Roadside grazing seems to be an obvious win-win situation — hungry stock access feed, and the fire risk beside the road is reduced.
But an ecologist is warning that droving cattle in some parts of Victoria would increase fire fuel loads.
Moyne Shire Council in south-west Victoria has written to the federal environment minister Sussan Ley seeking an exemption that would allow grazing on roadsides where there is native vegetation in order to reduce fire risk.
A council report found there was high-value native vegetation in sections along roadsides throughout the municipality, which was protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
Associate professor John Morgan, an expert in native grasslands and fire ecology at La Trobe University, said it was a popular theory, but it had not been demonstrated that roadside droving reduced fire risk.
He said, in some cases, the opposite was true.
“What it does is create lots of weed invasion and lots of degradation of those roadsides,” Dr Morgan said.
He said native vegetation with high biological value did not evolve with hard-hoofed animals like cattle, which trampled the vegetation and facilitated the invasion of exotic species.
“There’s some nice evidence in certain parts of western Victoria that suggests that if you disturb some of these beautiful native grasslands, they become weedy and actually are much higher fire risk than they were before that sort of grazing,” Dr Morgan said.
He said native grass species were typically a lower fire risk than introduced species because they were shorter and remained greener over summer.
Dr Morgan said there were areas of vegetation on roadsides that had species found nowhere else in the world.
“Some of the species that are entirely reliant on these habitats deserve our protection and our understanding that these areas are important,” he said.
“So, I would hope that those particular parts of the landscape weren’t granted exemptions.”
Dr Morgan said native vegetation had evolved with regular fire, so fuel mitigation by the Country Fire Authority (CFA) was compatible with conservation outcomes.
CFA district five assistant chief fire officer Richard Bourke said there were benefits to burning roadside fuel, including increasing biodiversity because native grass species benefited from a burning regime.
“Burning also provides CFA volunteers with ongoing skills acquisition, experience using fire as a management tool, and this obviously helps CFA firefighters in gaining experience with fire on the landscape,” Mr Bourke said.
Moyne mayor Daniel Meade said a drover from New South Wales grazed cattle on some roadsides in the Moyne Shire in 2019, but the drover returned to NSW after three weeks.
“Despite our preparation, when the drover arrived, the DELWP legislation around the protection of native vegetation and safety issues with crossing State Government arterial roads prevented council facilitating the droving,” Cr Meade said.
Fellow Moyne councillor James Purcell said the council was aiming to re-introduce droving to reduce fire risk while benefitting farmers.
“There is a lot of grass here that can help farmers from different parts of Australia to keep their stock in drought situations,” Cr Purcell said.
But he said it was impossible to find a circuit with enough vegetation that wasn’t native.
“And that’s why we’ve gone to look for an exemption from the Environment Minister so that the drover could actually go over some of those areas that do have some significance,” Cr Purcell said.
He said he was not confident that the Federal Environment Minister would grant an exemption.
“But I won’t be holding my breath.”
A spokesperson for Ms Ley stated the council’s request would be considered in accordance with the Act.
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