Cape York graziers in dispute with Environment Dept over cattle culls

Sally Gall
By Sally Gall
Updated May 10 2022 - 12:30pm, first published 9:00am
A photograph shows boundary fences with the national park have not been completed, and flood gates have either never been put in place or are gone as a result of flooding after high rainfall, with cattle pads clearly visible. Picture: supplied

The Department of Environment and Science has postponed a controversial cattle cull in the Oyala Thumotang National Park on Cape York, saying it was because it wanted to give landowners more notice of planned activities.

The announcement on Tuesday afternoon comes in the wake of urgent calls from neighbours and political figures for Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon to immediately suspend planned 'shoot to kill' cattle operations by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

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The stray cattle management program has been taking place in Cape York national parks since 2014 but according to Green Shirts Movement director Rachael Cruwys, a phased-in plan with property owners around Oyala Thumotang National Park, 12 hours north of Cairns, has not been revisited since then and has regressed to bad management with little adherence.

The plan negotiated a full boundary fence but that has yet to be delivered, she said, meaning that cattle can stray onto park land.

It's estimated that around 5000 cattle have been shot since the program began, worth up to $5m on today's market.

Hill MP Shane Knuth this week renewed his calls for the cull to be stopped, saying he had raised the issue previously in parliament, and forwarded two letters from adjoining Cape York property owners to the minister, asking for operations to be suspended until they could obtain permits to collect their valuable branded cattle.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services last week provided landholders adjoining the Oyala Thumotang National Park notice it would commence aerial culls of cattle across the western side of the park this week.

Graziers say it takes up to 50 days to secure the permits they need to legally access National Parks land in order to attempt to muster cattle, and they say notice of at least two months must be given.

A departmental spokesman said that under its good neighbour policy, they notify neighbours before conducting any pest management activities that include the use of firearms, herbicides or pesticides along any shared boundaries.

"There is no legislated time frame for the notice period, but QPWS maintains strong working relationships with neighbours, and we routinely give them 14 days notice prior to conducting operations," the spokesperson said.

"When rangers conducted an administrative review this morning and identified some neighbours had been given less than 14 days, we immediately suspended the program when the helicopters returned to base to refuel."

Branded or unbranded?

Mr Knuth claimed this week that QPWS officers were indiscriminately killing unbranded and branded cattle, which the departmental spokesman rejected.

"It cannot be stressed enough: QPWS do not target branded cattle, they target feral and abandoned cattle.

"Feral cattle are generally poor quality compared to well-fed and bred cattle. Feral cattle also pose a biosecurity risk to controlled herds.

"In fact, producers have routinely stated that they don't want feral breeds interfering with the genetics of their improved herds."

Green Shirts Rachael Cruwys said the department may not be targeting branded cattle specifically but the seizure notice included branded cattle.

She said permits and the way in which they were issued excludes multiple parties being issued permits over the same area.

"Despite all the best efforts of those tasked with the slaughter, and owners to ensure branded cattle are identified, the terrain would most certainly prove difficult to see the flicker of a ear tag amongst timber, and certainly doesn't allow time to differentiate between the unbranded calf of a branded cow or that of a cleanskin," she said.

Ms Cruwys said the national park was formerly a cattle station that had been declared destocked under the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Program in the 1980s.

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A Queensland government map of the Oyala Thumotang National Park located on Cape York.

"For years since, management has been conducting aerial shooting programs, so you don't have to be Sid Kidman to realise where the cattle have originated from," she said.

"Where negotiations have happened in the past for a particular number of head, there appears to be no reconciliations of the numbers of cattle shot so they can be matched with possible breeding rates for the stock that remained within the park.

"We are being told figures of over 800 head being shot in one week alone in late 2021, and know that other shoots have covered more area and been far more extensive."

Today's planned control program targeted feral pigs and unbranded feral cattle, according to the departmental spokesperson, who said it was conducted in remote, inaccessible areas of the park away from property boundaries, and in historic mustering areas of those neighbours who support the removal of feral cattle from national parks.

According to the department, the feral pig control program will resume at first light on Wednesday, with the targeting of feral cattle to be held over until the next aerial operation.

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Figures are not kept but QPWS understands that many thousands of cattle have been retrieved by graziers over the years.

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Sally Gall

Sally Gall

Senior journalist - Queensland Country Life/North Queensland Register

Based at Blackall, CW Qld, where I've raised a family, run Merino sheep and beef cattle, and helped develop a region - its history, tourism, education and communications.

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