Australia — The Victorian Government wants to reintroduce cows to the Alpine National Park in a trial aimed at reducing fuel for bushfires.
ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: The Federal and Victorian governments are about to lock horns over the reintroduction of cattle into the Alpine National Park, six years after the animals were banned.
The State Government says cows are being used in a trial from January to April each year for six years to see if grazing helps reduce fuel for bushfires, a study already being labelled a sham by its critics.
The Federal Environment Minister has told Lateline he’s written to the Victoria Government demanding to see the science behind the trial within two weeks.
Hamish Fitzsimmons reports from Victoria’s high country.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS, REPORTER: The image of the mountain cattleman has long been celebrated in film, verse and advertising, with Victoria’s high country a postcard setting. Now the serenity has been shattered over the reintroduction of cattle to the Alpine National Park.
JOHN NELL, GRAZIER: There’s so much grazing there, mate. If there’s a fire, it’s going to burn pretty hot so we got to get it chewed out and reduce the fuel that’s in there, yeah.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: In 2005, the State Labor Government put an end to over 100 years of grazing in the Alpine National Park, a policy reversed in mid-January when 400 head of cattle was moved into the park for a six-year trial to determine if grazing reduces the fuel available for bushfires.
RYAN SMITH, VICTORIAN ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: This trial’s about understanding how we can use cattle grazing as a bushfire mitigation tool. Now, we have a legislative obligation to ensure that our parks are protected from fire and we’re seeing whether we can use cattle grazing to do that.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: The move has incensed the Federal Environment Minister, whos written to the Victorian Government demanding an explanation within two weeks.
TONY BURKE, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: I don’t know of situations where people go and visit our beautiful national parks around Australia and say, “It’s pretty good. All it needs is some cattle.” Studies have been done for many years and so far every study that’s been done says that in a situation like this, cattle do not reduce the risk of bushfire.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: It’s shaping as a major battle, with the Federal Government investigating whether the Victorians have breached environmental laws. But the new government of Ted Baillieu says it has every right to conduct the trial.
RYAN SMITH: We don’t see any reasons why they would stop the trial. They’ve certainly – as I said, we’ve had no opinion from the Federal Government as to whether it’s illegal.
TONY BURKE: Australia’s been having an argument internationally with Japan for a long time now about so-called scientific whaling. I never thought we’d be in a situation where we were dealing with a state government about so-called scientific grazing.
PHIL INGAMALLS, VICTORIAN NATIONAL PARKS ASSOCIATION: The bizarre thing about this science project is that there is no scientist that’s owned up to the design of the first year of this research. It’s been brought in as a political imperative to get cattle back into the previous grazing licence areas. It’s a sham for science.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Today, the sole Greens MP in the House of Representatives tabled a bill to halt the alpine grazing.
ADAM BANDT, GREENS MP: The inevitable claims by the Victorian Government of federal interference in state affairs should be rejected for what they are: excuses and hypocrisy.
Mr Deputy Speaker, the Victorian State Government’s return of cattle grazing to the Alpine National Park is an act of environmental vandalism and this bill puts an end to it.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: But those who work on the land take umbrage at the accusations of vandalism.
KEN HEYWOOD, GRAZIER: We are probably the ultimate conservationist and we dislike seeing unnecessary destruction when there’s obviously ways around it.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Many high-country graziers feel no lessons have been learnt from the Royal Commission into Victoria’s catastrophic bushfires in 2009. They say grazing can lessen the severity of fires by constantly reducing the amount of ground fuel in between controlled burns.
KEN HEYWOOD: With the Royal Commission coming out and saying that we needed to increase the amount of fuel reduction burns markedly, well, it’s going to be a long time between doing it all once and then going around again. Well, grazing can extend the period of time between burns.
PHIL INGAMALLS: The Bushfire Royal Commission made 10 recommendations for priorities of research. This was not one of them.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Ken Heywood’s family has been farming near Merrijig since the 1870s and he’s had cattle in the high country for 40 years. He’s one of six farmers taking part in the trial, which he believes will prove grazing does help prevent severe bushfires.
KEN HEYWOOD: At last, we might get some answers, or prove to the doubters that this does work. I mean, we’ve been saying it for years. We know it works, but we’ve got to prove it to the doubters.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Opponents of the grazing trial say this wetland is one of the areas most under threat from cattle. They say in just over a month, cows have already done significant damage to an area that contains protected flora and fauna.
But graziers say cows are now being blamed for the damage done by feral animals.
BRUCE MCCORMACK, GRAZIER: Some of our critics have taken photos of deer wallows. I don’t know whether people are aware of what deer do, but they wallow in muddy water. People see that and think: cattle.
HAMISH FITZSIMMONS: Bruce McCormack’s family have also been high-country graziers since the 1870s. He rode in both The Man from Snowy River films and is sad to see a celebrated way of life come under attack.
BRUCE MCCORMACK: We are part of history, I think, being involved in something like that up there for that long. It’s just frustrating and hard to believe that they just want to get rid of you.