March 1, 2023

Agencies are working together to combat Phytophthora cinnamomi, a deadly plant pathogen that decimates habitat for threatened species throughout the Otways, such as the Southern Brown Bandicoot, Long-nosed Potoroo and Swamp Antechinus.

The disease is a plant pathogen that devastates native plant communities and the animal species that rely on them for habitat. It is microscopic and lives in the soil, water and plant material. It attacks roots, restricting the uptake of water and nutrients, killing the plant. Certain native species such as the iconic grass trees and banksias are particularly susceptible to the disease.

The Australian Government’s Wild Otways Initiative aims to protect native wildlife from threatening processes, including Phytophthora. To slow the spread of the pathogen, an aerial flight took place to apply phosphite, a salt-like chemical, over critical habitat in the Otways. Phosphite works by boosting susceptible plants’ defences against Phytophthora, inoculating sensitive heathlands against the pathogen. “We can protect large amounts of bushland fairly quickly and easily using aerial spraying” said Katrina Lovett, Regional Conservation Program Coordinator at Parks Victoria.  Despite the efficiency and effectiveness of phosphite application, “it’s not our silver bullet, you need to repeatedly treat target sites as plants lose their immunity over time” she said.

“Once dieback is present it can't be eradicated but it can be controlled,” said Jessica Miller, Environmental Programs Manager at the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority." Applying phosphite to plants doesn't kill the disease, but what it does is boosts the plant's immunity. So, it's a little bit like an immunisation," she said.  “We’re working together to slow the spread of Phytophthora dieback in the Otways and this trial will give us a real insight into the effectiveness of aerial spraying across a large area” says Tim Miller, Wild Otways Project Officer from the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action (DEECA).

To deliver this work, Barbara Wilson Pty Ltd is working in partnership with the Corangamite Catchment Management Authority, Parks Victoria, the Department of Environment, Energy and Climate Action and Field Air Group.  The broader Phytophthora project is mapping the occurrence of the pathogen in the Otways, prioritising areas for protection and training agency staff, community groups and traditional owner groups in hygiene to prevent the spread of the disease.

Senior Ecologist Dr Mark Garkaklis said, “the disease is a biological bulldozer, these groves of grass trees are hundreds of years old, they are our old growth forests and once they are gone there is no going back”.

This project is funded by the Australian Government.

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