Cattle back in Alpine National Park

Cattle grazing has been reintroduced in Victoria’s Alpine National Park, in the form of a trial to test the effectiveness of ‘strategic’ cattle grazing for fuel reduction and fire management purposes. The state’s Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) has commissioned a trial by Prof. Mark Adams of the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre and the University of Sydney. The project is an extension of the existing ‘Highfire’ program of the Bushfires CRC (www.bushfirecrc.com/projects/b6/highfire), but as at 7 Feb 2011 the Alpine National Park trial is not specifically referred to on that site.

The reintroduction of cattle grazing in the Alpine National Park was a pre-election promise of the recently elected Baillieu Coalition government in Victoria.  The policy was promoted only on bushfire fuel reduction grounds – other aspects do not appear to have been addressed either in opposition or since the change of government. It is unclear why the new research project needs to use sites inside National Park, or whether on-Park trials were ever under consideration by DSE before the State election. On-park trials of grazing to reduce fuel loads were not a recommendation of the (2010) Bushfire Commission Final Report.

The trial involves 400 cattle introduced to six sites over 25,600 hectares (just under 4%) of the Alpine National Park, for the remainder of the 2010/2011 grazing season, which runs until the end of April.  According to DSE the initial research sites “have been carefully selected to avoid or minimise significant environmental impacts and will only use sites that have been grazed in the past. No grazing will occur on Bogong High Plains as part of the research” (see www.dse.vic.gov.au/dse/nrenpr.nsf/Home+Page/DSE+Parks~Home+Page?open, accessed 7 Feb.. 2011). DSE says that “This scientific trial will focus on a range of ecosystems in the Alpine National Park, including wooded areas and will build upon the existing body of research by concentrating on areas that are lacking scientific evidence”.

However it also states that during 2011 “a longer scientific research program will be developed”, and that “there is a need to collect more evidence and research that looks at the direct effects of grazing on fuel load and structure in all [sic] alpine and subalpine ecosystems.”

The Victorian National Parks Association (www.vnpa.org.au/) and the Environmental Farmers Network (www.environmentalfarmersnetwork.net.au) see the trial as the thin end of the wedge, and  liken it to a “terrestrial version of Japan's scientific whaling''. The lobby groups in favour of grazing access deny any adverse impacts of grazing and assert cultural heritage rights (see for example The Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria MCAV at http://www.mcav.com.au/).

The Victorian rural newspaper, The Weekly Times, (www.weeklytimesnow.com.au) has run a poll of readers over three weeks -  while the poll is not methodologically robust, about 80% of respondents are against cattle in the High Country (Alpine National Park).

ANPC comments:


High-country grazing in Victoria and NSW has been a controversial issue for many year. Soil and water authorities have for many decades recognised adverse impacts on catchments of grazing by domestic and feral stock in high-montane environments – especially through loss of ground cover, increased surface flows, soil erosion and reduced soil-water retention.

Grazing leases in the Alpine NP were not renewed by the previous Victorian government, following a 2005 Parliamentary report (google on “Alpine Grazing Taskforce Report”). The Scientific Advisory Panel for that report recommended that “Grazing should not be returned to the high elevation areas (i.e. above 1200 metres) of the Alpine National Park …[nor to] “the severely burnt montane and other lower elevation areas (i.e. below 1200 metres) …  for at least 10 years” (i.e. at least until the summer of 2014–15 in both cases). It further recommended that grazing of other areas be permitted “only with very clearly defined conditions [which] must ensure that cattle are strictly contained to the agreed unburnt portions of the licensed area”, that Parks Victoria “develops an adaptive management protocol to monitor the effects of grazing”, and that “weed control post-fire must be a very high priority”. 

The 2005 Report naturally defined “severely burnt” areas in terms of the extensive 1998 and 2003 fires, and not of the subsequent 2009 fires. It is unclear whether either the current trial, or the projected “longer scientific research program” testing grazing on “all alpine and subalpine ecosystems”, will be constrained by those recommendations or by the new fire history.

The adverse effects of stock grazing and trampling on the biodiversity of many of the fragile alpine and sub-alpine ecosystems, particularly Sphagnum moss communities, are also very well attested from observation, although not many structured research programs are documented in the scientific literature.

There is some recognition here and overseas of a possible role for limited crash-grazing in helping to preserve particular species diversity in some situations, but this depends on very close control of the extent and intensity of feed reduction, and an ability to de-stock at very short notice. Crash-grazing for biodiversity management does not necessarily dovetail well with fuel reduction goals, lease-based unfenced grazing using neighbouring landholders’ stock, contractual obligations granting access for periods of months, and a questionable ability to apply rapidly adaptive management, including close monitoring and prompt re-exclusion.

Above all, the need for the trial itself is made questionable by the pre-election commitment to re-open grazing access to the Alpine National Park, land set aside specifically for nature conservation. The use of election promises to claim a mandate for compromising the legislated function of conservation reserves is a very negative trend. To implement such promises by staging a ‘scientific trial’ not previously recommended by any inquiry or land management authority does indeed look like the thin end of the wedge.