Farewell to Arcady: Or, Getting off the Sheep's Back

Article excerpt

This essay, like Gaul, is divided into three parts, the first of which considers sheep and the pastoral industry as a land-use; the second is about the politics of wool; the third, about Arcady in Australia, a theme that helps to explain the first two.

1. Sheep and land-use (All We, Like Sheep ...)

One of the misfortunes of Australian colonisation was that the Bigge Commission took place during a period when the geodetic survey, and a set of attitudes that went with it, was in its ascendancy and Australia was in its infancy. A continent was ruled up by straight lines, even the state boundaries, for the most part, ignoring natural features, creating artificial political units and property lines that are often inimical to sensible land management. Range management is a recent science which had its beginnings in Utah, followed by the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 which regulated grazing on public lands in the United States. Range management in Western Australia had its beginnings in the Pilbara in 1951, where Henk Suijdendorp began his work, followed in the Wiluna area in 1955 under David Wilcox. Until very recently, there has been no restriction on the number of stock that could be carried on a given lease in Australia. In Western Australia, the Land Act of 1912 stated the minimum numbers of stock that should be on the land; there was no instance where maximum numbers were recommended.

Those responsible for allowing settlement in the 'outback' were persuaded by their European heritage that a more or less constant level of production was possible; droughts were perceived as being an intolerable nuisance, but not at all the norm. The administration of the day not only failed to suggest safe stocking rates or best management practices for the land: they did worse in New South Wales and Queensland, where they were bent upon establishing small land holdings in the misguided belief that it was possible to define 'home maintenance units' or 'homestead blocks' 'sufficient to provide for the needs of a man and his family'. The obsession with home maintenance units did not extend further, but its legacy is one of severe economic depression and land degradation in the west of New South Wales and south-west Queensland. All the States still suffer under the failure of administration and government to recommend safe stocking capacity and best management practices to lessees, who were left to fend for themselves until the 1960s, and then the advice that was given was largely ignored. It is useful to remember that in talking about leasehold land in Australia, we are talking about half a continent, so the issues are significant.

Whatever views you may have of Sidney Kidman and his achievements, one thing is undeniable: his use of the land was nomadic. He had access to so much of it (130,000 square miles at his death in 1935) that he was able to move stock huge distances to take advantage of good feed where it was to be found, although he usually left stressed country later than good management would suggest, and returned before full recovery. Perhaps we should have reserved the arid and subarid range-lands for nomadic use, moving the flocks and herds over huge areas of land with the seasons, following the good years and biblical practice, while using the most efficient means to hand, such as replacing the drovers with trucks. Instead, we imposed leasehold boundaries that critically limited mobility and often locked the leaseholder into a cycle of destruction. Now it is too late. Much of outback Australia needs to be rested from stock for a very long time, and some of it, forever.

Mobility is a biotic characteristic of arid Australia, where we have not only a great diversity of birds, but also one of the highest percentages of nomadic bird species in the world. The large macropods are very wide-ranging in arid Australia. Plants are not literally mobile, but they are equally opportunistic: many species can lie dormant, usually in the form of seeds, for years, and then spring into life with the first rains. …