Life rolls on for Yaven Creek farmers, loss and recovery all a cycle

Fencing contractor Anthony Barr was one of the first to travel into Yaven Creek, collecting and burying livestock for weary landholders after the Dunns Road Fire blackened the land on December 30.

Turning off the Snowy Mountains Highway onto Yaven Creek Road, fence lines grow jagged and unpredictable. A line of old timber posts is propped up with new steel before giving way to green paddocks which roll freely to the bitumen, with only a row of holes to show where fences once stood.

Out of the millions of bushfire-related images which are crossing the globe, pictures of burned fences aren’t making it very far. Recovery funds for Australia’s fire-ravaged wildlife and exhausted fire fighters are being championed by celebrities and girl scouts alike, but it takes a local to understand how a sling of black steel fence posts can bring a tear to the dustiest grazier’s eye.

Pulling a strainer into place, Anthony Barr paused his work to give this reporter directions to the Yaven Creek fire shed. Barr, a fencing contractor out of Tumut, was one of the first to travel Yaven Creek Road when it reopened early in the New Year.

The Dunns Road Fire blackened huge swaths of farmland when it broke containment lines near Adelong on December 30. Winds gusting up to 90km/hr pushed the fire across Yaven Creek and into Ellerslie, burning houses, livestock and pastures which farmers had been counting on to get them through another summer of drought.

The cattle losses in Yaven Creek have been among the most severe in the country. Local Land Services estimates 10-12,000 animals were lost in the fire. LLS veterinarians helped assess and euthanize animals which couldn’t survive their burns, then Mr Barr helped bury them.

“You’ve got to do your bit,” said Barr as he continued angling the strainer. Barr’s kindness set off a chain reaction. He buried Andrew Reynold’s stock; Reynold’s then went and buried his neighbour’s stock, and so on.

It’s the way it is in Yaven Creek, where friends and relatives helped fight through the night to save each other’s properties before being forced to retreat to their own properties and fight the fires from their own front yards.

“One hundred percent of our members were affected,” said the Rural Fire Service’s Yaven Creek Captain James Pearce.

“Of those 22 or so members, most people would have lost 95% of their country.”

With such widespread losses, some farms losing hundreds and hundreds of cattle overnight, visitors could reasonably expect a cloud of grief and despondency to blanket the area, but it’s remarkably sunny, both on farmer’s faces and overhead.

“It’s reasonably good, all things considered,” said Capt Pearce at a donation event in Yaven Creek this week where agribusiness Delta Ag gave a sling of 200 steel fence posts to each of the 40 hardest-hit farmers in the region.

“They’ve got a lot to do in front of them and anything we can do goes a long way,” said Delta Ag’s Matt Hardy, working with local RFS Captain James Pearce to get donated fence posts to farmers.

“Individuals deal with it differently, but people are pretty resilient and realistic with what’s in front of them.

“It’d just be good to have some rain.”

The pressure from the fires has forced many Yaven Creek farmers to sell off the herds they had been nursing through endless years of drought.

“I’ve sold about 20 breeding cows,” said farmer Warren Allen, but said there would be more to go, unless the rains come.

“If we get good rain, I won’t have to, but the way it looks now, we won’t have the growth and I’ll have to keep feeding them.”

Mr Allen started with a herd of 400. He lost 84 animals to the fires and has sold 20 so far. It’s costing him $600 a day to keep the rest of his herd alive.

“I don’t know how long I can keep doing that.”

Compounding the difficulty of feeding the herds is the trouble of keeping them contained.

“It’s difficult to have to deal with the new fencing and keep stock contained and feed them all the time,” said Mr Allen.

Mr Allen lost 27 kilometres of fences in the fires; almost half that length were boundary fences, separating his property from the road and highway. Insurance will cover part of the loss, and Mr Allen said the Delta Ag donation will be a “very big help.”

Despite careful rationing through the drought, farmers have been forced to buy feed after the fire burned huge swaths of pastureland in Yaven Creek.

