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FAQ sheet - cattle grazing in the alps

Question: Is there any evidence that Alpine cattle grazing is good for fire control or prevention?

Answer: No, there is no scientific justification that alpine grazing would help with fire abatement.

Evidence

The most significant research on alpine grazing and fire is outlined below. It was carried out shortly after the 2003 fires swept across Victoria's Alpine National Park, and was published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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Some 100 kilometres of transects across grazed and ungrazed areas of the Bogong High Plains were measured for fire occurrence and (where possible) for fire severity.

The conclusion was that grazing is not scientifically justified as a tool for fire abatement.

"'Alpine grazing reduces blazing' is a widely and strongly held view concerning the effects of livestock grazing on fuels, and therefore fire behaviour and impact, in Australia's high country landscapes. As a test of this hypothesis, we examined the patterns of burning across the alpine (treeless) landscapes of the Bogong High Plains in Victoria, following the extensive fires of January 2003.

"In total, there were 108km of transect lines, 419 survey points and 4050 twig measurements, with sample points equally distributed across grazed and ungrazed country.

"There was no statistically significant difference between grazed and ungrazed areas in the proportion of points burnt. Fire occurrence was determined primarily by vegetation type...

"In both closed-heath and open-heath, grazing did not significantly lower the severity of fire, as measured by the diameter of burnt twigs.

"Whatever effects livestock grazing may have on vegetation cover, and therefore fuels in alpine landscapes, they are likely to be highly localized, with such effects unlikely to translate into landscape-scale reduction of fire occurrence or severity. The use of livestock grazing in Australian alpine environments as a fire abatement practice is not justified on scientific grounds (emphasis added)."

Richard J Williams, Carl-Henrik Wahren, Ross A Bradstock and Warren J Muller, Does alpine grazing reduce blazing? A landscape test of a widely-held hypothesis, Austral Ecology (2006) 31, 925-936

Further to this, the Ecological Society of Australia, in its Position Statement on Alpine Grazing (2006) says (p.5) that:

"There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that grazing in alpine and sub-alpine zones plays any role mitigating the effects of wildfire.

"Grazing by livestock in the sub-alpine and alpine zones represents a significant threat to water, soil, nature conservation and biodiversity values. The Ecological Society of Australia urges all levels of government to support and maintain the ban on livestock grazing in these areas."

The ecological impacts of alpine grazing

Question: Does cattle grazing have a negative impact on the Alpine environment?

Answer: Yes, there is over 60 years worth of scientific research and government reports showing that cattle affect water catchments, soil and nature conservation values, and spoil visitors' enjoyment of the national park.

In particular, cattle:

  • Trample stream-banks, springs and soaks.
  • Damage and destroy fragile alpine mossbeds.
  • Pollute water.
  • Create tracks.
  • Cause soil erosion.
  • Reduce what should be spectacular wildflower displays.
  • Spread weeds.
  • Are known to be a significant threat to a number of rare and threatened plants and
  • animals, and plant communities.
  • Cover areas in cowpats and spoil the enjoyment of the area for visitors.

Source: Department of Sustainability and Environment Q&A, 2005

Evidence

Two reports to government agencies (Parks Victoria 1998 and DSE 1997) made it clear that cattle grazing should not continue in the Alpine National Park.

There are also numerous peer-reviewed studies demonstrating the different impacts of cattle grazing on the alpine environment. The following quotes are extracts from some of these studies.

"Continued grazing is an undoubted cost to national park values, and, indeed, compromises national park management. Any claims made with respect to the benefits of grazing to alpine ecosystems are not supported by scientific evidence."

Williams, R. J. Papst, W. A. and Wahren, C-H (1997) The Impact of Cattle Grazing on Alpine and Sub-alpine Plant Communities of the Bogong High Plains. Report to the Dept of Natural Resources and Environment, Victoria, p40.


"The alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems and landscapes of south-eastern Australia are significant to all Australians because of their inherent value for nature conservation, water-yielding capacity, landscape and wilderness values and for recreation, as well as for their cultural history of human usage."

Groves, R. H. (1998) Grazing in the Victorian High Country. Report to Parks Victoria, p3.


"There is no scientific reason why grazing by non-native animals should not have been excluded from the Victorian high country as early as 40 years ago. That grazing under licence has persisted in Victoria to the present is an indictment of Victorian land management authorities, including Parks Victoria and its predecessors, who have failed to take into account the scientific evidence available and give it its due in the politics of making decisions on land management."

Groves, R. H. (1998) Grazing in the Victorian High Country. Report to Parks Victoria, p6.

The following are a few quotes from the 60 years of scientific studies relating to alpine grazing:

"It is concluded, therefore, that present-day grazing in the Australian alps is not consistent with the preservation and improvement of catchment values." (p.12)

Costin, A. B. The Grazing Factor and the Maintenance of Catchment Values in the Australian Alps. January 1958.


