Farming

| 15.1°C Dublin

'Several fires are completely out of control - Three farmers Down Under tell us how they have managed with the bushfires


Close

Blaze: Firefighters tackle one of the massive bush fires engulfing New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Ingleside Rural Fire Brigade via AP

Blaze: Firefighters tackle one of the massive bush fires engulfing New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Ingleside Rural Fire Brigade via AP

Blaze: Firefighters tackle one of the massive bush fires engulfing New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Ingleside Rural Fire Brigade via AP

Over two months ago Donnchadh Brown installed sprinklers at his farm near Yass in New South Wales, such was his concern over the bush fires.

"With such little rain we knew these were coming down the line so we have to be prepared if they get here at any time," said the Waterford man, who hunts the hounds of the Sydney Hunt Club and lives with his Australian-born wife Emma some three hours south of Sydney.

"We currently have fires south, south-east and north of us, without being on top of us, but some are moving at 10 kilometres an hour so if the winds change, the situation is likely to change.

"I've put in sprinklers in all the horse barns, and in the kennels where I keep about 45 hounds.

Transported

"If the fires do spread closer to us I have a plan in place. We can move the horses to paddocks where there are no trees, and the hounds will be transported to Melbourne, which is a seven-hour drive away."

By last Friday the fires had spread throughout the east coast of New South Wales, with over 160 active fires being recorded at one stage.

Close

Devastating: The remains of some of the cattle pens destroyed by fire on the family-run Wybalena Farm in New South Wales where Sean Keating works as a farm hand

Devastating: The remains of some of the cattle pens destroyed by fire on the family-run Wybalena Farm in New South Wales where Sean Keating works as a farm hand

Devastating: The remains of some of the cattle pens destroyed by fire on the family-run Wybalena Farm in New South Wales where Sean Keating works as a farm hand

"One fire alone has burnt two million hectares and some are less than two hours' drive from us. Several are completely out of control with flames five metres high," said Donnchadh, 43, from Tallow.

He said that, in some cases, the embers are three kilometres ahead of the fires and this is causing them to spread even further, with many fires capable of jumping the highways.

With another five weeks left in the Australian summer, he believes the worst is yet to come.

"Last Friday it was 42 degrees and winds were up to 50km/h. It is so dry, and without rain it can only get worse. We are due a few showers, but it's not enough. We haven't had proper rainfall here in 11 months."

Last week Donnchadh was involved in helping a friend move horses that were very close to the fires.

"They were two hours north of here and the fires were only four kilometres from them, so I had to leave here in a rush with the lorry to get them out," he said.

"There were so many road detours, but thankfully we got them out safely."

The hunt operates between March and September, and getting horses and hounds fit ahead of the season is a major problem.

Close

A few flames remain after a wildfire destroyed a building in the Adelaide Hills, near Adelaide, Australia (AP/AAP Image, Russell Millard)

A few flames remain after a wildfire destroyed a building in the Adelaide Hills, near Adelaide, Australia (AP/AAP Image, Russell Millard)

A few flames remain after a wildfire destroyed a building in the Adelaide Hills, near Adelaide, Australia (AP/AAP Image, Russell Millard)

"The smoke is so bad the hounds are getting sore eyes and throats. We've also had to stop riding horses as I don't want them coughing, so this is bound to delay everything," Donnchadh said.

Animal feed is also being affected by the fires.

"The grass is burnt with the dry weather so we've had to buy in hay already, which is so early," he said. "It's costing me about AUS$18 (€11) a square bale and $220 (€136) for a round bale which will work out very expensive as I will probably use 100 round bales for the season."

The hunt has about 50 members and runs various riding clinics to supplement its income to maintain the kennels, stables and hunt staff.

'I had never even held a gun... I simply apologised to Glenda, and squeezed the trigger'

I had never held a gun before but after three days of hell, I had to put down livestock for the first time, writes Laura Thomson.

Farming Newsletter

Get the latest farming news and advice every Tuesday and Thursday.

This field is required

Here in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia, I knew this fire season would be as bad as they come. Bone-dry conditions meant that paddocks and bushland are nothing but tinderboxes waiting for a spark or a discarded cigarette - but in the case of the Cudlee Creek fires, a gumtree was the culprit.

A catastrophic day meant temperatures pushed upwards of 40 degrees, with winds that would dry out your eyes the moment you stepped out the door. The heat stress from this day proved to be too much for one of the ancient gums, and it dropped a limb onto nearby powerlines, sparking a nightmare fire that soon reached an uncontrollable level.

The first SMS message I received from the CFS (Country Fire Service) wasn't a warning - it told everyone in the area that it was too late to leave, as conditions meant there was no hope of containing it.

I was out working in the wineries when we were told to leave and get to safety. Roads were closed almost immediately, so farmers couldn't get in to get to their stock to move them to safer paddocks.

Horrified residents littered the main roads, only able to watch and wait with police refusing to let people in due to the impending danger.

Though a safe 13km away, in Hahndorf, my own hobby farm was thrown into chaos, but a change in wind direction meant we would be safe.

My farrier called me early the next day, asking for help to put down livestock. Those that survived the blaze were left with horrific burns and smoke inhalation. Or worse, some had panicked and gone straight through fences.

The vets were busy saving those who could live, and as the hours passed landowners didn't want their animals to suffer further.

The first animal, Glenda, was a beautiful Murray Grey cow who had been burnt so badly she couldn't see. I had no idea that an animal could make such a morbid noise, a grunt of sorts to say that they were in tremendous pain and were afraid of what was coming.

The family kissed and cuddled her goodbye, and a towel was placed over her face. We told the kids to leave, and once they were out of sight. I simply apologised to Glenda and squeezed the trigger.

Glenda was one of 30 animals I put down in a matter of hours, and I apologised to every single one of them.

'The smoke is so bad you can't see 100 metres'

Ten cattle and over 500 acres have been lost so far at Wybalena Farm in New South Wales where Wexford man Sean Keating is based - and he says the situation is likely to worsen.

"We've had absolutely no rain at all and the winds are picking up again. They are up to 80km/h at times," said the 23-year-old, a qualified butcher who is working as a farm hand for a few months as part of his visa application.

The family-run farm is set on 20,000 acres and keeps upwards of 6,000 pedigree home-bred Aberdeen Angus. It is 384km north-east of Melbourne and 492km south-west of Sydney. Sean, who comes from a small farm in Bannow, is tasked with tagging, castrating and drenching all the calves that were born last August.

In the past week he has had to deal with animals which suffered horrific burns. "It was awful - they couldn't walk so we had to put them down on the spot."

The cattle which perished were on land off the main farm, and those that survived were brought back to the main property. Mega-blaze Sean says one fire approximately 15km away has burnt over 1.5 million hectares - two fires merged to form a 'mega-blaze' four times the size of London.

"The winds are blowing to the south but if they change to the east it could come towards us. At times the smoke is so bad you could not see 100 metres in front of you.

"The ground is drying rapidly and there is a constant risk of new fires. The worst of the fires are in forests."

With such little grass, cattle are being fed on oil seed rape and other fodder, with bullocks on 80pc grain. Should the fires get closer, there is an evacuation plan.

"We all have walkie talkies to keep in contact with one another. I will be here only for another few weeks, but we could be evacuated at any time before that," he said.

Following his stint at the farm Sean intends to return to Sydney, where he spent Christmas on Bondi Beach with some Irish friends. "That was very different, so I hope to head back there and get some work in fabrication, for which I am also qualified," he said.

Please register or log in with Independent.ie for free access to this article

Already have an account?


Most Watched





Privacy