Each year as brooding skies and brisk winds herald the coming of winter in Victoria’s high country, a strange call echoes across the mountain meadows.
Salt. The cattle that have grazed these alpine meadows and snow gum covered peaks since early summer are desperate for it.
The mountain herbage is deficient in minerals. When it comes to mustering their herds, the cattle producers who run their stock in the high country make full use of it.
“Cattle do like salt anyway in any diet,” Rhonda Treasure said, “but particularly here, because there’s a lack of salt in the soil and we train them in the low country as well as up here to the salt call and it’s just fabulous”.
The salt is strategically placed in small heaps and when cattle hear the stockmen’s call, they bellow excitedly and often gallop for kilometres to lick up every precious grain.
“And they thoroughly enjoy it,” Rhonda added. “Everyone else likes a beer or a coffee or a something so…”
Prominent family has deep roots in high country
The Treasure family is one of the most prominent names of Victoria’s high country.
The family has had a presence on the Dargo High Plains since 1878 when George and Emily Treasure moved their young family there on packhorses from a goldfield in Victoria’s north-east.
George was a miner while Emily ran a store and made butter to supply nearby goldfields. The family eked out a spartan isolated existence and endured winters where snow often blanketed the ground.
Then in 1898, Emily heard that the surrounding Alpine grazing leases were up for tender, so she saddled a horse and raced across the Alps to Omeo secure the deal.
“I think it was some thousands of acres,” explained Linette Treasure, Emily’s great-granddaughter.
“And the woman’s touch was really what turned it all around.”
It was the start of a famous family dynasty to continues to this day.
Every summer various branches of the family move their cattle herds from the lower country and release them into communal mobs within the state forests of the high country.
In autumn, before the winter snow falls, the stock is mustered and drawn together by the attraction of salt, sorted, counted and driven back down the mountain, a journey of several days.
The stock work is all done on horseback with the aid of a team of useful dogs that stop cattle straying into the bush.
Treasure women a far cry from ‘bearded old cattlemen’
What distinguishes the Treasure family from others however, is the prominent role of the women.
“You can see all of the generations here,” Melbourne photographer Melanie Faith Dove explained, as she follows the annual trek down the mountain.
“We’ve got great aunts. I think it’s the sixth generation of Treasure grandchildren here and they’re amazing.
“You’ve got six and four-year-old kids riding, learning the skills and even the modern skills they need.”
Ms Dove spent two years following alpine grazing families, including the Treasure clan, throughout the high country and Tasmania for a recently published book called High Country Cattlemen.
What struck her most about the Treasure family was the role of the women — far from the stereotypical rugged, bearded, sun-tanned male stockman.
“You’ll even see it on this ride that strength in the women carrying on those traditions and teaching their children, but also they’re the leaders in a way,” Ms Dove said.
“I love seeing that because so often we think of mountain cattlemen as bearded old men.
“That’s been stereotyped, you know sort of hermits in the bush. And it’s not the case, you know there are fabulous women with great ideas that are leading the way as well.”
Rhonda, who has been moving cattle into the mountains since she was a girl, said it was imperative the traditions and heritage of alpine grazing be preserved.
“A big part of it is knowing a sense of belonging — belonging to family, country, your business. I sometimes bring international visitors and through their eyes I see it again with a new wonderment,” she said.
Tim Lee’s story high country women screens on Landline on the ABC TV.