( … or ‘Why I Changed My Mind About Alpine Grazing’)
A beautiful little creek runs along the northern boundary of our family property, Pilyara. Beyond it lies Bunyip State Park, a forest in the southern foothills of the Great Dividing Range. Land either side of our creek is virgin country, too steep to bother with when the area was originally cleared for timber and grazing. It has always been a shady haven for ancient tree ferns and delicate ground orchids, all flourishing beneath a soaring canopy of messmate and mountain ash.
Pilyara’s bottom paddocks run down to this creek. There’s never been a fence. Steep, thickly timbered slopes have generally acted as a safe barrier for stock, although for years we regularly lost our colossal pet bullock, Toro, to the neighbours. My son often walked the friendly beast home with just a rope around his neck. Many times I’d toyed with the idea of fencing along the creek, but there was a problem. What about the black-tailed wallabies? What about the forester kangaroos? What about the fat wombats, that emerged from their gully warrens and lumbered uphill each night to graze the moonlit paddocks? Fencing Toro in, would mean fencing them out – and after all, they were here first.
One rainy winter morning, I fed out hay to the cattle as usual, and got a big surprise. Our mob had been joined by another mob. Dozens of big steers had appeared from nowhere overnight. Where had they come from? I rang around the neighbours and heard a fascinating story. Pilyara was apparently playing host to the phantom herd, a mob belonging to an old man upstream. He no longer maintained his boundaries, and his cattle had been roaming along the creek for months, randomly popping up to graze properties along the waterway, and disappearing just as quickly. I rang the ranger, complained to neighbours and begrudgingly fed hay to the blow-ins. Within a few days they were gone, just as mysteriously as they’d come
Braving the weather, I walked down the hill and tried to track the vanished herd. Sure enough, they’d moved out along the creek. What a mess! The banks were broken, caved into the water, taking great swathes of vegetation with them. A once pristine environment was little more than a wallow, flowing sluggish and muddy past trampled reeds and pugged up pools. Pity the poor platypus. The damage was plain as the nose on your face.
Until then I’d been a cautious supporter of alpine grazing. It reduced bush fires, didn’t it? In 2009 my family had spent days watching a monster fire lurk in the forest to our north. On Black Saturday, a capricious wind change saved us, but doomed many others. If grazing really reduced fires, I’d still be for it. A ton of research later, and I got my answer. Both the extensive Esplin Report (following the 2003 alpine bushfires) and the recent combined CSIRO, LaTrobe University and NSW Department of Environment and Conservation study found that cattle grazing had no influence on the spread of fire.
I’ve since joined the Environmental Farmers Network. It supports rural ecological programs, and acknowledges farmers as front-line stewards of the land. Our farmers fence off creeks. They replant and reseed with locally indigenous trees and restore degraded river banks. They build wombat gates, preserve stag trees and put fish ladders in dammed streams. They work hard to give nature a helping hand.
We’ve just received a Healthy Waterways grant to build a wildlife-friendly fence along our creek frontage (Yay!). Healthy rivers, creeks and wetlands are the arteries of our landscape … the life blood of the bush. State and Federal Governments encourage such programs as best practice. Why should management of our precious alpine regions be any different? Look at the Bunyip State Park management plan and you find the seven grazing licences in the southern section of the park are not transferable, and no new licences will be granted. This is because cattle spread weeds, and damage native plants, wetlands and waterways. It’s true for the Bunyip forest and it’s true for the alps as well.
Our magnificent high country is celebrated in Australian art and literature (Including in my own 2012 novel Brumby’s Run).The mythical beauty of Man From Snowy River territory forms part of our national psyche. Romantic images of red and white cattle, stringing between the snow gums, feed into this notion. But the unfortunate truth is, cattle damage fragile landscapes, and there are plenty of forward-thinking farmers who understand this.