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KI sheep industry on road to recovery

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Kangaroo Island’s sheep industry is starting to rebuild after the recent fires wiped out more than 50,000 of its flock.

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Farmers have begun buying thousands of sheep and rebuilding hundreds of kilometres of fencing destroyed in the fires.

The Kangaroo Island fires began on December 20 and burnt 210,000ha – almost half of the island – across a 612 km perimeter before being declared contained on January 21.

PIRSA figures had sheep stock losses during the Kangaroo Island fires at 51,888 at February 7 – almost 10 per cent of the island’s pre-fire flock of 600,000.

Agriculture is Kangaroo Island’s largest industry with sheep – meat and wool – its major contributor.

Elders Kingscote livestock manager Greg Downing said his clients had lost about 30,000 sheep in the fires.

But he said the restoration of the industry on the island was underway with the rebuilding of fences and the purchase of several thousand sheep.

About 500 cattle and up to 15,000 sheep are also being agisted on the Fleurieu Peninsula and in the South East of South Australia where they have been shipped while their home paddocks are fenced and feed is sourced.

“We have probably bought six or seven thousand now and we’ll be looking to buy another 2000 today,” Downing said.

“So far we’ve purchased sheep for about six farms with more looking to purchase very shortly. Fences are going up in parts so people are going to be able to secure sheep again.”

Some of the sheep purchased were from the Mid North of the state with the majority coming from the South East and New South Wales.

Downing said the agisted sheep were mainly grazing on crop stubble and would need to be sold or shipped back to Kangaroo Island by late March or early April.

He said sheep prices were very high and still heading up, making it very expensive for KI farmers to rebuild flocks.

“There’s a variation from $200 to $350 subject to breed and age group – the younger they are then generally the more expensive they are and Merinos have generally been cheaper than the traditional Border Leicester-Merinos and we’ve bought composite ewes as well,” he said.

“Hopefully we’re going to buy some sheep today on the Eyre Peninsula and leave them there for a couple of months.

“Beggars can’t be choosers so we are going to have to take anything that’s going to give us some production.”

Downing said the biggest issue at the moment was getting fences up to secure stock and accessing enough fodder to keep livestock fed until consistent rains could fuel winter pasture growth.

“We’re having a lot of trouble getting enough hay across the water that we need to keep the local flock and herd fed,” he said.

“Livestock SA are doing a fantastic job and the freight’s been heavily subsidised but I think we need to get a lot more hay coming.”

“My plan is to buy 20 or 30,000 before June or July and I’m only servicing my clients at this stage who have lost about 30,000 of the 50,000.

“If they don’t have production then they don’t have an income and that makes the situation even worse.”

However, buying more stock is not an option for everyone.

There are several sheep studs on the island where breeding lines and biosecurity are critical.

Downing said those farmers would need to look at other ways to generate income such as cropping or cattle while they bred their flock numbers back up.

“There are some farmers who don’t know if they’ll get their enterprise back to where they were in their lifetime.”

Burned hay bales on Kangaroo Island. Photo: AAP/David Mariuz

These include John Symons who has produced high quality wool at the Turkey Lane merino stud near Middle River on the island’s north coast for more than 60 years.

Symons has been working on the genetics of his 5500-strong flock for more than 20 years.

The fire impacted 90 per cent of his 540ha property, torching the family home, shearing shed and about 2000 sheep.

“We were in the business of genetics, breeding seed stock for other people and we lost all of our adult rams so the only rams we’ve got on our farm at the moment are ram lambs and fortunately just about all of those survived,” Symons, 75, said.

“But their counterparts, the young ewes and weaners have been decimated so we’re not in a good spot.

“We are very conscious about biosecurity so it’s not our intention to buy in sheep and it’s likely to take four or five years for us to get back to anything like the production we had before.

“I’m too old to go through that rebuilding phase myself but we’ve got my daughter and her husband on the farm but I’m running out of time.”

Downing said farmers were responding to the crisis in different ways.

“One good season and some will be partially recovered but for many it’s going to be a long-term issue,” he said.

“Some people are flat strap getting back into it and some people are still trying to work out what’s best for them.

“There are some people who didn’t get burnt on the island but they’ve been helping and now they haven’t got a job or they’ve given up their job for six weeks to help fight the fire. We’ve got to make sure we look after those people too.

“Kangaroo Island will get through this but it’s going to be a long-term battle no doubt.”

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