Where's the beef?
Meet our guests
Jim Mollison, Mirranie Barker, Jason Reberger
Host: As we manage the state's precious resources, we acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land and their connection to country.
Background voice over: The mob they're taking to Longreach will soon be on the move again. Another working day for Jack Jones, a boss drover in Queensland.
Host: Dating back 150 years and spanning 72,000 kilometres of our state. Our stock route network is a series of roadways and reserves used to move domestic livestock. It may look as simple as moving herds to greener pastures or transporting sheep or cattle. However, the efficient management of this network is equal parts important and complex.
Background voice over: To country, mostly harsh and seldom kind.
Host: Hi, I'm Rachell Hansen. And welcome to On the Ground a podcast brought to you by the Department of Resources that unearth the rich stories of our people showcasing how the work we do drives sustainable prosperity for Queensland! Joining us today is Jim, Mim and Jason.
Jim, Mim and Jason: Hi I'm Jim Mollison. My name is Mim, also known as Mirranie Barker. Hi, I'm Jason Reberger.
Host: While Jim and Mim are involved in the policy side of managing stock routes, Jason coordinates the physical management of stock routes out in the community. Let's take a trip down memory lane. What happened in the 1860s that prompted the start of stock routes?
Mim: It appears that the cost of meat was increasing due to monopolies. And so, to address this and to encourage competition, a number of the different states started actually dedicated routes to move stock. Stock routes also turned to follow the Aboriginal trading routes and songlines.
Host: If you've never heard of songlines, you can think of them as an Indigenous musical map of the country, they’re songs that tell stories about the landscape as well as contain vital information about the location of important landmarks like mountains or water holes.
Mim: Surveyors use Aboriginal peoples assistance in inverted commas to locate routes and water holes. So, some of the assistance was good. It was willingly given, but some was not. And there's some gruesome stories about how Aboriginal people were treated to try and find where the water was and where these routes were. When they introduced motorised vehicles. And as roads improved as well. The importance of the stock routes to move stock actually decreased, and the result is now only New South Wales and Queensland have roots actively to use to walk stock between destinations. Vast areas of those stock routes are still recognised because they contain a lot of cultural heritage, both Aboriginal and white heritage and also a lot of environmental values. They’re the last corridors left of certain vegetation types.
Host: So, who manages stock routes? And what's our role in this?
Jason: Stock routes are managed by local government. They are a state asset, and we have oversight of the work that local government is doing in that space. So our role is about managing the natural resources, it’s not about managing stock movements. So, I suppose what's important for people to be aware is stock routes are a public space, they just have a purpose primarily for stock reuse but they can be shared purpose. And they also have other secondary uses such as agistment in times of drought, where it assists landholders and there is enough feed available
Host: Agistment refers to the practise of allowing herds to graze on state owned pasture in exchange for a fee.
Jim: Where are the designated stock routes? So, there is a network of routes and reserves for the stock routes that covers about 72,000 kilometres of roads, about half a million hectares of reserves and in total that's around 2.6 million hectares. So it's a lot of the state. It's basically a big connected network north to south, east to west. So what that means is basically every stock route is basically on a road. But not every road is a stock route. So Northwest Queensland is up sort of near Julia Creek way down through Winton and Long Reach, Blackall, Tambo, Charleville, St George and Goondiwindi areas and Roma areas. Well, there is a very commonly use sort of network through there. I suppose that is often used for travelling stock to see sort of exactly where they all are. Anyone can log into Queensland globe and just look under the farming layer on Queensland globe, which, as you know, is that link on our website.
Host: What are the key challenges faced by stock routes?
Mim: Well, as you can see, there has been a change in the use of stock routes over time. Stock routes now is a highly contested area, so you have strong views and I mean very strong views that the stock routes are an outdated concept and people need to get rid of it. The land needs to be given to adjacent landholders or some other use needs to be found for the land whereas there's other stakeholders who have strong views that it needs to be kept. It's very valuable, especially in times of droughts. People still use them to travel stock. When you're in that type of highly contested space, it can be very difficult to get any change whatsoever. So one mechanism, we've got to get some agreement, the development and now the implementation of a state strategy. We reviewed the previous one.
And then we work with stakeholders from a very broad cross section and including local governments, industry representatives, conservation groups, drovers um, NRM groups, very broad, got them together to discuss the issues on stock route and how we're going to manage them. We also included all the departments are involved. There's a strong cross departmental focus on the management of stock routes. They all have active involvement in this, and they all have actual actions in the strategy. So, it's been a really good collaboration exercise and yeah, hopefully the implementation will get out some really good results.
Host: So, Jim, what is the environmental and economic value of having stock routes?
