MANY AUSTRALIAN communities are lobbying their local councils to reduce the use of controversial chemical glyphosate - commonly used as a weed killer - on council managed land.
And that is just what has occurred in Hepburn Shire, with the council currently working in partnership with Federation University's Environmental Science student Michelle Matthews on a weed minimisation project that has involved trialling weed management techniques that do not involve the use of chemicals.
Ms Matthews has been running a number of trials around the different methods of reducing glyphosate - the active ingredient in commonly-used weed killer Roundup - by utilising alternative weed mitigation techniques.
Throughout the trial she has tested the effectiveness of using organic and natural herbicides, steam weeders, brush cutters and even hand weeding techniques to reduce glyphosate use in public spaces.
She hired the Landmate prison crew to hand weed at the Mineral Springs Reserve, which she said was very effective as the crew was able to remove weeds with minimal disturbance.
"The environment is changing and we don't really want to use the chemicals the way we have been," Ms Matthews said. "Over the next couple of years there will be a lot of changes in the way we manage weeds."
Ms Matthews said throughout the trial - in which she has looked specifically at the ways in which glyphosate use can be reduced in public spaces such as roundabouts and playgrounds - she had learnt that weed mitigation strategies best incorporated not one technique, but a number of techniques to form a long term strategy.
It comes as The Sunday Age recently reported that the Victorian government - the first Australian state or territory to do so - recently announced that it had launched a review into glyphosate use following court rulings against the maker of Roundup in the United States in relation to cancer cases.
The most popular part of the trial with the community has been the employment of nine adorable, weed-eating goats.
The site they have been trialled on for the past four weeks - at the council depot - has been great, according to Ms Matthews, because it contained a wide variety of weeds from around the shire - from blackberry to cape broom and periwinkle - so she has been able to gauge what they will and won't eat.
"The goats are being trialled to not just see how effective they are but what sort of sites they can be put on. I have been looking at what they will and won't eat. Now I know they won't eat periwinkle - one of the most invasive weeds in the shire at the moment but they will eat blackberry and cape broom."
She said the goats had ring barked the cape broom on the site meaning it was then easy for staff to enter and easily chop down the woody remains, making the weeds a lot easier to manage.
"They are very effective at what they do - even if they don't eat a specific weed, they will trample it which is another way of exhausting or killing it."
Ms Matthews said the goats generally tended to eat the tops of plants, including flowers, which was great for preventing the spread of seeds.
"They are selective grazers and will go through and try everything and then only eat what they really like to eat - which is a lot. They can handle a lot of plants other ruminants can't and they don't get bloating.
"They can tolerate small amounts of toxic plants - they won't eat lots of them, but they can nibble them. Hemlock, periwinkle, bracken - they will nibble on it. It's a flavour thing for them."
She said there was a lot of research about the seeds which pass through a goat's gut, with seeds either being destroyed in the chewing process or in the gut and the ones that do make it through have a reduced germination rate.
Ms Matthews is developing a framework around weed management and alternative methods, including goats, which she will soon hand to the council.
"You need to have a strict strategy in place - before you put goats on a site, you need to do a vegetation survey to know exactly what is on it and assess the quality of the land because you need to protect some plants from the goats," she said.
"They might not be the best method for each site, but for many they are really effective and do the job to reduce the need to use glyphosate."
She said part of the framework was around putting goats in areas with steep slopes and gullies which people and heavy machinery can't access. But the problem is that gullies are generally intersected by creeks, meaning there would be inevitable damage and erosion caused.
"So do you restrict how close they go to the creek or do you just accept a little bit of damage for the greater good? One thing I've learnt for a lot of these weed management strategies is that at some point there will be a bit of damage but if you have a good long term strategy, then the environment can bounce back."
One thing I've learnt for a lot of these weed management strategies is that at some point there will be a bit of damage but if you have a good long term strategy, then the environment can bounce back.Michelle Matthews
Ms Matthews said she had observed that goats only cause surface damage, so to plants they have trampled, but they do not rip plants out of the ground, or leave it completely bare.
If goats are used, Ms Matthews said quarantine procedures needed to be put in place to prevent weeds from spreading.
"You need to brush them down to get seeds off, clean their hooves and keep them in a quarantined area for a few days until all of the faeces from that paddock has passed through."
And part of having goats is having an animal ethics policy in place for their well-being which means no tethering and ensuring they are properly contained to minimise the possibility of them escaping, or wild pigs or dogs breaking in. They are also checked on a number of times a day.
"I didn't expect a clear landscape but the goats have been really popular and we'd all love to see them doing a bit of work around here because it just fits an agricultural community," she said.
"Most landowners have been using livestock to manage weeds on their property forever and it just makes sense that we expand those strategies into land management of public spaces. They're not a miracle cure but they're looking like a really wonderful way of reducing glyphosate use."