Wooleen Station is situated in the Mulga shrub lands, in the oldest landscape in the world, with the oldest rocks in the world to be found nearby.
The rangelands to which the Mulga shrub lands belong comprise 80% of Australia and 40% of the World. One third of man’s domesticated stock run on these rangelands and they also form the habitat for much of the world’s wildlife.
Wooleen encompasses some 36 kilometres of the Murchison River and the same of the Roderick River, including all of the Roderick’s lower reaches and the nationally important wetland, Wooleen Lake.
Surveys done in the Murchison area by the Western Australian Department of Agriculture in the mid 1990s describe the flora as diverse, with 830 recorded vascular species, of which around 5% are endemic or near-endemic. Unfortunately the same survey also recorded that 42% of the vegetation was in poor to very poor condition, 37% remained in fair condition, and 21% was still in good condition.
Worse still these figures do not show that most of the land in poor or very poor condition is the prime land along riparian areas favored by grazing animals, and the countryside in good condition is mostly areas that have never been developed due to their low pastoral potential, such as sparsely vegetated rocky areas that few animals are willing to brave.
The survey did report that over 1.8% of the Murchison catchment was severely degraded and eroded, that is degraded to the point whereby it is not ever expected to recover its pastoral potential. That 1.8% corresponds to 1561 km2, or over half the size of the A.C.T. Other catchments in the area record much higher figures of severe degradation and erosion. Alarmingly, these degraded areas are entirely situated in prime areas, mainly riparian areas. Since the survey was done there have been an increasing number of reported dry years and droughts in the Murchison, which begs the question, are we getting dryer, or is the landscape losing its ability to cope with normal conditions?
At Wooleen we believe the latter. The rangelands are described as a renewable resource, but this is only true if we manage the land so that is able to renew itself, and is healthy enough to withstand the normal cycles of climate. We believe that Wooleen’s landscape is below that critical line of health, especially in the most productive and ecologically important riparian areas.
So how did the landscape get to this stage?
The immediate response is usually that the pastoralists have destroyed the landscape through greedy overstocking, however this assumption bears closer inspection. Pastoralists do not own the land, it’s owned by the government and leased for the purpose of pastoralism. In the first 40-50 years of pastoral settlement in the Murchison area pastoralists were incentivized and in fact compelled by law to erect infrastructure and carry minimum numbers of stock. The theory was it was Australia’s land, and it should be used to produce for the Australian economy.
And produce it did. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 1935 more than 27% of the world wool production was from Australia. Australia owned more sheep than any other country in the world, 112,217,000 compared with the next highest, the Soviet Union with 73,300,000. Wooleen owned 27,000 of them, and in 1935, 450 sheep were slaughtered as rations to feed the workforce employed to tend those sheep. Australia rode on the sheeps back, as the saying goes. The grand old Wooleen homestead is a testament to those high times, as are many of the old buildings in the main streets of countless cities and towns throughout Australia.
However by 1939 it became all too apparent that something had gone wrong with this system. Wooleen was down to 10, 900 sheep, 16,000 having died of starvation over 4 years. In the Murchison area, 840,000 sheep had been reduced to 250,000 over 5 years. A drought had struck.
Normally the landscape would have been well equipped to cope with this event, as surface waters evaporated so too did the large grazing herbivores that relied on the surface water. However with the establishment of windmills and wells, water was now available all of the time and no longer a limiting factor. 27,000 sheep continued to eat. But the vegetation was not being replenished by rainfall, and the sheep continued to eat into the reserves that should never have been touched. Because these reserves were the fabric that hold the landscape together.
A Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the situation in 1940: ‘Report of the Royal Commission appointed to inquire into and report upon the financial and economic position of the pastoral industry in the leasehold areas in Western Australia. Fyfe W.V.’ They reported that 75 % of the saltbush species and 25% of the acacias had been removed.
In some areas 90% of scrub and shrubs had disappeared, leaving the landscape extremely susceptible to wind and water erosion, and resulted in the severe degradation and erosion still evident today. None the less the report was aimed at getting the show back on the road, and restocking as soon as possible.
Some pastoralists at this time were pushing for properly conducted scientific studies in pastoral areas to better understand the rangeland environment, and in the early 1950s the Department of Agriculture located professional agricultural scientists in pastoral areas for the first time. A separate Rangeland Pastoral Management branch was established in 1971, and ushered in a period of excellent scientific research, including the previously mentioned survey of degraded land.