Jim: There's a lot of natural and remnant vegetation of stock routes which are important. Remnant vegetation is really vegetation that's potentially been there forever. But it's just that it's the natural state of the landscape if you like. And because the stock route is a network all over Queensland, there's also a lot of potential biodiversity corridors around the state as well that connect different landscapes. Now for economic value at probably the most important level they do provide an important support for Queensland's pastoral industry, the primary purpose of the stock route is for travelling stock between towns between regions all over the state, basically, but also to go to markets as well. Through our capital works programme, we provide a lot of support for local communities and businesses. So that programme basically helps to maintain and upgrade our stock route water facilities around the state.
So that money goes, is sort of managed through local governments who manage the process and eventually goes out to local businesses and the local communities to provide employment and work for those people out there as well through that avenue.
Host: Do we physically lay roads or pathways for the purposes of stock routes?
Jason: In modern times, we have this vision. As soon as we mentioned roads people think of a car or a truck driving down a road. And in fact, that's not really how we see roads in the stock routes space. A road is a corridor of land that's put aside for moving from Point A to point B and in a number of situations, there could be a formed road there, or there may not be any road, um, as an informed rate, it's just a strip of natural land, often for travelling stock.
Host: Back in 2014, Queensland saw one of the largest cattle drives in history, with 18,000 head of cattle moving along the stock route network from western Queensland to South Australia. The historic drive received a lot of media attention, including a feature story on 60 Minutes.
Excerpt from 60 minutes story: Against the big skies and empty vistas of the Outback, a Great Journey has been quietly unfolding, those droving legends who would risk everything to move their mob meandering marathon down old and forgotten stock routes.
Host: What's the benefit of moving stock on the hoof as opposed to putting them on a truck?
Jason: The value of wheel transport in modern times is you can have a very clear time of departure and a clear time of arrival, and it's very controlled. There are some downsides around it. There's potentially more damage to the stock. There's certainly more risk of stock deaths, and they are likely going to lose, or suffer some stress and lose some weight along the way. But they tend to recover fairly quickly because depending how long they're involved in the transport operation.
Now with travelling stock on the hoof, so using drovers and they'll move 2 to 4000 head or something a year, these are very large agricultural companies. They wouldn't be doing it if there wasn't an economic benefit. But there's logistical benefits to that come with the economic benefit. Effectively, if you're moving a mob of cattle from, say, Julia Creek to say somewhere near Roma, they're gonna be on the road for a while, depending on the condition of the stock route network, for the time they get from point A to point B, they're actually going to grow, and so they'll actually have higher value by the time they get to Roma. Similarly, from a logistical perspective for large operations where there's multiple properties in particular, they can actually work out a strategy where they might bring stock in on their property where they wanted to move cattle out of, they can then effectively, when people refer to the stock as the long paddock, they can effectively put them in the long paddock, take a mob out of their property situation, put them in a pattern while they're moving other stock around and making room while bringing new stock in to the property. So it's got those logistical benefits as well.
Host: Can you paint us a picture of what it's like to see a drover moving a large herd of cattle along the stock route?
Jason: Today, as we speak, there's a mob at Mitchell. In that mob, there's about 2,000 cows, and I think 1,600 cars with those cows. That's a pretty a fairly large mob. And they're currently, I think, in fact, they've just achieved it today. They've just moved past the Mitchell Township so they would have rocked up there yesterday on the western side of Mitchell to the water facility there. Watered their stock, they would have put like the electric fence out.
We call it a break to put the stock in overnight to contain them so they can have a fairly secure or sound night's sleep. Hopefully, no stock running away and causing havoc somewhere, and then they would have been up very early this morning, probably watered the stock again possibly, they have about to get them passed town about five stockman I believe today, working with the council officers in that particular situation because they literally have to move them through town. So making sure there’s people not interfering or getting in the way of blocking off streets, that sort of things, they can walk through town. And then we've gone down the bank of the river there and cross the river and out the other side. That would have been pretty much a full day's work for them. And just on the other side of town there's another facility called the umber facility there, and they'll water them there again, set up camp there near there tonight and head off down the stock route tomorrow and tomorrow they'll attempt that they'll be working towards doing their 10 kilometres.
Host: What are the types of animals that are moved along stock routes?
Jason: In this era, it's predominantly cattle. It can be sheep. We don't see many sheep in modern times. However, that could change because the government and landholders have come together and invested very heavily in wild dog fencing through those grazing areas. And the sheep numbers are rising. The other thing we're mindful of. We haven't seen any at this point, but it's possible there's a significant interest in goats because the value of goats is quite high and has been sustained for a while now. The good come out of that is, there's not too many feral goats in the landscape anymore because they're worth a lot of money. So a lot of land titles have actually harvested a lot of those feral goats. And are now farming them, we could see mobs of goats potentially being walked along the stock route.
Host: What do listeners need to know about stock routes? As a drover, as a landholder or a road user? Let's start with a drover.
