LES 'Snake' Presnell is nearly as poetic as Banjo Paterson when he talks of droving sheep along the long paddock, the 600,000 hectares of travelling stock routes that criss-cross NSW.
"I've always loved me sheep," he said. "What I like about droving is you keep the sheep alive for the cockies at home. It is a pretty good life: a few dogs, a few horses, to play around and get 'em going," said Mr Presnell, a long-time drover.
A drover's life may have pleasures that city folk don't know, as Paterson wrote, but the long paddock - the 50-300 metres of land on the sides of rural roads - is getting shorter and narrower.
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In parts of NSW and Queensland, where many believe climate change has caused the worst drought in years, these green verges are a refuge for stock and biodiversity. In the face of climate change, the stock route may serve as an unintended positive for species that can move to areas less affected by climate, research says.
According to a new group, the Combined Action to Retain Routes for Travelling Stock (CARRTS), which is holding a major meeting in Dubbo on Tuesday, the State government has been killing off the stock routes by wilful neglect for decades. The government had failed to maintain water holes or repair fences on these roads, which are mostly Crown land. The new group says the government's plan to lease out the routes for as long as five years could spell the end of droving and put 800 active drovers out of work.
"It (the government) is placing an iconic chunk of traditional ... Australian history and biodiversity at grave risk of complete extinction," it said. This would result in enormous loss to drovers and graziers and to campers, fishers and environmentalists, said CARRTS in its petition to "Save the Beef Highways" that it is promoting on its Facebook page.
Whistling to his dogs - named pragmatically for the colour of their fur - Mr Presnell moved 3000 sheep along the greenish verge of Warren Road south of Walgett. After five months on the road, his flock looked "real good, nice and fat". If they had been left at their home in Come-by-Chance, which is entering its fourth year of drought, they might have "been all dead in the paddock by now."
It was a "bloody shame" to see the routes being leased out and closed down, he said.
To cover the costs of the Travelling Stocks Routes and Reserves (TSRs), the Local Land Services, which manages them, has been offering new long-term leases. Others are by the month, and the routes can be leased to move or graze stock.
In the Riverina, the Local Land Services recently called for tenders for annual grazing permits of one to five years, with options to extend, along the travelling stock reserves in Wagga Wagga, Narrandera, and Gundagai.
In places like Walgett, many farmers are leasing paddocks adjoining their own properties, often because they are much greener because they get twice as much rain (the usual and the run-off from the road). In the north-west region of the Local Land Services, about 27 per cent of stock routes are available for lease compared with only seven per cent in 2011.
Members of the National Parks Association side with the drovers, preferring occasional grazing by cattle and sheep on the routes to long-term use by local farmers. Ecologists such as Peter Metcalfe, who has been campaigning to preserve the biodiversity of the stock routes for nearly 25 years, argue that they protect remnant habitat and threatened species.
Mr Metcalfe has sighted rare orchids on the stock routes that are rarely found elsewhere. Because of clearing and fertilisation, many farms no longer contain the same species or biodiversity that flourish in the adjacent stock route.
"It is very noticeable in one stock route that runs north-east of Armidale," he says. "In paddocks adjoining there are no wattles, but in the TSR there are at least 10 species of wattles."
The stock routes had survived occasional grazing. "They've been looked after that way for over 100 years, with stock being driven through or grazing, but not staying there and grazing it out. That's the danger of what's happening."
Stock routes were initially created to move stock to market. Now they have become a "tremendous asset dealing with droughts on the eastern seaboard", according to farmer Michael O'Brien, whose stock were being driven by Mr Presnell. "It is disappointing to see its use cut by leasing out sections of the route."
NSW Farmers President Fiona Simson said that farmers acknowledged the challenges presented by climate change.
"Climate challenges mean that stock routes are a necessary tool to enable farmers to survive drought. We support the maintenance of the travelling stock reserve system and the public good which arises from its operation."