2016-17 has been a great year for Australian farmers, with record production, exports and profits. These records have been driven largely by good weather, in particular a wet winter in 2016, which led to exceptional yields for major crops.
Unfortunately, these good conditions go very much against the long-term trend. Recent CSIRO modelling suggests that changes in climate have reduced potential Australian wheat yields by around 27% since 1990.
In general, the drier inland parts of the cropping zone have been more heavily affected, partly because these areas are more sensitive to rainfall decline. Smaller effects have occurred in the wetter zones closer to the coast. Here less rain can have little effect on – and can even improve – crop productivity.
Farmers are reacting
However, it’s not all bad news. The study finds that Australian farmers are making great strides in adapting to climate change.
Much has been written about the fact that farm productivity in Australia has essentially flatlined since the 1990s, after several decades of consistent growth. The ABARES research suggests that changes in climate go some way towards explaining this slowdown.
After controlling for climate, there has been relatively strong productivity growth on cropping farms over the past decade. However, while farms have been improving, these gains have been offset by deteriorating conditions. The net result has been stagnant productivity.
Furthermore, there is evidence that this resurgence in productivity growth is a direct result of adaptation to the changing climate. Our study found that over the past decade cropping farms have improved productivity under dry conditions and minimised their exposure to climate variability.
This contrasts with the 1990s, when farms focused more on maximising performance in good conditions at the expense of increasing their exposure to drought.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that winter cropping farms have made a range of changes over the last decade, to better exploit soil moisture left from the summer period. The most obvious is the shift toward conservation tillage during the 2000s, where some or all of a previous crop’s residue (such as wheat stubble) is left in a field when planting the new crop.
It seems that farmers are adapting to new seasonal trends of rainfall, which for most cropping farms means less rain in winter and more in summer.
Is the Australian cropping belt moving south?
Previous research has suggested that the zone of Australia suitable for growing broadacre crops, known as the cropping belt, appears to be shifting south.
Our study found evidence to support this, with ABARES and ABS data showing increased cropping activity in the wetter southern fringe of the cropping belt in Western Australia and Victoria. At the same time, there have been declines in some more inland areas, which have been heavily affected by the climate downturn.
These shifts may be partly due to other factors – such as commodity prices and technology – but it’s likely that climate is playing a role. Similar changes have already been observed in other agricultural sectors, including the shift of wine grapes into Tasmania in response to rising temperatures.
What does this mean for the future?
At present there remains much uncertainty over future rainfall patterns. While climate models and recent experience suggest a clear direction of change, there is little agreement over the magnitude.
On the positive side, we know that farmers are successfully adapting to the changes in climate and have been for some time. However, so far at least, farmers have only been able to tread water: improving productivity just fast enough to offset the decline in climate. To remain competitive, we need to find ways to improve productivity faster, especially if current climate trends continue or worsen.
While it may not lead directly to impassioned critiques of climate governance, nor immediately sort the sceptics from the believers, talk of brewing storms or dried-up reservoirs now carries with it a whiff of trepidation about our collective forecasts.
Bridging the divide
Despite the growing politicisation of weather talk, weather and climate are usually understood as empirically distinct bodies of knowledge. Climate is, to quote British comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, “a long-term trend averaged over many years”, as opposed to weather, “which is what’s going on outside the window right now”.
The problem with this distinction is that climate change’s global reach and extended time scale can make it seem like it is happening somewhere else and to someone else (or, indeed, not at all). So perhaps the distinction is not useful for the cultural processes of adaptation. What might happen if we were to breach official definitions and disciplinary lines and think of the two things together?
Closing the distance between weather as event and climate as pattern can accomplish several things. Most obviously, it reminds us that there is a relationship between the two. Without weather, there would be nothing to amalgamate as climate.
While one heatwave does not equate to “climate change”, many and increasing ones give us pause to wonder. Leslie Hughes and Will Steffen are doing the data-driven work in this regard.
