LAST OF HIS KIND
The story of Graeme Stoney – a true High Country cattleman.
TODAY, Graeme Stoney sits back in his wooden chair, removed from the outside world at his beloved Stockyard Creek, in the shadow of the mountains his family have ridden horses and driven cattle on since 1864. But his land in the Howqua Valley has history going back even further.
The farm was selected and owned by the Ware family in the very earliest days of settlement in the Mansfield area, and Graeme’s cattle can still be genetically traced back to those owned and grazed by the Ware family 100 years ago. But even before that, the Taungurung people, and others, came to the area to quarry the precious Cambrian greenstone, prized by the Aborigines for manufacturing spearheads, stone axes and cutting tools.
“They used to camp in the very spot where we live now,” said Graeme.
“They would then go up onto The Bluff and join up with other tribes and trade food sources such as Bogong Moth and possibly exchange brides.”
But that meeting spot, The Bluff, is an iconic part of the High Country – and Graeme Stoney knows it like the back of his hand. He should, because for a couple of generations, his family was synonymous with grazing it, so much so that the adjoining mountain shares his name. Actually named after his father (who also shared the same full name – Eadley Graeme Stoney), Mount Eadley Stoney was named in honour of a local man who was deeply involved in the community – a councillor, and a significant beef farmer, and, jokes his son, “For being an all-round good guy – not like his son.”
But if you talk to anyone in the Mansfield Shire, they will tell you Graeme Stoney has done more than carry on the good guy name in his father’s stead. But The Bluff, where his family had run cattle, is now off limits to grazing – an issue Graeme spent more than half his life trying to combat in the notorious High Country cattle war.
The Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria (MCAV) was created in the 1960s when early talks of eliminating cattle grazing in the High Country began to raise its head. Things really began to heat up following the publication of Dick Johnson’s 1974 book ‘Alps at the Crossroads’. But Graeme doesn’t hold any grudges. “They all meant well at the start,” he said. “They all wanted what they thought was best for the bush – unlike many Greens today, who are a lot more political and opportunistic.”
But Graeme wasn’t going to roll over. He stood up and headed for parliament to fight the enemies on their own ground and he remained in State Parliament for 14 years as the Upper House member for the Central Highlands.
“My whole political run was to fight for Alpine grazing and other public land issues,” he said.
And he fought hard, seemingly signing a peace treaty in 1984 that allowed the grazing to continue in the newly minted National Park. But in 2005, 150 years of Alpine grazing came to an abrupt end.
“That was a huge disappointment, which destroyed our connection to the land,” said Graeme, who then left parliament.
“They went back on their word.” >>
But now president of MCAV, Graeme hasn’t packed it in yet. Proof of this is the notorious Mountain Cattleman stickers that are seen to this day on the back windows and bumpers of countless vehicles throughout the state’s country roads.
“We still get involved in issues such as the deer and brumbies,” said Graeme.
“We support the brumbies and support the judicial culling to keep the numbers at correct numbers but we don’t support shooting them from helicopters and eradicating them like pests.”
And like many things, Graeme says the current deer problem was flagged by MCAV decades ago.
“We tried to inform the government about the potential deer problem, but they wouldn’t have it,” he said. “Now, it is too late.” But it’s not just brumbies or deer; in fact Graeme shakes his head when he thinks of the general state of the High Country bush.
“You used to be able to ride from Howqua Hills, right through the bush to Licola,” he remembers. “Now, you can hardly cut a place for your dog to bark.” He points out that it isn’t all about running cattle, and the traditional owners were keeping the shrub and grass down long before the cattleman turned up.
“Aboriginals burnt, and it was almost a religious obligation – they cleared and protected the country that way,” said Graeme.
“Obviously, they had different motives – they were more concerned about their environment – but the outcome was the same.”
Graeme was very familiar with fire and burning off from a young age and learned the ropes from legendary mountain cattleman Jack Ware, (who Graeme would eventually buy his cherished Stockyard Creek from).
“Jack would take me mustering when I was just 10 years old,” he remembers.
“In the autumn, he would ride along and flick matches everywhere. Then you would go back later on and it was lovely and green and there was no way a fire would run through there. And he felt an obligation to do that – something his family copied from the Aboriginals. Cool fire kills the scrub and long grass and actually saves the mother trees, so there isn’t the competition for water and nutrients, and the threat of hot fire.”
