One of Australia's most potent national myths was forged in the Snowy Mountains of Victoria, where intrepid farmers have for generations driven their cattle in search of lush pastures during the harsh months of summer. The rugged stockman of the high country was immortalised in The Man from Snowy River, Australia's best-known poem, written by Andrew Barton "Banjo" Paterson.
But now this iconic figure is facing oblivion, thanks to plans by Victoria's government to ban cattle from the state's 660,000-hectare Alpine National Park.
The government has bowed to pressure from environmentalists who say that grazing causes erosion and the cattle trample native wildflowers.
But opponents accuse it of destroying a 170-year-old tradition with deep roots in the national psyche. The Victorian premier, Steve Bracks, is being vilified as the politician "who killed the man from Snowy River".
The cattlemen of the Snowy Mountains are a popular cultural legend, embodying the hard-bitten individualism and self-reliance of Australia's pioneers. Paterson's poem, which perpetuated romantic images of wild horses and stockmen living off the land, spawned two films and a television series.
In reality, the writing has been on the wall for the man from Snowy River. Cattle have long been banned from high pastures in every other state. Now Victoria has decided not to renew the final 61 grazing licences when they expire. Farmers will be paid compensation, and cattle permitted to forage in state forest.
The stockmen who have been taking their cattle to the Alps for generations are preparing for a fight. Today they will go to Canberra to ask the federal government to protect their tradition by giving it emergency heritage listing.
Bruce McCormack, whose family has worked the high country for more than a century, told The Australian newspaper: "It's something we've grown up with. We love it and care for it a fair bit, and to have someone taking it away from us - it's just devastating."
Mr McCormack and his son graze more than 100 head of cattle in the national park, but their licence expires in August. "We've got to wonder if we will sell everything now."
Peter Ryan, the leader of the rural National Party in Victoria, condemned what he called "an appalling decision" that heralded the demise of "170 years of culture and heritage".
The federal minister for Environment and Heritage, Ian Campbell, has indicated that he will give the cattlemen a receptive ear, saying that he regards the grazing of cattle in highland country as an intrinsic part of Australia's heritage.
Peter McGauran, a federal MP representing the seat of Gippsland in country Victoria, hinted yesterday that the government was considering granting the emergency listing. The decision would in effect override the wishes of the state government, although the issue could be fought out in the courts.
Mr McGauran denied that highland cattle were an "environmental catastrophe". "You have to take into account ... other values including social and cultural heritage," he told reporters. "Drovers and mountain cattlemen have largely influenced the way that Australians see themselves today. Australia may be among the most urbanised countries in the world, but most people have a great respect and affection for farmers and mountain cattlemen."
New South Wales has prohibited alpine grazing since 1972, while the Australian Capital Territory, which includes Canberra, outlawed it a century ago. But the practice has always been primarily associated with Victoria. The state goverment said the national park's fragile ecosystem needed to be conserved.Reuse content