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They may look like innocent daisies, but hawkweeds pose a threat to Australia’s spectacular landscape. Two students were part of a team from the University of Wollongong who travelled to Mount Kosciuszko, the frontline in the fight against this invasive species.

“Not many students get the opportunity to do something like this, to be out in the field and to learn from the researchers” – First-year student Mary Pilkinton

It’s a cold autumn day and in the foggy surrounds of Charlotte Pass, the temperature hovers just a few degrees above zero. Elsewhere in the state, people are still swimming and sunbathing – but in this section of Kosciuszko National Park, it feels as if winter has come early.

The team of students, researchers and volunteers from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are rugged up against the weather. The sky is heavy with the threat of rain as huge storm clouds wrap themselves around the landscape. But, in the name of research, the team persevere until finally a relentless drizzle begins. In half an hour, the view will all but disappear, hidden under a thick blanket of silver fog.

For Associate Professor Nicholas Gill, from UOW’s Australian Centre for Cultural and Environmental Research, it is simply part of conducting fieldwork in the outdoors – sometimes the weather does not cooperate. But for a pair of students on their first fieldtrip – who are part of a team surveying bushwalkers in the area – it is a chance to move outside the classroom and experience their studies against a spectacular backdrop.

“It is great to be out here,” says Mary Pilkinton, who is in her first year of a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Human Geography. “The weather at Charlotte Pass hasn’t been awesome, but we have managed to get a lot of responses to our survey. Not many students get the opportunity to do something like this, to be out in the field and to learn from the researchers.”

UOW students Taneesha Amos-Hampson and Mary Pilkinton.

Taneesha Amos-Hampson, who is in the third year of a Bachelor of Social Sciences, agrees and says she was in awe of the rugged, sweeping scenery.

“I grew up on the coast, so this has been a complete change of scenery for me. The mountain range and rolling plains, seeing all the native trees and wildlife has been incredible, and made the cold and rainy weather worth it.

“Human geography is about how people relate to their environment, so it’s exciting to be able to be involved with fieldwork that really explores that.”

The threat of hawkweeds

Professor Gill, Mary, and Taneesha are part of a team of researchers working to prevent the spread of hawkweeds, and, hopefully, eradicate their existence altogether on mainland Australia.

The invasive species, which in NSW is currently found only in Kosciuszko National Park and two nearby private properties, has the potential to severely disrupt Australia’s biodiversity and cause massive impacts to agricultural productivity.

“Hawkweed is a daisy, with a flower like a dandelion, that has all the classic characteristics of an invasive species,” says Professor Gill, an expert in environmental geography.

“It forms very dense infestations, and it can create thousands of plants per square metre. It produces a huge amount of seeds and, once established, it forms mats that crowd out all other plants. It is very good at what it does.

“It has had a huge impact in New Zealand, where it has really reduced the productivity of pastoral lands, across millions of hectares.”

Associate Professor Nicholas Gill at Charlotte Pass.

Currently on the National Environmental Alert List, and listed as Prohibited Matter in NSW, hawkweeds could create havoc for our native flora if they are allowed to spread beyond their current makeshift home in the sub-Alpine region of the state. One of the key factors in preventing the spread of invasive species, like hawkweeds, is ensuring the people who are enjoying the national park – on foot or by bike – do not inadvertently take the seeds with them, and thus spread the weed further.

That’s where the team from the University of Wollongong comes in. Working alongside NPWS volunteers, Professor Gill, Mary, and Taneesha spent three days surveying bushwalkers at Charlotte Pass, a resort and village in the heart of the Snowy Mountains.

Charlotte Pass is 1,837 metres above sea level and the highest permanent settlement in Australia. It is the start of several very popular walking tracks that access Mt Kosciuszko, and other tracks close to a hawkweed infestation, and is a hub on the Australian Alps Walking Track, a 650-km walk that winds through the high country of Victoria, New South Wales, and the ACT.

The Snowy Mountains represents hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism annually – more than $750 million across domestic and overseas markets; while not all of these visitors are bushwalkers, that’s a lot of feet on the ground potentially transporting hawkweed seeds throughout the region and beyond.

Associate Professor Nicholas Gill chats to bushwalkers in Charlotte Pass.

“Bushwalkers on Mt Kosciuszko are one of the main ways that hawkweed seeds can spread, as the seeds can catch on their boots,” Professor Gill says. “So we spent the weekend surveying bushwalkers about how they can help prevent that spread, by cleaning their boots.

“We wanted to know what they are doing now to clean their boots, whether they would use boot cleaning stations and what would prevent them from doing so. We also looked at the type of boot cleaning stations that would be needed. Would we need ones where the walkers can sit down after a day on the trail? Would they need a trap to collect the seeds?”

