Valley farmers fume at Yarra grazing licence loss to burn

Farmer Sean Davies. Photo by Georgina Marshall
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Farmers are protesting the Victorian Government's decision to revoke their cattle grazing licences in favour of planned burning along the Yarra River. Georgina Marshall reports.

Farmer Sean Davies. Photo by Georgina Marshall

Farmers are outraged at the impact of a Victorian Government’s decision to revoke their cattle grazing licences in favor of planned burning along the Yarra.

“It’s madness,” farmer Sean Davies said. “Prior to revoking our grazing license, bushfires were at a lower risk rate due to the cattle’s contribution to vegetation control. Now the government feels the need to replace this system with planned burning.”

Back in 2014 farmer’s leases were revoked from all farms along River Red Gum earmarked river frontages to prevent livestock destroying the red gum saplings and eroding the banks of the rivers.

The government announced that it would be light hazard reduction fires around the Upper Yarra River instead of cattle grazing, to avoid serious bush fires in the near future.

“The argument that cattle erode our river banks is ridiculous,” Mr Davies said. “In the event of a natural flood metres of a river bank can be eroded in a matter of seconds. The extent of destruction to river banks caused by floods is incomparable to that of livestock.”

Farmers affected by these changes have protested in retaliation asking Parks Victoria to take into consideration the damage caused by the controlled burns in comparison to the damage by cattle in these areas.

The Yarra River holds a third of Victoria’s animal species. These animals mainly reside in the upper Yarra catchments where the conditions are more favorable for wildlife, compared to the lower end of the river where the water has been polluted by urbanisation.

Australia maintains the highest rate of species extinction, greater than any other country in the world – with a loss of 10 per cent of its animals since white settlement.

Natural bush fires and planned burns are some of the main culprits in contributing to the rapid decline in wildlife populations within the Upper Yarra Valley.

Controlled burning is not only detrimental to the sustainability of the native vegetation and wildlife of the Upper Yarra Region, but it also puts the health of the water catchments, upper and lower, in jeopardy due to the leaching of ashes from the heavy rain events that follow.

The Australian Government Department of Agriculture and Water Recourses has said in their ‘Bush Fires and Quality Report’ that “post-fire rainfall has significant impacts on water quality as it often washes these contaminants into waterways and reservoirs. When this occurs, water may be unsafe for agriculture or human consumption.”

Although this type of bushfire prevention appears to have negative effects on the health of waterways and its surrounding environment, the commissioning of this procedure among the Yarra Valley Ranges is to keep control of a high-risk bush fire area and to keep its communities safe.

A volunteer for the CFA (Country Fire Association), Andrew Weston, who was on site for one of the planned fires nearby the Upper Yarra River, explained that “fuel reduction within an area vulnerable to bushfires lowers the risk of destroying communities and taking lives.”

Farmers within these areas with previous lease agreements along the river frontage had taken care of this land for sometimes generations, maintaining these areas for sustainable grazing and easier vehicle access mainly intended for emergencies.

Without this type of regular upkeep among farmers managing their own fire fuel loads, park access becomes more difficult making planned burns harder to be executed safely within the river flats due to inadequate access into these overgrown areas.

“These controlled burns are nowhere near as efficient and effective for fire management as cattle grazing has proved to be. There are a lot of areas along the Yarra that would be unsafe for this excessive form of fuel reduction,” said Mr Davies.

High-risk procedures like strategic burn offs come with costs, including the price of fire control professionals and the required equipment, which are much higher than the expenses involved with the upkeep of a farmer’s own private river flats and regulated cattle feeding.

Parks Victoria has given itself the task of balancing the sustainability of these waterways and parks, ensuring their longevity for future generations versus the immediate risk to populated areas where people have decided to live in high-risk bushfire areas.