Rethinking our Diet & A Goat Muster
“Why are you here?”, Terry is looking at me intently, waiting for a response.
Seated around the table at Iga Warta — while in the Northern Flinders last month — I ponder my answer. I’ve been fascinated by Aboriginal culture ever since I arrived in Australia, more than 20 years ago. It is, after all, the oldest living culture on our planet and one that enabled people to live off the land while enhancing it for thousands of years. The more I’ve experienced it, the sadder I feel at what we have lost since colonisation. But we’re here because we also want to incorporate ancient indigenous wisdom into the new paradigm for land development we are designing. Terry is intrigued by our work and persuades us to stay an extra day, so he can share another experience with us.
The next morning, together with 2 other chaps visiting from the Blue Mountains we pile into his Troopy. I’m riding shotgun and the boys are spread out at the back. This brings back memories of my 4-wheel driving days and I’m excited when Terry asks me to clear the track of fallen trees so we can pass through. We are going to spend the day checking on the goat muster that Terry has organised on Mount Searle, an amazing piece of land for which he holds a pastoral lease. Our first stop is at the incredible station property, which is now just a shadow of its former self. Terry has great plans for it and is slowly renovating it with volunteers and help from his extended family. He asks if we would be interested to assist him with his plans to turn this into a tourism/educational facility as well as regenerate the land. There is so much potential here as well as many challenges but we say we’d like to be involved if we can.
The Australian outback is riddled with goats — just one of those many challenges.
White settlers originally brought them here. Some escaped from the farms and others were released when the goat fibre industry crashed, when the missionaries left the area and during drought times. Goats seem to thrive in the arid Australian outback, partly due to the fact they are browses and eat most types of vegetation but also because of the availability of water for livestock and programs that now require farmers to eradicate the dingoes. Because goats eat most types of vegetation, they have huge impacts on the land including soil erosion during floods and droughts and impacts on the native fauna through competing for food, water and habitat. While Terry has a pastoral lease on this property, his dream is to regenerate the land rather than have livestock on it. Getting rid of the goats on the land is part of this plan.
He points to the fence line as we drive by and we notice the healthy mulga bushes on his side of the property. He has been growing plants in his nursery at Iga Warta to help restore Mount Searle. On our way to the goat muster, we stop to check there is water in the enclosures to which they will be shepherded. At one of them, we find a dead kangaroo, caught up in one of the fences. The boys help take him down to the creek. This is part of the harsh realities of life in the outback.
Finally we arrive at where the action is.
Goat mustering is quite a process. A helicopter herds the goats from the hillside and a few riders on bikes help direct them to the nearest enclosure. We watch as the riders skilfully guide the pack. In the distance, a few kangaroos are flying across the landscape, petrified by the noise and the commotion. I’ve never seen them jump so high before. The goats huddle together nervously. They will be trucked to an abattoir and processed mostly for an overseas market. Getting rid of goats is an important part of regenerating this land. The recent drought has also brought home the fact that farming sheep and cattle in these arid regions will have many challenges as rainfall totals drop with climate change and the arid zone moves further south.
Perhaps it is time to re-think our sources of protein?
Goat is widely eaten in the developing world yet it isn’t a staple in the Australian diet. I’ve read there could be 3 million goats in the outback but the numbers fluctuate due to breeding patterns and other causes. Wikipedia informs me that feral goats cost our economy $25 million/year but the goat meat industry is worth about $29 million/year. The commercial possibilities of culling an animal that is hostile to the Australian landscape while encouraging more sustainable farming practices is huge. Similar arguments have been made with respect to carp, considered a pest here but a valuable source of protein globally. Australians are also divided about the prospect of eating kangaroo, yet over a million are culled annually to protect grasslands and restore habitat for other species like insects, birds and reptiles. While kangaroo culling has been criticised by animal rights activists, a wide range of professional ecologists in Australia support the harvest. They argue that basing agricultural production systems on native animals rather than introduced livestock like sheep and cattle offers considerable ecological advantages to the fragile Australian landscape and will reduce emissions. I agree. There maybe 35–50 million kangaroos in Australia. The Conversation reported in 2014, that in some areas, there are more than 300 kangaroos per square kilometre. At such large numbers kangaroos graze on grassy vegetation until it is like lawn, which leaves no shelter for insects, birds and reptiles.
For indigenous Australians this is a no-brainer.
Kangaroo has been a staple in the diet of this continent for thousands of years. The rock art site we visited during our day is further proof of that. Yet, it was only in 1980 that kangaroo meat was legalised for consumption in South Australia and 1993 in other states (Wikipedia). Terry lives as sustainably as he can on his property growing some of his food, installing more solar panels each year, using bore and rain water and harvesting both goat and kangaroo to feed his family and visitors. This is how they lived on this land for generations and how many wish to continue living.
Perhaps we can learn from their example.