Wattle: a misunderstood producers' hero

Hovell's Creek grazier Trudi Refshauge was impressed with a local Wattle Day talk last month; of particular note was the protection wattle provide for sheep. Here, lambing ewes are shelted by wattle.
Hovell's Creek grazier Trudi Refshauge was impressed with a local Wattle Day talk last month; of particular note was the protection wattle provide for sheep. Here, lambing ewes are shelted by wattle.

Science has found a plant in our landscape that improves soil health, is a source of protein and provides shade and shelter for stock. It drops seedpods with anti-worming properties and increases biodiversity across our landscape. In the 1960s, growing it was recommended by doctors as a cure for depression. This hero in our landscape is the humble wattle, according ANU Science graduate, Graham Fifield.

Fifield recently visited our area and spoke to interested graziers and gardening enthusiasts from the Young, Grenfell and Cowra districts. "Whilst I love trees and wattles, I also love lamb", he said.

Fifield has been working with gardeners and farmers for years, gathering information on the benefits of native wattles to the Australian landscape and in particular to the farmer.

"As a legume, wattles release nitrogen into the soil and feed all the good bugs both beneath and above the ground. There are over 1000 species of wattle in Australia and I generally advise farmers to plant a broad range species that are local to their area," he said.

"Unfortunately, wattles are missing in much of our landscape. It is a legume with 20 percent protein and it can be very attractive to stock when protein in grasses dries up and gets down to about 8 or 10 percent," he added.

Gunning Sheep farmers, Bob and Rosemary Spiller, recently told Fifield they had just experienced their best ever lambing rate (116%), as a result of establishing wattle belts for shade and shelter in one of their coldest, windiest and poorest paddocks.

Fifield is a key researcher into this technique, along with Binalong sheep farmer, Leon Garry. A decade ago, Garry developed unfenced wattle belts across a paddock to provide his stock with better shade and shelter at stressful times of the year, in particular during extreme weather conditions and at lambing.

He was impressed with the multitude of improvements his stock and farm were experiencing. He noticed his sheep were seeking out fallen wattle pods during the summer months before the autumn break. One wet summer, 15 sheep in a mob next to his "wattle paddock" died of Barber's Pole Worm. The sheep grazing in his wattle paddock seemed to develop a resistance to the parasite.

Garry invited Graham Fifield to scientifically measure what he was observing. Fifield was aware that wattle pods and leaves had tannins in them and initiated further research. He sent foliage and pod samples to CSIRO labs across Australia to be analyzed by Dr Dean Revell for their nutritive content and found the pods had a dry matter digestibility of 39-49%, and the foliage 44-52%. Dr Andrew Kotze, also from CSIRO looked at their effects on a range of parasite life-stages.

Dr Kotze confirmed that many of the wattle species did have anti-worming properties and (for the majority but not all of the species tested), it was due to the wattles' tannins. In general, wattle pods were better at killing the worms than wattle foliage.

"From a farm point of view," said Fifield, "this is handy. Sheep will very quickly consume all the foliage within their reach so it helps that the pods sit higher up the wattle tree and fall at a time of year (mid to late summer) when there can be stock feed shortages and worm problems.

Wattles are a seriously misunderstood plant. People say wattles don't live long, look messy and they are allergic to their pollen. There are 1000 different species in Australia and most wattle species don't do these things. They are often flowering when other allergenic pollens are in the air but it's unlikely that the wattles are the culprits for allergies. Wattle pollen does not get airborne and generally falls straight down on the ground", he said.

Graham Fifield currently works as a project manager for the non-Government organization Greening Australia, in the ACT.