In the inconspicuous Victorian town of Merrijig, just down the hill from the mountains that inspired Banjo Paterson’s The Man From Snowy River, three men dressed in oilskins ride into an arena herding a dozen or so head of cattle. The men — along with women driving horse-drawn buggies and two tiny, bonnet-clad girls riding in saddlebags — are part of a parade to celebrate the heritage of the mountain cattlemen.

But they also symbolise a battle that is heating up between the Victorian and federal governments over cattle grazing in Victoria’s heritage-listed Alpine National Park — a battle also characterised by a sharp city-country divide and claims of uninformed media hysteria.

Despite the issue only directly affecting about 100 cattle grazing families, the presence of 12 state and federal Coalition MPs at the weekend’s celebrations highlights the emphasis the Coalition is willing to place on its support for farmers in this conflict — one of many similar battles nation-wide in which the agricultural industry is pitted against the environmental movement.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke yesterday was due to hand down a decision on whether the state’s reintroduction of cattle to the park was valid under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act. Victoria’s Environment Minister Ryan Smith — whose office was still awaiting the decision — told the crowd at the weekend’s celebrations that his federal counterpart was overstepping his jurisdiction in telling Victoria how to manage their parks.

“It’s not — in my opinion — up to Tony Burke to tell Victorians that their government shouldn’t be doing what they were elected on,” Ryan said.

What they were elected on, as the minister put it, was a promise to let cattlemen and their herds back into the park under a study into the potential benefits for bushfire fuel reduction. But critics of the study, such as Environmental Farmers Network president Andrew Bradey, see it as a farce akin to Japanese “scientific” whaling, and a contradiction of the state government’s efforts to reduce damage done by cattle elsewhere.

Earlier this month, the Herald Sun reported criticisms of the study from academics at the University of Melbourne who argued the Sydney University-led trial should instead be headed by the CSIRO. The last significant study into the effects of cattle on fuel reduction, conducted by the CSIRO following 2003’s bushfires, found “no significant difference between grazed and ungrazed country in the proportion of the landscape that burned, in both grassland and heathland”.

But Smith labelled coverage of the issue “hysterical” and “uninformed”, tapping into the deep mistrust of city-based reporting and decision making that permeates the mountain grazier’s argument.

Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria president Mark Coleman said he was angry he had not been contacted by the Herald Sun, which also reported recommendations GPS collars be used in the trial were ignored.

“They have taken three lines out of a document, they have not shown that in context,” Coleman said. “That is Age reporting — it surprised me with the Herald Sun, it really did.”

Coleman said he had not seen the document — obtained by the Herald Sun through Freedom of Information — as he had not yet been allowed access to a copy.

The trial has seen six graziers reintroduce 400 cows into the Alpine National Park.

One of those graziers is Bruce McCormack, who says his family has run stock in the alpine region since 1866. After being forced to move his cows from the park when the state Labor government introduced environmental protection legislation banning them in 2005, McCormack says the financial impact on his family is “fairly notable”.

But the cattlemen’s association is keen to play down the financial impact — whether out of a genuine lack of concern for the money, or a desire not to be labelled as “greedy farmers”. Instead, it is the threat to a long and proud tradition and the fear of improper management of fire risks that is driving their passionate campaign.

“The high country is something you can’t read out of a book, you can’t learn it out of a manual, it is passed down through generation to generation,” Coleman said. Graziers in the region are infuriated by people from the city telling them how to manage the land they had tended for 175 years, he said.

Despite the findings of the CSIRO study — which he said was too limited — Coleman says fire risks are best managed by cattlemen. He says environmental management under the Labor government had left the alpine region “overgrown” and a “mess”.

“In 2006, when we got burnt out in our valley, we did not hear a bird for two years, did not see a bird for two years,” Coleman said. “We’ve seen no snakes, no lizards; the fish were annihilated out of the streams once those streams silted up.

“That’s not management — that is bastardry of the top order. And those people [alpine grazing critics], it doesn’t worry them, they’ve still got fresh drinking water out of the tap in Toorak or wherever they come from, and it just does our head in that they just don’t care.”

Water supply was one of the issues that concerned Bradey the most, given the damage he says has been done to the park’s sphagnum bogs. The cattle farmer from Victoria’s west had, at one time, worked as a stockman in the alpine region of NSW.

Bradey says alpine grazing was recognised as a threat to water supply in NSW long before the environmental movement was even influential.

“From a farmer’s point of view, having a secure water supply coming out of the alpine areas of Victoria, because the topsoil’s still intact and it’s releasing water slowly over the summer and autumn into the catchments of the Murray-Darling Basin and the rivers that flow to the coast … is much, much more cost effective than having a few hundred cattle running up there smashing things up and providing people with an opportunity to ride around on their horses with big hats and Dryza-Bones and crack whips,” Bradey said.

He says the state’s actions are ironic given the main message of the Landcare movement — which the state government was trying to reinvigorate — was to fence off waterways and stop degradation caused by animals.

“They’ve really put both of those things as a badge of honour — that they’re going to increase the Landcare movement to deal with land degradation on farmland but on the other hand they’re promoting land degradation in national parks,” Bradey said.

When asked whether he related to the frustration at city-based decision making that characterised the mountain cattleman’s battle, Bradey says the Environmental Farmers Network fully supported the state government’s actions.

“You can consult till the cows come home,” he said, before pausing to reflect on the unintentional pun. “But if you’ve got two sides who have got diametrically opposed positions consultation’s not going to get you out of the bind.

“Someone’s got to say ‘well, we think this is better and that’s what needs to happen’.”

A federal Department of Environment spokesperson told Crikey the Victorian government proposal required thorough consideration and was still being considered.

Peter Fray

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