Grazing advocates argue that cattle will reduce the impacts of bushfires when they do occur
Grazing advocates argue that cattle will reduce the impacts of bushfires when they do occur

Since at least 2006, a number of people have called for fuel reduction burns and a re-introduction of grazing to the river flats around Wonnangatta station. This has variously been claimed as being important for protection of visitors should a wild fire break out, for weed control, and ecological recovery.

The state government has now moved to gain approval from the federal government for a grazing trial.

Weeds are an acknowledged problem in the valley, with St Johns Wort, blackberry, Cape Broom, sweet briar and Hawthorn all being significant. In many places, the remnant Themeda (Kangaroo grass) flats are being encroached on by weeds.

It has been reported several times that ‘the poor state of the park is strong evidence of State Government underfunding of Parks Victoria’. So, one option to tackle weeds would be to increase PV’s budget. The current state government is cutting staff at present.

The call for a re-introduction of grazing has been promoted largely by people with connections to grazing.

It is interesting to learn that the current attempt to get cattle back into the Alpine national park by the mountain cattlemen is for a relatively low lying area, the flats around the Wonnangatta station. Previous attempts have been for high country grazing. In contrast, the Wonnangatta station sits at about 500 metres above sea level, in very different vegetation to the high country.

So. Could a grazing operation at this elevation be good for weed management and to reduce fuel loads?

cane toad. Would grazing bring more problems then it solves?
cane toad. Would grazing bring more problems then it solves?

Lets leave aside the fact that many of the problematic weeds in the alpine area were introduced by cattle (hopefully any re-introduction of cattle does not become a solution like the ‘cane toad’ syndrome – where unintended new problems are created in trying to resolve an existing problem).

Lets instead take the cattlemen at face value: that they believe that in this particular location, grazing will reduce fire risk and weed infestation.

Is there a place for grazing by hard hooved and heavy non-indigenous animals in our national parks? And would the proposed grazing trial actually prove if this is the case?

The problem is, we just don’t know. This is because – for whatever reason – the state government has not released any meaningful information about how the grazing trial would work. Given the high level of politics involved in previous attempts to get cattle back into the park, it is hard to trust their motivations unless we have this information.

Media reports say that the trial will be ‘part of a scientific investigation of bushfire prevention options across 2,200 hectares.’ Lets recall that this idea has been discussed with the Environment Minister for at least 10 months before his recent announcement, so its not unreasonable to assume the methodology for the trial is well advanced.

The government could start to resolve the mistrust about their intentions by releasing the outline of their grazing plan. To make an informed decision about whether this is a ‘fair dinkum’ trial, the community needs to know:

  • Who has created the methodology?
  • Who will be responsible for managing it?
  • What scientific evidence is there that grazing will control weeds and fire risk in the way it is claimed?
  • What is the budget for the program, and where does it come from. Does it just draw from existing Parks Vic budget?
  • What assessment will be done of current weed infestation and fuel loads prior to the introduction of cattle?
  • What targets will be set to reduce weed coverage and fuel loads. Different weeds respond in different ways to grazing – what are the strategies for each of the key weeds? And what is the strategy for weeds that are not normally grazed by cattle?
  • Will the 2,200 ha in the project be fenced? Who will pay for it? Would meaningful results be able to be gained from running the trial on a smaller parcel of land?
  • Will the adjacent waterways be fenced to keep cattle out of the river? If not why not. What are the likely public health implications of this? (many thousands of people visit and camp in the Wonnangatta each year).
  • What strategy will be developed to ensure the cattle do not re introduce weeds?
  • Have the relevant traditional owner groups been consulted and involved in the project?
  • What will the cattlemen by paying in agistment fees?

Once this information is in the public domain we can start to have an informed discussion about the merits of such a trial. Until then, we have to assume this is just another attempt to get some benefits for political mates. Hardly the basis for forming good policy over how we manage public lands.