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Grazing practices and the northern Great Barrier Reef

Words Sandra Lloyd 

Grazing is a vital and significant industry on Cape York, covering around 40 percent of the region. Graziers on the eastern Cape have an important role to play in reducing cattle-driven erosion, which in turn reduces sediment in waterways, and the northern Great Barrier Reef.

In 2015, Grazing Industry Roundtables were held in Cape York to determine whether landholders’ were willing to adopt changed practices to benefit the Reef. These practices included: improving herd management, improving management of off-stream and dam watering points, improving pastures, reducing pest and weed pressure, improving road and firebreak maintenance, marketing opportunities, reducing late season wildfire, and spelling gully prone areas.

The findings were extremely positive: up to 87.5% of landholders were willing to adopt changed practices.

As a result, a Cape York - specific grazing management framework was developed by Cape York NRM as part of the Eastern Cape York Water Quality Improvement Plan. The Cape York ABCD Management Framework for Water Quality identifies best management practices for pasture, gully, fire, road/firebreak erosion, and wetland, riparian and floodplain management from Dated to Better Practices, through to Aspirational or ‘cutting edge’ practices, which often become Best Practice after validation.

One example of cutting edge practice is the holistic grazing methods proposed in the AgForce and Cape York NRM grazing forum held in Laura in May 2018.

Holistic grazing is the practice of changing the timing, frequency and intensity of livestock, a system of rotational grazing which has resulted in increased plant production, improved water infiltration and retention, less land degradation and improved lifestyle and profitability.

A major component of Best Management Practice is exclusion fencing. Grazing property Violet Vale Station, in the Normanby catchment area near Musgrave, contains 1,896 hectares of wetlands of National Significance and is home to the endangered Red Goshawk. Aquatic ecosystems such as wetlands are vulnerable to degradation by feral cattle, pigs and horses as well as invasion by semi-aquatic and aquatic weeds. During the Dry, uncontrolled cattle would migrate to the wetlands as other parts of the property dried up. 

Recognising the value of their wetlands, and the need to reduce sediment flowing to the Great Barrier Reef, Violet Vale owners James and Nikki Collins worked with Cape York NRM to protect the significant natural values of the wetland by establishing a 32km cattle proof fence to enclose the area.  They then established an 11,000-hectare cattle exclusion zone designed to remove cattle, feral pigs and horses and increase ground cover. This area is low value from a grazing perspective but sheds significant sediment loads as it includes a large alluvial fan denuded of grass cover from years of grazing. The two projects have created a 21,000-hectare exclusion zone and illustrate the Collins’ commitment to undertake significant environmental works on their property to protect the integrity of the Great Barrier Reef.  As a result of their work, James and Nikki Collins were shortlisted for the Reef Alliance’s Reef Sediment Champion Award 2018.

It is important to monitor the effect of management actions such as destocking, exclusion fencing and weed removal, before and after fencing. This was done on Normanby Station’s Curly and Lily Lagoons which were damaged by feral animals and in poor condition. Both lagoons were fenced by South Cape York Catchments and Balnggarrawarra (Melsonby) Rangers, and the Landcare Facilitator Andrew Hartwig assisted, with fire plans, permits, and a five-year Property Pest Management Plan. Andrew also hosted a social conservation / erosion control workshop on Normanby and assisted with an AgForce Grazing Best Management Practice program. Both Lagoons showed marked recovery.

The Regional Landcare Facilitator Program is supported through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Programme. Cape York’s Regional Landcare Facilitator is hosted by Cape York NRM.

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