In other words, bringing climate and weather together can remind us that climate change is not only about abstract calculations on scales too big for our small and ultimately short-lived human forms to fathom.
Thinking about weather as part of climate underscores that we experience climate change with and on our bodies; climate change is lived by us at a very human scale, too.
The daily experience of weathering
So, what would it mean to harness the daily, mundane intrusions of weather as political? In contrast to terms like resilience (complicit with neoliberal incitements of bootstrapping) or sustainability (which suggests we get to keep something intact), weathering invites us to consider what we will lose along the way.
Weathered bodies, weathered houses, weathered cars, weathered clothes, weathered relationships, weathered dreams – these all bear scars of what has worn them down, and of what they have been asked to carry, to survive, and to hack.
Bringing this sense of lived climate change to our everyday perception is neither an easy nor comfortable thing. For one, discomfort is not a place we generally like to dwell for long. In a more political sense, though, paying attention to the weather as something in which we are intimately implicated, not just a disconnected backdrop to our human dramas, reminds us we are weather-makers too.
On a stable planet, nature provided a background against which the human drama took place; on the unstable planet we’re creating, the background becomes the highest drama.
This could be the epigraph for the Anthropocene.
Even in wealthy, climate-controlled places, weather inserts a reminder of one’s privilege, or luck, or vulnerability, or hardship, into those once mundane spaces. We may bemoan the slipping away of vacuous weather chats — “does everything have to be political?” — but perhaps noticing the weather can become an opening for everyday engagement in the politics of climate change instead.
In gender and cultural studies and the environmental humanities, rather than trying to leave weather-talk pregnant with fear, anticipation or political outrage, we are explicitly thinking with and through the weather to develop strategies for a rigorous and political response to climate change.
One way we are doing this is through a tactic or practice we call “weathering” – that is, cultivating attunement to how our own bodies, and bodies of others, experience weather. This includes how we and they manage it architecturally, technologically, professionally and socially.
We don’t all weather equally
Through the concept of “weathering”, our work forces a confrontation between large-scale climate data and embodied sociopolitical experiences that are too often treated as separate. It also underscores the politics and activism we hope this tactic can engender.
Such attentive acclimatisation reveals that, even though we’re all in the same planetary boat when it comes to global warming, we’re not all in it in the same way. This is something ecofeminists and environmental justice scholars have long known. Our work helps articulate how difference also marks our apparently banal encounters with the weather.
At a “Hacking the Anthropocence” symposium in Sydney this month, scholars, artists and activists are responding to the idea of “weathering”. The variety of experience that such a provocation reveals is astounding.
For Anne Werner’s and Genevieve Derwent’s work growing chickens on Autumn Farm and Cameron Muir’s reflections on life jackets for refugees, the weather holds a very different significance and function. Climate change is undoubtedly political – but all the more so because of these uneven individual and collective experiences of the weather.
Other kinds of bodily, socioeconomic, historical and geopolitical differences further complicate how we weather the world. When it comes to rising sea levels, or dried-up water holes, for example, racism, colonialism and gendered labour are all significant. Weathering as a concept thus asks us to think about what else, besides meteorological phenomena, one might be asked to weather.
Note that a more common meaning of “weathering” is as synonym for withstanding or enduring. Not only will different regions weather differently in a changing climate (drier, hotter in central Australia; more flooding on the US Atlantic coast; disappearing land in Pacific Islands), but people within those regions weather differently too.
Our human experiences of weather are linked to how the non-human world is weathering what we have forced it to carry. Artist Victoria Hunt will ask us to imagine with her “The Cry of Water”, while archaeologist Denis Byrne will explore the significance of seawalls, which are weathered by erosion. Human and non-human worlds weather together in a fraught and desirous intimacy.
The animal world is also constantly weathering. We know about catastrophic events such as the endangered bats that cannot cope with heat above 42℃. We’ve learned that the Great Barrier Reef is bleaching as water temperatures rise.
