Inside the island farm running cattle and sheep on swampland

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Mundoo Island Station, the last property on the Murray-Darling river system, is a place like no other in Australia.

A working beef cattle property, the 4,000-hectare station spans several islands, bordered by both fresh river water and salt water.

It is also home to three of the five barrages at this end of the river — concrete and steel barriers through which fresh water passes, mixing with the saltwater of the Coorong before flowing out to the Southern Ocean via the Murray’s mouth.

An historic landscape

Established seven years after the colony of South Australia was proclaimed, five generations of the Grundy family has farmed here.

“Mundoo Island is our main island; we farm on Hindmarsh Island, Long Island, Ewe Island and some other smaller islands scattered in among that,” owner Colin Grundy said.

“So [we’re] just farming islands really, flat swampy land.

“It’s very similar to farming any paddock … except just completely different.”

This is where the 2,500-kilometre Murray River finally meets the sea, a place of great significance to the Ngarrindjeri people.

It borders the internationally recognised Coorong wetlands and would be forever changed if calls from some irrigators upstream were heeded.

In December last year, a group of mostly New South Wales farmers, fuelled by the desperation of drought and low river flows in the northern reaches of the river, rallied at Parliament House in Canberra.

They demanded a new lock be established downstream from Blanchetown in South Australia to withhold the river for irrigators.

It would mean the barrages would have to be removed to allow seawater to replace the fresh water flowing into the shallow Lower Lakes, Coorong wetlands and farming properties such as Mundoo Island Station.

“It would spell the end of farming here, of course,” Mr Grundy said.

“The problem we have is that when people see the water going past their front gate, they feel entitled to it,” said Sally Grundy, who co-manages the property with husband Colin.

“Every river needs to flow from the top to its mouth, where it exits out to sea.

“If you don’t have a river flowing, you don’t have a healthy system and without a healthy system you don’t have the ability for all these farmers and towns to rely on the river.”

The Grundys farm around 300 black Angus cattle, a few hundred Dorper meat sheep and a herd of wild horses — a legacy of previous generations.

In late spring, they move pregnant cattle from the drying pastures on slightly higher ground across swamps and waterways to island wetlands to graze on fresh green feed, sometimes neck-deep in water, as they seek out aquatic plants.

“Angus do the best in this country, they are just tough little nuggets,” Mr Grundy said.

After giving birth, the cattle are returned to the drier country pastures for winter and the weaned calves sent to market.

Making do in an isolated location

Cattle weren’t always the mainstay at Mundoo Island Station.

When Mr Grundy’s ancestors ran the place, wool was the main commodity and was transported along with sheep around the islands by barges, boats and paddle steamers.

The barrages built between 1915 and the 1930s were a game-changer.

They allowed for the salt and fresh water to be separated and provided a roadway for trucks and other vehicles.

Wool could get to market in a day instead of weeks by boat.

When liver fluke disease swept down the river in the 1950s and affected sheep flocks, the Grundy family turned to cattle, silencing the old stone shearing sheds.

Today, the rusty shearing combs, tins of lubricating oil and the wooden wool press remain exactly as they were.

Living on isolated islands with a philosophy of making do and recycling, generations of Grundys haven’t been keen on throwing things out.

The cattle yards bolted together from fallen timber, parts of old vehicles, decking from a 1940s barrage and even the bulkhead of an old paddle steamer are the most obvious examples of a desire to not waste a thing.

“Grab whatever you can and hope it holds, is how I look at it,” Mr Grundy said.

Their 16-year-old son Jack, with a love of technology, especially drones, might have different ideas and that’s OK with his parents, who say when he takes over he will need to do things his way.

“There were things I did my dad didn’t like,” said Mr Grundy, who started running the station in his twenties and couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

“But he wants bloody sheep!”

Watch this story on ABC TV’s Landline this Sunday at 12:30pm or on iView.