Devastation in the dead heart: Robert Milliken in Wilcannia on a drought that has broken the spirit of Australia's Outback

PAT SMITH kicked a bale of hay off a truck and watched it thump on a landscape as bare as the moon. His weary sheep trudged towards it, the survivors of a devastating drought that has already killed more than 6 million sheep and threatened the future of thousands of Australian farmers.

Families such as Mr Smith's have survived droughts in the Outback before. This one is different. Coming on top of a decade of debt, high interest rates and collapsed wool prices, the drought has engulfed parts of three states in eastern Australia, covering a region 10 times the size of Britain. It has not rained properly since 1989.

Nowhere is the devastation as bad as in the north-west corner of New South Wales, a state where three-quarters of the farm land is drought-stricken. The land here is flat and semi-arid, the dead heart of the Outback. It allows farmers such as Pat Smith and his wife Lynda to grow just one commodity: wool.

For almost a century, these farming families were Australia's unofficial aristocrats, a status achieved through wealth from wool, which made them the bedrock of the country's economy and turned Australia into the world's biggest producer and exporter of raw wool. In less than a decade they have become the country's new poor.

Unable to diversify into wheat, cotton and other commodities, like farmers in Australia's more temperate zones, they have become trapped in a cruel spiral. A recent survey disclosed an average debt on each farm in the western wool region of about pounds 200,000. More than 30 per cent of farmers are expected to be forced off their land by the end of the decade.

The Smiths normally run 6,000 sheep on Glenhope, their station (or ranch) near the mining town of White Cliffs. After three years of barely any rain, and with the ground baked hard by scorching temperatures, half of the sheep have died. Of the 600 lambs born last February, only 100 have survived. Many farmers have lost 90 per cent of their flocks. In normal circumstances they would be shearing around now and turning their sheep out on to late winter pastures. Instead, they sit at home stunned and bewildered.

'Many feel embarrassed and ashamed,' said Ted Davies, a neighbour of the Smiths in a land where properties are typically 100,000 acres and the people next door could be 100 miles away. 'They've never been in this situation before. It's too heartbreaking for a lot of them to talk about. Their pride has been devastated. They've gone down their holes and pulled the covers shut.'

Mr Davies, himself facing a crisis, lives near Wilcannia, a town of fine sandstone buildings constructed during its heyday as a port on the Darling River, from which wool was shipped to the world. Now the town's population is mostly unemployed.

The landscape along the dusty roads north of Wilcannia is bare earth, twisted dead wood and vast stretches of red dust flecked with white, the bleached bones of sheep. Last week there was a sudden downpour of rain which raised hopes, then dashed them again.

Thousands of sheep, already weakened, died from exposure to the rain. Green shoots appeared, but were quickly obliterated by a seven-hour dust storm blowing in from drought-parched zones further west.

Les le Lievre, a third generation Australian who farms near the Darling River town of Louth, has lost 11,500 sheep out of a flock of 14,000. He says another 130,000 sheep have perished within an 80- mile radius of his property.

Some farmers have shot their sheep to put them out of their misery, but Mr le Lievre couldn't bring himself to kill his own animals. 'Forget about depressed wool prices,' he said. 'What's the use of any price when you're left with no sheep?'

The prolonged despair has taken its toll on the rugged individualist spirit of the outback. Mr le Lievre's wife, Pat, has joined with other women to organise a confidential telephone hotline to Sydney, 500 miles away, so country women can talk to counsellors about the traumas of keeping their shattered families together. 'I've seen emotional depletion of people out here,' she said. 'They're in grief.'

The high spot of the year for the people of Louth, the August races, had to be cancelled last week, ironically because of the downpour. Other country institutions are simply withering away. At Tilpa, a typical Outback settlement consisting of a pub, a school and a petrol station, the local cricket team has been disbanded, because outlying farming families who supported it have left.

It is doubtful whether great swathes of this land will ever return to farming. Since the First World War, governments encouraged 'closer settlement' in western New South Wales, breaking up huge holdings, some the size of small European states, to cram more farms and more sheep into what was at best marginal land. Even the handful of farmers who are not crippled by debt will take years to rebuild their flocks. The 600 families who are expected to depart over the next few years will leave behind them land that has been almost farmed out of existence.

(Photograph omitted)

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