Economic boom times for outback Qld on sheep’s back

Wire and steel fence posts are proving to be the economic backbone for Central Western Queensland, creating employment and manufacturing opportunities, and stabilising population decline.

A dedicated effort by the Central Western Queensland Remote Area Planning and Development Board (RAPAD) and landholders has resulted in 2.2 million hectares protected from wild dogs by barrier fencing over the past six years.

The cost of fencing has been offset by the long-term community benefits of job creation, improved landholder wellbeing, increased wool production and property investment, economic boost for ag service providers and stemmed population decline in the Central West.

Predator proof exclusion fencing has revived the regional sheep flock in the shires of Barcaldine, Blackall-Tambo, Longreach, Winton and Barcoo, growing an estimated 45.7 per cent in 2015-16 to 2018-19.

This compares with the statewide sheep flock, which grew by 15.8 per cent over the same period.

After four rounds of combined federal and state government funding under the Queensland Feral Pest Initiative (QFPI) in the region there is now:

  • 41 fencing clusters
  • 168 landholders involved
  • 4020km of fencing (at an average of $10,351/km)
  • 2.257 million ha fenced

An evaluation by consultants Hall Chadwick has revealed sheep numbers in the region have grown by 727,000 and cattle by 57,000, with a corresponding increase in regional gross margin by $28 million.

This has in turn generated 140 jobs in agriculture, and a total regional economic benefit of $33.55 million.

The QFPI contributed $11.8 million in funding and was matched by landholder funding of $29.7 million. The return on the government money is $2.38 for every $1 of funding.

Applications are now being processed for a fifth round worth $2.2 million in QFPI funding for Barcaldine, Longreach, Blackall-Tambo, Winton and Barcoo Shires.

RAPAD aims to increase fencing to 15,000km and the protected area to 10 million ha.

RAPAD senior regional development manager Morgan Gronold said the cluster fencing initiative was developed by sheep producers to protect the region’s sheep and wool industry, with support from regional councils driving the process to control population decline and boost regional economies in western Queensland townships.

“The producers looked at a couple of fencing models including a check fence model or a big circle around five shires, through to the present unregulated cluster fence model based on a volunteer program,” Mr Gronold said.

This model was developed by the local producers with assistance from industry and National Wild Dog Management Coordinator Greg Mifsud, and formed the basis for the state government’s Feral Pest Initiative fencing guidelines.

“The cluster fence model provides control of your finances, time, mental health and wellbeing,” Mr Gronold said.

He said cluster fencing gave people something to focus on and deliver during drought.

“Every funding round has been oversubscribed and for the first time we are seeing different rates of agistment (behind or not behind fences), and investors from NSW buying properties behind wire.”

He said there were instances of properties destocking their sheep flocks due to wild dogs and now rebuilding flocks following the erection of feral proof fencing.

The value of wool, sheep and lamb meat from the region rose by 21 per cent during 2015-2019, with wool more than doubling in value over the period (up by 118 per cent).

RAPAD and Australian Wool Innovation have run shearer and wool handling schools to boost skills and fill job vacancies in tandem with the flock expansion.

The model has been overseen by an independent assessment panel including National Wild Dog Management Coordinator Greg Mifsud and AgForce Queensland State Wild Dog Coordinator Brett Carlsson.

“The increase in wool sheep within the shires associated with RAPAD and those further to the south is generating confidence in the region to develop additional infrastructure and businesses to service the sheep and wool industry,” Mr Gronold said.

“The proposed Blackall Wool Handling and Receival Facility was a perfect example of the types of projects being planned for the region.

 “We can’t regulate when people will bring back wool sheep given current markets and seasonal conditions, so it’s really about giving people the opportunity to get back into small stock or diversify with a split between cattle and sheep.

“It has certainly helped build momentum and the case for manufacturing to occur in Australia again.

“We need long term diversified economies – (the fencing) has provided a base otherwise if people keep chasing wild dogs then the rest of the business suffers at the end of the day.

“Arguably it is the biggest infrastructure project we have ever seen out here.”

Blackall-Tambo Regional Council Mayor Andrew Martin said the first entirely Blackall shearing team had returned to the area on the back of increased sheep numbers after 15 years.

Mr Martin said the region had suffered a 75 per cent drop in sheep numbers.

“There used to be six to eight teams operating out of Blackall and two to three out of Tambo in the past,” he said.

With the state’s wool production expected to increase by 10 million kg out of the region, the Blackall-Tambo Regional Council commissioned a feasibility study on the Blackall Wool Handling and Receival Facility to value add fibre-to-fabric.

The proposed $198 million facility will carry out scouring and carbonizing, top making, and yarn spinning and dyeing.

During operations, the facility is estimated to generate $116.3 million in gross regional product a year, 812 direct and indirect jobs and pay a total of $44.1 million in wages a year.

Queensland Wool Processors are now interested in developing the end-to-end processing facility.

As an advisor on the project, Mr Martin said an internal rate of return of 12 per cent was forecasted for the mill.

“There is a better return to the community in sheep as every $1 a wool grower makes creates $6 (in the supply chain).

“I can see upwards of one million sheep in this area in the next five years given when the seasons turn.”

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