Multi-generational ranching families face challenges of drought and fire
Editor’s note: Methow Valley News reporter Ashley Ahearn traveled to Australia as part of a year-long project on the effects of climate change on life in the Methow Valley and the West. She interviewed Australian ranchers to learn how their experiences are similar to those of Methow Valley ranchers.
The bull was named Bruce. He was a big black angus who had broken into Graeme Stoney’s pasture to see about a pretty young Hereford cow.
“It’s her fault,” said Charlie Lovick, Graeme’s neighbor, nodding his head at the demure cow standing next to Bruce the bull. “She lured him over here from my place.”
“Sure, Charlie,” Stoney smiled knowingly at his old friend as the two prepared to prod Bruce up the chute and into Lovick’s truck for the short journey home.
“The calf’s half mine if she takes,” Lovick said. Stoney rolled his eyes in amusement.
The two men are in their 70s now, and they’ve been neighbors all their lives, just as their fathers were before them. The Lovicks and Stoneys have raised cows here in the Howqua Hill country of Victoria state in southeastern Australia for generations. There are mountains here named after their forebears.
“Mt. Lovick is bigger than Mt. Stoney,” Charlie Lovick said with a chuckle. He has a gray beard and bright blue eyes, with a roguish twinkle.
Bushmen like Lovick and Stoney know this country better than just about anyone. And it’s a harsh country, prone to drought, fire and flood — rocky and hilly, but also lush and green with eucalyptus and gum trees, depending on the season. The famous movie, “The Man from Snowy River,” was filmed here. Charlie Lovick was the Master of Horse for the film, responsible for setting up the amazing shots of horses galloping down stony mountainsides and racing through the bush.
“You know the buckskin in the famous shot where the horse goes down the cliff? That was my horse, Denny,” Lovick said. “He died at the ripe old age of 34 in my paddock. Never seen another horse like him.”
Decades of ranching
Every summer, for more than 100 years, the Lovicks and the Stoneys would herd their cows, by horseback, up into the hill country to grazing land they leased from the government. They’d leave the cows up there for a few months and bring them down in the fall, just before the rains. On their way out, they’d light fires in the bush to keep the underbrush at bay and encourage new grass growth, Stoney said. In fact, forest managers would hand out boxes of large matches to the ranchers to encourage them to start fires.
The Australian ranchers learned how to use fire to manage the landscape from the Aboriginals before them. Fire is a natural part of this landscape, just as it is in the Methow Valley, and has been for thousands of years. The first white settlers in Australia reported seeing massive fires and smoke from their ships.
Bushmen like Lovick and Stoney have learned how to live with fire, and even use it to protect themselves and their property. In December 2006 (the height of Australian summer time) lightning strikes ignited dozens of fires in the hill country surrounding the Lovick and Stoney properties.
“You could hear it. And you could see the glow every night,” Lovick said, gesturing at the forested ridges surrounding us. “The fire hit this high point and all the way around here there was a complete red front coming our way, and we were here by ourselves.”
Local authorities told the Lovicks and Stoneys to evacuate — and that no one would come to save them. But they chose to stay and defend their property. They used road graders to create fire breaks around their homes, and then, they waited.
“It was about 1 o’clock in the morning as I remember,” Lovick said, and the country was “a little bit damp and a little bit doughy.” The fire wasn’t burning as fiercely as it was during the heat of the day, and Lovick saw an opportunity.
Lovick and Stoney and their families walked a line, below the fire that was coming down from the ridge. They carried drip torches with them, lighting the forest on fire as they went, in the hope that their fire would burn up the hill to meet the larger fire, robbing it of the fuel it needed to keep coming down the hill, unchecked.
“But it had to be done right. If the weather patterns are the wrong way you’re going to light a fire and it’s going to burn you,” Lovick said. “We had a small window of opportunity and being bushmen we grabbed that right away, and it worked perfectly.”
“The two fires met!” Lovick clapped his hands. “And the young people were just amazed at how bloody simple it was, if you do it right. It only took an hour.”
By 2 o’clock in the morning Stoney and Lovick were sitting on the road where they lit the fire, enjoying a cold beer. “As you would,” Lovick said, smiling.
These days, the fires have become more intense. Australia suffered a major drought at the turn of the century, known as the Millennium Drought. A few years later, another drought hit, bringing with it more hot weather and bushfires. In February of 2009 bushfires burned more than a million acres across the state of Victoria, and killed 180 people. The day became known as “Black Saturday,” marking the worst fires in Australian history.
Stoney and Lovick said that throughout their lives, weather patterns here have been cyclical, moving back and forth from wetter to dryer, but they acknowledged that in recent years, the changes have been noticeable. ,
“We’re in a pattern of warmer, drier weather,” said Graeme Stoney. “I’m 79 now and that’s only a blip on the horizon of time, but it used to be a lot wetter when I was younger.”
“It’s a bit cyclic, I think,” Charlie Lovick added, “but I don’t doubt that we are becoming a dryer planet. I don’t know where the rain goes, but this is a particularly bad year for most of Australia’s eastern seaboard.” A heat wave sent temperatures across southern Australia to record highs. Temperatures in Victoria rose above 110 degrees and dozens of bushfires burned across the state.
Lovick and Stoney both said they believe that humans are at least partially responsible for the changes they are seeing.
“Whatever we can do to reduce pollution is very good so let’s do it,” Stoney said. But as with anyone who lives and works close to the land, both Stoney and Lovick are good at focusing their efforts on the things they can control, as opposed to worrying about the things they can’t. For them, the issue of climate change resides at the 30,000-foot level, far removed from their realm of control, and perhaps beyond their ability to solve.
“Right here at this time, fixing climate change is not going to save this country from fire,” Lovick said.
Managing the risks
Climate change may be making the bush country dryer and more fire-prone but there are ways to manage the land to lower fire risk. From the perspective of Stoney and Lovick, that should include doing prescribed burns and grazing cows to reduce the fuel load.
The Lovicks and Stoneys are no longer allowed to graze their cows in the hill country. In 1989 the land they leased for grazing was converted into a national park. Fifteen years later the government revoked grazing rights, including those of the Lovicks and Stoneys. Graeme, Charlie and other mountain cattlemen led protests. They rode their horses and drove cows through the streets of Melbourne, the state capital. Graeme Stoney was elected to state parliament, in large part because of his leadership in opposition to the creation of the national park.
But their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful and so the two men look out over distant hillsides they used to roam, now shrouded in underbrush and at high risk of burning.
“The only way to protect this country is to amalgamate scientific knowledge with experience-based knowledge and personal knowledge, and if we put them all together there’s a happy medium in there and this country would be a lot better off,” Lovick said.
“We lost our way of life,” he continued. “We need to keep our connection with the mountains but it’s damn hard after you’ve been kicked in the gut and there’s no reason to go back.”
Two years ago Charlie Lovick lost his wife, Glenda. He chose to spread her ashes on the land where his family used to graze their cows, before it was converted to a national park. There is an ancient snow gum tree there that’s thought to be 800 years old. It’s known as the King Billy Tree.
Charlie said he chose to spread Glenda’s ashes there in the hopes that future generations of Lovicks would have a reason to go into the hill country, if not to graze cows.