URALLA, Australia (Reuters) – The one thing livestock farmer Richard Daugherty misses about the depths of one of Australia’s worst-ever droughts is that his sheep no longer run over to him, bleating to be fed.
Recent deluges across the country’s east have turned Daugherty’s paddocks green for the first time in years, raising hopes the three-year drought is starting to break.
“They look at you and carry on eating grass,” Daugherty told Reuters at his rural station near the small town of Uralla in a drought-hit region located 450 km (280 miles) north of Sydney.
“And you think, ‘aw, you know, what have I done wrong?’ You almost feel dejected that you aren’t needed anymore,” he said, speaking with a wryness refined by hardship.
“It looks like the landscape is spray painted green.”
The rejuvenation follows a searing years-long drought that wilted crops and forced some rural towns to truck in drinking water. In a country known for harsh weather, towering bushfires then razed vast areas, killing 33 people, followed by drenching rains that brought floods to some and relief to others.
Rainfall data shows Uralla, like many rural communities, received more rain in the past few weeks than all of 2019, turning large areas of drought and bushfire-tinged areas green.
The euphoria has sparked fierce bidding at saleyards across the state of New South Wales, as farmers look to restock after most cut back their numbers during the drought due to the high cost of buying feed.
Some cattle prices have increased by well over 50% since late last year at sales in the north-eastern town of Gunnedah, auction results show, while lamb prices surged more than a third in a matter of weeks in regional Wagga Wagga.
Grain farmers preparing to plant the all-important wheat crop in April and May are also expected to use the wet soil to bet big after three desolate years.
Yet farmers across the region say there is still a grave risk the countryside will slip back into the ‘big dry’.
The ferocity of the recent bushfires has heightened concerns that a warmer climate is changing the nature of Australia’s weather, and there is only modest rainfall forecast for the months ahead.
Tellingly, rainfall data over the past decade shows that a town like Uralla has been receiving below average rainfall most years, even taking into account the recent deluge.
This is prompting farmers to revise their practices, and towns to plan for a drier future.
“I think the drought has been very much an eye-opener,” Uralla mayor Michael Pearce told Reuters.
Towns are responding by widening dams, digging bores and building pipelines to water sources further away to improve water security in a region where European livestock stations were established on land resembling Britain’s green countryside.
Daugherty’s farm, a historic property located in the New England region that still has the remnants of a blacksmith’s and butcher’s shop on site, is due for a change in fortune, having endured years of drought and even a spate of livestock theft.
Sheep numbers on the property are down to 1600, from 6000 in 2011, as Daugherty cut his numbers to match the conditions.
He said he won’t buy livestock at the current high prices, which he said was caused by over-exuberant farmers catching “green fever” because of the rain.
“I think it’s just right that we in some way, if one can, allow a bit of the landscape to rest,” said Daugherty.
“I just think we need to try and heal.”
Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in Uralla; additional reporting by Jill Gralow; editing by Richard Pullin