Australia — The new government’s policy to reintroduce licences is flawed.
Cattle grazing in national parks is back on the agenda – it was an election policy of the Victorian Coalition that wasn’t widely publicised and didn’t get much media attention. Renewing the grazing licences would be a backward step for the environment and for ecotourism in the high country.
The last high-country grazing licences expired in 2006. Before this, the Victorian government established an Alpine Grazing Taskforce to provide advice on whether grazing licences in the Alpine National Park should be renewed. Advertisement: Story continues below
The key issues examined were whether ”grazing reduces blazing”, the social, cultural and economic aspects of the licences and the environmental impact of cattle grazing.
Proponents of grazing concentrate on the ”grazing reduces blazing” argument. It’s a catchy little phrase and seems to contain a nice kernel of logic. Surely, if there’s less to burn there must be less burning, so the argument goes. Sadly for the graziers, the argument doesn’t bear scrutiny.
The evidence is that both grazed and ungrazed areas of the park were burnt in the 2003 fires. Grazing didn’t reduce blazing. Evidence of experienced fire managers and scientists was that the burning pattern of the 2003 fires reflected variables such as vegetation type, inherent fuel flammability, fuel moisture, terrain, and weather conditions or wind direction at the time, rather than grazing.
The most flammable fuel types in the park, which contribute almost the entire available fuel load to bushfires, are branches, twigs, bark, eucalyptus leaves and shrubs. With the exception of some shrubs, cattle do not eat these fuels. Snow grass in alpine grasslands traps moisture and can be very difficult to burn.
A firefighter in the 2003 fires told of how he was unable to sustain a backburn in ungrazed snow grass near Mount Hotham. Another noted that fire jumped from shrub to shrub across grassland patches tens to hundreds of metres wide, regardless of whether the area had been grazed.
Graziers have a contrary view. One licensee showed the taskforce an area burnt in the 2003 fires and explained that the fire burnt all the ungrazed area, coming to an abrupt halt right where the grazed area began. Our scientific advice was that prevailing winds and topography determined the extent of the blaze that day. The grazier would not accept the advice of the scientific experts, even when an adjacent burnt area that had been grazed was inspected.
Failure to accept the science and expertise lies at the heart of the alpine grazing debate. Those involved in grazing do so from a position of faith, but this faith has an economic basis.
Alpine grazing has proved to be a lucrative form of public subsidy for a small number of privileged licence holders. Average farmers have to make do with their own land and the feed it can provide. When times are tough, stock feed may need to be bought. The land will sustain only so many animals.
Alpine grazing licensees maintained more stock than their land could carry because they used public land as an auxiliary feed lot.
As the small licence fees did not cover the cost to the state, there was an implicit subsidy to the graziers that affected the ability of park managers to allocate resources to other activities.
The social and cultural elements of alpine grazing were intimately linked to the economic realities. The mythology of the mountain cattlemen served the economic interest. There is no reason why these elements cannot be harnessed to tourism as a productive resource, but history should not require ongoing degradation of the environment.
Environmental demands meant cattle grazing had to stop. The taskforce found significant damaging impacts and no overall benefits for the environment from cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park. The delicate nature of the alpine ecosystem is central to this finding.
In particular, the evidence established that cattle damage water catchments, causing bare ground, soil disturbance and erosion, and trample moss beds and watercourses.
Grazing modifies and damages vegetation in the park. The evidence of the damage caused by cattle to moss beds and snow patches is compelling.
Cattle grazing poses a significant threat to at least 25 flora species and seven fauna species found in the park that are listed as rare, vulnerable or threatened with extinction. Rehabilitation and restoration necessary to repair modified and damaged areas is difficult in the continued presence of cattle.
Since cattle grazing ceased in the Alpine National Park in 2006, the park has started to regenerate. Its potential as a world-class ecotourism destination is outstanding. The history of the mountain cattlemen could contribute to that. The park could be Victoria’s first natural asset to gain World Heritage status. But not if cattle grazing resumes.