Vast tracts of central and northern Australia are gripped by an unrelenting drought that is decimating cattle herds and threatening to force pastoralists off their land.

Scattered rain has fallen over the past two days across some dehydrated parts of Queensland, and a searing heatwave that drove temperatures into the high 40s is now easing.

But weather forecasters see little chance of drought-breaking rains before autumn, with temperatures expected to remain above-average until March at least.

The heatwave pushed the mercury to more than 48C in the hottest parts of the state, dropping birds from the sky and killing thousands of fruit bats in Queensland and New South Wales.


In the Outback town of Maree, publican Phil Turner cooked an egg in a shovel. "We've got an egg there that's slowly frying away," he told ABC radio.

The cooling of this week's furnace will not ease the crisis facing the interior of northern NSW, Queensland and the Northern Territory, home to the bulk of the nation's A$8 billion ($8.6 billion) a year beef industry.

Many areas have been drought-stricken for almost two years, with only a brief respite from the "millenium drought", which began as early as 1995 for some regions and spread across the nation for the first decade of the century.

With the failure of the monsoon season more than 60 per cent of Queensland has been drought-declared since September. The dry has also parched western and central NSW from the border with South Australia to Queensland.

As the drought tightened its grip, pastoralists increased their slaughter rates. Tens of thousands of cattle have been shot, or starved to death in their paddocks, as feed and water supplies run out. Dams have dried up, and farmers have been urgently hunting emergency supplies, carting in water or drilling new bores.

Many are facing huge feed bills as the value of both their stock and land plummets.

Farmers report that in many areas herds have already been halved, with the slaughter of breeding stock threatening herd rebuilding and recovery when the drought breaks.

Some have said that if significant rains do not fall by autumn their operations will become worthless and they would have no option but to abandon their properties.


State and federal relief packages are being granted to stave off the worst for as long as possible. Queensland is providing up to A$20,000 for food and fodder freight subsidies, and for emergency water supplies.

Most federal aid is directed at farming households to provide essentials such as food and clothing, although Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce has ordered a review of relief measures.

Joyce, who grew up on a cattle and sheep farm, is alarmed at the choices being forced on cattle producers.

"I'm always terribly concerned when people have the dire alternative that if they take the cattle to sale, the price of what it'll cost them is more than what they'll get," he told the ABC.

"If they leave them in the paddock they'll starve to death, so you can't do that. So you're left with the alternative that you've got to shoot them. That is not a good experience for any person involved."

Outback towns also face a growing crisis. This week Joe Owens, the Mayor of Longreach, in Queensland's central west, warned that the town would run out of water at some stage.

The outlook is not good. The latest assessment by the National Climate Centre said rainfall deficits had become more severe across Queensland and much of NSW. Most of western Queensland, northern NSW, northeast SA, and the southeast of NT had received less than 60 per cent of their long-term average rainfall.