The donation is a story of local people helping local people to help local people. Matt Hardy oversaw Tuesday’s operation, with farmers coming and going in utes and tractors all morning.

“They’ve got a lot to do in front of them and anything we can do goes a long way,” said Mr Hardy, “It all helps.”

The donation, titled ‘Purchase A Post’ was first suggested by Mr Hardy’s sister, Prue Herman. Matthew and Prue’s parents live in Mannus Valley and were burned out in early January.

“That’s how this all got started,” said Mr Hardy, “We took the idea to the Directors of Delta Ag and it took off.”

Delta Ag makes no profit from the transactions. The company is quick to assure customers and suppliers that all donated monies go directly to the purchase of fence posts which then go straight to Snowy Valleys farmers. The cost of each fence post is $6.25. Delta Ag Communications Manager Dean Kinlyside said they are able to negotiate bulk orders with Waratah Fencing to get as many posts to as many farmers as possible.

 “With the sheer volume of what we’re dealing with, logistics and supply are imperative,” said Delta Ag’s Communications Manager Dean Kinlyside.

In round one of Purchase A Post, $80,000 was raised across Delta Ag’s 43 branches, sending fence posts to 73 Snowy Valleys landholders. Another $15,000 has already been donated for round two.

“That’s nudging us closer to an exciting $100,000 total,” said Mr Kinlyside.

“It’s tremendous,” said RFS Captain Pearce. Capt Pearce was put in charge of identifying the farmers who were most in need of fencing, Delta Ag using the RFS’ local knowledge to ensure no one was missed.

“It’s very kind for the people who’ve been good enough to pay for these posts in the first instance.”

The gift is worth roughly $1,200 to each farmer, but it represents a tangible connection with the wider Australian community.

“It’s a big help. A real big help,” said farmer David Ferguson. The Fergusons lost 4 kilometres of internal fencing, but escaped any fire-related stock losses.

The Fergusons thought they had fencing insurance. When they pulled out their policies after the fire, they found out that wasn’t the case.

“I thought dad took it off the boundary fences and put in on the internal fences, but he never did,” said Mr Ferguson.

“That was a bit of a shock, but you take the good with the bad.”

“You’ve got to roll with it,” added Damian West.

Both men are calm in the mid-morning sun, taking their time to collect fence posts and catch up around the back of a ute.

“I still don’t reckon you’ve got to be busting yourself and doing more work than before the fires,” said Mr Ferguson, sharing his philosophy for staying mentally strong during the droughts and fires and floods.

“People get down by working long hours.”

“It gets on top of you,” agreed Mr West, looking over hills which had just begun to sprout new growth.

“I’ll just poke along and do what I gotta’ do,” said David Ferguson (centre), “People get down by working long hours.”

Although the Fergusons didn’t lose any cattle to the flames which tore through Yaven Creek, David said he started with 400 breeding cows and sold “all bar 80 heifers that I’m going to join… because of the fires.”

After the blaze, the cost of feeding cattle has crippled many farmers who had rationed themselves carefully to get through the drought. Mr Ferguson said he couldn’t afford to keep the whole herd.

“I’ll just poke along and do what I gotta’ do,” he remarked, optimistically.  “There are people far worse affected than me.”

For a change of pace, the Fergusons went away for a few days and David said it made everything seem better. 

“I went down to Tamworth and it’s bad there. There’s more grass on the tar here than what was out there in some places.”

Rain started to fall as the Fergusons were leaving, with 33mm recorded at the Tamworth Airport on February 11, closing local roads with flooding; but with soil moisture rates still desperately low, it’s still not enough to break the drought.

“They farmers need hay and they need more rain,” said Delta Ag’s Matthew Hardy.

“[Selling off breeding stock] is a major concern. A lot of people don’t have the feed to get them through.”

The mood on Tuesday remained light, despite a rain-free forecast for the coming week.

“Everything is pretty good,” Warren Allen smiled, holding a sausage sandwich from the RFS shed and a can of cold lemon squash.

“I look at it as a good clean up, and it’s a new beginning.”