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A story of commitment to regenerative land practices – The Wooleen Way

David Pollock is not an author by profession, he’s a pastoralist. And that’s one of the things that makes this story so compelling.  He is so committed to seeing the land be brought back from the brink of destruction that he has devoted his life to regenerative land practices that are so unconventional within the circle he mixes in, that only someone with such conviction and determination would see it through.  ‘‘The astonishing story of reviving the oldest land on Earth. The Wooleen Way is a revelation.’  says Tim Flannery

The outback conjures up many images that the Australian psyche is built upon. Its grand vistas of sweeping dusty plains and its evocation of a tough pioneering spirit form the foundation of our prosperous culture. But these romantic visions often hide the stark environmental, economic, and social problems that have inadvertently been left in the wake of our collective past.

Through retelling the struggle of his family amid droughts, financial ruin, depression, and death, David Pollock exposes the modern-day realities of managing a remote outback station. Forced by a sense of moral responsibility, he set out on an uncharted course to restore the 153,000 hectares of degraded leasehold land that he felt he was obliged to manage on behalf of the Australian people. Then, just at the point when that course seemed certain to fail, the project was saved by the generosity and faith of everyday Australians.

This is an urgent story of political irresponsibility, bureaucratic obstinacy, industrial monopolisation, and, above all, ecological illiteracy in a vast segment of the Australian continent. It is a familiar story of overexploitation. Yet it is also a story of the extraordinary ability of the natural environment to repair itself, given the chance.

After over a decade of his hard-won insights, Pollock outlines in The Wooleen Way a specific and comprehensive plan to reverse the ecological damage done to the pastoral resource since European colonisation. He also emphasises the economic and social necessity of carrying it out, and of curbing the conquering human spirit so that it aligns with the subtle power of the natural landscape.

The writer of this blog found the book absorbing and one that ended up with more post-it tags than ever before – with so much notable content.  What follows is some insights that might help inform how we do land management in our neck of the woods.  Hard won lessons can be tweeked and adapted locally.

There is much that can be transferred to local situations regardless of where we might live, Ecosystem Management Understanding (EMU) being a case in point (page 82); a questioning of ‘best practice’ which usually refers to the accepted norm in an industry, often being used to justify poor management in David’s experience (page 95); “If you’re running for government and you’re reading this I have some advice: if you get in  power, don’t change the name of anything. Don’t change the name of the departments. Don’t change the name of the programs.  Don’t change the sticker on the side of the departmental car. Don’t change the letterhead on every single piece of paper in your office. Changing names does not make you look better.  Nobody cares what you call it. Nobody will remember you just because you wasted an enormous amount of their tax dollars changing the name of everything to make yourself look better.  We’re no that stupid.” (page 101) And there’s more along those lines if you get to read this wonderful book.

For those wary about land being used for the production of meat, a chapter has been devoted to this topic.  A convincing case is made for maintaining a small number of cattle on these vast grasslands as part of the restorative and regenerative programs being developed by David and Francis Pollock. “We can get protein from plants … though we should bear in mind that the plants which produce heaps of protein – things like nuts and soy – also take more energy to farm.” (page 119).  Calorie for calorie is addressed along with land impacts and consideration is given to the industrial nature of plant protein production – it is not without ecological costs.  Incorporating whole of production costs would go some way to balancing this debate.  

Destocking the land was a crucial decision the Pollocks made and it has paid off ecologically in spades, with a huge downside being cashflow that had be subsidised by a tourism business operating in conjunction with the broadacre land management.   Says David: 

“I became greedy for the regeneration of these grasses, and I think this says something important about the human condition, and our ability to adapt.  I have heard many people say that humans are greedy by nature, and therefore that environmental sustainability is something humans will never accomplish.  But money is not the only things we can be greedy for – we are greedy for the things that money can buy us, such as security, time to do what we want to, adoration, a bigger car, those sorts of things. Environmental sustainability or environmental connectedness could also be one of those things.  Out society determines what we are greedy for. My point is that greed may be something that can use to our advantage. Far from being the reason that we will never achieve something, it may be the reason that we accomplish it all the sooner.” (page 169)

A whole chapter is devoted to respect – respect for land, respect for indigenous ways of knowing.  David has devoted a lot of time teaching respect if there is such a thing, especially with the people who visit Wooleen as part of the tourist side of the business.

