Cattle muster tradition 150 years on

By Rodney Woods

It happens twice each year, in December and April — before the sun is up, Bruce McCormack prepares his family for their high country muster.

It is a tradition stretching back 150 years — something Bruce’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all did with their families.

Heading out in the pre-dawn light, Angus cows and calves slowly wind their way along Buttercup Rd at Merrijig, weaving among the gum trees.

Each year is different, and 2019 saw riders dodging snowflakes and cattle huddled together to avoid the rain.

Despite this — wet jeans, slicked hair and misty mornings — smiles can be found on every face.

From the youngest grandchild — four years old, who is riding on the saddle with Nan — to Bruce himself, who still jumps on to lead the riders out of the home yard gate.

Mansfield families have long had an association with the high country — the Lovicks, Stoneys and Purcells.

Today, most have had their licences taken away, or have chosen to remain in the low country over summer.

Bruce, however, would not swap his muster for all the tea in China.

“It’s all about spending time with the family, and doing that while we are out in the bush together,” he said.

“Showing the kids where the cattle needs to go, helping them find them again in the early morning on day two and three.”

With fires raging across the country, Bruce said it was more important than ever to keep the practice of cattle grazing in the mountains alive.

“There have always been arguments for and against grazing in the high country, and our run has moved back to the state forest as a result,” he said.

“But it is pretty obvious, just by driving through the national park, that not allowing cattle in does make a big difference — there are blackberries and bracken where there would once have been grass.”

Bruce, who is also president of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association of Victoria, said he considered his grazing run a privilege, not a right.

“I like to think we are doing something for everyone by being up here,” he said.

“That the cattle keep the weeds and undergrowth at bay, while providing a living link to our pioneering ancestors.”

Families come from near and far to help out on the muster — flying from interstate to take part in the long-standing tradition.

“All I want is that we all learn about the bush, about the best way to manage it and to appreciate what we have here on our doorstep,” Bruce said.

“After all, looking after the high country is something we have been doing for 150 years.”