Old stock routes revived but drover-grazier tensions emerge in competition for feed

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When Shaun Moffitt’s alarm goes off, morning has not yet broken. It is 4:30am and still dark when he, his fiancée Lotte Albertsen, and their staff start feeding and watering their horses and dogs.

Droving key points

Key points:

  • Drovers are using old stock routes to “keep cattle alive” in the drought
  • Some farmers are not aware the unmarked stock routes exist, leading to tensions between drovers and some graziers
  • One local council is warning graziers they — like the drovers — must apply for a permit to use ‘the long paddock’

They have been on the road for almost six months, droving 700 head of cattle around the North Burnett region of Queensland, from Theodore to Gayndah and will soon head out to Monto.

“We’re doing 4 kilometres a day because we’ve got calves and cows that can’t travel that well,” Mr Moffitt said.

The cattle are from properties across drought-stricken Queensland and New South Wales, where the old practice of large cattle drives through ‘the long paddock’ has been revived in the search for feed.

Every road in Queensland is a stock route, and stock routes can also run through individual properties and through national parks.

But Mr Moffitt said drovers were not always welcome on stock routes that had not been used for decades, and finding feed had been made more difficult by unsupportive locals.

“We’re struggling to get food because the farmers — not all farmers but a lot of them — are putting their cattle out on the road and eating it before we can get there,” he said.

“Eating it to the ground actually.”

No country hospitality on show

The North Burnett Regional Council deputy mayor, Faye Whelan, said drovers had lodged complaints about the practice but no fines had been issued.

“Our officers have obviously gone and investigated,” she said.

“Either [they] found that they have removed the cattle or perhaps they have talked to them.”

The desperate need for feed is creating tension between drovers and some farmers along stock routes.

Drovers needed permits to use stock routes, and Ms Whelan said landholders also needed to apply for a permit to graze outside their property or they could face penalties.

It is not just feed that has been a challenge for the drovers; Mr Moffitt said water was also hard to come by.

“We can’t get water in most places,” he said.

“We’re travelling 50km to get water and 50km back and we go through 24,000 litres a day.”

Normally drovers would have access to reserves on the travelling stock routes (TSRs), but Mr Moffit said the camping, water and pasture facilities, controlled by the council, had not been available.

“TSRs are usually for travelling stock and because [the council] is renting them out or lending them to their mates we can’t put [livestock] in there and [the council] just don’t like using it,” he said.

But the council refutes that, saying staff have been working with droving teams as they move through the region.

Stock routes are rarely used during normal conditions, which AgForce Queensland policy specialist Lauren Hewitt said could lead to tension between landholders and drovers when they were recommissioned after long periods of disuse.

Ms Hewitt said because the routes were not used often, many landholders were unaware that their roads were part of the stock route network and many were not fenced or marked to differentiate them from private land.

“We’re talking about lots of routes which go through individual properties. Because of the size of that network, obviously it’s nothing you’re going to be able to fence.”

North Burnett Regional Council has investigated claims of unlawful grazing on stock routes.

Stock routes under review

The State Government is reviewing regulation around stock routes to determine whether they are still needed, if there should be more regulation, and how much to charge for permits.

The main change that AgForce is lobbying for is empowering local governments with more resources to manage stock routes.

“We believe if we raise the fees that is something akin to a more economical cost of agisting or grazing cattle,” Ms Hewitt said.

“Then we can generate that substantive revenue to go back into local governments, so they can actually manage them properly.”

She said, in future, councils could give landholders notice that drovers were coming when they issued permits to the drovers to relieve some of the tension.

Mr Moffitt is not the only drover making use of the feed available in the region — a larger herd was already moving into the area.

He said locals were going to have to adjust to their arrival because as the drought worsens, more will come.

“Now the 1,400 head is coming towards us and we’ve got to go towards them so it’s not leaving much food for us either — but that’s the life of droving,” Mr Moffitt said.

Despite the tensions, many locals had been welcoming.

“A lot of nice people will bring you tea, coffee, dampers, cakes, offer to have showers at their place,” he said.