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Beyond the cactus

Published 14 Jan 2022 
by Kate Thorburn

Bush Heritage and Dja Dja Wurrung Traditional Owners are walking together to Dhelkunya Dja (heal Country) at one of Victoria’s most heavily infested Wheel Cactus sites.

You see the Wheel Cactus long before you’ve turned into the driveway to Buckrabanyule, Bush Heritage’s newest reserve on Dja Dja Wurrung country in central Victoria.

Outside the car window, great spiked clumps line the roadside like sentinels leading to the site, where, further in the distance, the cacti’s distinct green wheels make the size of the infestation, and the scale of the work needed to combat it, easy to spot.

A sea of Wheel Cactus at Buckrabanyule. Photo Stu Heppel.
A sea of Wheel Cactus at Buckrabanyule. Photo Stu Heppel.

Recognisable due to its presence in many urban gardens, Wheel Cactus (Opuntia robusta) has a much nastier side than its ornamental use would suggest. The Mexican native is one of the most invasive and problematic weeds in Australia, capable of spreading quickly across large areas through the droppings of birds and other animals.

Fast-growing, a prolific seeder and able to thrive in most climates, Wheel Cactus takes space, nutrients and water away from native plants and is a major impediment to native animals moving through the landscape.

Buckrabanyule, a 452-hectare reserve between the towns of Boort and Wedderburn, is home to one of the biggest source populations in the state, seeds from which spread far and wide – to other Bush Heritage reserves including Nardoo Hills and J.C.Griffin, and private properties.

Yet this prickly succulent has played a unique role in the conservation of Buckrabunyule, now managed in partnership between Bush Heritage and the Dja Dja Wurrung Clans Aboriginal Corporation, trading as DJAARA. The effort involved in controlling its dense impenetrable thickets is likely why the land has not been farmed or subdivided.

“Wheel Cactus is a symptom that the landscape is not healthy,” says Djandak Program Manager Nathan Wong. “But the presence of Wheel Cactus here has actually protected it from development which would have damaged the integrity and the nature of the site.”

As the home of the great serpent Mindi and linked to an important Dja Dja Wurrung creation story, Buckrabanyule is one of the most culturally significant sites in central Victoria. But since farmers first came to settle in the district almost 200 years ago, Djaara (Dja Dja Wurrung people) including the Yung Balug clan to which this place is sacred, have been unable to access the site.

Dja Dja Wurrung Project Manager Harley Douglas, Bush Heritage Healthy Landscapes Manager Glen Norris and Dja Dja Wurrung Program Manager Nathan Wong survey Buckrabanyule. Photo Stu Heppell.
Dja Dja Wurrung Project Manager Harley Douglas, Bush Heritage Healthy Landscapes Manager Glen Norris and Dja Dja Wurrung Program Manager Nathan Wong survey Buckrabanyule. Photo Stu Heppell.

That all changed when Bush Heritage stepped in earlier this year. Swift and decisive action made possible by private philanthropy meant the plot was saved from subdivision and development. Now, Bush Heritage and DJAARA are committed to walking together to Dhelkunya Dja (Heal Country), and Djaara once again have a say over how their country is managed.

“[This partnership] can be a template for the rest of the country to see how Traditional Owners and other groups like Bush Heritage work together. We can lead the way,” says Amos Atkinson, a member of the Yung Balug clan.

“This to me feels like reconciliation because we have access to the land now, we can practice culture there and Bush Heritage is enabling us to do that. It’s a new way to look after Country,” he says.

A priority for Healing Country is controlling Wheel Cactus. Much of Buckrabanyule is impacted by it; the result of 16 years of inactive management. Reversing it is a big job, one that many land managers would shy away from. But when DJAARA and Bush Heritage first discussed the opportunity to jointly manage Buckrabanyule, the overwhelming sense was one of optimism.

“We recognised that yes, there’s a problem but we know how to deal with it: we’ve got the skills, we’ve got the expertise, we’ve got the knowledge and we’ve got the determination,” says Nathan.

Bush Heritage also recognised that it made far more sense to manage the source of the infestation in the region thus helping to protect Nardoo Hills, other conservation reserves and neighbouring farm land.

Already, significant steps have been taken to control the cactus on the lower slopes of the reserve. Since acquisition, work crews from the commercial arm of Dja Dja Wurrung Enterprises, or ‘Djandak’, have been patiently applying herbicide to hundreds of cacti, stabbing each individual waxy disk to poison the plant from the inside out.

Spray painted dots on a dying Wheel Cactus show which plants have been poisoned. Photo Stu Heppell.
Spray painted dots on a dying Wheel Cactus show which plants have been poisoned. Photo Stu Heppell.

Using the appropriate dose reduces the risk to other species. At the same time, cochineal bugs, a safe biological control, will be introduced. These microscopic, weevil-like insects suck moisture and nutrients from the cactus making them an effective method of controlling young plants and reducing the viability of older ones. This method builds on many years of cochineal introduction work by local landcare networks in the district.

But Djandak aren’t stopping there. Keen to trial new approaches, they’re using a mulching machine to pulverise the plant from the top down, reducing it to Ghostbusters-like slime, making any re-emergent cacti a lot easier to treat. It’s estimated this method alone could control up to 40% of the cactus biomass on the property (the machine can only be used on flat, non-rocky areas).

This will enable easier access to the site, meaning more opportunities for Djaara to be on country, sharing knowledge with the next generation. Yung Balug Elders have already begun walking Country to re-connect with this place, including the great granite outcrop where Mindi is said to reside.

There are also plans to bring Djandak Wi (Country fire) back to the landscape. This will not only connect Djaara with culture, but will help to control emergent cactus plants which are known to sucker even after being controlled through other means.

Andrew (Djandak enterprises) undertakes Wheel Cactus control at Buckrabanyule. Photo Stu Heppell.
Andrew (Djandak enterprises) undertakes Wheel Cactus control at Buckrabanyule. Photo Stu Heppell.

Without the cactus, native flora and fauna species will be able to flourish at Buckrabanyule. The site is even being planned as a future host for the translocation of culturally important animals such as Yung (a species of Quoll), a totem species for Djaara, and Baramul (Emu).

Bush Heritage Healthy Landscape Manager Glen Norris, who has been working in the region for five years, says he’s also looking forward to sharing the good outcomes with the wider community, including nearby farmers.

“We know we can have a positive impact on this site and Wheel Cactus in the region more broadly,” he says.

“Ultimately, we want to return this beautiful part of the world to good health. It was quite confronting when we first got here, but we can see beyond the cactus now.”