Riparian grazing in Victoria
Victoria has approximately 128,000 km of rivers running through it. About 30,000 km of these have bed and banks which are Crown land (i.e. owned by the State of Victoria). Much of this riparian Crown land is adjacent to privately owned farmland. The State usually allows the owner of the adjoining private land to use this riparian Crown land by granting them a licence over the land. The licence provides a right to use the land for a set period of time (usually 5 years) for the uses specified in the licence. This is usually stock grazing but can also be for conservation and other uses.
Degradation of riparian vegetation along Victoria’s rivers has been recognised by the Victorian Government for many years as a major threat to the health of rivers, and the plants and animals along rivers. The Government has also recognised that uncontrolled grazing is a key cause of the degradation of riparian vegetation in Victoria. Unrestricted grazing causes water quality and contamination issues including algal blooms, soil compaction, the dispersal of exotic species and the spreading of water-borne pathogens, as livestock trample, defecate and die in waterways. Despite this, the Government continues to allow uncontrolled grazing along riparian areas.
Why isn’t riparian land better protected?
Government and others cite a number of reasons why riparian land is not better managed including:
- Lack of government resources (money and people) to manage the large amount of Victorian riparian Crown land.
- Concerns by farmers that fencing of riparian land will mean they will lose access to water frontages for stock watering.
- Reluctance of landholders to manage crown land (i.e. land they do not own) for conservation, fire, water quality etc if they do not get the benefits of grazing and are not paid for stewardship.
- Concerns about increased fire risk if riparian vegetation is not removed by cattle grazing.
- Reluctance of the government to impose better management conditions on landowners and change grazing licences to conservation licences.
What is the solution?
While there are certainly many complex legal issues around riparian Crown land management, most of these concerns unnecessarily focus on the complexities of the problem, rather than focusing on practical solutions to the problem.
The number one thing that can be done to improve the health of riparian zones and rivers is to fence riparian land so that stock are excluded, native vegetation can re-establish, bank erosion is prevented and water quality can improve. Water can still be available for stock by installing a pump and trough to carry water from the river to the paddock. A number of landowners in Victoria have already fenced their riparian land, with fantastic results. All catchment management authorities provide grants to landowners to help pay for fencing, but the uptake is low.
The new Victorian Government has promised to do something about riparian land management (see Our Environment Our Future). What that will entail is yet to be seen.
Ultimately, the Government should implement a staged approach to fencing all riparian zones, providing fencing and off-stream stock watering grants to do so, along with stewardship payments for ongoing management of high priority land.