But what about the less-well-known water-holding frog or, indeed, ants and brine shrimp? How do they weather? At our symposium, Rebecca Giggs, Kate Wright and Emily O’Gorman (respectively) will let us know how, and suggest what we humans might learn about weathering the world differently.
These contributions invite us to explore how our experiences of the weather are highly mediated by a range of social, political and cultural forces. Anthropologist of institutions Tess Lea will investigate how bureaucracy (materialised as mountains of paperwork) orients different populations’ capacity to weather. Cli-fi expert and petrocultures scholar Stephanie LeMenager invites us to speculate on what a new kind of civic engagement might look like in this context.
Weathering directly connects human social, cultural and economic structures such as racism, colonialism and gender oppression to climate change. It insists that we think about global warming on a massive scale as always textured by acute experiences of social phenomena.
We recognise that the weight of a changing climate will not be borne equally by bodies – across geographies, economic status, or species.
So next time you curse a forgotten umbrella as the skies open up, or welcome the sun shining on your kid’s birthday party in the park, remember that when it comes to the weather, the personal is getting more and more political.
Hacking the Anthropocene II: Weathering (May 25-31) is supported by the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC); the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney; the Planetary Health Initiative at the University of Sydney; and the Seed Box: a MISTRA-FORMAS Environmental Humanities Collaboratory (hosted at Linkoping University, Sweden).
If we are to slow these disturbing trends and stabilise the climate at a level with which we might be able to cope, only a relatively small amount of the world’s remaining coal, oil and gas reserves can actually be used.
The majority must be left unburned in the ground, without developing vast new coal deposits such as those in the Galilee Basin.
To give ourselves just a 50% chance of staying within the 2℃ Paris target, we can burn only 38% of the world’s existing fossil fuel reserves. When this budget is apportioned among the various types of fossil fuels, coal is the big loser, because it is more emissions-intensive than other fuels. Nearly 90% of the world’s existing coal reserves must be left in the ground to stay within the 2℃ budget.
When the carbon budget is apportioned by region to maximise the economic benefit of the remaining budget, Australian coal in particular is a big loser. More than 95% of Australia’s existing coal reserves cannot be burned, and the development of new deposits, such as the Galilee Basin, is ruled out.
The health case
Exploiting coal is very harmful to human health, with serious impacts all the way through the process from mining to combustion. Recently the life-threatening “black lung” (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) has re-emerged in Queensland, with 21 reported cases. Across Australia, the estimated costs of health damages associated with the combustion of coal amount to A$2.6 billion per year.
In India, the country to which coal from the proposed Carmichael mine would likely be exported, coal combustion already takes a heavy toll. An estimated 80,000-115,000 deaths, as well as 20 million cases of asthma, were attributed to pollutants emitted from coal-fired power stations in 2010-11. Up to 10,000 children under the age of five died because of coal pollution in 2012 alone.
Compared with the domestic coal resources in India, Carmichael coal will not reduce these health risks much at all. Galilee Basin coal is of poorer quality than that from other regions of Australia. Its estimated ash content of about 26% is double the Australian benchmark.
This is bad news for children in India or in any other country that ends up burning it.
The economic case for the Carmichael mine doesn’t stack up either. Converging global trends all point to rapidly reducing demand for coal.
The cost of renewable energy is plummeting, and efficient and increasingly affordable storage technologies are emerging. Coal demand in China is dropping as it ramps up the rollout of renewables. India is moving towards energy independence, and is eyeing its northern neighbour’s push towards renewables.
All of these trends greatly increase the risk that any new coal developments will become stranded assets. It’s little wonder that the financial sector has turned a cold shoulder to the Carmichael mine, and Galilee Basin coal development in general. Some 17 banks worldwide, including the “big four” in Australia, have ruled out any investment in the Carmichael mine.
From any perspective – climate, health, economy – the proposed mine is hard to justify. And yet the project keeps on keeping on.