Meanwhile the pastoral industry was learning how the Australian rangelands worked the hard way. Restocking commenced as quickly as the sheep could breed up again in the good seasons, but it was noticed that much of the scrub had not recovered. In fact it still hasn’t recovered. We now know this because many of the plants that were wiped out in the 1930 drought, and subsequent droughts, live for a very long time.
In fact we still don’t know how long most of them live, though it would be reasonable to assume over 100 years for plants less than waist high, and over 300years for many small trees and shrubs. Not only do they live a long time, they also grow very slowly, and require much more time to establish than current practices allow.
Rapid loss of productive capacity
Since that time there have been numerous droughts and stock numbers have never reached what they were before a drought, indicating that we are rapidly losing the productive capacity of the land. In 1975-77 the Collaborative Soil Conservation study by the state and federal government estimated that the vast majority of the pastoral rangelands require rehabilitation following range deterioration including vegetation decline, soil erosion and woody weed invasion.
And yet the State of the Environment Report 2006 gives an upbeat view of how the pastoral rangelands are progressing. It shows that some monitoring sites have improved, most have stayed the same and some have regressed. The important question to ask however is:
What is the base line that is being used for comparison? Or: If they have improved, against what are we judging that they have improved?
The answers to these questions are that they are being compared to monitoring sites established in the mid 1990s, which plainly reported that the sites were very degraded at the time of establishment! So 60 years after the problem was identified in a Royal Commission, and after no respite for the landscape in all that time, the government is happy to accept 1990 as a baseline for monitoring. What is amazing about this information is that the rangelands have been able to get worse in some cases since then! One would have thought that after 110years of miss- management the landscape had reached rock bottom, literally.
Our response at Wooleen
At Wooleen we decided in 2007 to completely destock the entire property for 4 years, and turn off all windmills to limit availability of water to unmanaged grazing animals (such as kangaroos). While destocking is not a new practice normally it would only be applied to a small area, and for a year at most. For this we needed permission from the Pastoral Lands Board (PLB), as it was at the time necessary to keep stock on every pastoral lease unless permission was granted otherwise. It took 1 year for the PLB to give its permission.
The re-establishment of the vegetation on Wooleen is only the first step, and while this has progressed much better than expected, there is still a long way to go. In fact the more it recovers, the more we realise that it should be so much better! This is because very desirable pasture plants are turning up in places that we never realised they would grow, especially perennial grasses.
Unfortunately due to financial constraints we have had to reintroduce the cattle before the landscape has even halfway recovered. This will mean that we are taking a two steps forward one backward approach, but it cannot be avoided at this stage.
Which brings us to the second stage of our quest for sustainability, running stock in a way that does not start the landscape back into a downward spiral. While there is a lot of learning to do in this regard, we are convinced that we have to find a way to periodically rest the landscape to allow it to recover from grazing, especially during dry times. In order to achieve this with the last lot of cattle we only kept them on the station for 8 months, which worked well ecologically but was a tough financial decision, as we did not realise the full economic potential of the herd, and we sorely needed to! But it meant another summer without grazing pressure, which has ensured a continued positive ecological trend.
Finance is of course a major drawback to environmental recovery, and while tourism helps in between times, it does not cover the cost of running the station. At least we have the tourism. Many pastoralists would love to restore the productive capacity of their stations, but have no other source of income. Still the conditions of our pastoral lease stipulate that the majority of income must come from pastoralism, which is a hangover from the very early days before the turn of the century. A tourism permit must be applied for and states only ‘low-key’ tourism activities can be established.
Turning red river waters clear
We are very excited by these results, and presented them to the federal government, Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. They replied saying that we had proven that it could be done, and now we should go ahead and keep doing it. No further funds would be forthcoming. While we haven’t had cattle we have still been busy! Constructing Envirolls with the help of school groups, building Ponding banks, planting grasses and changing infrastructure to replicate the natural systems we have lost.
The culmination of this work, in partnership with neighbours and with a federal environmental grant, resulted in the Roderick River flowing clear of eroded sediment at its terminus for the first time in living memory. We turned a red river clear in 2009 and partly clear in 2010 which was the second biggest flood on record.
The sad fact of the matter is that a handful of pastoralists struggling to make a living in an industry that has been struggling for over 20 years are not able to afford the broad scale rehabilitation measures required. Even if those measures are as simple as destocking. Pastoralists argue why should we pay for the rehabilitation of land that was largely depleted before we were born, that does not belong to us any more than any other Australian? How could we pay for it anyway? This is the scenario facing pastoralists interested in rehabilitating the landscape, and despite the challenges many are trying to do it anyway.