Fires ravage rural Australian economy

By Greg Ansley

Farmers face crushing losses as cost of stock deaths, damage so far runs to many millions and conservationists say toll on endangered wildlife will be felt long time after flames die.

In New South Wales alone, more than 10,000 head of stock, mostly sheep, have been killed and the losses over all states affected are yet to be tallied. Photo / AAP
In New South Wales alone, more than 10,000 head of stock, mostly sheep, have been killed and the losses over all states affected are yet to be tallied. Photo / AAP

Farmers and conservationists are bracing for the effects of the bushfires still raging down the eastern states. Flames have already consumed more than 200,000ha of agricultural and bushland in the past two weeks, devastating farms, forests and national parks.

Although too early for accurate estimates, stock losses are believed to be running into the tens of thousands through Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales and central Australia, adding to earlier tolls from thousands of smaller outbreaks since the fire season began in spring.

The firestorms triggered by the continuing heatwave have also burned dozens of farm buildings, agricultural equipment, vast tracts of pasture, fodder supplies and fencing, and cut power and telephones to rural communities.

Federal and state governments have launched special aid packages for stricken areas.

"Thankfully there's been no loss of life or large-scale loss of houses, however the bushfires have had a devastating effect on livestock and farmland," NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell said.

National Farmers Federation chief executive Matt Linnegar said that across four states, stocks losses so far were estimated at 21,000, mostly sheep but also some cattle.

The cost of lost stock was estimated at between A$2.5 million ($3.13 million) and A$3 million.

In Tasmania, the only state so far where overall estimates had been possible, the cost to farmers ran to about A$8.2 million, with 6000km of fencing also lost.

In NSW, an estimated 10,000 head of stock had been killed, with the cost put at more than A$1 million.

"Of course none of that accounts for the mental and emotional stress of saving your home or shooting injured livestock you have raised," Linnegar said. "None of that is pretty for farmers."

For individual farmers, the costs are crushing.

Ian Bush in Yass, NSW, said 90 per cent of his property had burned this week, with 700 of his flock of 3000 sheep killed and kilometres of fencing destroyed. He estimated his losses at A$100,000.

Farmers have also lost buildings, gear, crops and fodder supplies that would force them to farm out stock or buy in fodder, or both.

Linnegar said offers of help were already pouring in, including from New Zealand's Federated Farmers.

The fires are also ravaging native wildlife, putting endangered species further at risk and creating longer-term crises that will put large numbers at risk from starvation and predators well after the flames have been extinguished.

Thousands have burned to death or suffocated.

Wildlife expert Dr Robert Johnson, the spokesman for the Australian Veterinary Association, said the toll of the fires would extend far beyond homes, buildings and farms. "There are also many unseen victims such as small animals that make homes in bushes, hollow logs, trees and underground," he said.

"Some species such as birds may be able to escape more easily than others but will be affected once they try to return to their preferred habitat. This can occur for months after a bushfire.

"And unfortunately some species, such as koalas, wombats and echidnas, are already under threat from other factors such as habitat destruction and predation by feral animals."

More than 10,000 native animals are believed to have been killed by Victoria's catastrophic Black Saturday fires in 2009.

- NZ Herald

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