Disclaimer: All views stated here are my own and I do not speak on behalf of Wooleen Station. I have not received payment for promoting Wooleen Station or the ecological principles described below.
We had our first ever station stay at Wooleen Station recently and enjoyed it more than we could ever have hoped. We spent five days exploring the land, always returning to the homestead at the end of the day with a long list of questions for owners Frances and David who cultivated our curiosity. You can read more about our family adventures, camping, bird watching and searching for wildflowers at Wooleen here.
I had read a little about the station before we arrived but was blown away by the genuine and enthusiastic efforts to regenerate the land by station owners David and Frances.
Wooleen Station was founded in the 1880s, and has been sustaining livestock ever since. In the early days as many as 30,000 sheep roamed the station. The rangelands of Western Australia experience periodic droughts which can control the population growth of most grazing animals. However, the constant availability of water on the stations thanks to windmills and wells saved the stock. Without rain, however, the vegetation was dying. Without new vegetation growth, and with large numbers of sheep, the ecosystem fell out of equilibrium. The land began to degenerate and before long was unable to sustain the same numbers of livestock. This continued until recently when Wooleen Station diversified to focus on conservation and sustainable farming.
Regeneration of the land will take time, maybe many decades, but it is possible to see drastic improvements already. The area immediately outside the homestead fence – which was until recently bare from over grazing and trampling by herds mustered close to the settlement ready for transportation – is now scattered with small bushes and grasses.
Wooleen Lake, which only fills around once every nine years, is flourishing with grasses, growing over a foot tall. Standing at The Picnic Table, a large wooden table nestled in the shade of a large gum tree on the banks of the dry lake, you can look over the grass to see an profusion of small birds darting around the new growth. You can even find beautiful little orchids, and other native fauna, nestled in the regrowth.Before and after photos show how effective destocking can be. The 2004 image on the left shows the grass is sparse and restricted to small clusters; the 2009 view is of dense grass as far as the eye can see. Compare that to the next photo I took in September 2018 and you can see just how different it is and how much the vegetation has improved.
Roo population explosion
A few years back a large thunderstorm brought much water to the usually dry landscape. With a surge in grass growth and without an apex predator, the kangaroo population boomed. The sudden abundance of grass-feeders threatened the regeneration efforts and measures were taken to bring the numbers back down to normal levels.
The population of kangaroos was exploding, which was in turn contributing to the over-grazing of the land. Small species of birds, reptiles and small mammals were at low numbers; some were absent all together. The kangaroos required culling, the stock numbers were falling due to drought and lack of food, and the ecosystem was completely out of whack. As humans, we don’t have a great track record of responsible use of our natural resources.
David and Frances took the brave and radical step of encouraging dingos back to the station, a decision that upset some of the neighbours. This is where I learned something that baffled me at the time. You see, dingoes, a native dog to Australia, are not protected, and are in fact quite enthusiastically culled in Western Australia.
Wild Dogs in Australia, I had always assumed, were domesticated dogs that had escaped and returned to their instinctive wolf-life ways, roaming freely and hunting for their supper. It came as a surprise to me that the iconic Australian dingo, even purebred dingoes, are considered wild dogs and a pest in Western Australia and around the country.
The Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD), a department within the Government of Western Australia, describes wild dogs as “pure-bred dingoes, feral/escaped domestic dogs and their hybrids” and remarks on them being a major pest to grazing industries.
As a newcomer to this country, and someone who grew up with a quintessential view of this wild, far-off land, it seems absurd that this iconic animal, so prominent in our imagining of Australia, could be considered a pest. And yet, in rural Western Australia they are a risk to biosecurity.
The Biosecurity and Agriculture Management Act 2007 not only declares wild dogs (pure-bred dingoes, feral dogs and their hybrids) as pests, but holds landowners and occupiers responsible for their control. This gives landowners not only permission, but actively encourages them, to eradicate the native species from their land.
Further reading on the DPIRD web page reveals pure-bred dingoes to make up around 59% of the wild dog population – a far cry from the argument that they have been so extensively (coupled) with introduced European canines so as to be not ‘pure’ anymore anyway – and are responsible for up to $25 million of livestock losses a year. And herein lies the catch twenty-two: we need to farm livestock for food – for our own survival – and that industry needs to be financially viable.
Australia is a country with a very real and visible war on invasive species – a place where the very mention of a cane toad or feral cat rings foreboding. Western Australia has laws on keeping domestic cats and dogs, two invasive species that really have had an abysmal affect on the native fauna of Australia. Feral cats and red foxes may be two of the most prolific killers of Australian wildlife. I can certainly understand why removing these from the wild and placing restrictions on domestic pets is necessary. However, to understand why Western Australians are enthusiastically shooting dingoes, a native species, I needed more research.
From a small-stock (e.g. sheep) farmers’ perspective, the dingoes are a threat to their livestock and their livelihood. The dingoes are capable of killing many sheep, and are reported to not always be killing them for food. Although large stock, for example cows, can receive injuries from dingoes, it is rare that they are killed. For this reason, stations that run sheep and other small animals will need to continue to protect their stock. However, a balance may be found when running cattle. It is this balance that Wooleen Station are trying to meet.