Encounters with government agencies have proved some of the most difficult aspects of allowing the land to rest and recover.  It is so out of character with what the old paradigms of land tenure were and to a large extent are still about.  Rather than reading the land to find out what needs to happen next, it is reading the number of cattle or sheep delivered to market and / or the money in the bank and keeping the accountants off their backs. It is as if nature must bend to the latest human demands rather than the other way around.  (In the chapter Wooleen on Welfare, pages 213-217)

Drought is one of the most vexed subjects in Australia.  It raises all manner of emotions and reactions.  Drought is a dry time that nature imposes on the land upon which we humans rely.  Abuse the land and we suffer the consequences.  Says David: “Most of the droughts we have now are man-made.” (page 252).  The Wooleen way is to destock to allow the land to rest and for the grasses to recover.  There’s no rocket science involved.  Eating out a landscape plant by plant is a surefire way to go broke and degrade the resource in the process.  “ … a way must be found to stop the land degrading every time there is drought. It’s as simple as that.” (page 254).  “Drought is unlike market conditions that affect business everywhere, because it has a lasting effect on a resource that is supposed to be renewable.  Consequently it affects all Australians, not just one business.  The longer we ignore the debt that is owed to the land, the harder it will be to repay it.” (page 255)    “Some schemes, such as feeding cattle hay during a drought make the problem much worse.  If cattle remain in the landscape when it can no longer provide feed for them, they will continue to degrade it further.  The supplementary feed helps them to hang in there and make sure that every last leaf on every last plant is eaten.”  Monitor pasture to maintain landscape function and ensure biodiversity is always present, must be a priority and precondition for land tenure.

Lock it up and leave it is another subject that David challenges us to consider.  The consequences of our actions are often somewhat different to what was intended.  Of particular interest to him is what takes place on those portions of land – the majority as it turns out.  He quotes Tony Brandis, an architect of the Conservation Reserve System in Western Australia, who notes in his book Rescuing the Rangelands:  “Conservation reserves cannot alone protect the biodiversity of the region … Any conservation reserve system will fail if the broader land use management practices ignore the conservation of biodiversity in off-reserve areas.” (page 284)   In other words: “Conservation and production must begin to merge.  We must transition our farming systems so that, at the bare minimum, they maintain basic landscape functions.”

In the case of Munibung Hill this means that we who live outside of bushland areas must over time transition away from exotic species, incorporate native species into our landscapes, as a means of supporting the natural landscape on the Hill.  Of course this applies not only to Munibung Hill but all natural areas.  Greening the suburbs.  Naturalising our backyards, reimagining the verge as an extension of natural areas, such that we merge with nature rather than attempting to re-engineer nature to our manicured monocultures.

When it comes to solutions David Pollock is a living example of what his lived experience – trial and error – has taught him.  Of great importance is to be mindful of the ancestral keepers of the land, the Wajarri people.  “The landscape was not pristine before we arrived.  The Wajarri people had been managing the land for scores of thousands of years before white settlement for it to produce what they needed, and we need to do the same into the future. Some people say that the land needs management, but I don’t agree: the land will be just fine without us.  It’s not for the landscape’s benefit that we need to mange the land carefully; it’s for our own.” (page 312)   “The essential transition from pure production to sustainable production must be facilitated by government – that is, by all of us.”

There is no ambiguity when it comes to what is best for a pastoral enterprise when times get tough and an extended dry sets in: “truck the animals out; don’t truck hay in.” (page 329).  What we have is not so much a landscape problem, but rather a human problem and the way we interact with the landscape ” – a problem within our culture and our psyche, a problem we must fix within ourselves, for ourselves.  Humans have a long history of abusing their resources, but we are getting to the pointy end of the stick now.  If we don’t develop a new culture around responsible use and restoring ecological balance, we are going to be in big trouble soon.  Perhaps we already are.” (pages 344-345)

The result of all this hard yakka and long hours of devoted land stewardship is paying off for David and Francis.  They are permitting nature to behave as she has for years prior to European interference.  It has been mindful intervention that has turned things around such that the dream is starting to be realised.  A glimpse of what is to come was seen on a visit by David to ” … a property on the edge of the Western Australian desert where the Department of Parks and Wildlife had constructed a 1,100 ha reintroduction reserve.  It was surrounded by a 2-metre-high electric fence that looked like it would be more at home surrounding a prison.  During the daytime, while we were driving past, the area inside the fence looked like any normal piece of mulga country; but when we went spotlighting that night, the experience was one I will never forget.  As we drove into the enclosure, it was like stepping back in time.  There were little marsupials scurrying around everywhere.  There were two main species: golden bandicoots, an animal that used to live continent-wide but had been reduced to living on a few islands and rough country in the Kimberley, and burrowing bettongs, whose only presence on the mainland was behind bars.” (page 359)

This is possible at Wooleen if nature is allowed to get back into balance, from which a balanced financial balance sheet will follow.  Says David:  “I envisage people visiting the big dam on Wooleen, the sustainable heart of production … populated by small native animals that flicker among the tall grass, without fences or boardwalks, where only the young do not know the names of the plants and animals. I see them walking with care and appreciation through the beauty to a place of their choosing, a place where they have been before, where they know that valuable seeds may be collected, and explaining their value to their children.   They are tourists but they do not doubt that they own the land.  Nor do they doubt humanity’s awesome ability to heal and nourish it.”

This is a team effort.  Not only a human team but also a human-nature team working in harmony.    The book is published by Scribe.