EVERY year, Bruce McCormack wonders if it will be the last.
The last time his children and grandchildren saddle up and ride into the high country, calling out to cattle grazing among snow gums.
Last month, Bruce and his family mustered 100 cows and calves, pushing them back down Mountain Number Three to the farm at Merrijig.
It is an annual pilgrimage; a time to come together, to ride, and to celebrate a connection with the bush that extends back seven generations.
Bruce is part of a small minority, one of the few remaining cattlemen families who retain a grazing lease in Victoria’s High Country.
The practice itself, grazing cattle in the mountains, has long faced stiff opposition – from those who claim it is damaging to the bush ecosystem, to those who think it is cheap, exclusive agistment.
But for Bruce, the annual muster is more about family than anything else.
“There is nothing like it,” he said.
“I’m there with my sister and family, my friends, my kids and my grandkids.
“There are kids on horses, on foot, hanging out the car window – all of them are just stoked to be there and be a part of it.”
Cattle are pushed up into the King Valley each December, spending the warmer months grazing mountain pastures.
Then in April those that have not already walked home are mustered together and pushed back down the same mountain paths.
“Some of the cows have a built in navigation system now – they’ve been doing it for as long as we have,” Bruce said.
“If the weather turns cold some, particularly the older cows, will walk themselves home.”
This year, most of the herd stayed on the King Valley floor – enticed by green growth that would not be found at home.
“The lease has been a godsend,” Bruce said.
“It’s been a tough season, and having that break on the home paddocks for six months makes a massive difference in a year like this one.”
Although Bruce knows there is often negative connotations with high country grazing, it is something he has always taken great pride in.
“We cop a lot of flak for having cattle in the bush, but this is something my forebears started doing in the mid 19th century,” he said.
“Just like anyone who inherited a farm, or a house, or a piece of furniture or even jewellery – it’s the same to us; we inherited the grazing lease, and have chosen to keep it going where many have not.”
In recent years, politicians have re-instated cattle as part of a grazing trial at Wonnangatta – the offer retracted with a change in government.
Like all things, support for mountain grazing ebbs and flows – but Bruce remains the same; determined to keep his family tradition alive.
“The people around us have changed, the arguments back and forth about cattle versus no cattle, the different governments and politicians – but we are still here, each year, and still grateful for the privilege,” he said.