He’s been droving for more than 30 years up and down the breadth of eastern Australia but he’s never been told to get off a stock route before.
Matt French, who now runs a farm in the eastern Monaro, has tackled some of the most arduous droving treks in Australia and was one of the last drovers to take cattle over the Snowy Mountains through Kosciuszko National Park about 10 years ago.
So a few weeks ago, when he was out with his 500 strong herd of Herefords and Angus crossbreeds, having started a six-month drove along Snowy stock routes, he was stunned to be told by Local Land Services he had had seven days to get his cattle off the road.
It’s all apologies now, and the LLS had admitted it made a mistake and has apologised to Mr French and another drover in the area, but for Mr French it was another case of “bureaucracy gone mad”. It also highlighted what role LLS has in directing who can and can’t use travelling stock routes.
On May 24, while on the road, Mr French received this text from LLS: “Good afternoon, a decision has been made by Monaro LLS that due to the continued dry conditions, lack of feed and water on the road side all travelling stock and road side grazing permits will be cancelled as of today 23/05/2018. All stock must be removed from the roads within 7 days”’.
Mr French said he thought not only “why?”, because he had all the permits, but also “how?”, with just seven days to remove 500 head.
“In my opinion since LLS took over from the Pastures Protection Board, they have lost staff who have experience. They’ve brought in people who know nothing about travelling stock routes. They are trying to fix something that isn’t broke,” he said.
It’s not as if he wasn’t used to some issues from the LLS regarding his droving. The previous year while doing the same route he was told to contact seven landholders, who were named, but with no contacts.
When he texted back to the LLS on how could he contact them, he was told to “look them up in the White Pages”.
Mr French has already taken his stock through Cooma, along the Cooma Creek and through the Snowy Mountains traffic down the Monaro Highway. He is now out the back at Middlingbank, with another four months of droving to go. He says it is his right as a grazier to take his cattle on stock routes, and feels if graziers don’t use their right, soon routes will disappear, if Aboriginal Land claims are pursued on unused Crown Land.
“Most cockies don’t know how to use stock routes or when,” he says.
LLS south east manager Luke Pope said the LLS had apologised to Mr French for the text which was sent “in haste”. LLS was assured Mr French has access to a water tanker to water his stock. Mr Pope said it appeared Mr French’s cattle were in good enough condition for the journey.
Mr French said he was careful not to overgraze the stock routes he was on. “There’s an old drover’s saying ‘if you don’t leave feed behind, your tail is not getting fed’. You are only as fast as your slowest beast.”
Mr French has had some interesting experiences out on the road over his professional life as a drover.
In his long career on the road droving, Matt French has driven cattle for farmers struggling with drought and also for the kingpins of industry.
One of his most famous clients was the late media mogul Kerry Packer. Packer was renowned for being hands on in everything he did. And he was a real bushie. He once befriended the rugby league family the Cleals and with his mate, league immortal Bob Fulton, they would go out pig hunting in western NSW.
Packer also was not averse to putting his prime stock on the road on stock routes.
Matt had one such mission for Packer about 20 years ago when he was taking cattle from Packer’s property at Ellerston in the Hunter Valley.
This particular day a farmer was giving Matt trouble on the stock route driving up and down in his open cabined tractor with a forked attachment, trying to put his cattle to the side. Matt was in the cabin talking to the farmer when someone spooked one of the drovers’ horses and it leapt into the cabin, breaking the gear stick.
Amid the mayhem, with Matt and the farmer struggling to break free of the horse, a vehicle turned up at the side.
It was the manager of Ellerston and then a rather imposing figure emerged - Kerry Packer.
“So this is how you go about getting to know the locals when you’re droving,” Packer said to French.
Mr French is saddened the days of droving are being eroded by new rules. He says the restrictions on grazing cattle in the high country is ridiculous. When he was bringing the last herd of cattle over the Snowies though Kosciuszko National Park, he was given advice by National Parks on the damage cows do to the habitat of the endangered Corroboree frog.
“We thought that was all a joke. For many years when you kicked over a cow pad up in the high country you’d more often than not find a Corroboree frog living underneath. They loved living under the moist cow paddies.”