He points to what Australians would consider a cold environment, Switzerland, as an example of a people who still think it important to graze away the land.
“They have drought there and the government is flying army helicopters up to the peaks to water the cattle because they know how important it is to keep them grazing up there.”
He says there have been numerous bad political decisions made to do with fire and fuel reduction.
“I think the authorities are scaring newer people so they are so fearful of what might happen. This whole generation has almost no experience in dealing with fire, so they are scared of it. They shouldn’t be so scared. Fire is a friend if used correctly. I believe just before summer the whole bush should be alight. But the authorities are so scared that if something gets out of hand, they will be in strife. But, in order to stop those huge wildfires in February, that is what has to be done. None of this is understood. Now, we are at least a whole generation away from understanding how it really works.”
Graeme has almost always been cynical when it comes to politics. Born in 1940 to one of the original settled families of the Mansfield district (his mother’s family selected country in Goughs Bay straight off the boat from England, only a few years after Mansfield was established), Graeme was taught valuable lessons passed on through the generations about fire, cattle, and the land. But it was when the family farm was flooded for the enlargement of the Eildon Weir in the 1950s that forever left an impression on a pre-teen Graeme – an impression strong enough to turn a farmer toward politics. >>
“I went from the pack horse era through to the four-wheel drive era.” GRAEME STONEY
“We were the first to sell and through a technicality, we didn’t get a relocation fee,” he said.
“It was obvious the government was going to flood the place and they began making offers.”
Graeme’s dad thought he was doing the right thing by moving out as soon as he found a new property, but in the end it cost them.
“Because we went ahead and moved, like they wanted us to, we missed out on the relocation fee and the people that waited and held back got exactly twice as much per acre,” said Graeme.
“That affected us through a whole generation because everyone else got twice the income – and it started my lifelong campaign against bureaucracy.”
Though he went away to Scotch College in Melbourne for three years, there was little in the way of schooling for Graeme.
“Dad wasn’t well, so I had to quit school and I just came straight back to the farm,” he said.
“That always hurt me. I never went to school much, so I struggled early to write and things like that.”
This also made a lifelong impression on him, and he made sure his two daughters and two sons all went to school. Unlike them, Graeme didn’t have many peers his age and became an adult from early on.
“I was very self-sufficient,” he said, and after his father passed in 1972, he was the only man around. “I just kept running the farm and running cattle on The Bluff.” It was during these formative years that he also saw the historic changeover from completely relying on pack horses to utilising automobiles.
“I went from the pack horse era through to the four-wheel drive era,” he said.
“When I started, it was all horses, and then eventually a jeep track was pushed into The Bluff and we slowly switched to four-wheel drive. But to this day, they still haven’t completely replaced the horses.”
Horses have always been a daily part of life – a necessity to get the work done. “I grew up with horses, that’s all we had,” said Graeme. “It was a part of life. They were a management tool - nothing more, nothing less. I never played polocrosse or anything, I always just thought – I’m already riding horses all day. They were always just part of my job.”
As was done at the time, he went on to marry the girl next door, Helen Henderson, and they had four children together. Their eldest, Chris now runs the family farm at Minto Park, while Graeme and his current wife Wendy, who he married in 2000, reside in their smaller farm at Stockyard Creek.
But he certainly hasn’t thrown his hat in yet, still president of MCAV and the Mansfield Historical Society.
“The historical society is going from strength to strength and I think it is important,” he said.
“As Winston Churchill said, ‘Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it’.” And he has seen a lot of history pass in his time. “This whole region was only farming and timber – sale day was a big day, where everyone would come into town,” he said.
“Now there are 10 coffee shops and no saleyards. But, I think Mansfield has developed really well. It’s just under the threshold where you can still get everything you want in town, but we don’t have Mcdonalds and Bunnings and all that stuff. Even with the loss of farming land to the subdivisions, I think it’s developed well. People come for the charm of the town, and so far, it has remained. Whether or not it could go wrong in the future could be debated. But for myself, I just want to put back. Mansfield has been very good to the Stoneys and I want to give that back.”
The story of Graeme Stoney – a true High Country cattleman.
Graeme Stoney (with wife Wendy, right,) remains focused on the issues facing mountain cattlemen.
Graeme has always considered horses to be a vital management tool.