FUTURE OF FARMING: ABS said the national flock numbers were the lowest since 1905.
FUTURE OF FARMING: ABS said the national flock numbers were the lowest since 1905.

Sheep flock hits 113 year low, fears for end of an era

THE sheep industry was once the backbone of the Australian economy, but as national flock numbers drop to an all-time low of 66 million sheep, Southern Downs graziers hesitate to paint a picture for the future.

New numbers from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reveal that a seven per cent decrease in herd stock over 2018-19 brought the industry to its lowest total since 1905.

ABS Director of Agriculture Statistics Sarah Kiely said the "worsening drought and lack of feed in the eastern states" forced the hands of many sheep graziers.

Over the past years, Warwick sales agent Ross Ellis had seen many farmers make the difficult decision to destock completely.

He worried that the industry was becoming unrecognisable to what it once was, even from a few decades ago.

"We rode on the sheep's back for a few eras," he said.

"20 years ago, we still had a very viable wool market, but today, that wool market is not as promising as it used to be. While most people ran a combination of sheep and cattle, we've seen gradual change as we see less farming families and more companies, who change the way they run things."

A self-described "wool person", Mr Ellis was once a part of iconic shearing stations across the country, where they would shear up to a million sheep a year.

"We used to have people all across Australia and the world come to work in Blackall," he said.

"It broke my heart when I returned for a reunion and there wasn't a shearer there."

Elders Queensland Zone Wool Manager and Karara grazier Bruce McLeish said the past few years had been a 'rollercoaster' for primary producers and graziers who had also contended with wild dogs on top of drought.

"Our area is very suited to wool especially with wethers and ewes, but with wild dogs, you're dicing with trouble to put that money in," he said,

While he was optimistic for the industry's ability to rebuild numbers, it would not be an overnight process, and predicted another spring and summer of good rainfall would be needed to get the ball rolling.

Still, with pest schemes and cluster fencing in place in the Southern Downs, he hoped things were looking up, not only for farmers but for the region as a whole.

"(Sheep farmers) are very resilient and I think the ones left are very dedicated to the industry and the community," he said.

"The beauty of sheep and wool is that it makes a huge impact in terms of employment.

"When shearing's on, you need a large number of employees … and at the end of the week, everyone goes and catches up at the hotel or hall.

"The flow on effect is not only good for the economy but good for the community."