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Why cattle will never again roam free in the high country

Opinion piece by Phil Ingamells
Printed in the Sunday Age newspaper, October 31, 2010

The Coalition's promise to return cattle grazing to Victoria's high country is a backward move. There are abundant reasons why cattle shouldn't, indeed can't, return to Victoria's Alpine National Park.

The recovery of the high plains since 2005, when grazing licences ended, has been remarkable.

What had become a cow-trampled farmscape is regaining its alpine grandeur, and the newly sealed Bogong High Plains road winds its way through swaths of wildflowers, bringing summer tourism to the Victorian alps.

There is also a safety issue. Unfenced, untended cattle will be a danger to the much-increased traffic on that road: the many kilometres of fencing that once constrained cattle in the park have been removed.

One of the reasons for ending licensed alpine grazing was the damage cattle were causing to the hundreds of mossy peat beds scattered throughout the high country. These remarkable natural systems for distributing water through the seasons have, since grazing stopped, been helped towards recovery by alpine ecologists and thousands of hours of volunteer labour.

Some 60 years of impeccable science helped demonstrate why alpine grazing should end, and it was a courageous, evidence-based decision by the Bracks government to stop the practice in 2005.



Xerochrysum subundulatum (Orange Everlasting) in flower on the high plains after grazing.


Leucochrysum albicans subsp. alpinum (Hoary Sunray)in flower on the high plains after grazing.
Photos: Henrik Wahren

The Coalition, however, seems to be playing with the cattlemen, promising to bring them back to the high country, even though they must know it won't happen.

First, the Coalition, should it win office, is unlikely to gain control of the upper house so it won't be able to change the law to reintroduce the privileged cattlemen's licences.

Instead, they plan to introduce alpine grazing as a fire-retarding management practice.

But science is against them. A comprehensive study after the 2003 fire showed that cattle grazing didn't have any significant impact on either the extent or severity of fire. It seems that shrubs are the main agent for carrying fire in the alps, and cattle don't eat them.

Even the exhaustive Bushfires Royal Commission made no recommendation to reintroduce grazing. And since grazing ended, all Australian mainland alpine national parks (including Kosciuszko, Namadgi and Mount Buffalo) have been given national heritage listing.

National heritage listing gives the park added protection under federal law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. And those fragile, ancient, moss-covered peat beds and their associated alpine wetlands have been listed as threatened under that same law.

Any attempt by the Coalition to reintroduce grazing as a management practice would be blocked by the federal government.



Craspedia, or Billy Buttons, flowering abundantly since cattle were removed from the Bogong High Plains.
Photo: Henrik Wahren

Perhaps the Coalition intends to follow ex-Senator Ian Campbell's hare-brained plan. He once proposed to fit cattle with satellite-linked collars that would give them an electric shock whenever they ventured near a wetland, peatbed or any of a number of threatened plants. His bizarre plan would have resulted in panicked cattle suffering random shocks as they wandered the High Plains.

And there is yet another question for the Coalition. How would their proposal be administered? Parks Victoria would have to tender for cattle to be brought to the high country. That means that the cattlemen would have to vie with other locals for the privilege of sending their bovines up the hill.

It's time for a wiser proposal from our leaders, something that would take management of Victoria's precarious 500 million-year-old natural heritage into a secure, science-based future.

Victorians need a promise to seriously invest in the knowledge, expertise and resources required to keep our great natural areas healthy, and free from a growing range of pest plants and animals.

And the Alpine National Park needs a solid commitment to remove the feral, hard-hooved beasts up there, the thousands of horses, pigs and deer trampling and munching their way through areas the cattle didn't always get to, such as the rainforests and wetlands down-slope.

It's a national park, not a paddock.

Phil Ingamells is the manager of the park protection project at the Victorian National Parks Association.


Find out more about Victoria's alpine parks.