From a New South Wales’ perspective… Editor’s note: PDF (6-pages) printable version of this webpage available – also there are two (2) other related items in this website: Prickly Pear History 2 – NSW Prickly-pear Destruction Commission and Prickly Pear History 3 – Photo-gallery
By 1920, prickly pear was completely out of control, infesting some 60 million acres of land in New South Wales and Queensland. It was estimated at the time that the pear was spreading at the rate of one millions acres a year!
Prickly pear had a devastating impact on life in rural eastern Australia during the early part of the 20th century. Special acts of Parliament were passed to enforce control measures in an attempt to halt its spread through Queensland and New South Wales. The story started over two hundred years ago…
Introduction of Prickly Pear into Australia
The first plants of prickly pear were brought into Australia to start a cochineal dye industry. At that time, Spain had a world-wide monopoly on the important cochineal dye industry and the British Government was keen to set up its own source of supply within its dominion.
In those early days, the red dye derived from cochineal insects was very valuable to the world’s exclusive clothing and garment trade.
[Author Amy Butler Greenfield compiled a brilliant book “A Perfect Red”, on the historical importance of cochineal dye – recommended reading! For a sneak peek check out the introduction – pages 2 and 3 from Amy’s book.]
The expensive, red colour denoted wealth, royalty and power. It was, for example, the dye used at that time to colour the British soldiers’ red coats.
Captain Arthur Phillip’s “First Fleet” supplies included a collection of COCHINEAL-INFESTED prickly pear plants from Brazil and other places on his way to establish the first white settlement at Botany Bay in 1788.
The photo (left) shows cochineal insects feeding on a pad of prickly pear. Beneath their protective white covering, adults grow to about 4-5 mm in size. The insects were “harvested” (and squashed) for the production of a very effective red dye.
It was at the instigation of Sir Joseph Banks that a cochineal dye industry was established at Botany Bay. Little is known of the fate of those first plants, but it is believed the particular variety of prickly pear brought to Australia in the First Fleet was “smooth tree pear” (Opuntia monacantha). This type of prickly pear is still found along coastal areas of New South Wales, and is classified as a noxious weed. However, the one that caused all the problems for New South Wales and Queensland in the early 1900s was “Common pest pear” (Opuntia stricta sp) – as illustrated in the photo, below.
The Spread of Prickly Pear in Australia
There is no totally reliable information on the original introduction of common pest pear into Australia from the Americas. It was first recorded as being cultivated for stock fodder in the Parramatta (NSW) district in the early 1800’s. And. there is a record of a pot plant being taken to Scone, NSW in 1839 where it was grown in a station garden. The property manager later planted it in various paddocks with the idea that it would be a good stand-by for stock in a drought year.
It has also been recorded that a plant of common pear was taken from the Sydney area to Warwick, Queensland in 1848 for use as a garden plant, with a strong recommendation that it would be a good fruiting and hedge plant! (This 1924 Scone Advocate newspaper clipping [contributor?] on the right throws more light on the way prickly pear was readily distributed during the 1800s!)
Early settlers took plants to other parts of New South Wales and Queensland because of its potential use as an alternate food source for stock, especially during dry times. It was also planted at homesteads as a hedge. The hedges flourished and bore fruit. Birds spread the seeds. With all this help, prickly pear quickly established over a large area.
Prickly pear population literally exploded!
The accommodating climate and general lack of natural enemies accounted for its amazing spread – still considered by many to be one of the botanical wonders of the world.
In 1901 the Queensland Government offered a reward of £5,000 for the discovery of a satisfactory method of destroying prickly pear. The reward was doubled in 1907. (In fact, the reward was never claimed although many inventors came forward with suggestions – some a bit radical e.g. introduce more rabbits to eat the pear – another from one with obvious WWI experience was the proposal to use mustard gas to kill all the wildlife and therefore stop them spreading the seeds!)
New South Wales Legislation to Control Prickly Pear
Prickly pear started to cause concern about 1870, but it was not until 1886 that the first Prickly-pear Destruction Act (NSW) was passed (Act 50 Vic. No. 2, 1886). This Act placed obligations upon owners and occupiers of land to destroy the pear. It also provided for the appointment of inspectors to implement its provisions. The 1886 was replaced by the Prickly-pear Destruction Act 1901 (Act No.32, 1901), which in turn was replaced by the Prickly-pear Act, 1924 (Act No. 31-1924).
By 1912 the prickly pear situation in both New South Wales and Queensland was very serious, with more that 10 million acres infested. Methods of destruction used by the settlers included poisoning, digging up and burning, crushing with rollers drawn by horses and bullocks. The costs often proved greater than the value of the land.
It was indeed a time of heartbreak for many settlers – the hopeless task of keeping prickly pear off their land and, during much of this same period, many rural families were living with the daily fear of knowing their young men were overseas and involved in World War I…
Photo, right: Caption reads “As homecoming WW1 Diggers marched through the tiny Queensland township of Evergreen in 1919, clumps of prickly pear were making inroads...” Extract from “The Cactus Invasion” item, Australasion Post 23 Oct 1975.
Historical photo, left, shows another of the early (and rather drastic) PRICKLY PEAR TREATMENT methods – fumes from a boiling arsenate mixture drifting across the pear (circa 1919-20s – photographer unknown).
According to former NSW Prickly Pear Commissioner Garry Ryan, this method was also used with some success during clearing of land for the building of the Moree-Boggabilla railway line. Maybe the fumes might have discouraged some of the many death-adders (snakes) that were prevalent amongst the thick pear. The snakes were such a hazard that many of the workers wore leggings made out of 4 gallon petrol/kerosene containers.]
Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board
In 1919, the Commonwealth Government with the Governments of NSW and Qld set up a joint Commonwealth Prickly Pear Board to investigate all options for controlling prickly pear- biological and mechanical. Significantly more funding was put into work on cactoblastis and cochineal biological control agents.
The situation is hopeless…
By 1920, prickly pear was completely out of control, infesting some 60 million acres of land in New South Wales and Queensland. It was estimated at the time that the pear was spreading at the rate of one millions acres a year. Nothing could stop its progress! Tremendous effort went into mechanical and chemical treatment programs, but the pear could not be contained.
A 1924 Train Trip to convince NSW parliamentarians of the seriousness of the PP problem…
The train trip worked: NSW Prickly-pear Destruction Commission was formed in 1924
The (NSW) Prickly-pear Act 1924 provided for the setting up of a Prickly-pear Destruction Commission, with wide powers to deal with the prickly pear problem. The first Commissioner, Mr Archie Lockhart, was based at Moree. Field staff were appointed to enforce the Act. In NSW and as in Qld, a lot of this work involved re-allocation and/or re-adjustment of rentals of Crown land properties taken over by prickly pear (many abandoned by the former lessees). In NSW these became “Prickly Pear Leases”; Queensland called them “Prickly Pear Selections”. Lessees could eventually own the land – if they cleaned up the pear!
The battle continues in NSW and Qld
Queensland had the bigger share of the prickly pear problem because its climate and land types were more suited. (The Queensland authorities were also the ones responsible for introducing the famous cactoblastis into the equation!) Some of the historical information gained from Queensland records makes fascinating reading. For example:
The Queensland Prickly Pear Land Commission 1926 annual report stated that “the amount of poison sold in Queensland that year would treat 9,450,000 tons of prickly pear! Chemicals included 31,100 (10 & 20lb) tins of arsenic pentoxide and 27,950 containers (ranging in size from 2g earthenware jars to 42g steel drums) of Roberts Improved Pear Poison”. (I have no figures for the chemical treatment program undertaken in New South Wales during this same period.)
Photo, right, shows the type of spraying equipment (atomisers) used during this period – in fact, right up until the 1970’s…
Bounty on destruction of birds: the link on the left is an amazing record from the Queensland Prickly Pear Land Commission annual report, 1926-27, listing bounties paid for the destruction of emus (2 shillings 6 pence head), emu eggs (1 shilling), crows (6 pence) and scrub magpies (4 pence head). [At that time, the male basic wage was around £4/5/0 per week: 44 hr week @ 2 shillings hr.] These particular birds feasted on the plentiful prickly pear fruit, thus contributing enormously to the dramatic and continuing spread of prickly pear… Please keep this information in context, however. They were desperate times – prickly pear was totally out of control!
Cactoblastis – the answer!
The answer to the main common prickly pear problem eventually came in the form of biological control. As the amazing spread of prickly pear in eastern Australia was considered to be one of the botanical wonders of the world, so too was its virtual destruction by cactoblastis caterpillars (Cactoblastis cactorum) – still regarded as the world’s most spectacular example of successful weed biological control.
The first liberations of cactoblastis were made in 1926, after extensive laboratory testing to ensure they would not move into other plant species, and a massive rearing program particularly at the Chinchilla Field Station (Queensland) to obtain sufficient insect numbers for saturation releases. (The Australian National Film and Archive website contains a 4 min documentary on the prickly pear biological control program. No sound track but great images of the good old prickly pear days! Australasian Gazette – Prickly Pear Infested Areas of Australia (1926)
Also for school students and others interested in the amazing Cactoblastis story are two very interesting booklets written by Margaret M. Cameron, grand-daughter of the owner of the actual property in Queensland where the original Cactoblastis breeding establishments were brought into production!
Please see separate page within this website…
The image (right) printed by the Govt Printing Office Brisbane 1930, is a map of Queensland showing numbers of cactoblastis released within each “land agent’s district” by the year 1930. The numbers are in pale green, Amazing figures!
The cactoblastis phenomena did not happen overnight.
It was a long program and required a lot of work. The pear made a major “comeback” after the initial cactoblastis attack, and it took some time for the cactoblastis numbers to build up again. But, within six years, most of the original, thick stands of pear, and the re-growth – were gone. Properties previously abandoned were being reclaimed and brought back into production.
But, while this sounds like a happy ending, the story continued…
Cactoblastis was (and still is) not effective in all areas of New South Wales. (photo left – PP Inspector Jack Bailes amongst common pear Scone area June 1938 – photo by Norris J Small). Below, common pear – “Millencowbah”, Collarenebri 26 Jun 1987)
Cooler climates were less favourable for insect proliferation – other forms of control had to be pursued. And, while common pear received all the “limelight” from 1900 to 1930, other varieties of prickly pear were becoming established, particularly Tiger pear (Opuntia aurantiaca) which still continues to
cause serious problems in many parts of NSW. Other examples: Harrisia cactus (Harrisia martinii) is on the increase along the border with Queensland and another nasty one that has come onto the scene in western NSW is Hudson pear (Cylindropuntia rosea).
The NSW Prickly-pear Destruction Commission, formed in 1924, continued right through until disbanded 31 December 1987 – some 63 years. Throughout this period staff numbers varied from 20 to 120, according to seasons, government funding and the WW2 years.
For more information on NSW’s long-term involvement in controlling prickly pear, please refer to PART 2 OF OUR PRICKLY PEAR STORY – the attached webpage “NSW Prickly-pear Destruction Commission”.
Prickly Pear History 2 – NSW Prickly-pear Destruction Commission Prickly Pear History 3 – Photo-gallery