LAST OF HIS KIND

North East Living Magazine - - Contents - words Jar­rah Loh pho­tos Ken Rains­bury

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.

DED­I­CATED /

Graeme Stoney (with wife Wendy, right,) re­mains fo­cused on the is­sues fac­ing moun­tain cat­tle­men.

TEAM­WORK /

Graeme has al­ways con­sid­ered horses to be a vi­tal man­age­ment tool.

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