Sheepwrecked in Tasmania

I was driving in Tasmania’s Central Highlands a short time ago when, upon rounding a bend, I found myself adrift on a great sea of sheep.

sheep wreckedOn my way to, and already slightly late for, a work appointment, I inched my way through a largish mob of the woolly critters, before encountering another flock a couple of kilometres along the road.  The fellas who were pushing them along informed me that this was mob of 2000 wethers, and that there were 5000 ewes up ahead.

I quite like sheep. I grew up on a small sheep farm, and raised orphan lambs on the bottle.  Sometimes, we’d have so many of them, you’d have to hold a bottle of milk in each hand, as well as one between your knees.  My family were not primarily sheep farmers – we were too soft – and the sheep were kept partially as pets, and partially as “the town fire brigade”. With scant regard for our tumble-down fencing, they grazed an area of lightly forested white gum woodland, with a few blue gums and white peppermints sprinkled into the mix.  Our top gully paddock had quite a nice patch of native grassland, dominated by wallaby grasses, which the nibbling sheep kept in quite good nick – the same could not be said for the woodlands.

But sheep are not always the relatively benign, fluffy force I originally considered them to be. I recently finished reading George Monbiot’s excellent Feral, where he looks at the emerging field of rewilding, and the inspiration it can provide us for positive change within already unstable, damaged ecosystems.

Within this book, there is a disturbing chapter, entitled Sheepwrecked, which looks at the damage done by sheep to the UK environment. Outside of the physical damage itself, which shocks no-one working in the field of environmental management, what I found most unsettling was that there are European Commission-sponsored payments which actively deter farmers from allowing their land to regenerate.

While no farmer in their right mind will actively destroy their land and associated livelihood, the effects of compliance with the ‘Good Agricultural and Environmental Condition’ code effectively asks them to do just that.   This is the law by which farmers must abide if they wish to receive some of the rather generous agricultural subsidies afforded to them by the European community. The Code specifically tasks landholders with “avoiding the encroachment of unwanted vegetation on agricultural land” – this applies even to marginal upland areas, where trees would act to slow flooding, and also provide useful habitat for wildlife in an area otherwise largely unsuitable for grazing.  The legislation even has something known as the ‘fifty trees’ guideline, where pastures containing more than fifty trees per hectare are ineligible for farming grants.     Monbiot further notes that

In Germany, pastures are disqualified from subsidies by the presence of small areas of reeds. In Bulgaria, the existence of a single stem of dog rose has rendered land ineligible.  In Scotland farmers have been told that yellow flag irises, which for centuries have gilded the field of the west coast, could be classed as ‘encroaching vegetation’, invalidating their subsidy claims. The government of Northern Ireland has been fined £64 million for (among other such offences) giving subsidy money to farms whose traditional hedgerows are too wide. The effect of these rules has been to promote the frenzied clearance of habitats.  The system could scarcely have been better designed to ensure that farmers seek out the remaining corners of land where wildlife still resides, and destroy them.

At this point, I had to stop reading to cover my face with the opened book, whilst making strangled groaning noises.

There are plenty of excellent, profitable sheep-farming properties in Tasmania, managed by people who care about their animals and their land.  Many of these people work in the Landcare movement, and they volunteer their time and knowledge to assist others in their on-farm management planning.   These people run properties that they are proud to show off, and which other landholders visit to learn from.

However, there are also quite a few sheep grazing properties which are absolute shockers.  One property in particular, which I drive past quite often, even in the best of seasons seems at best a moon-scape, periodically pocked by rabbit holes, the skeletons of cabbage gums, and populated by dirt-coloured sheep who appear to subsist on dust.  If you treated a dog like that, you’d be in court.   But somehow, this broad-scale land abuse continues largely unchecked.   I appreciate the role of the carrot in changing behaviors.  But too often, there seem to be plenty of carrots, but nary a stick to be seen.

In 1992, Scottish-Aboriginal artist Lin Onus painted “And On the Eighth Day…”,  a sweeping aerial vista of an outback landscape at the time of European arrival in Australia.  Europe is represented by two female angels, draped in English flags, swooping over the landscape, holding a bible, a gun, and a bottle of toilet cleaner in their hands. One of the angels clutches a roll of barbed wire and a young sheep to her breast.  Despite the lamb’s fleecy innocence, Onus is in no doubt that it has proven just as destructive to the land and indigenous people as all of the angels’ other, more apparently hazardous, accessories.

"And on the Eighth Day..." Lin Onus, 1992

“And on the Eighth Day…” Lin Onus, 1992

All told, I drove past 20, 000 sheep that day.  Actually, there were only about 8000 of them on the road in total; due to some sketchy directions and minor geographical embarrassment, I had to back track through the second and third mobs twice.      As I crawled along through the woolly masses, getting later by the minute, I thought back to Monbiot’s book and the section on legislation that encourages land abuse, and I wondered – do we have those kinds of laws here?

Then I remembered the roar of bulldozers in Queensland when it was announced that the incoming Vegetation Management Act would require landholders to obtain permits to clear native forests and woodlands.  In a classic case of what environmental managers euphemistically call a “perverse outcome”, the looming threat of the new legislation cleared the way for panicked landholders to go out and drag chains through their remnant vegetation, just in case the incoming Act prevented them from doing so once it was enacted.

In the Tasmanian media, there’s been no shortage bellyaching about green tape strangling our agricultural industries.  Even if this were so, the alleged plethora of green tape doesn’t appear to have done a lot to stop some of our best agricultural land from going under plantations, or from blowing out to sea.  Until we can find a way to make regenerative agricultural practices the norm, rather than the exception, the ensuing sheepwreck will only be the beginning of our landscape crises.


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