What can creative literature tell us about radical environmental change? Most people accept that literature can be closely connected to places. Whether it is Dickens’s London or Hardy’s Wessex, we also accept that imaginative works deliver something about the nature of place that does not necessarily come to us by any other means.
It is a regional literary history that nevertheless encompasses some of the nation’s finest writers — Albert Facey, Dorothy Hewett, Peter Cowan, Jack Davis, Randolph Stow, Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood, John Kinsella. Facey’s A Fortunate Life (1981) is a landmark in Australian autobiography; Hewett, Cowan and Stow helped define literary modernism in Australia; Jack Davis was a leading figure in the Aboriginal literary renaissance; and Jolley’s The Well (1986) and Flood’s Oceana Fine (1990) both won the Miles Franklin literary award.
What unites these works? Is it simply a quirk of fate that a sparsely populated hinterland in Australia’s most isolated state produces a body of literature that rivals in many ways the literary outputs of the great Australian metropolitan centres in Melbourne and Sydney?
For the answer to this question one has to understand the history of the WA wheatbelt. In two 30-year periods (1900-1930 and 1945-1975) an area of land roughly the size of Britain was stripped of its native vegetation for the production of grain and livestock. It is a crescent of land that begins just north of Geraldton on the west coast and sweeps south and east to Esperance on the south coast.
When the Swan River Colony was founded in 1829, six years before Melbourne, it was with the intention of forming an agricultural colony of closely settled yeoman farmers, who would own their own land and congregate in small, nicely spaced villages.
However, the antique soil of WA bore almost no resemblance to the fertile soils of recently glaciated northern Europe. Four to five more or less rainless months, where dry desert winds blow steadily across the vegetation was also an unprecedented challenge to farming methods learned in the British Isles. Lastly, there were almost no rivers to speak of, and permanent summer water was a rare commodity.
For all these reasons, the agricultural dream of WA remained largely unrealized. The game-changing event was the goldrush of the 1890s. The population of the colony trebled between 1889 and 1896, from 44,000 to 138,000.
Knowing that the gold would be dug out before too long but wanting to capture this new cache of colonists, the colonial government passed the Homesteads Act in 1893 to parcel out land, and established an Agricultural Bank in 1894 to finance farmer-settlers. An army of land surveyors fanned out through the southwest and provisions for water, fertilizer and rail transit were quickly put into motion. Towns were gazetted, one-teacher schools popped up and WA took the lead in distance learning.
Albert Facey’s uncle Archie McCall had come over from South Australia to work the goldfields and was one of those who leapt at the land offer. Dorothy Hewett’s grandparents had made their money selling goods to diggers heading out to the goldfields at Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie and with this they purchased an extensive parcel of prime land at Yealering not far from McCall’s farm at Wickepin.
The dream refracted
What we get in both of these very different writers is a distinct picture of the dream of the wheatbelt. It is this dream — a settler-colonial ideology of farming independence — that we see refracted through the wheatbelt writers all the way through the 20th century.
The animating vision of the wheatbelt was an amalgam of ideals. On the one hand, it appealed to the basic material prospect of upward mobility. In the late 19th and early 20th century, opportunities for advancement through education were not generally available.
But the wheatbelt vision seemed even more deeply situated than this, offering itself as an antidote to the ills of modern city life. As the various states all moved to convert low-yield pastoral production to high-yield cash-cropping, there emerged a veritable ideology of wheat in the post-Federation years, and right through to the Depression.
C.J. Dennis joined the chorus in his bouncy ballad simply called Wheat from 1918:
Tho’ it ain’t a life o’ pleasure,
An’ there’s little time for leisure,
It’s contentin’, in a measure, is the game of growin’
Dennis and others helped to drag crop-farming away from its associations with European peasant drudgery and into the noble task of nation-building and feeding the “bread-eating” (i.e. European or European-derived) countries of the world.
For Facey, even though his memoir was not published until 1981 (the year before he died), the dream of the wheatbelt and the ideology of wheat remain preserved as if in amber. The basic tasks of “clearing” the wheatbelt — particularly the regimes of annual burning and cutting — are remembered with particular pride by Facey.
