Conservation drive clouds future for Cape crusaders

James Nason, 18/10/2011

A ship loads at the export yards at Weipa. Picture courtesy of Watson River Station. Click on images at bottom of article to view in large format.Cattle producers on Australia’s Cape York Peninsula have a long and proud of history of enduring against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Obstacles to successful production are many in the remote, frontier environment. Productivity is limited by low fertility soils and the poor nutrient value of pastures, while costs are disproportionately high due to the large property sizes and operating expenses required to make lower stocking rates viable.

Tropical conditions, monsoonal wet seasons, limited windows of opportunity muster and market stock, minimal infrastructure, poor roads, long distances to market, high freight costs on stock sales and essential inputs add to the relentless squeeze on viability.

Despite these challenges many families have  survived for more than a century in the Cape, passing down their extensive practical knowledge of managing the landscape and stewardship 'know-how' from generation to generation.

However two more challenges have emerged in recent times that many fear could be the straw to break the already heavily-burdened industry’s back. If the financial fallout from the recent two month-long shutdown of the live export trade doesn’t push those remaining operations to the brink, Government intentions to convert large areas of former cattle country into largely unmanaged conservation zones well might.

Cape York Peninsula. Map: while armchair conservationists may cheer the removal of cattle from the region as a win for the environment, what they miss is the unfolding ecological disaster that is occuring as experienced and practical land managers are forced out and weeds, pests and biosecurity risks spread uncontrollably across the region intheir absence.

AgForce cattle policy director Andrew Simpson and president Brent Finlay have just returned from the region and are urging the State Government to recognise the essential role that the northern cattle industry plays in managing the conservation of Cape York.

“The key observations that we made is that there are a lot of hardships still being felt in the Cape through the upheaval of live exports, and with conservation groups tying up a lot of land,” Mr Simpson said.

“They simply have failed to recognise the importance of having management practice to control biosecurity issues, and that the cheapest and most effective land management they could have up there are the three, four and five generation landowners that we saw.”

The hardships imposed by the live export ban, concerns about security of tenure and the disillusionment that went with seeing other friends and neighbours walk away was resulting in more long-term producers making the decision to sell out to Government and conservation groups, Mr Simpson said.

And as that happened, the landscape was going backwards very quickly. 

“If you drive past some of these properties that have turned over you’re seeing large tracts of land that are unmanaged and run down, that are becoming potential huge fire hazards and biosecurity risks.

"Ultimatelly it is reaching the tipping point where a cattle industry in the Cape will eventually become non-viable.”

Cape York landholder Doreen Quartermaine, who with her husband Cameron runs Watson River Station south east of Weipa, told Beef Central yesterday that the financial impact of the live export ban on the Cape York cattle community had been “huge”. 

Any producer left in the region had been forced to take second and even third jobs to make ends meet, she said.

While the live export ban had meant the loss of an entire year’s income for many producers, the biggest issue of all was the amount of land that was now unmanaged, she said.

The sense of social loss as neighbours left and weren’t replaced was keenly felt. “You don’t have other people in the area that can support you, so you are standing on your own and it gets pretty lonely out there sometimes,” Mrs Quartermaine said.

As more properties were sold and turned over to unmanaged conservation zones, weed and pest incursions and fire hazards grew, and as that problem escalated, the number of landholders left to fight it diminished.

The most viable market for Cape York cattle producers is the live export trade, which local producers have had access to since building their own set of export yards on a deep port alongside Weipa harbour in the mid-1990s.

There are now concerns that Cape York cattle numbers are falling below the critical mass required to fill boats out of Weipa. If that happens, the next option is a long-distant road train journey south to Mareeba, which wipes $90 per head in freight costs from cattle returns compared to selling through Weipa.

“To be quite honest I would be very surprised if live export happens out of Weipa again,” Mrs Quartermaine said.

“Without it, it is really difficult to make a living out of cattle up here. The distance to market kills us every time.”

As cattle industry profitability declined, so to did the level of environmental stewardship in which producers could engage. “Its very hard to be green when you’re in the red,” Mr Simpson said.

AgForce is calling on Governments to recognise the role the cattle industry plays in managing the northern peninsula landscape, and to support the live export trade out of Weipa to underpin the future viability of the industry.

It also wants Governments to look more closely at natural resource management policies in the Cape and particularly the notion that the entire region should be turned over to national parks.

“Some of the best managers of this type of land are the managers who have been there for generations,” Mr Simpson said. “We need to maintain or incentivise them to remain part of the equation, not to remove them from it.”

Doreen Quartermaine agreed: “We’re probably the cheapest park rangers they have anywhere, and yet they’re trying to make it that difficult for us that we can’t afford to stay there.”

She said support for a recommissioned abattoir which had recently been relicensed at York Downs outside Weipa could help to provide another valuable market outlet for Cape York producers.

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