Australia is a fascinating giant island continent which was first populated by Aboriginal peoples between 40,000 and 60,000 years before the present, perhaps even longer. These were hunter-gatherer peoples who kept no livestock and cultivated no crops. It was only with the advent of European settlement from 1788 that crops were cultivated and domestic animals farmed. The first “settlers” were convicts, selected for their various skills or muscle-power from the overflowing prisons and convict hulks on the Thames River in England, and the military contingent that were their guard. Large areas of Australia, especially in the far tropical north, were only settled in the past 100 years and less. Because of this recent settlement and utilisation, the human population is still low today at some 20 million in a land of 7 690 000km2 , of which vast tracts are desert and semi-desert.
Is this really sheep country?
The first question we asked ourselves was whether cattle and sheep grazing were suited to areas that receive low rainfall and are subject to frequent drought. A case in point is the Anna Creek Station, at 24 000km2 the largest functioning cattle station in the world. That is bigger than our Kruger National Park. It lies at the southern fringe of the Simpson Desert and along part of the salt Lake Eyre in South Australia. It is clearly desert, although some rain had fallen when we travelled through in early 2006. During the dry season they run 12 000 cattle, when good rains fall up to 17600. That gives a maximum carrying capacity during the dry season of one large stock unit to 200ha! Most of the cattle are Santa Gertrudis but there are some Longhorn crosses. Musterings (roundups) are undertaken with fixed-wing aircraft, motorbikes and horses.
Cattle in decline
Cattle numbers have fallen drastically here in recent years as grazing deteriorates. Fewer than 500 000 head of cattle now range over the Kimberley; the native pastures have relatively poor nutritional value and still dominate, but in recent years nitrogen and sulphur supplements have been increasingly given to reduce weight loss during the dry season. Brahman and Brahman crosses are rapidly replacing Shorthorn stock, as they are better adapted to the tropics. As we crossed the northern cattle country we gained the impression that many areas were overstocked, with overgrazing and erosion clearly visible on many of the stations.
As with most things in Australia one has to calculate on a massive scale. Consider that some 2,5 million hectares, 14% of all agricultural land, has such high salinity levels that it is for all intents and purposes out of production. This is predicted to rise to 17 million hectares by 2050 and 41 300km of streams will be badly affected by high saline levels. To a greater or lesser extent more than 50% of all farms in Western Australia are affected. There is much talk of replanting and rehabilitation, but the expenses would be so huge that even the state and federal governments tend to shy away from the problem. Over three million hectares of land are sown with specialised crops, pasture and salt-resistant fodder plants. Almost 800 000ha have been planted with trees for salinity management, and 210 000km of earthworks for salinity management have been erected, but this is still only scratching the surface.
Severe water stress
And in such a parched land, finding enough water, as in South Africa, is an increasingly difficult problem. We crossed the two biggest rivers in the southeast, the Murray and the Darling, and both were very low and under huge pumping pressure. This on rivers where paddle streamers once carried wool bales to inland ports. In some places only a canoe would get through now. The situation is so severe in Western Australia that extreme measures have been mooted. These include constructing a pipeline or canal from the well-watered northern Kimberleys, a distance of over 5 000km. But the costs involved are prohibitive. Towing icebergs up from the Antarctic has been considered but discarded.
We can personally testify to the severity of fires, having lived through a massive conflagration to the north of Cape Arid National Park in southwest Australia. As with our South African fynbos, fire plays a natural role in many Australian vegetation types. But as with most things in that country, these fires are on a truly monumental scale. In the 16 months we spent in Australia, fires claimed the lives of eight humans, more than 200 000 sheep and some 5 000 cattle. In one fire in the west of New South Wales on New Year’s Day 2006, at least 30 000 sheep burned to death. As in many other countries, graziers burn veld to improve and stimulate new growth. Unfortunately, in much of the rangelands, especially in the northern tropics, regular and indiscriminate burning poses a serious threat to the survival of many of the indigenous, adapted pasture species.
One other aspect we have not touched on here is land redistribution to the Aboriginal peoples, a topic familiar to the South African farmer. Here in South Africa we tend to think of this as “our” problem but Australian farmers, ranchers, politicians, human rights activists and Aboriginals are wrestling with similar issues. This is a topic for another time.
And the last word goes to the flies! We have experienced large numbers of flies in a number of different parts of the world, but there is no doubt that Australia is home to the largest and most persistent fly populations on this globe of ours! Whether you are in cattle or sheep country, national parks, beaches or woodland, even the southern cities, for much of the year but especially in summer they are your constant companions. What is amazing about many of these bushflies is that they migrate up to 1000km southwards in the warmer months from their breeding grounds. Most females lay their eggs in cattle or sheep dung, which lies around in abundance because there are no indigenous dung beetles adapted to devour this bounty. We thought they were seeking moisture from our sweat, and some do, but then we found it strange that they mainly cluster en masse on your back. The reason being, we have since been told, is that they are waiting for you to defecate and provide a feeding and breeding ground! So, there you have the five F’s of Australia. |fw