Born a generation and a half later, Hewett grew up in a farm that was already in place. Although she left Lambton Downs (as it was dubbed) at the age of 11, Hewett’s writing returned again and again to the wheatbelt. Hewett’s wheatbelt had a mythic, gothic flavour in which the dream of it is present but often in inverted form. This wheatbelt is beset by a pernicious fatality and mired in the sexual miseries of her extended family.
Hewett deserves credit for being the first writer to take seriously the fact that the wheatbelt was built on land whose traditional owners had not disappeared but were still there, either impoverished in fringe-camps or incarcerated in government or church institutions.
The other side of the farming frontier
But it was the emergence of Aboriginal writing in the generation politicized by the citizenship referendum that brought a powerful voice from the other side of the wheatbelt frontier. Jack Davis had spent time in the notorious Moore River Native Settlement on the edge of the mid-northern wheatbelt, and then (after the untimely death of his father), with relatives of his mother’s sister at the Brookton reserve in the Avon valley. There he did the usual itinerant work that Aboriginal families did in the wheatbelt’s early years — clearing, fencing, shearing, rabbiting.
What Davis gives us in his poetry of the 1970s and the great plays of the 80s is a completely alternative vision of the wheatbelt. It doesn’t look like wheatbelt literature for the simple reason that it does not proceed either positively or negatively from the wheatbelt dream. Instead, it proceeds from Aboriginal presence in the land.
The tragedy of the Noongar is shown in all its woeful extremity, but tempered by Davis’s astringent sense of humour—his black humour if you like. But really Jack Davis is writing about survival. His example has provided a platform for a writer like Kim Scott to foster new forms of Noongar creative re-emergence, and also new forms of penetrating critique.
At the same time that a consciousness of Aboriginal dispossession began to force its way into the understanding of the wheatbelt, a much sharper sense of its ecological cost was also starting to emerge. Certainly, right through my literary history of the wheatbelt there was a realization that the waving fields of wheat were planted on lands stripped of their native ecosystems.
Everyone knew this because everyone spent a considerable part of each year toiling to clear the land. But the view tended to be that there was always more bush. Each bit of clearing was a merely local matter. Likewise, as rising salinity became directly associated with the clearing of native perennial vegetation, it was repeatedly explained away as a small, local, confined phenomenon.
But in the writing of Peter Cowan and that of the naturalist, Barbara York Main, the full picture of environmental destruction began to appear without the customary euphemism. It would be wrong to say that public opinion, particularly in the wheatbelt, changed decisively in the 1960s or even the 1970s. The cart-blanche denial, however, of environmental value — that the natural world of the wheatbelt had a value — became harder and harder to maintain.
By the 1980s, the wheatbelt had become uncanny. No longer the sign of the natural cycles of life replenishing the earth with seasonal regularity, but a vast and even repellent monocultural expanse. The wheatbelt was something profoundly unnatural in the eyes of writers like Elizabeth Jolley, Tom Flood and John Kinsella.
Of these, it has been Kinsella who has proved to be both durable and prolific. His poems, stories and other writings specify a wheatbelt that exists in strange cross-currents of science, tradition and avarice. The natural world is prised out of its familiar romantic categories and, in his remarkable work, exists in eerie counterpoise to the techno-scientific mania of modern agribusiness.
The central fact of the wheatbelt is radical disappearance. On one hand there was the destruction of the sovereign culture of the Noongar, custodians for millennia. Noongar people continue to practice and uphold their culture in spite of everything and the land continues to speak through them.
But on the other hand we must also contend with the fact that in the central wheatbelt shires, at least, only something like 7% of the natural vegetation (and the animal habitat it provides) remains. This, in a place that has a biodiversity as stunning as a rainforest canopy.