Jason: So, a drover – usually they're fairly well informed. They know their business and particularly professional drovers, and there are a few still, that's all they do. Part time drivers, which are usually typically your stock owners. Don't use it from time to time and don't regularly use it. Probably look to more support from the local government ourselves around what they can and can't do. But typically, they're looking for an area of road that is sufficiently wide to allow them to safely move their stock along, particularly where it’s associated with wheeled transport. Um, they're looking obviously for enough feed to sustain their stock while they're on the road. Um, there's a requirement to move the stock at approximately 10 kilometres per day, and so they need to work around that, and they're obviously looking for what water is available to them. A good drover, as you can imagine. When you're dealing with thousands of heads on a narrow corridor, there's some things they need to consider around how the stock travelling around which stock are getting the best access to the feed because typically in a mob of cattle, for example, you'll get the same cows leading out. Well, they're going to get the best feed, and then you can be mindful of your, by the time you get to the number 1567 or something, there's been that many stock go past there, they’ve already picked up the best tucker so, and they'll actually turn the head back into the tail.
Keep moving them around so the stock that aren't getting access do have access to better feed. There was a trend a couple of years ago for drovers who want to go slower thinking they're getting better. More benefit, when in fact they probably don't because the slower the stock of travelling, the more of the rough it feed they're having to consume. Whereas they're walking along more, they get access to better feed, particularly, you've got to think about the mob behind you or what's coming from the other direction feeds left behind for them. So the local government fellas, um, are really good. They do what they can to assist as much as they can, but the responsibility lies on the drover and doing the job.
Host: And what about landholders?
Jason: One thing. I think the ag industry has become more, and certainly graziers and the learnings, we’ve become better educated. It's not just about managing the grass that's on top of the grounds, it’s managing the grass effectively that's under the ground, so the healthier grass is on top of the ground. The healthier root system is, it's got then a better capacity to recover, and then also access soil moisture at a deeper level - if it gets chewed too low than the root system lifts up and it can't get to that moisture, and everything suffers. So I believe that stock movements on the stock route network are beneficial to those areas of the stock route where there is controlled grazing.
Because we do see there is a compatibility between travelling stock movements where you've got, like I said, large head of the short-term impact, at the same time protecting the environment and creating corridors where species can actually move across the landscape, and particularly around ecological connectivity without the impacts of sustained or continued grazing pressure. Unfortunately, have a lot of situations where there's continued grazing, where there's access with from adjoining landholders with unfenced stock routes. With regard to other landholders, there is potentially a recreational use on the stock route network. Some local governments will promote that more than others, but certainly as you go west, it's a lot of grey nomads pulled up on the stock route, camping overnight that has some positives and some negatives. You know, the positive is that gets people out into the regions, and that's good for the regions. The negative is that hopefully they're well equipped and they don't get themselves lost and cause problems for people in the region. So it has pros and cons.
Host: And what about road users?
Jason: As a road user safety. It's an increasing problem. I don't have numbers, but probably the biggest damage that's done every year is deaths of drovers dogs. The biggest issues. People driving way too fast through mobs of cattle. The drover has a team of dogs. Obviously the dogs are travelling, doing their job and people travelling too fast. The dog might just shoot out across the road to block a beast, and they're cleaned up by the car or truck. And it's certainly something I've personally experienced in the presence of a drover's mob and seeing trucks in particular. But trucks and cars travelling way too fast. But in times of drought, so what we saw in 2019, the drought was probably the tight. There was cattle coming in from western areas were extraordinarily weak cattle people trying to save their breeding herds, and the cattle literally had physical trouble getting out of the way of some of the vehicles running through there. I would encourage anyone. They see a mob slow down. It's not something you see every day. Enjoy the experience and treat it like you would a school zone. Basically get down below your 40 kilometres an hour and take your time to get through them. That may seem like they're holding you up, but it's not that long.
Host: Moving stock on the hoof is a term used in the industry. What's it like to do this work and what's the best part of your job?
Jason: It's somewhat romantic, but with again with every good thing, there's bad that comes with it well as well. And not everyone's cut out to be a drover. There's a lot of flies and a lot of heat and a lot of wet and all that sort of stuff that goes with it. It takes a certain personality, I think, to continue doing that work. It takes a lot of skill to do it well, but the simplicity of it not getting caught up in the daily grind. All those things. We probably don't need to be worrying about more worried about the basics and what the weather's doing next and where they're going to get their next drink. That sort of thing.
Host: Thank you, Mim, Jim and Jason for sharing with us what it's like to manage stock routes and the role they play supporting livestock and remote communities. If you enjoyed the episode, be sure to leave us a review and help us grow our audience by inviting your friends and colleagues to subscribe to on the ground on your favourite podcast platform. Find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify and Deezer.
Each podcast episode is produced for educational purposes only. The views, information or opinions expressed during the podcast are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of the things in government.
Last reviewed: 28 March 2023