EMOTIONS boiled over yesterday in a fiery stand-off between residents of Barmah and government officers over grazing rights in the state forest.
Department of Sustainability and Environment officers arrived at Barmah State Forest in northern Victoria to impound 35 cattle released into 3000ha by the community.
They were met with heated opposition from residents, who bought the cattle for $25,000 and released them to graze on the chest-high grass in the forest, adjacent to the town.
The residents said the grazing ban created a fire risk that threatened their properties and their lives.
Police blocked off the forest entrance while 12 officers searched the area on motorbikes and on horses, but they came away empty-handed.
A relieved Rivers and Red Gum Alliance president Peter Newman said grazing had been proven over the years as the most effective method of fuel reduction.
"About 4km of my fence line runs along state forest and we have been threatened by fire numerous times over the years, but because the cattle have reduced the fuel load we were able to contain it," Mr Newman said.
He said residents would continue to graze the cattle in the area, regardless of threats of fines or further impoundment attempts.
Rivers and Red Gum Alliance secretary Max Rheese said residents of the area did not often get stirred up, but they were passionate about the issue.
"People have been grazing this bush for 150 years and it is part of the history of the area. If fuel reduction isn't managed properly then people's lives will be threatened."
The local fire brigade captain, Shayne Moor, said locking the cattle out for even one year created an unmanageable fire risk.
"Our concern is that the fuel load will increase in height and then the fire will be able to jump into the heads of the trees and create a wild fire."
Department of Sustainability and Environment North-East Land and Fire Manager Peter Farrell said the group had been warned that if it did not remove the cattle, they would be impounded. And stated:
"A vegetation assessment found that 12 years of drought had left most of the forest unable to sustain grazing. We feel that it would be irresponsible to allow cattle in there because of the potential ecological damage."