Heavy rain in remote Queensland brings hope of end to long drought

Just three weeks ago, shepherd Andrew Peterson was considering trucking the last cattle in his flock away from his dusty property in western Queensland.

The cattle station he runs in Blackal, about a 12-hour drive from Brisbane, has been drought for nearly a decade and there is no feed left to stock.

Then it rained.

“It was all very dry, so the rain is a godsend for all the livestock and society in general.”

Man checking rain gauge with grass in the background
The recent rain means Andrew Peterson has now foraged for the last stock in his flock.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

Peterson recorded 382 millimeters of rain – almost his entire annual average – in just a matter of weeks.

It has transformed property in the heart of the hinterland from brown dirt fields to lush green seas.

It raised hope that the great drought in the region would finally end.

“He’s not out of the woods yet.”

Large parts of western Queensland recorded some of the wettest months on record this year, with some properties receiving between 200-300mm in 24-hour intervals.

It’s a major shift in a region that has been largely drought-stricken since 2013.

Consistently good conditions have raised drought declarations in three major regions – including Flinders, Quilpie and Murweh.

green bush in red dirt
Large parts of western Queensland have recorded some of the wettest months on record this year.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

That means only 44.9 percent of the state has been officially declared dry — down from 61.1 percent this time last year.

While many are happy with the turn of events, others like livestock management consultant Desiree Jackson are more cautious.

“I don’t think we’re out of the woods,” she said.

Ms. Jackson has been on the ground for decades and said that while the deluge was a blessing for some, it may have come late in the season for others.

“It comes at a time that is usually after the end of the best season for growing our tropical herbs,” she said.

“While there seems to be a lot of great amounts on pastures, once the forage starts to dry up, I think that’s when people will assess the amount of forage that will carry them through to the end of the year.”

Woman in a blue checkered shirt standing at the fence
Livestock manager Desiree Jackson believes it will take more than a few good seasons to end the drought. (ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

She was cautiously optimistic, but thought it would take more than a few good seasons to put an end to the drought.

“We tend to put on our pink cups when we see a body of green forage, but there are a lot of species that don’t choose their grazing stock, especially after coming out of a long drought,” she said.

From brown to emerald green

It’s sunrise at Wendy Sheehan’s Quilpie home, her boots drenched in the mud as she carries hundreds of sheep to New South Wales in the pouring rain.

Three years ago, its pastures were cracked and barren dust bowls.

Aerial photograph of sheep on a red cracked landscape
Wendy Sheehan has experienced years of drought at her Quilpie property.(Supplied: Wendy Sheehan)

Now the dust has turned to mud and there is fodder being eaten by her stockpile.

More than 80mm of rain has been recorded on the fourth generation grassland property over the past several weeks.

She is now full of optimism.

A woman in a pink shirt stares into the distance
Sheehan says the decade-long drought was a “punishment”.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“The markets are probably the highest ever historically, and the costs are also high, but people fed on the pastures,” she said.

It is a massive change for the remote sheep and cattle station, which until recently was in the midst of a nine-year drought.

She’s been taking pictures of her property to document the big drying and said the transformation was amazing

“It started out very dusty and brown in color,” she said.

“Then you get that really emerald green color on the ground after it rains.”

Loading sheep in the grazing field on a truck
Wendy Sheehan’s cattle and sheep holdings have gone from doldrums to booming.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

The seasons have been pretty good, and Ms. Sheehan is confident enough to make a bold statement.

“Your season is as good as the next rain, so technically the effects of the drought can last.

“But the last two years have been really good for us.”

However, down the road, Stephen Tully wasn’t sure how to graze cattle and goats.

He said rainfall has been uneven across the region and he was concerned that droughts – which allow pastoralists to apply for financial assistance – so lifted “early” could cause problems for those still struggling.

Green tree in remote Queensland
The drought continues to hold a strong grip on many properties in remote Queensland, despite the green shoots. (ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“I was shaking my head,” he said.

“The more I move further south to Quilpie, they didn’t have a great year last year and I don’t think it’s been great this year.”

‘Sky is the limit’

While Peterson’s spirits have risen in recent weeks, drought continues to grip his Blackpool property.

He thinks it will take some time before the scars of major drought are forgotten.

Man standing in navy shirt with hat and sunglasses
Recent rains have diverted Blackall’s fortunes to herding Andrew Peterson.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

“With so much money spent keeping our herd alive for the past six to 10 years, the money is being depleted.

“We have to be careful. The tap might turn off and it might not rain on us for the rest of the year. You don’t know.”

man walking in sunset with dog
Grazer Andrew Peterson hopes the rain means there are better days to come.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

He hopes that days will be better in the future and believes that change may begin to attract younger generations back to Earth.

“And if we can restore some normality and precipitation at the right times of the year, the sky is the limit.”

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