Alpine National Park... ...or cow paddock?
Article in the North East Farmer Aug, 2004, p 8.

The High Country doesn’t need cows

The community’s understanding of land care and conservation issues has been growing fairly fast over the last couple of decades, and many things have changed.

Salinity control and river health are now squarely on the agenda, and there is a fast-growing understanding of the role that healthy native vegetation plays in protection of biodiversity – ensuring the survival of the great range of plants and animals in Victoria.

The problem with cattle on the High Country relates to two of those issues: water quality and biodiversity protection.

The effects of cattle on waterways (primarily bank erosion, siltation, flow changes and nutrient enrichment) are well understood. In the 1960s, during development of the Snowy Scheme, cattle were removed from Kosciuszko National Park in NSW, mainly for these reasons.

But in Victoria cattle continue to degrade the headwaters of rivers like the Murray, the Kiewa, the Mitta Mitta and the Mitchell.

More particularly, 150 years of grazing has greatly damaged (in some cases obliterated) peat beds and sphagnum bogs which, when healthy, can slowly release snow-melt run-off, allowing greater water flows in dry months.

In NSW these important natural systems have been slowly recovering, but where grazing remains in Victoria they continue to deteriorate, even under low stocking rates.

The evidence of this damage is not imaginary. It is clear, and has been presented to countless enquiries.

And the damage is not just to wetlands and waterways. There is a large body of evidence that shows many threatened species are seriously affected by grazing.

The cattlemen have suggested, from time to time, that the fact threatened species survive after 150 years of grazing means all must be well, but extinction is a slow and inexorable process, and to turn it around you need to take action well before the final event.

Unfortunately, we may already be acting too late for some. At least 15 grazing-affected species and four plant communities have been listed as threatened under Victoria’s Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act, and a host of other plants are also affected. One plant only found in Victoria on the Dargo High Plains, the Carpet Willow Herb, for example, has not been sighted since 1933.

Cattlemen claim grazing reduces blazing, and in one sense it does. The Government’s Esplin Report acknowledged that in an eaten out pasture, fire may move about 40%slower than in an equivalent ungrazed pasture, but the situation is more complex than that. In time, cattle in the high country greatly reduce the cover of many fleshy, fire resistant alpine plants, and also increase the cover of several highly flammable shrubs. On balance it cannot be said that grazing reduces blazing, and in the 2003 fires (as in the Caledonia fires, and apparently in the 1939 fires) the great majority of licences within the path of the fire were 100%burnt.

Recent figures from Parks Victoria confirm our estimates that management of grazing in the park costs the taxpayer around $500,000 a year, but brings in an income from the licence fees of under $30,000 a year. (Last summer, with less cows up there after fire, the management cost to Parks Victoria came out at over $270 per head.) This is Government money which would be better spent on weed or wild dog control, or even schools, hospitals and the like.

We believe, with appropriate transitional assistance, the cattlemen and their tradition can be accommodated very well outside the boundary of the Alpine National Park.

And a recovering national park in Victoria could then be linked to other existing national parks in the Act and NSW to form one great Australian Alps National Park. It would have an international tourism profile, and bring inestimable economic benefit to the region in years to come.

Phil Ingamells
Alpine Campaigner
Victorian National Parks Association