Australia's Outback stock routes under threat

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The rugged drovers who herded their cattle and sheep around Australia, braving dust, drought and hardship, are a central part of the Outback myth. But their iconic stock routes – known as the “Long Paddock” – are now under threat, with state governments poised to consign them to history.

The routes, a network of tracks in eastern Australia linking rural properties with shearing sheds and saleyards, helped the young country to forge a national character. Developed from the 1830s onwards, and sometimes based on ancient Aboriginal trails, they are celebrated in the works of poets and writers such as Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson.

Nowadays, relatively few drovers ply the routes, which feature roadside paddocks, often near a river or creek, where livestock can be rested and fed. But the paddocks are used by rural Australians for camping, fishing, swimming and picnic, and they are still used to supplement fodder in times of drought.

In New South Wales, stock routes cover about 600,000 hectares, or nearly one per cent of the state, down from 2.3 million hectares in 1975. Managed by rural land protection boards, only a few make a profit from droving fees. The state government is considering reclaiming them, allowing it to lease or sell off sections to landowners. Queensland is also reviewing the future of its 2.6 million hectare network.

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