them to resources such as experienced contractors, and even helping out themselves.


The group comprises farmers, vineyard companies and managers, volunteers from the surrounding community, plus council staff and several of the rural councillors.


It is also the community lead for needle grass research projects, including an MPI-supported Sustainable Farming Fund project, exploring cropping and pasture renewal systems to reduce heavy infestations and establish more productive land. Warwick says the biosecurity templates they have built, providing awareness and education opportunities, have been well received by a number of entities, including wine company, Constellation Brands.


Constellation Brands “Awatere Hills” vineyard at Blind River is, as vineyard manager Dan Warman describes, “a core property in the Chilean Needle Grass programme. And what that means, is that we’re completely surrounded by Needle Grass.” 


The vineyard has an obligation only to spray a 20 metre strip around the edge of the property but, as Dan says, they are doing more than what is required. They have developed a set of Standard Operating Procedures for staff, contractors, and visitors to the property. They include; keeping grasses between vine rows mown low, not allowing any seed heads to form, and requiring wash down of vehicles as they leave the property.


There is also some research and trials being undertaken around needle grass control, including spray and oversow programmes using competitive grasses, and comparative trials of different management techniques, to establish the most effective risk mitigation approaches for this and other vineyards in the region. 


Chilean needle grass (RPMP 2018)