Diamantina shire mayor Geoff Morton has controversially described some of the landholders taking part in government-subsidised cluster fencing schemes as “morally bankrupt” for signing up with no intention of stocking their country with sheep.
Writing in his monthly Desert Yarns column, Cr Morton said he was disappointed to discover that people had banded together to source government funds to help build a wild dog-proof fence, but were not intending to run sheep.
“These people are wasting scarce government funds that are needed to achieve the objectives of returning economic prosperity to western Queensland,” he said.
Speaking to the Queensland Country Life, he said it was a sore point.
“This scheme isn’t just about looking after some poor bugger’s boundary fence but to stimulate the economy, and that won’t happen until sheep return in numbers similar to what they were,” he said.
While refusing to divulge names, Cr Morton said people south of Longreach had openly told him they’d never run sheep and they never would.
He said it was most likely they were participating to improve boundary fencing in an effort to decrease kangaroo pressure on their country.
Responding to the allegation, Agriculture Minister Bill Byrne agreed that the primary point of the Queensland Feral Pest Initiative was to encourage a resurgence of sheep and wool.
“The possibility described by Mayor Morton is not entirely consistent with the broad intentions of the Queensland government,” he said.
“While some mixed grazing properties may benefit, the emphasis overwhelmingly is for sheep.
“I am seeking advice on this issue from my department and I have spoken at length with Mayor Morton.”
While Mr Byrne had been told Cr Morton would be speaking to wild dog commissioner Vaughan Johnson at the Betoota Races, fellow commissioner Mark O’Brien said the funding had made beneficiaries viable no matter which enterprise they were in.
“We have a big preference for going back into wool sheep...but we never said you had to,” he said. “People might struggle to buy sheep at the moment. What are we going to do after two years and they haven’t put sheep on – are we going to take their money away.”
As the instigator of the Collaborative Area Management scheme using exclusion fencing to manage total grazing pressure, Mr O’Brien recalled a meeting at Mungallala six years ago, when none of the 40 graziers present expected to go back into sheep if they participated in the scheme.
“What they said was, it gives them the flexibility to have sheep, goats, whatever.
“I want everyone to go back into wool sheep but if a few go into goats or Dorpers, it’s still of value.
“The way it was, we were all going to shut down in five years – it’s not like that now.”
Mr O’Brien said there had been clear direction from the government to preference funding applications from shires delineated as sheep-producing, which had been taken into account in handing out money.
‘More stringent guidelines’
Cr Morton called for more stringent guidelines to be implemented.
“There needs to be a benchmark,” he said. “Using, say, 1975, if a property ran 40,000 sheep, I think they should get back to 30,000 within three years to qualify for money.”
Cr Morton said he fully intended to take the issue to the next Remote Area Planning and Development Board meeting, saying said he was one of the directors who was supposed to be administering the roll-out of funds.
RAPAD chairman Rob Chandler called on Cr Morton to substantiate his claims.
At the same time, he said that while covenants could be placed on the money, it didn’t matter if people ran sheep or cattle or goats securely behind wire.
“Either way, people are more productive with a fence,” he said.
He agreed that applicants had to say how many sheep they would run when lodging their forms.
“The selection criteria is predominantly for people to go back into sheep – they have to say what they could possibly achieve,” he said.
“Everyone that I know that is putting their own cash behind fences is 100 per cent genuine in their attempt to get sheep and wool production back on properties.
“If market forces don’t allow them, the fence will allow them to be productive in cattle in the short term.”
Minister Byrne said landholders were not just handed free money from the government.
“There is considerable scrutiny by the Queensland Feral Pest Initiative Oversight Group and the likes of RAPAD and South West NRM to ensure maximum economic benefit for the funds we are investing.
“These groups have been deliberately positioned to make informed decisions locally and I am advised that this is the case.”
He described the initiative as enabling “transformational change” in protecting stock from wild dogs.
More than 5000km of fencing has been erected to date, protecting nearly 300 properties.
A further 23 projects are due for completion over the next two or three years.
In places where sheep have returned and been joined, producers are reporting lambing rate increases from less than 20pc to more than 90pc.
The funding is estimated to be supporting an additional 213,000 sheep in the state flock, generating 45 full-time jobs.