"The condition of the vegetation and soil in the Loch-Hotham area (now protected from grazing) has noticeably improved during the last 20 years. Most bogs and snowpatches are also recovering."

"On the more extensive Bogong High Plains (where cattle grazing continues) the same upward trend is not apparent, except in the enclosures... Likewise the bog and snowpatch areas examined show no substantial recovery and, in many places, active deterioration and erosion continue."

Costin, A.B. Report on inspection of Plants of the Bogong High Plains Area. May 2-6, 1977.


"...it can be concluded that protection from grazing and absence of fire results in (a) the development of luxuriant vegetation which provides adequate cover for the soil surface, and (b) promotes an improvement in soil structure and presumably in the hydrological characteristics of the mossbeds and their catchments."'

Carr, S.G.M. (Maisie Fawcett) Report on Inspection of the Bogong High Plains, 1977


"As most of the free-flowing water accessible to cattle is found in mossbeds, cattle by necessity used mossbeds for drinking.' (p. 62) 'Overgrazing of rangeland by herbivores results in a loss of cover of preferred dietary species."'

"In the absence of grazing the composition of the grassland community changes rapidly with several of the preferred species making spectacular increases in cover." (p. 125)

van Rees, H. Behaviour and diet of Free-Ranging Cattle on the Bogong High Plains, Victoria, 1984


"...The contention that grazing is a primary (or even the primary) factor preventing the spread of shrubs on the High Plains is an inappropriate application of the ecological evidence."

"The continuation of grazing as a means of controlling the cover of shrubs cannot be recommended in the face of the evidence presented both in this thesis, and in the various publications of S.G.M. Carr, A.B. Costin and D.J. Wimbush."

Williams, R. J. Aspects of Shrub-Grass Dynamics on the Bogong High Plains (sub-alpine), PhD thesis, 1985


"Overgrazing of rangeland by herbivores results in a loss of cover of preferred dietary species. This enables less preferred plants to increase in cover through reduced competition by the preferred plants ..."

Van Rees, H. and Holmes, J.H.G. The Botanical Composition of the Diet of Free-Ranging Cattle on the Alpine Range in Australia. Journal of Range Management 39 (5), Sept. 1986.


"On the basis of present evidence, continued grazing by cattle as a means of inhibiting shrub expansion on the Bogong High Plains cannot be recommended."'

"...the continued grazing of cattle within the Bogong National Park is not compatible with strict values of nature conservation."

Williams, R.J. and Ashton, D.H. Effects of Disturbance and Grazing by Cattle on the Dynamics of Heathland and Grassland Communities on the Bogong High Plains, Victoria. Australian Journal of Botany 1987, 35, pp. 413-31.


Abstract: "The ungrazed mossbed appears to be better serving its role filtering water that is used for the production of hydro-electricity."'

McDougall, K.L. The Effect of Excluding Cattle from a Mossbed on the Bogong High Plains, Victoria. Sept. 1989.


"There is ample evidence indicating that the grazing of domestic livestock within the Australian high country is incompatible with nature conservation values."

"The continuation of grazing as a means of controlling the cover of shrubs on the Bogong High Plains, therefore, cannot be recommended as a management option, given the weight of the experimental evidence against the practice collected over four decades ..."'

Williams, R.J. 'Cattle Grazing within Sub-alpine Heathland and Grassland Communities on the Bogong High Plains: Disturbances, Regeneration and the Shrub-Grass Balance.' Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia, 1990, 16, 2555-265.


"In the Pretty Valley ... improvement will occur in the absence of grazing."'

"In the Rocky Valley ... there was no evidence that grazing has reduced shrub cover, and therefore potential fire risk, in open heathland."

"...grazing by cattle has substantial impacts on the composition and structure of sub-alpine vegetation."

"In grassland... continued grazing ... will not reduce the risk of fire in such communities."

Wahren, C.H.A. Papst, W.A., Williams, R.J. Long-term Vegetation Change in Relation to Cattle Grazing in Sub-alpine Grassland and Heathland on the Bogong High Plains: an analysis of vegetation records from 1945 to 1994.


"...the species composition of arthropods was significantly different between the grazed and ungrazed sites ... most probably related to differences in moisture content in the vegetation and top layer of soil and the species composition of the vegetation, which are influenced by cattle grazing."'

Kimpson, K. The Effects of Cattle Grazing on the Diversity and Abundance of Terrestrial Arthropods on Poa hiemata Grassland on the Bogong High Plains. May 2001.


"The present study demonstrated that exclusion of cattle has positive benefits for aquatic ecosystems ... removal of grazing from sub-alpine catchments may release short-term benefits to some features of the aquatic ecosystem, with continued improvement up to 40 years... However, (recovery of) large-scale features such as channel morphology may take much longer."

Simpson, L. Assessment of the Effect of Cattle Exclusion on the Condition and Recovery of Sub-alpine Streams, April 2002.