As the bushfire season intensifies across inland Australia, a trial to investigate the role cattle grazing can play in reducing fire hazards continues to generate heat between the Federal environment minister and the Victorian Government.
Grazing was banned in Victoria’s Alpine National Park by the Bracks Labor Government in 2005 based on concerns that cattle were causing environmental damage and threatening endangered species within the park area.
Livestock groups opposed the ban on heritage and economic grounds, and questioned the impact that removing cattle would have on fuel loads and bushfire risks within the park.
In response to ongoing concerns, State coalition leader Ted Ballieu pledged during last year’s election campaign to trial strategic cattle grazing as a tool to mitigate bushfire risk in Victoria’s high country if his party won power.
As premier he honoured that commitment in January by allowing the reintroduction of cattle for grazing in selected alpine sites for short-term grazing in the first stage of what is intended to be five-year research trial.
The Victorian Government maintains that there is not enough peer-reviewed science to make a definitive judgement on whether grazing can provide effective management of fuel and fire.
A 2005 report by the Alpine Grazing Taskforce found there was no statistically significant lowering of fire incidence or severity at a landscape level because of grazing, but the Victorian Government believes more research is needed, because that study focused only on a small part of the Alpine National Park.
It says a five-year research trial is needed to focus on the impact of grazing on a range of ecosystems in the alpine park region, and to fill in gaps where scientific knowledge is lacking.
Green groups have criticised the reintroduction of cattle to alpine ares as politically-motivated attempt by the coalition Government to appeal to its rural support base.
The grazing trial also earned a stern rebuke from Federal environment minister Tony Burke, who ordered the removal of the cattle in March. He is now seeking to increase Federal powers to impose greater controls over activities in State-managed national parks.
In the meantime The Age newspaper reports that the minister plans to introduce a specific Federal regulation in coming months to prevent from the Victorian Government from returning cattle to the Alpine National Park for the second stage of its trial this summer.
In the latest development this week, the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment has released the findings of the trial from last summer.
Its progress report included the following findings:
- The cattle prefer exotic grass species over native species.
- Deer and cattle tend to prefer the same grazing conditions and their impacts are difficult to separate.
- The most visible impact has occurred at watering holes, springs and along creeks.
- Steep terrain and/or dense or unpalatable vegetation are good indicators that cattle cannot access an area.
- The identification of transit pathways between grazing areas are generally not viable under current stocking rates and good conditions unless specialist tracking skills or tools are available.
- Targeted fencing may be possible in some locations to exclude cattle from sensitive vegetation.
- The use of transects as a means of sampling flora in grazed areas was found to be rapid and useful.
- The logistics involved in accessing the selected sites were found to be considerable.
- The DSE said the report covered the first phase of the trial, and was not intended to provide data on the effectiveness of cattle grazing but rather to inform the design and conduct of the long term research trial.
Victoria's Deputy Premier, Peter Ryan, told ABC radio this week that the Victorian Government still intends to send cattle back in the national park this summer.
"I think the important issue behind this is that we promised to undertake getting the cattle back into the park for the purposes of examining properly all sort of prospects of testing with the ever-present threat of fire," he said.
"I think it is a very important tool for us to pursue and we will continue to do it."