Reportage

Advance Australia green

ON OCTOBER 1, 1988, at Bibbenluke near Cooma in the Snowy Mountains, a feral fish was declared an Australian and a blow was struck against environmental republicanism. A citizenship certificate had been taken – probably from the local shire council – and 124 years after it was introduced, the trout was unofficially naturalised.

The fish was represented by a member of the Cooma Trout Acclimatisation Association, who swore an oath on its behalf to the Queen and to acclimatisation societies.

The bizarre event was followed five years later by a failed attempt from a member of the New South Wales Parliament to have trout recognised as a native species of the Snowy Mountains.

Acclimatisation societies, sponsored by state governments, still legally release many millions of trout fingerlings into high country streams. This is done despite evidence that the fish, known to some disparagingly as ‘spotted carp', are voracious predators of native species – in particular, endangered frogs.

Many of us like to think of acclimatisation as a form of historical madness that held our ancestors in such a grip that they released rabbits, foxes, cats, countless weeds and the cane toad without considering the existing ecology of Australia. But it is still with us – though, as Dr Alison Gates, a human geographer then at the University of Sydney, points out in her recent doctoral dissertation, now it is called something else: ‘Acclimatisation is at its essence essentially gardening with plants and animals ... In reality the practice of acclimatisation continues at a variety of scales. Formal acclimatisation is practised in the freshwater streams of New South Wales by those societies specifically formed for the management of the trout fishery. Informal acclimatisation is an Australian national pastime, although we call it gardening and we pay for our specimens at the nursery.'

In the mid-nineteenth century, there was even a newspaper specifically dedicated to acclimatisation – called the Yeoman and Australian Acclimatiser. ‘A modern version might as well be Burke's Backyard Magazinewhich appears to envision gardens that blend the "best" of the native species with the "best" of the exotics,' argues Gates, who is now at the University of Wollongong.

She cites native wild food plant expert and anti-weed advocate Tim Low's comment that the ‘real acclimatisers today are the pasture scientists in the CSIRO and state agriculture departments': ‘In this way, there exists government sponsored acclimatisation that is not related to an acclimatisation society.'

No doubt those at the trout naturalisation ceremony consider themselves patriotic Australians. But how patriotic is it when your actions vandalise a continent's ecology? There must be more to being a republican than getting rid of the Queen.

In the current political climate, to be an environmental republican – or even simply patriotic about Australian ecology – is seen by some as traitorous. How often do you hear the sneer ‘extreme green'? Surely those like Richard Flanagan and Geoffrey Cousins, and the thousands of less high-profile Australians who stood up for Tasmanian forests, are the real patriots?

Mateship and larrikinism are important but elusive intangibles, slippery as ghosts and prone to misuse by politicians. A vast ecosystem is real – full of animals and trees so exquisite that no artist can conjure their full glory.

We have become patriotic about things that are not real.

The trout naturalisation ceremony is just one of dozens of strange incidents of acclimatisation uncovered by Alison Gates. Her work charts the bafflement of Europeans as they struggled to come to terms with unique Australian seasons, fauna and flora. Gates points out that, at first glance, naturalising a feral fish may seem offensive: ‘It is an interesting idea that if humans can be naturalised to a country, animals should be afforded the same right.'

This ‘interesting idea' goes to the heart of a fundamental question: what is it to be an Australian? Are we republicans only when we change our Constitution?

All around us there are countless examples of how republicanism, as it is now understood, is about everything except the actual place. We are patriotic to an Australia created in our own image rather than theterra australis that exists.

Patriotism is defined by horses running down high country mountains, swagmen stuffing sheep into rucksacks and a hydro-electric scheme that diverts nearly all the water from one of the nation's most spectacular rivers. The water robbed from the iconic Snowy River is then sent west to irrigate crops that originated on the other side of the world. At the root mass of our cultural identity there are sheep, dammed rivers and horses.

Until recently, Tasmania was known as the Apple Isle, while in the mountains behind the apple orchards, the biggest flowering plants on Earth were felled to feed an insatiable paper industry. Victoria was the Garden State, Queensland home of the Big Pineapple and sugar cane. We transplanted the northern hemisphere on to an Australian scalp: it's little wonder it produced a toupee.

 

THERE IS ONE animal at the interface between patriotism and environmental republicanism about which Australians remain confused. The kangaroo stands awkwardly on the national coat of arms and the tails of Qantas planes. To me, the kangaroo is the symbol of environmental republicanism.

Eating kangaroo is a strong statement that anyone who cares about the continent can make. People are what they eat, and those who eat lamb and beef eat land degradation wrapped up in a Union Jack. Not all graziers are environmental vandals, but tremendous changes have been wrought to the majority of Australia's land mass by sheep and cattle.

In a recent scientific paper published in the journal Rangelands, Dr Daniel Lunney, a senior researcher with the Department of Environment and Climate Change, wrote: ‘The sequence of occupation and land use in the Western Division and the timing of the loss of native mammal species allows the conclusion to be drawn that it was sheep, and the way the land was managed for the export wool industry, that drove so many of the mammal species to extinction. The impact of ever-increasing millions of sheep on all frontages, through all the refuges, and across all the landscape by the mid-1880s is the primary cause of the greatest period of mammal extinction in Australia in modern times.'

I eat both beef and lamb and I farm cattle. But grazing cattle is not what I would prefer to do. Where I live on the New South Wales South Coast, cattle have done terrible damage to the environment. Waterways have scoured out under pressure from over-stocking, entire forests have been ringbarked to create paddocks, and vast areas of native grassland have been ‘improved' – replaced with foreign pastures and their associated weeds.

