Alpine National Park... ...or cow paddock?
‘Opinion’ article for The Weekly Times from
Ian Harris
President, Victorian National Parks Association
Feb ‘04

In a remarkably bold statement in last week’s Opinion piece (11/2), Simon Turner, the President of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association, accused the media of ‘simplistic’ statements about the environmental damage caused by cows in Victoria’s Alpine National Park. He added that those scientists who speak out or report on the issue are just biased.

This sounds like the old story that the cattlemen know the mountains well, and city-based greenies don’t.

In fact scientists have been studying alpine ecosystems ever since Baron von Mueller made the first of his many long journeys across the high plains in the early 1850s (about the time the first Victorian cattlemen hit the high country).

Since then, there have been a great many well-researched experiments on the effects of cattle on these natural systems. There is probably no environmental issue in Victoria better studied.

These experiments cover such things as weed invasion, erosion and siltation, nutrient levels in streams, threatened species, destruction of peat beds and the relationship of grazing to fire, and their results have been subject to repeated scrutiny.

The most famous experiment of all is the Pretty Valley plot set up on the Bogong High Plains in the 1940s by Maisie Fawcett, an ecologist linked to Melbourne University.

And it’s a corker.

By fencing off a small area of the snow grass plains (the plot is still fenced, and it has been continuously monitored since the 1940s), she effectively showed us what the place would be like if cattle were removed. She reckoned there would be a brief growth of shrubs, but when these shrubs died off they would be replaced by a rich and beautiful expanse of fleshy alpine herbs and wildflowers – the natural landscape of the high plains,

She was right!

It was actually the cattle that had caused the initial shrub growth, as only shrubs could easily regenerate in the many exposed bare patches cattle created.

It is this capacity of the cattle to promote the growth of flammable shrubs (and their capacity to munch the fleshy plants that would normally cover the high plains) that give very good support to statements that grazing doesn’t reduce blazing, indeed in many instances, as the recent inquiry found, it probably encourages it.

So why doesn’t the great weight of scientific evidence seal the fate of alpine grazing?

Essentially, the cattlemen are relying on their image of being iconically Australian. But being Australian also has something to do with being fair dinkum.

Let’s face it. The very people who are promoting cows as God’s gift to alpine ecosystems are the people who benefit from the ridiculously cheap agistment on offer, aren’t they?

While the rest of Victoria’s farming communities are embracing management practices designed to improve the land, Victoria’s Alpine National Park is subject to farming that is neither ecologically nor economically remotely sustainable.
We believe this does nothing to honour the cattlemen. And it certainly does no honour to the land.

Contact for further information
Phil Ingamells
Victorian National Parks Assoc
Mob: 0427 705 133