From my earliest days of walking in the Alps, cattle were a prominent feature of many places I visited. I would often meet cattlemen (almost invariably men), who would assure me the cattle were a benign influence on the environment.
But what I saw was trampled wetlands and stream beds. I saw cattle standing in the headwaters of crystal clear streams, crapping and stomping the stream banks. I saw them spreading weeds. And I saw them selectively eating the succulent low lying vegetation in meadows rather than the flammable shrubs on the edges of those systems. More than once I was chased by a herd, and a scarey and heart thumping run and scramble up a tree got me out of a few situations. At Mt Stirling I saw that the ‘exclusion zone’ around the alpine summit was somewhat aspirational – the fence was normally damaged and there were almost always cows wandering around up on the summit. I drank from streams that had been polluted by huge animals with damaging hard hooves. At Macalister Springs we were warned of intestinal worms that had been introduced by cattle years before.
At 16, I wanted a sticker that said ‘cattle grazing increases blazing’.
Cattle were finally removed from the Alpine National Park in 2005 by the Bracks Government after a thorough investigation by the Alpine Grazing Parliamentary Taskforce. Cattle continued to graze in state forest next to the park.
In recent years I have witnessed the recovery of alpine systems as cattle caused erosion slowly healed.
That should have been the end of the matter. But we all know that it was plain old politics that saw the newly elected Coalition government try to fulfil a promise to the mountain cattlemen for their support in ousting East Gippsland independent MP Craig Ingram at the 2010 state election. They allowed the cattlemen to return cattle to the Alpine national park in a sneaky operation under the guise of ‘scientific grazing’. Thankfully that was thwarted by the federal government.
As has been noted on this site, the election of the Coalition to federal Coalition to power has changed the dynamic, and the president of the Mountain Cattleman’s Association, Charlie Lovick, says alpine grazing is ‘back on the agenda’.
He says there is no other way to effectively control fire fuel loads above an elevation of 1,200 metres.
“How else do you reduce the fuel load because grass and scrub grows,” he said.
“We’re saying that cattle are a perfect balance to manage the higher stuff, to chew it down and keep it nice and green and you can more confidently burn the other areas.”
Mr Lovick red tape is the only thing stopping the federal and state governments from moving ahead with the plan.
If you’ve never been to the high country, it might seem sensible to argue that there will be less fire where cattle graze. But the idea doesn’t actually stack up when you look at the science.
The most significant research on alpine grazing and fire was carried out shortly after the 2003 fires swept across Victoria’s Alpine National Park, and was published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The conclusion was that grazing is not scientifically justified as a tool for fire abatement.
Many earlier studies have shown the damage cattle cause in the Alps.
Alpine grazing was not recommended by the Bushfires Royal Commission.
Victoria’s 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission was an inquiry of unparalleled thoroughness. It had no limits to the subjects it could address, was granted a $40 million budget, and sat for 155 days between May 2009 and May 2010.
The Commission made ten recommendations for research into fire related matters. The effectiveness of alpine grazing on reducing fire was not one of them.
- The Commission recommended, as a high priority, extensive research into the monitoring of the effectiveness of fuel reduction burning programs across Victoria, and monitoring of the impacts of bushfires and fuel reduction burning on biodiversity.
- The Department of Sustainability and Environment’s own Code of Fire practice says that ‘(domestic stock) grazing is appropriate only for significantly modified habitats’, such as roadsides.
- There is compelling peer-reviewed evidence showing that alpine cattle grazing has no significant effect on mitigating bushfires.
So, as Mr Abbott works his way through his top order list, like ‘stopping the boats’ and winding back the price on carbon, cutting ‘green tape’ and so on, will he eventually get to the wish list of the mountain cattlemen?
It seems to me that alpine grazing would be entirely consistent with the world view of Tony Abbott and the mountain cattlemen: if you don’t like what the science is telling you, ignore it and do what you wanted to do in the first case.
If you’re not a huge fan of this world view, you may want to send a message to the federal environment minister, Greg Hunt.