Australian Cattle Ranch Welcomes Climate Change Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent, and some parts are getting drier. Many farmers and ranchers are struggling because of the lack of rain, but for a lucky few, climate change has brought more rain.
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Australian Cattle Ranch Welcomes Climate Change

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Australian Cattle Ranch Welcomes Climate Change

Australian Cattle Ranch Welcomes Climate Change

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.


And I'm Michele Norris.


NORRIS: NPR and National Geographic are traveling the world this year to tell stories of climate change. This month, we're exploring the Pacific. And today, we're focusing on Australia.

You might not know that Australia is the world's driest inhabited continent. And many parts of the country, scientists say, are getting drier because of climate change.

SEABROOK: Many farmers and ranchers are struggling due to lack of rain. But for a lucky few, climate change has brought more rain. NPR's Michael Sullivan has a profile of one climate change winner.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Western Australia is big, about three times the size of Texas. And the spreads here are pretty big, too.


SULLIVAN: Droughtmaster cattle, an Australian breed, coming home on Warrawagine Station, owned and operated by Robin Mills. Twenty thousand head on a million acres on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert.

ROBIN MILLS: Nearest town east is right across the border into the Northern Territory and that's Alice Springs. And that's 1,550 kilometers.

SULLIVAN: That's about a thousand miles American, and it's almost as far from Warrawagine to the state capital, Perth. Grocery shopping is a little closer in Port Headland, 200 miles to the west. Robin Mills came to Warrawagine 15 years ago drawn in part by its isolation and natural beauty. He bought cheap during a bad drought hoping the weather would break.

MILLS: I only had around four inches of rain in 18 months and the year before that was very low as well. So we were here for the first six months and it never rained until January the following year, and then the rain started and has gone well since.

SULLIVAN: Gone well and then some. In March, two tropical cyclones dumped seven inches of rain on Warrawagine in just 48 hours and a whole lot more the next week, stranding those living here for nearly a month short on essentials.

JEFF MILLS: The alcohol supply ran a bit low. The DVDs ran out.

SULLIVAN: Robin Mills' son, Jeff, helps manage the farm.

MILLS: With the first cyclone that came through, our satellite dish for the TV got blown around a bit. We spent quite a few days moving the dish backwards and forwards and up and down trying to find the satellite again. So, it basically was a case of watching a lot of old DVDs and things that we'd already seen and swapping them with the other guys on the station.

SULLIVAN: Other ranchers in these parts would kill to have such a problem. For the past 15 years, they have been struggling while Warrawagine has seen more rain than ever, making Robin Mills a big fan of climate change.

MILLS: It seems to have moved the Kimberly weather, which Kimberly is the area to the north and east of us, which is more tropical rain. So they've gotten a lot harder rainfall than we have, and that seems to affecting us over the last 15 years. We get a fair bit of ribbing from some of the other stations around that we're pinching all the rain. I think we've been averaging around 24 inches since then, where the 100-year average is 12 inches.

NEIL BURROWS: On the Australian continent, there are winners and losers with climate change.

SULLIVAN: Neil Burrows is director of science at the Western Australia Department of Environment and Conservation.

BURROWS: The Southwest and perhaps parts of the Southeast are losers because it's getting dryer. But there are parts of the continent where it's getting wetter as a result of climate change. And Robin's the winner. Robin on Warrawagine is the winner.

MILLS: Are you ready? Clear prop.


SULLIVAN: A winner more than happy to show a visitor around the ranch if he can steer his 1960s-era Cessna around the ruts in the dirt runway.

MILLS: See where the cattle have been walking down the runway and plucked(ph) the track up a bit, so it's a little bit rough.

SULLIVAN: Mills guns the engine and a few seconds later is airborne.

MILLS: We'll circle around over the homestead and over the river, and then we'll head north to where the sand dunes and the desert comes around the top of the property.

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

MILLS: The rivers are the basic lifeblood of the station. Even if it doesn't flow for probably four months of the year, there are permanent pools along it that cattle can get water from.

And the area between the two rivers are filled up with silt over that last few million years, and it's very, very rich soil, and with the good rains that we've had it gives us very good grass coverage and so forth.

SULLIVAN: The good grass coverage and plentiful rain mean Robin Mills could run far more cattle than he does now and make a lot more money, too. But back on the ground, he explains why he's not tempted to do so by asking a simple question, a question born from years of experience.

MILLS: How long before your luck runs out? 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 I don't believe that's a risk we should take.

SULLIVAN: 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.

MILLS: I'm very fortunate we have a very, very good partner in the station with us and both of us have a very strong commitment that we are going to leave the station in a lot better condition than when we took it on.

And we are slowly increasing the numbers, but we're also increasing the water points that the cattle can go to get water without putting excess pressure on the rivers to keep them going, so that we get an even - a balance of the use of the pastures, not over-flogging them.

SULLIVAN: Back at the homestead, hundreds of bright white cockatoos do some grazing of their own in the thick grass of the yard, taking flight when a visitor gets too close.


SULLIVAN: The station is extraordinarily rich in wildlife - kangaroos, emus and dingoes, swans, herons and wild turkey. There is even an orphaned camel, Clyde, who's not overly fond of visitors.


SULLIVAN: Camels were introduced to Australia in the mid-1800s as pack animals. Now there are as many as a million running wild in the outback, causing big problems for farmers and ranchers.

The camel menace aside, Robin Mills knows he's got a good thing going here 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.

MILLS: Guess I'll just keep smiling up here while it keeps raining on me. I try to tell my neighbors 500 kilometers away that it only rains on the righteous, but that's wearing a bit thin, I reckon after 15 years. And nobody could be that righteous, certainly not me.

SULLIVAN: Michael Sullivan, NPR News.


NORRIS: You can learn about Perth, Australia's innovative approach to get fresh water at Search for climate connections. There, you can also see the latest episode in our animated series "It's All About Carbon." That's from NPR's Robert Krulwhich and Public Television's Wild Chronicles.

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