Professor Gill says one of the things he finds fascinating about weed management is the idea that humans are able to dominate the natural environment, when nothing could be further from the truth.

“Weeds are interesting because they confront the ideas we have about inhabiting and dividing our land. We think we are in control, that we can manage nature, but invasive species really turn that idea on its head,” he says.

“With the hawkweeds, we are trying to eradicate them before they become widespread, but that is a difficult task. It requires coordinated efforts from a whole range of people, from bushwalkers, to other park users and all land managers.

“I’m a fieldwork junkie so I love being out in nature. Part of the reason I became a geographer was because I am fascinated by people and places.”

Hillary Cherry, Senior Weeds Officer from the Office of Environment and Heritage, which encompasses the National Park and Wildlife Service, hopes it will become commonplace for park users to help stop the spread of hawkweeds.

“The work by the UOW team, with the help of our wonderful NPWS hawkweed volunteers, will help us to identify the best ways to help park users prevent the spread of weed seeds. The results of these surveys can be used to inform the design of best practice ‘hygiene’ mechanisms, like boot brush down bays, to make them easy to use and effective. Our aim is, in the long term, brushing soil and seeds off boots before and after walking the trail just becomes normal practice.”

Hawkweeds are aggressive competitors for light, soil, nutrients and space. They can therefore impact on endangered ecological communities, cultural landscapes and threatened species habitat, for example, mountain plum pine – the main food source of the mountain pygmy possum. Hawkweeds can create mono-cultures by releasing chemicals into the soil which can inhibit germination of native plants.

If left unchecked, hawkweeds have the potential to impact more than 27 million hectares of environmental and agricultural lands across south east Australia. Ms Cherry said Australia could learn from its neighbour across the Tasman, which has been waging its own battle against hawkweeds.

“The lesson we can learn from New Zealand is ‘don’t let it go!’. More than six million hectares of the South Island is invaded by hawkweeds, with devastating effects on agriculture and biodiversity. The aim is to catch it and kill it before it spreads further and causes irreversible damage to the fragile alpine environment and beyond.”

Changing bushwalkers’ behaviour

Over the weekend, Professor Gill, Mary, and Taneesha surveyed more than 80 bushwalkers coming off the trail at Charlotte Pass to discover what they could about their behaviour.

“Boot cleaning stations are much more common in Tasmania and New Zealand than they are here,” Professor Gill says. “But we wanted to know if people are aware of the necessity of cleaning their boots. Once boot cleaning stations are installed, the next stage of our research will be to observe what people actually do.”

For Mary and Taneesha, the experience was a glimpse into how their studies could be applied in the real world. Taneesha, who grew up in Port Macquarie, says she has always been passionate about the world around her, in part due to the guidance of her mother, who raised Taneesha and her sister to be conscious of their impact on the environment.

“I came to UOW to study psychology, but in that first week, there were a series of taster courses, so we could find out more about other subjects. I went to one on human geography and I loved it. I changed my major,” says Taneesha, who is also involved in the UOW Surfrider Foundation.

“I’ve always had that passion for the environment from a young age. If we can do more to help the environment, why wouldn’t we do our bit?”

Mary has always had an interest in sustainability and social issues and says studying human geography has helped her to see how humanities and science can complement each other.

“I have a real passion for animals, for social justice and for the environment,” she says. “We are not doing enough to protect our environment so I’m really interested in how we can encourage people to become more involved in sustainability.”

The chance to survey bushwalkers in Mt Kosciuszko – and to find out more about the potential impact of hawkweeds on the alpine region – was an amazing opportunity for both Mary and Taneesha, who jumped at the chance to be involved.

“We want to find out what is behind the bushwalkers’ behaviour. If they were provided with the right tools to clean their boots, would they use it? Are they aware of the possible impact of hawkweeds?” Taneesha says.

She loved being able to meet the bushwalkers and find out their reasons for exploring the alpine region.

“It was so interesting to get to know the different types of people who visited the area. Being positioned at the trailhead we were able to engage with hikers before they began their walk.

“The survey and research perfectly encapsulates human and non-human interaction. How we use the natural environment and how we become embedded in it is important to understand, as it has many effects and sometimes consequences. These need to be identified and appropriately addressed in order to ensure we continue to preserve and protect beautiful, natural areas.”

Mary, who only began her studies a few weeks before venturing out into the field, says working alongside Professor Gill and the volunteers from NPWS, provided them with context for their studies.

“I really enjoyed being able to get to know Taneesha and Nick. Since the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities is fairly small, it was great to meet a more senior student who is passionate about similar things.

“Being involved in this type of fieldwork opens up your mind and gives you a taste of what research is like,” she says. “As geography students, we have so many amazing academics to learn from, and we are so lucky to have these opportunities.”

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