Literature cannot, in and of itself, make these losses good. A thousand novels cannot replace one extinct species. But in human terms there is hope. The Noongar language is being revitalized. And here literature certainly does have a role to play. Jack Davis used Noongar in his plays and provided his own glossaries. Kim Scott’s fiction, and occasional poetry, gives its readers Noongar — in fact teaches its readers Noongar and the deft sonics of a language adapted to country. And many of today’s farmers are now at the forefront of conservation initiative and Landcare groups.
The role, though, that I see for literature in coming to terms with the facts of the wheatbelt lies in its capacity to continuously disabuse us of the complacent certitudes by which we think we know the world. It need not require the experimental bravura of Kinsella’s postmodern verse to do this unsettling. Even the older writing does it in surprising ways.
What Dorothy Hewett and Jack Davis do within the broad parameters of theatrical realism nevertheless succeeds in unpicking the simple pouches we tend to pack our conceptions in. Barbara York Main’s natural histories throw open the dazzling singularity of wheatbelt life forms, and at the same time their intricate interconnections. Peter Cowan’s quietist studies of disillusioned loneliness, defamiliarises the wheatbelt just as certainly as Facey’s childhood glee at burning the bush to smouldering ashes.
It is not a particular kind of literature that gets to the “heart” of the wheatbelt. It is the fact that the wheatbelt falls into the prism of literature that allows us to see this place in terms other than the ones it gave itself via its animating dream of agricultural plenitude and generational continuity.
Creative writing is not blind to the natural or economic forces that determine the fate of the wheatbelt, but it will always approach the matter through the medium of human subjectivity. In this sense, it is only literature that allows us to see inside the wheatbelt that was created, geologically speaking, in the blink of an eye.
So far we have had about 1℃ of global warming above the average pre-industrial climate. So how will extreme weather events change with more warming in the future? Will they become more frequent? Will they become more severe?
The Paris Agreement, brokered in 2015, committed the world’s governments to:
Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃ above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
It is vital that we understand how climate extremes in Australia might change if we limit global warming to either 1.5℃ or 2℃, and what the implications might be of pursuing the more lenient target rather than the more ambitious one.
In our study we used state-of-the-art climate model simulations to examine the changing likelihood of different climate extremes under four different scenarios: a natural world without any human-caused climate change; the world of today; a 1.5℃ warmer world; and a 2℃ warmer one.
Heat extremes are here to stay
First, we looked at hot Australian summers, like the record-breaking “angry summer” of 2012-13.
Australian summer temperatures are strongly related to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation, with hot summers more likely to occur during El Niño events, and cooler ones during La Niña episodes.
In the past, a summer as hot as 2012-13 would have been very unlikely during a La Niña. But our modelling predicts that with either 1.5℃ or 2℃ of global warming, we could expect similarly angry summers to occur during both El Niño and La Niña periods.
We already know that the sea surface temperatures associated with mass bleaching of much of the Great Barrier Reef in early 2016 would have been virtually impossible without climate change. If the world continues to warm to either the 1.5℃ or 2℃ levels, very warm seas like we saw early last year would become the norm.
In fact, our research suggests that with 2℃ of global warming, the future average sea temperatures around the Great Barrier Reef would be even hotter than the extremes observed around the time of the 2016 bleaching.
Less change for heavy rains and droughts
In December 2010 Queensland was devastated by severe flooding following very heavy rainfall. Our analysis suggests that this kind of event is highly unusual, and may well continue to be so. There isn’t a clear signal for an increase or decrease in those events with ongoing climate warming.
Natural climate variability seems to play a greater role than human-driven climate change (at least below the 2℃ threshold) when it comes to influencing Australian heavy rainfall events.
The Millennium Drought across southeast Australia led to water shortages and crop failures. Drought is primarily driven by a lack of rainfall, but warmer temperatures can exacerbate drought impacts by increasing evaporation.
Our results showed that climate change is increasing the likelihood of hot and dry years like we saw in 2006 across southeast Australia. At 1.5℃ and 2℃ of global warming these events would probably be more frequent than they are in today’s world.