Benefits of Dingoes
Some reports suggest that the presence of dingoes in an environment helps control the population of invasive species. At Wooleen Station, allowing the dingo population to naturally regrow has helped keep the native grass-feeding wildlife at more natural levels. Mother nature has an intuitive balance and we can perturb (disturb?) that if we remove the apex predator from the ecosystem. Frances and David made the decision to stop any dingo population control measures after the boom in kangaroos a few years back. Before this, most stations had ‘doggers’ whose job it was to hunt the wild dogs and drive them off the pastoral land. The dingo population at Wooleen has grown organically since and the ecosystem as a whole has recovered greatly.
Wooleen Station currently has a small stock of just over 120 cattle. This small number will hopefully provide stability for the land with grazing kept to a minimum and all native wildlife, including dingoes, coexisting in balance.
I applaud Frances and David for their approach to land regeneration, and for taking the brave steps to evolve the business of Wooleen Station. Ecotourism now comprises a large part of the station’s identity, with everything from hosted homestead stays and private guesthouses to bush camps available.
Responsible land use
This does leave me with one big question: if the pastoral land of Western Australia is degraded, and the most effective way to recover the land is to minimise stock size, or de-stock entirely, then where do we get our meat from? It feels hypocritical to witness the damage done to the land, applaud the efforts of the landowners, and then march back into the supermarket for cheap and convenient beef. I like to buy local produce wherever I can – but does this mean I am also championing the overuse of my local environment? What’s worse is just shipping the dirty side of agriculture overseas – out of sight, out of mind – something us westerners are so good at doing.
My solution is to look at how I can be a responsible consumer of meat. I will buy locally and from responsible producers, but to be mindful of quantity and how much protein I ‘need’ rather than how much I ‘want’.
The reality is that if we continue to overuse our land, we will degrade it to the point where it cannot sustain livestock at all, and then were will we be?
Restoring an ancient landscape
The problem runs deeper than declining stock numbers; the knock on effects of overgrazing run far and wide. Without the binding effect of vegetation root systems, the topsoil is vulnerable to erosion. Over-grazing leads to wind erosion of loose top soil, depleting the growing potential further. In addition, when the rains come, the absence of moisture-storing roots and shallower soil means less water drains away, and more runs over the surface, resulting in yet more erosion.
Vegetation and root systems also play a part in stabilising stream and river banks. Without the root lattice acting like an internal framework shoring-up the river banks, they are more easily eroded by flood waters. The intrepid residents of Wooleen Station have invented an ingenious solution to this too…
Introducing Envirolls: a tube of mesh laid across the channel of the river that will catch and hold passing river debris. The idea is that during times of flow, any branches travelling down the river get caught up in the Envirolls, over time building up to form little dams. These small current-interceptors would have happened naturally if there were sufficient vegetation around. After overgrazing and vegetation depletion, the river was able to flow without interruption, gaining speed and in turn energy.
A basic fundamental of fluvial geology is that the more energy a body of water has, the more material it can carry. A fast flowing river, for example, has a lot of energy and can carry large sediment, boulders, branches and so on. If it has sufficient energy it will even erode its banks and base, gaining material. As the river slows, say it transitions from a steep terrain to a flat floodplain, it loses energy and is not able to carry the larger material. This material is then deposited, leaving only the fine sediment being carried. If the energy drops further, say the inside of a meander where the water is moving very slowly, the water is not able to carry even the finest of sediments and they are deposited as silts and muds. This is why you can find erosion on the outside bend of a meander, and deposition on the inside – two different end-member scenarios in the same environment. It is by this method that rivers migrate across a landscape, and we are sometimes left with ponds and oxbow lakes as remnants of formerly flowing channels.
The uninterrupted Murchison River and smaller tributaries on Wooleen Station are flowing much faster today than they had before agriculture was established. By laying the Envirolls in the worst affected and most vulnerable parts of the river, the small dams created over time effectively slow the speed of the flow – i.e. lower the energy of the water – and reduce erosion.
As a geologist I have studied landscapes and landscaping processes, and we often hear of environmental projects on the news, however I found it both fascinating and humbling to see them all first hand. It is wonderful to see how the efforts of just one couple can have such a positive impact on the land in which they live.
Authentic outback experience
As a family we loved our time at Wooleen Station. From paddling in the Murchison River and admiring the wildflowers at Yewlands Pool, to bird watching from our tent, we had an incredible experience. We came away feeling like we’d had a truly authentic outback experience. On top of this, we gained a deeper appreciation of our impact on the land, and how each of us can play our part in preserving this planet. We didn’t expect to find such earnest conservation efforts way out in the middle of rural Western Australia. David and Frances are so genuine and enthusiastic about preserving their little slice of the Aussie Outback, and always seemed happy to answer our many questions (and even a few via messenger since we’ve returned home).