EXCLUSIVE: SHEEP are back grazing a Victorian national park as experts agree some native species face extinction without them.
Key scientists have dropped their opposition to farmed livestock, once considered the enemy of native flora and fauna, but admit it may already be too late.
- TELL US WHAT YOU THINK
- Is the lock-up-and-leave environment policy working? VOTE NOW in our exclusive poll
- READ MORE: Livestock bans prevent little
- READ MORE: Sheep hope to save Plains Wanderer
- CARTOON: Rule's View
- Have Your Say in the form below
The reversal of the top-level environmental strategy threatens to open a can of worms for governments, which have long subscribed to an "all livestock are bad" strategy.
Numbers of the tiny Plains Wanderer bird in north-central Victoria have declined, even though thousands of hectares of farmland have been expensively bought in the past decade to save it.
Park managers have coined the phrase "conservation grazing" to return sheep to the overgrown grasslands, where the Plains Wanderer has struggled to survive.
Heading into a forecast hot and dry summer, farm groups again warn the ban on livestock in parks has exposed the state to even greater fire risk. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent by federal and state governments and other private environmental groups, such as Trust for Nature, buying more than 11,000ha of farmland in north-central Victoria to save the Plains Wanderer from extinction.
The exclusion of agriculture has been a disaster for the little bird.
The state's leading expert on Plains Wanderers, ecologist David Baker-Gabb, scoured the protected grasslands last month to check on their progress.
"I couldn't find one, they're gone," said Dr Baker-Gabb, a former director of Birds Australia and manager of threatened fauna for then Department of Conservation and Environment.
Growth brought on by a succession of wet years has ruined much of the bird's now overgrown habitat.
Official surveys have failed to locate the bird although a few have been seen in the past year on adjacent farms, where sheep have been grazing.
Parks Victoria manages the Terrick Terrick National Park, near Mitiamo and Avoca Plains National Park, near Kerang, and allows neighbouring farmers to graze sheep free in the parks.
Unfortunately for the Plains Wanderer, the authorities have not been able to source enough sheep to counter the prolific growth and today there are calls from some scientists for the Victorian Government to buy its own sheep flock.
Parks Victoria's manager for conservation research Tony Varcoe said the key reason for buying the farmland was to protect remnants of the northern grasslands from cropping.
"Based on advice from expert scientists, it was determined there was a special situation where sheep grazing should continue under certain circumstances. This would protect these conservation values in order to reduce biomass, as some of the threatened species (such as Plains Wanderer) require open areas," Mr Varcoe said.
Mr Varcoe said no Plains Wanderers had been seen as part of bi-monthly surveys since March 2011.
Other ecologists said there had been an "inadequate management response" from Parks Victoria to the plight of the Plains Wanderer.
One report said authorities must "urgently increase grazing intensity on selected paddocks in grassland reserves" because there were "insufficient sheep available to adequately stock all reserved land".
A spokesman for Environment Minister Ryan Smith said the decline in the Plains Wanderer was not just limited to the Mitiamo area, but was evident across much of south-eastern Australia.
"Terrick Terrick National Park is a special case where a group of expert grassland scientists have recommended sheep grazing as a tool to achieve specific ecological goals," the spokesman said.
"It is not correct to relate this to the Government's scientific trial of the effectiveness of cattle grazing as a fire management tool in the High Country. The government has no plans to extend the Alpine Grazing trial beyond the area proposed in the submission to the Commonwealth."
The blanket ban on livestock had failed, Rivers and Red Gum Environment secretary Max Rheese said.
"The Barmah Forest is a ticking time-bomb ready to explode into flame since they kicked the cattle out," Mr Rheese said.
Mountain Cattlemen's Association of Victoria president Charlie Lovick said overseas parks used stock as a management tool. "Sensible people have been saying for many years that we are risking more than we are trying to save by banning Alpine grazing."
Victorian Farmers Federation land management committee chairman Gerald Leach said the plight of the Plains Wanderer was proof "you can't just lock-and-leave land".
"The best outcomes are those where you involve farmers in the management."