My neighbours and I have no choice but to graze cattle. The regulatory structure of Australian agriculture is designed for exotic stock, while our paddocks are thick with kangaroos.

During the worst of the drought, we kept cattle off our property, and many of our neighbours were forced to dramatically de-stock. But through the harshest conditions, when for months on end it didn't rain, kangaroos thrived.

My neighbour has a permit to cull the creatures and he did. In some parts of the state, like ours, the law demands that culled kangaroos are ‘tagged and let lie'. In our area, it is illegal to harvest the marsupials for consumption.

Shot carcasses were left to rot in paddocks; the stench was terrible. Large numbers of foxes followed, and then giant flocks of ravens. The farmer agreed to seek a dispensation to bury the carcasses in a pit. Permission was given to bury them, but not to use them.

In the last year, he has shot around seventy of the marsupials. Even at a minimum of ten kilograms of meat from each, that's nearly three-quarters of a tonne of protein dumped and wasted. And that is from just one relatively small paddock – maybe thirty hectares.

Despite the culling, there is no appreciable difference in kangaroo numbers. They seem like Hugo Weaving's character Agent Smith in The Matrix. The more Agent Smiths are killed by Keanu Reeves, the more appear.

Millions of the national emblem are slaughtered and wasted each year. The kangaroo is an animal adapted to Australian conditions. It is organic, needs less feed and less water, causes less erosion and is stunningly delicious. Surely it borders on the stupidly unpatriotic not to eat them?

My neighbour is as frustrated as everyone else with the law. It's hard to say how many kangaroos there are regularly on my property, but I reckon somewhere between fifty and a hundred would be a conservative estimate. Apart from chewing our Landcare plants, their impact is miniscule compared with cattle.

The waste of kangaroo meat was once justified. Australians did not know how to cook it. For many people, the first taste of kangaroo was like eating a Blundstone boot. The meat is almost fat free, far less forgiving in a frying pan than a lamb chop with its cholesterol bomb of oil. But now we are beginning to understand how to cook it, properly prepared it is hard to find a more tender meat. There are now roo sausages, roo mince and roo roasts, with more products soon likely.

Manager of a program that is researching the kangaroo harvest, known as the Future of Australian Threatened Ecosystems (FATE) Program at UNSW, Peter Ampt, suggests another couple of reasons Australians have resisted kangaroo meat. ‘People originally only ate it when there was nothing else. Or else they used it for pet food. There's a cultural thing about kangaroos being always there, ubiquitous, a bit of as pest. There's also a certain amount of deep green ideology that if you commercialise Australian species then you end up exploiting them.'

One cultural difference between Australia and Britain that has hindered the acceptance of kangaroo as our national meat is the lack of an Australian hunting middle class. Hunting in Australia has redneck associations.

According to FATE, each harvested roo could provide about 12.7 kilograms of meat. The average national quota of 5.1 million kangaroos culled each year for the decade from 1997 could have delivered 65,000 tonnes of boneless, high protein, lean meat. This would make up nearly 5 per cent of the 1,331,000 tonnes of red meat consumed in Australia each year.

‘So there's no way the present roo population could replace beef, sheep and goat production. But if cattle, sheep and goats were removed and the roo population increased to make up for their grazing pressure, it would be a different story,' according to Ampt's colleague Alex Baumber.

Removing 28.8 million cattle and 92.7 million sheep and goats would correspond to about 323 million ‘dry sheep equivalents'. Theoretically, this could create space for an extra 461 million roos (at 0.7 DSE/roo). Assuming the current harvest rate of 15 per cent (69 million/year and a carcass weight of 20 kilograms, or 12.7 kilograms of boneless meat), this would produce 876 million tonnes of roo meat a year. That's about two-thirds of the red meat consumed in Australia. This is based on an assumption that roos would breed up to consume the resources freed by removing stock and harvest rates remaining at 15 per cent.

Baumber argues that, most importantly, ‘You'd have to ask if five hundred million roos would be better for the environment than 120 million cattle, sheep and goats. Roos are harder to contain, so could congregate and hit areas much harder and also make it impossible to impose strategies such as rotational grazing. On the other hand, they may have softer feet and require less water.'

 

WHILE ENCOURAGING A kangaroo meat industry to replace feral sheep and cattle is a tangible sign of environmental republicanism, there are other changes we need to make. The Bureau of Meteorology is currently engaged in a national project to try to record Indigenous calendars.

Trying to squeeze four seasons on to Australian conditions is like trying to wear a jacket ten sizes too small. The Bureau's Victorian manager of climate services, Dr Harvey Stern, is part of a team that has uncovered several such calendars. The project aims to provide a more subtle and sophisticated understanding of seasonal variations in different parts of the continent.

‘Australia is mostly a sub-tropical country. We have inherited these four seasons from the northern hemisphere, from the middle latitudes between 40 and 60 degrees, where there are four seasons. But in Australia that isn't the case,' Stern says.

There are exceptions in places like Hobart, but even there ‘autumn colours' are found on exotic, not native, trees. Trying to have four seasons across Australia is acclimatisation of the climate.

It seems to me that we are less environmentally patriotic than we were a century ago. We live on a continent that is one of the harshest, driest and most marginally habitable on the planet. It has produced a nation that demands ecological frugality, but uses limited resources at one of the highest per capita rates on earth.

The rainwater tank is another symbol of environmental republicanism. The environmental republican aspires to self-sufficiency.

Patriotism should be about more than mateship, larrikinism, battlers and a fair go. There are other Australians – they wriggle, hop, crawl, burrow, photosynthesise, migrate and flower. Many of them are battlers. They are the real silent majority, never needing naturalisation papers. The true patriot is a good neighbour to them as well.

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