Australian Cattle Ranch Welcomes Climate Change

An aerial view of the red-clay terrain of the Warrawagine Station. i i

hide captionLocated on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, the Warrawagine Station has been one of the winners of climate change, thriving in nearly 24 inches of rain in the past year.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
An aerial view of the red-clay terrain of the Warrawagine Station.

Located on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia, the Warrawagine Station has been one of the winners of climate change, thriving in nearly 24 inches of rain in the past year.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Droughtmaster cattle graze over the green fields of Warrawagine Station. i i

hide captionWarrawagine Station is home to more than 20,000 Droughtmaster cattle. The million-mile ranch depends on rainfall to get through the arid summer months, as the majority of the station has a desert-like landscape.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Droughtmaster cattle graze over the green fields of Warrawagine Station.

Warrawagine Station is home to more than 20,000 Droughtmaster cattle. The million-mile ranch depends on rainfall to get through the arid summer months, as the majority of the station has a desert-like landscape.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
The Oak River, one of the rivers that run and feed Warrawagine ranch. i i

hide captionStation owner Robin Mills says the rivers that run through Warrawagine are the lifeline of the station.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
The Oak River, one of the rivers that run and feed Warrawagine ranch.

Station owner Robin Mills says the rivers that run through Warrawagine are the lifeline of the station.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Cockatoos fly above the Warrawagine ranch. i i

hide captionCockatoos aren't the only type of wildlife roaming the station; dingoes, wild turkeys and camels are also common sights at Warrawagine.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Cockatoos fly above the Warrawagine ranch.

Cockatoos aren't the only type of wildlife roaming the station; dingoes, wild turkeys and camels are also common sights at Warrawagine.

Michael Sullivan, NPR

Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent. Scientists say some parts are getting drier because of climate change, and many farmers and ranchers are struggling because of the lack of rain. But for a lucky few, climate change has brought more rain.

One of those climate change winners is rancher Robin Mills, whose million-acre spread across the edge of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia is home to 20,000 Droughtmaster cattle. He's been seeing twice the average amount of rain in recent years, helping make grass plentiful for the animals at a time when many other parts of Australia have been dying for water.

Alice Springs, the closest town, is nearly 1,000 miles away. Grocery shopping is a little closer in Port Headland, about 200 miles west.

Mills came to Warrawagine Station 15 years ago, drawn in part by its isolation and natural beauty. He bought the station at a cheap price during a bad drought in hopes that the weather would break.

"It only rained about four inches in the 18 months before, and the year before that was low as well," Mills says. "We were here for the first six months and it didn't rain until January of the following year, and then the rain started and has gone well since."

It has gone well, and then some. In March, two tropical cyclones dumped seven inches of rain on Warrawagine in just 48 hours, and then more in the next week. It left those living here stranded for nearly a month, short on basic essentials.

"The alcohol supply ran a bit low, the DVDs ran out," laughs Mills' son, Jeff, who helps manage the farm. "With the first cyclone that came through, our satellite dish for the TV got blown around a bit."

Other ranchers in these parts would kill to have such a problem, since for the past 15 years, some ranchers have been struggling in dry conditions. And since Warrawagine has seen more rain than ever, Mills has become a big fan of climate change.

"It seems to have moved the Kimberly weather, that is the area to the north and east of us which gets more tropical rain," Mills says. "They get a lot more rainfall than we have, and that's been affecting us over the last 15 years."

Mills says Warrawagine gets some ribbing from some of the other stations in the area, saying that his ranch is pinching all of the rain.

"I think we've been averaging around 24 inches since then, when the 100-year average is 12 inches," he says.

Neil Burrows, director of science at the Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation, says that in Australia, there are winners and losers in climate change.

"Certainly the people in the Southeast are losers, because it's getting drier," Burrows says. "But there are parts of the continent that are getting wetter as a result of climate change, and Robin's a winner. Robin at Warrawagine is a winner."

He is a winner more than happy to show a visitor around the ranch, if he can steer his 1960s-era Cessna plane around the ruts in the dirt runway.

"See where the cattle have been walking down the runway?" Mills asks, ready for takeoff. "They've mucked the track up a little bit, so it's a little bit rough."

Mills guns the engine and a few seconds later, is airborne, circling the homestead, and then heading north to where the sand dunes and desert border the Warrawagine property.

Warrawagine is best seen by air. It's about 120 miles long and 40 miles wide of red rock, desert grass and sand for as far as the eye can see. Slightly broken by two sparkling ribbons of water, the Nullagine and Oakover rivers are lined with eucalyptus and other gums.

"The rivers are the basic lifeblood of the station, if it's got water," Mills says. "Even if it doesn't flow for about four months a year, there are permanent pools that cattle can get water from. It's very, very rich soil and with the good rains we've had, it gives us good grass coverage."

The good grass coverage and plentiful rain means Mills could run far more cattle than he does now, and make a lot more money, too. Back on the ground, he explains why he's not tempted to do so.

"How long before your luck runs out?" Mills says. "Are we going to go back to the normal 12-inch rainfall? Because if we do, we're going to get badly burnt because we're going to have too many cattle here and not enough feed to keep them going."

And that's a risk Mills isn't willing to take. Another reason has less to do with economics and more to do with how Mills sees himself — more as a steward than an owner of the land.

"I'm very fortunate," Mills says. "Got a very strong partner and we've got a strong commitment that we are going to leave the station in a lot better condition than when we took it on."

Mills says the ranch has struck a nice balance between getting the most out of the pastures without over-flogging them.

Back at the homestead, hundred of bright white cockatoos graze along the thick, green grass of the yard, taking flight when a visitor gets too close.

The station is extraordinarily rich in wildlife — kangaroos, emus and dingoes. Swans, herons and wild turkeys can also be found on the ranch. There is even an orphaned camel named Clyde who's not fond of visitors.

Camels were introduced to Australia in the mid-1800s as pack animals. Now there are as many as one million running wild in the outback. They also cause big problems for farmers and ranchers.

Camel menace aside, Mills knows he's got a good thing going and is grateful for it. Climate change, he says, is the best thing that's ever happened to Warrawagine, and he's hoping it doesn't change back anytime soon.

"I'll just keep smiling up here while it keeps raining on me," Mills says. "I keep trying to tell my neighbors 500 kilometers away that it only rains on the righteous, but that's wearing a bit thick, they reckon, after 15 years. And nobody could be that righteous. Certainly not me!"

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