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Australia's Outback stock routes under threat

The rugged drovers who herded their cattle and sheep around Australia, braving dust, drought and hardship, are a central part of the Outback myth. But their iconic stock routes – known as the “Long Paddock” – are now under threat, with state governments poised to consign them to history.

The routes, a network of tracks in eastern Australia linking rural properties with shearing sheds and saleyards, helped the young country to forge a national character. Developed from the 1830s onwards, and sometimes based on ancient Aboriginal trails, they are celebrated in the works of poets and writers such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.

Nowadays, relatively few drovers ply the routes, which feature roadside paddocks, often near a river or creek, where livestock can be rested and fed. But the paddocks are used by rural Australians for camping, fishing, swimming and picnic, and they are still used to supplement fodder in times of drought.

In New South Wales, stock routes cover about 600,000 hectares, or nearly one per cent of the state, down from 2.3 million hectares in 1975. Managed by rural land protection boards, only a few make a profit from droving fees. The state government is considering reclaiming them, allowing it to lease or sell off sections to landowners. Queensland is also reviewing the future of its 2.6 million hectare network.

This threat to the Long Paddock has united farmers, conservationists and scientists in a rare alliance. They argue that the stock routes form an important part of Australia’s cultural heritage, and are also reservoirs of biodiversity, a refuge for some of the country’s most endangered animals and plants.

In a letter to the premiers of New South Wales and Queensland today, 450 scientists and ecologists wrote that the routes represent corridors of vegetation along which birds, marsupials and bees can migrate, in response to hazards including climate change.

One of the most eminent signatories, Hugh Possingham, a professor of ecology at the University of Queensland, said: “Research shows the network supports some of the last strongholds of Australia’s most threatened native animals and plants on public land, and it provides some of the last connections of nature in our extensively cleared and modified landscapes, thus facilitating the movement of animals and plants across the landscape.”

Drovers – many from families that have carried out the job for generations - feel equally strongly. This week more than 400 of them met in Dubbo, in western New South Wales, to voice opposition to the government’s plans and launch a group called Mates of the Travelling Stock Route.

The life of the drover was romanticised in Clancy of the Overflow, a poem written in 1889 by Banjo Paterson, who also composed Waltzing Matilda and The Man from Snowy River. Henry Lawson, one of his contemporaries, gave a bleaker view of the harshness of rural existence in The Drover’s Wife, a short story published in 1892, and a poem, Andy’s Gone with Cattle.

More recently, Ted Egan, an Outback writer and film-maker, penned a song, The Drover’s Boy, which he plans to develop into a feature film with the same title.

In New South Wales, only five of the 47 rural land protection boards make a profit out of the stock route system; elsewhere it is subsidised by rural ratepayers. However, Timothy King, of the Wilderness Society, believes the system should be treated as one entity, with environmental and cultural significance, rather than as parcels of land.

“It’s only by keeping the network as a complete network, in public hands, that we can manage the connectivity it provides across the landscape, as species try to move in response to climate change,” Mr King told ABC radio.

The paddocks, or stock reserves, are sprinkled along the routes, at intervals considered to be a day’s walk for livestock - ten miles for cattle and six miles for sheep. But a report commissioned by the NSW government claims the reserves are almost redundant, because nowadays livestock can be trucked.