A helicopter swoops low, a bulldozer smashes through the undergrowth, hectares of weeds are being burnt and sprayed with weedkiller.

It is not a fire ground but it is a battle, one that has been raging across Tasmania for generations.

The enemy is gorse, a thick prickly bush with delicate yellow flowers.

Farmer John Atkinson lives at the end of a valley called Isis in the northern midlands. His family has been fighting the advance of the weed for three generations.

“Gorse has always been a fairly major issue for us, over the years we’ve slowly controlled it on our arable areas, but the non-arable country has been a challenge because chemical control is our only option,” Mr Atkinson says. 

“We’ve had a few wins but a lot of failures.”

A man in a green jumper with blonde hair and beard stands close to the camera.

John Atkinson’s family have been fighting to control gorse for three generations. (ABC Rural: Luke Radford )

A battle with no end

Gorse was brought to Tasmania in the early 1800s as an ornamental hedge by settlers hoping to replicate the paddocks of England  

However it spread rapidly, turning soil acidic and providing ample tinder for bushfires.

George Gatenby lives across the road from Mr Atkinson and works with him to control local infestations. His family has lived in the valley for eight generations.

“I can only go far back as far as my grandfather telling me what they’ve cleared, and we’re still clearing the same spots today,” Mr Gatenby says.

A plant with yellow flowers and sharp spines.

Gorse has telltale yellow flowers and sharp spines, which form a tightly woven barrier that livestock avoid.  (ABC Rural: Luke Radford )

“We have roughly 400 hectares of our country which is infested by gorse. We’d try to knock back 20–50 hectares a year, which is anywhere from $20,000 to $50,000 per year.

“If we’ve got time and finances allow, we can get on top of it. The problem is that the gorse control doubles in size every year.

“I blame my ancestors for a lot of things but they’ve given me a lot of things as well, so I don’t curse them when I go to bed at night.”

A man in a blue shirt with brown hair stands in front of a trail of smoke, a strand of trees is in the background.

George Gatenby is concerned about the impact gorse is having on the local native bushland, as well as his farmland. (ABC Rural: Luke Radford )

But it is not just the productive farmland Mr Gatenby is concerned about.

“The challenge is that the native bush and riparian areas are getting smothered out by gorse, which puts pressure on the biodiversity of our flora and fauna,” he says. 

“By working together, it shows the community that if you can control a whole area, what that then does for the landscape.

“It’ll help biodiversity across all our properties, which is good for our animals and the native species.”   

A fire rages in a small group of shrubs, thick white smoke billows up from it.

Gorse burns rapidly, even while green, increasing the bushfire risk in the areas it infests.  (ABC Rural: Luke Radford)

State-wide problem      

Environmental consultant Melanie Kelly knows firsthand how difficult controlling gorse is.

She spent 20 years working in both public and private weed control across Tasmania’s east coast and midlands.

She says the lack of a statewide, unified approach has let gorse continue to spread.

a man in a blue shirt, rubber gloves and face-mask sprays weeds with a hose.

Ground spraying takes time, but causes the least collateral damage.  (ABC Rural: Luke Radford)

“With gorse it’s very tied to property management objectives and prices. It often involves questions like, ‘Is the price of wool high enough to make it worth clearing certain paddocks’,” Ms Kelly says. 

“If public land managers aren’t leading the way it certainly can be very disheartening for private land managers to put in the effort.”

A yellow bulldozer pushes a mound of dirt and vegetation towards the camera.

Bulldozers are an effective tool, but are also the most expensive option and can damage the soil. (ABC Rural: Luke Radford)

Mr Atkinson understands that message all too clearly.

“The seed can sit dormant in the ground for 30 years, so you can think you’ve controlled it and it’ll come back,” he said.

“What we’ve learnt is that we need a rigorous program where we follow up on our previous years’ activities.  

“I don’t think we’ll see it totally under control in my lifetime, but yeah we’ll put some pretty big holes in it.”

The eternal war against one of Tasmania’s worst weeds
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