Not a lost cause
It is clear that Australia is going to suffer from more frequent and more intense climate extremes as the world warms towards (and very likely beyond) the levels described in the Paris Agreement.
If we miss these targets, the warming will continue and the extremes we experience in Australia are going to be even worse.
With either 1.5℃ or 2℃ global warming, we will see more extremely hot summers across Australia, more frequent marine heatwaves of the kind that can cause bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, and probably more frequent drought conditions too.
The more warming we experience, the worse the impacts will be. The solution is clear. To limit global warming, the world’s nations need to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – fast.
Vast, ancient, nutrient-poor, with wild swings between droughts, floods and fires: this describes much of the Australian continent. Livestock grazing and farming in such a land is certainly not without its challenges.
Where we’ve failed to work with the local conditions, we see barren plains, dust storms, the extinction of native species, and the repossession of properties by banks, among many ills.
One of the most contentious examples involves encouraging dingoes. Many pastoral areas require land managers to take “all reasonable and practical steps” to manage the risk of dingoes, which are classed as pest animals.
A Western Australian couple, David Pollock and Frances Jones, were recently featured on Australian Story for their decision to regenerate their property, Wooleen, by de-stocking, encouraging local flora and fauna, and investing in ecotourism.
Their neighbours, including sheep graziers whose stock are vulnerable to dingoes, feel this is an irresponsible decision. Graziers have a mandate to control dingoes (“wild dogs”, to many) and dingo-domestic dog hybrids — which can’t be easily and reliably distinguished in the wild.
While the impacts and merits of encouraging dingoes in sheep country are hotly debated, their role in the management of cattle stations is much better understood. But restrictive legislation and the stigma attached to dingoes are frustrating for those who see them as having a vital ecological and economic role for their properties.
Queensland grazier Angus Emmott writes that his beef cattle enterprise, Noonbah station, has benefited from leaving dingoes and kangaroos alone:
We run a beef cattle enterprise in the top end of the Queensland channel country, southwest of Longreach. As a part of our management plan, we leave the dingoes and the ’roos alone. We see a range of benefits to our operation.
When the dingoes don’t have their social structure disrupted by poison baiting, trapping and shooting, only the apex bitch breeds, once a year at most. These family groups have strictly defined ranges, and they kill or chase off other wild dogs or dingoes that intrude. They also keep kangaroos down to very low numbers, which is a huge benefit in regards to pasture growth and being able to rest our paddocks. The dingoes also keep down feral pig, cat and fox numbers.
Yes, dingoes do take some of our calves, but the benefits of pasture growth and feral animal control result in a net benefit of better land condition and a greater dollar return. Dingoes also benefit biodiversity conservation and soil condition. We acknowledge this management model does not work in sheep country, including for some of our nearby neighbours, and in these cases we need to look at different forms of management, such as fencing and/or companion and guardian animals.
Solutions for protecting livestock against attack, such as guardian dogs, are also at hand and may be considerably cheaper than constructing and maintaining extensive predator-proof fences. Livestock guardian dogs have been shown to be effective in numerous locations across Australia, on large and small grazing properties. But investment from state and federal government (and related agencies) aimed at encouraging such innovation has been lacking.
Working with the land
Regardless of whether graziers take the drastic steps seen at Wooleen, now is the time to reflect on the direction of Australia’s land management.
If we’re to overcome the many challenges we face, including the impacts of climate change on food production, then we need to support the bold new thinking emerging from rural and regional Australia, and our scientific institutions.
Seeing some of the worst land degradation first hand it’s easy to think that it’s all too hard and that environmental repair will take decades, if not centuries. This can invite inertia and apathy, the enemies of positive change.
Big changes certainly carry risks, and these must be managed carefully, but new and sometimes brave ideas will always improve our understanding of the land. Whatever the outcome, such knowledge helps guide better decisions for more sustainable grazing, farming and bio-diverse conservation.
Euan Ritchie would like to acknowledge the contribution of Angus Emmott to this article.