The Daily Telegraph
Last crack of the whip for the drovers
Australia’s dwindling cowboys seek changes in law to stop historic cattle tracks becoming farmland
WIELDING her stockman’s whip from atop a horse in the outback, Kylie McElligott nimbly hustles some cows into line but admits she still has much to learn in the Australian art of droving.
The 24-year-old, who grew up on a ranch in Oregon, hopes to pick up the trade, which involves steering cattle – or occasionally sheep – for vast distances across the country.
Riding Jasmine, Ms McElligott said she was discovering how to handle both the whip and the horses, which are more lively than those in the US.
“It’s so nice to be on horseback every day,” she said. “You get to know the cattle. There are leaders who come up close and others that are shy or curious.”
Asked if she enjoyed the work, she looked across at the dusty track filled with rows of cattle and said: “I’ve fallen in love.” There are now just a handful of professional drovers remaining in Australia and their future is uncertain.
In recent decades, as the hiring of drovers dwindled due to the use of trains and trucks, swathes of stock routes have been lost, either sold off or leased to farmers ers for private grazing.
Ms McElligott ott has been at the side of Bill Little, a 59-year-old 9-year-old who is one of the last drovers rs and is trying to pass on his skills to o a new generation.
With his spurs,purs, high boots, Stetson-style hat and nd long-legged frame, Mr Little comes mes well-equipped for his occupation. n. From atop his horse while steering g 1,500 beef cows worth £900,000000 across Queensland, he said he e did not miss people, but could do without the snakes, mosquitoes and nd saddle sores.
He planned to keep droving, he said, despite espite a lingering ankle injury. “I grewrew up on a cattle ttle station – I could uld ride before I could walk,” he said. “It’s a pretty good od life. I run my own show.” On his trips, which can last up to seven months, Mr Little is accompanied by several “ringers” as well as extra horses and a pack of cattle dogs. The father of two young children admitted that it was an unusual life and “not not for everyone”.everyone . Yes, he said, there were hazards, but there were rewards such as occasionally slaughtering a stray cow – a “drover’s kill” – which provides fresh meat. It is a profession that started in the 1830s and – due to the nation’s vast interior – became known for its arduous treks between remote inland stations. It has featured in everything from the film Australia, starring Nicole Kidman, to well-known bush poems.
But the profession is under threat from plans that could open up the vast network of stock routes to grazing and leave them without feed.
Queensland has Australia’s last fullyfu functioning historic stock route, whichwh stretches 45,000 miles and covers 2.6 million hectares. Drovers pay a feefe to use the track – 2 cents (1.2p) per k kilometre (0.6 miles) for each 20 hea head of cattle – and must travel at leastl six miles a day, to keep up grassg supplies.
But the state governmen government is considering handing gre greater control of the route to locall councils, which drovers fear will affect their access. The change follows calls by farmfa ers who say many routes h have not been used for 50 years and should be used for general grazing. But such a move could dry the track ofo its grass and make it useless as a route for herding large numbers of cattle.
Mr Little believes the laws shoul should be changed to ensure that routes remainrem open and are not overgrazed. “For us, this is not about keeping an old pro profes- sion alive,” he said. “It’s about keeping our livelihood alive.”
Droving was thought to be a dying profession as road and rail services improved. In 1988, the country held its “last great cattle drive” – a 1,200-mile trek involving 1,200 head of cattle that was thought to be a symbolic send-off for the nation’s drovers.
But the profession survived, prompted partly by drought which made it cost-effective to move cattle to greener pastures. It also helped deal with an oversupply of cattle.
The drovers’ pleas have been supported by conservation groups who say the routes protect vegetation and provide safe corridors for native animals. The government says it is simplifying use of the route and will ensure “first priority is given to travelling stock”.
A parliamentary committee found this month that the law was flawed and should be redrafted and based on greater consultation. A spokeswoman told The Telegraph the government was considering the committee’s report.
Tightening his horse’s reins as he led the cows to a creek, Mr Little nodded towards the route and said: “This is not my land. It’s your land, it’s our land, it’s everybody’s land.”