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Prickly Pear History

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North West Weeds 
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From a New South Wales' perspective...
The Spread of Prickly Pear | Early legislation | Changes to legislation | Cactoblastis | Editor's note | Prickly Pear photo-gallery (separate page within this website) | Chronology of events (separate page within this website)

Prickly pear is in our history books as one of the most invasive weeds ever imported into Australia. It  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 species were brought into Australia on the First Fleet. Captain Arthur Phillip collected a number of COCHINEAL-INFESTED plants from Brazil on his way to establish the first white settlement at Botany Bay.

Prickly pear first came to New South Wales with the First Fleet. It was to be used to establish a cochineal dye Industry... The photo on the left shows young cochineal insects feeding on a pad of prickly pear.  The adults grow to about the size of a "match head" and when squashed produce red colouring. (Click on photos to download larger version...)

At that time, Spain and Portugal 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. The red dye derived from cochineal insects was important to the western world's clothing and garment industries. It was, for example, the dye used to colour the British soldiers' red coats.

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 introduced by Captain Phillip, but it has been established that the particular variety of prickly pear brought to Australia in the First Fleet to set up a dye industry was "smooth tree pear" (Opuntia vulgaris). This type of cactus is still found along coastal areas of New South Wales, and is classified as a noxious weed. However, Opuntia vulgaris never developed into a major problem as did some of its relatives - especially Opuntia stricta spp. and O. aurantiaca.

"Common pest pear" (Opuntia stricta spp.) was the variety of prickly pear that overran NSW and Qld between 1900 and 1930.  (Left, close-up of a common pear plant - photo V.H. Gray, Sydney.  Right, common pear -  "Millencowbah", Collarenebri 26 Jun 1987)

The Spread of Prickly Pear in Australia

There is no 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 district in the early 1800's. There is also 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 Sydney 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!

From garden plants to hedges and then into the paddock, prickly pear became acclimatised and spread at an alarming rate. Many people were forced off their lands.

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 various homesteads as a hedge. The hedges flourished and bore fruit. Excess pieces were dumped in the bush. With all this help, prickly pear quickly established over a large area.

Prickly pear literally exploded! The accommodating climate and the general lack of natural enemies accounted for its amazing spread - still considered by many experts to be one of the botanical wonders of the world.

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Legislation to Control Prickly Pear

Prickly pear started to cause concern about 1870, but it was not until 1886 that the first (Commonwealth) Prickly-pear Destruction Act was passed. This Act placed obligations upon owners and occupiers of land to destroy pear. The Act provided for the appointment of inspectors to implement its provisions.   Some amendments to the Commonwealth Act were carried out in 1901. By then, however, the horse had bolted!

In 1924, New South Wales brought its own legislation into effect.  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 Train Trip
An interesting piece of history, in its own right!  It seems that, even as late as 1924 when the pear was virtually out of control, very few NSW state politicians seemed to understand the full extent of the problem.  In order to bring about a change in mindset, the then NSW Minister for Lands W E Wearne (from Bingara NSW) conducted 27 fellow politicians on a train tour to Moree and Bingara to demonstrate, first-hand, the impact prickly pear was having on rural areas.  While the tour had the desired outcome (the Prickly Pear Act 1924 came into being shortly afterwards), the media gave the tour a fair "bashing" as shown in these two newspaper extracts (images, left and right, kindly donated to this webpage by John Wearne, Bingara, grandson of the former Minister for Lands.  The pages are a bit slow to download because of all the text).

The situation is hopeless...
By 1925, prickly pear was completely out of control, infesting some twenty-five million hectares in New South Wales and Queensland. It was spreading at the rate of half a million hectares a year and nobody could stop its progress!

Tremendous effort went into mechanical and chemical treatment programs, but the pear could not be contained. 

The historical photo, right, shows one of the early and drastic treatment methods - fumes from a boiling arsenic mixture drifting across the pear (circa 1919 - photographer unknown).  According to former Commissioner Garry Ryan, this method was used with some success during the clearing of land for the building of the Moree-Boggabilla railway line.

NB. 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.)

The photo 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, emu eggs, crows and scrub magpies (these birds feasted on the plentiful prickly pear fruit, thus contributing to the further spread of prickly pear)...  Please keep this document in context, however. They were desperate times - prickly pear was totally out of control!

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Cactoblastis - the answer!

The answer to the main prickly pear problem 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, its virtual destruction by cactoblastis caterpillars (Cactoblastis cactorum) is 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.

Within six years, most of the original, thick stands of pear were gone. Properties previously abandoned were reclaimed and brought back into production. 

But, while this sounds like a happy ending, the story continues...

Cactoblastis was not effective in all areas (photo left - PP Inspector Jack Bailes amongst common pear Scone area June 1938 - photo by Norris J Small) Cooler climates were less favourable for insect proliferation - other forms of control had to be pursued. While common pear received all the "limelight" from 1900 to 1930, other varieties of prickly pear were becoming established. One of these was "tiger pear" (Opuntia aurantiaca), now our worst prickly pear variety. (Photo on right shows Garry Ryan spraying tiger pear with a misting machine -  Pilliga NSW area, circa 1975 - photo V.H. Gray, Sydney.)

Further Amendments to the Act

The Prickly Pear Act, 1924, was amended in 1944. That Act, 1924-1944, remained in force until 1987 when it was replaced by the Prickly Pear Act, 1987.

The Prickly Pear Act 1987 was repealed in 1996.  All major prickly pear species were declared as "noxious weeds" under the Noxious Weeds Act 1983 and as such came under the umbrella of local government.

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Editor's note

The history of prickly pear in New South Wales and the stories of the many people who worked on the former (NSW) Prickly-pear Destruction Commission is worth recording.  The information on this web page (a lot of it taken from earlier Prickly-pear Destruction Commission booklets put together by Commissioners Vic Gray and later Garry Ryan) is a start.  Please also refer to the attached web page PRICKLY PEAR - CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS.

(Photo, right: Commissioner Victor H Gray's farewell - PPDC staff and partners, Scone Depot 1979 - photo by Ian Gray)

I have more information and photographs to add as time permits, but would welcome any other stories, photographs, or comments, for consideration for this website. (Photo left: PPDC staff, Scone Depot planning meeting 1993)

If I have failed to acknowledge a quotation, photograph or other object please let me know.  Similarly, persons using this website are asked to acknowledge the source if they choose to (and please feel free to do so) reproduce any photographs or articles from this site.  Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs used in this website were taken by and are the property of Les Tanner.

Les Tanner, North West Weeds, 20 Dinoga Street, Bingara.

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Two other pages on prickly pear history attached...

PRICKLY PEAR PHOTO GALLERY - separate page within this website...
PRICKLY PEAR - CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS - 1788 TO 2000 - separate page

Send mail to [email protected] with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright © 2007-2009 Last modified: 08/09/09 - L R Tanner