8 March 2024

When life in the country becomes overwhelmed by tumbleweed takeover

| Edwina Mason
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a house surrounded by hairy panic

According to Tori Davidson, “Memagong”, one of the Young district’s oldest homes, has seen more than its fair share of hairy panic in the 23 years she has lived there. Photo: Tori Davidson.

It flies in the breeze. Gets caught in the trees. It’s a home for the moths. A hive for the buzzin’ bees. A nest for birds. There ain’t no words for the beauty and the splendour and the wondering what to do with the hairy panic right now.

The song Hair was a major hit for the American group the Cowsills back in 1969. Have to admit it’s been playing on my mind lately as everything around me sits enveloped, again, in hairy panic.

Hairy panic, if you don’t know, is a compact type of tumbleweed that actually resembles a spiky hairy ball.

This native grass is a perennial pest for the folk of rural and regional NSW and right now it’s back, submersing buildings in its delicate plumage, as if a fluffy Bunyip Bird plopped down on the roof.

But if you look around it’s also in every dead end, crevice, road, nook and cranny it can find.

And don’t be shocked when I tell you that fine and feathery it might be, amassed it can topple fences – belted-into-the-ground stock fences.

It’s a force of nature.

READ ALSO The ‘exotic weeds’ that saved a Braidwood truffle forest from destruction

According to the NSW Department of Primary Industry this tufted, warm season, generally short-lived, perennial reaches about half a metre in height and provides a palatable and high-quality feed for stock, ideally cattle, up until flowering.

It germinates in spring and flowers in summer and autumn, the hairy dull green leaves, leaf sheaths and nodes giving way to seed heads attached to hair-like spikelets that lend a fluffy appearance to it.

It actually looks quite oceanic en masse in paddocks, virtually delectable, first sage-like before baking under the sun into a biscuit brown.

Of course, that’s the first sign of trouble. Come any whisp of breeze the seed head becomes detached and is easily dispersed, contributing to the grass’s tumbleweed behaviour; here, there, everywhere, underfoot and, if it catches a good breeze, roguishly dancing up high above the trees.

Hairy panic at a homestead

Tori Davidson of Memagong, near Young says she now allows her hairy visitors to blow in and out and run their course. Photo: Tori Davidson.

But it’s also clever – it’s ensured its imperishability – because independent each spikelet may be, it’ll gather for any party and stick like a stage five clinger.

Hairy panic has the rather inconvenient habit of snagging, breaking, dropping seeds and stem remnants everywhere. They wedge into everything. Except sheep and cattle. It particularly loves floorboards, doormats and fabric.

The Panicum Effusum will always leave you guessing.

Stepping outside into the morning sun – for instance – could have all the effect of a Doomsday prophecy as car, trees, plants become nebulous shapes in a dusky scene that last night was your carport.

This morning I had to unbury the dachshunds from their raised kennel/penthouse with its special sound-insulating-hairy-panic-covering for their morning walk along roads peppered with metre high drifts of the stuff.

For some reason though – despite its annual return at the final frontier of summer as it eases into autumn – not a soul has come up with a way to manage it.

The experts will tell farmers a management program involving pesticides, tilling, applications of fertiliser and slashing will reduce the onset of hairy panic before it sets seed but apart from a good hefty graze by cattle, few fences will stop its progress from kilometres away.

READ ALSO Herds for Hire munch war on weeds from Merimbula to Lake Burley Griffin

Tori Davidson of “Memagong” near Young has experienced well over 30 years of visitations from hairy panic and if her photos are anything to go by – stepping outside is perilous.

She says it’s been a challenge, but she now allows her hairy visitors to blow in and out and run their course.

But, she wonders, how more blows in when there is no breeze?

That’s the thing about hairy panic – it’s a kinetic beast nobody can tame because once you physically deploy the blower, guaranteed you’ll about-face and another drift of the stuff has crept up right behind you like a stalker.

Mass in motion.

Then you think, again, of the paddocks around you. Set the blower vac down and go make a coffee.

Tori’s right. There’s nothing to do but relinquish control and yield to nature.

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