For 29 days I documented the day to day at Madura Plains during their shearing. Nothing about this trip across the Nullabor was going to be ordinary for me.
I was putting big fat ticks on my bucket list next to the Nullabor, halfway across Australia and the Great Australian Bight.
I was taking my 11 month old babe, Travis, right into the thick of isolation, further than I had ever taken him before.
The craziest part about it though, was that if this property wasn’t up to scratch with happy, healthy sheep living there, it would be the end of my career in the wool industry. I would leave everything I have been advocating and working for on the Nullabor and disappear into radio silence.
In late January an animal activist group published a map that listed agricultural businesses across Australia that are cruel, act inhumanely towards animals and house commercial livestock that are in dire need of ‘rescuing’. They instructed their foot army to trespass onto private properties and into the homes of farming families and act out their agenda for them. There would be no consideration of biosecurity for the safety of the livestock held on the properties or indeed privacy and safety of these families – just a top priority of forceful entry and following orders blindly.
This map immediately infuriated me. It coincided with the release of this particular group’s new documentary. While farming families were now worried for their own safety and the bio security of their farms, the CEO sat back rubbing his hands in his office with clean boots and the publicity he was after all along.
I wanted to take this cult leader down. But, what could one little photographer with some pretty pictures of sheep do? I couldn’t beat him, so I joined him. Well, kind of. A week after the activist group’s publicity stunt, I travelled out to one of the properties on the map with shearing team, Essential Shearing. 1200km and three days later I arrived with my family at ‘Madura Plains’, Madura WA.
I had never visited this property before, met any of the workers or had seen the condition of the sheep. I was going in blind. Not once did I have any doubt about the farm practices I would find out there. I am so confident in Aussie agriculture that before I hit the Nullabor I vouched for Madura Plains and it’s people. I knew that what I would find would be nothing short of the humane, compassionate care of sheep. I knew that they would have nothing to hide and no reason to be on that map. I was so confident in fact, that if I did find anything different, I would not only eat my words, but walk away from my decade long career in the wool industry. I would walk away easily too – I couldn’t be part of an industry that didn’t align with my own ethos.
Madura Plains is not your run of the mill sheep property. It’s the third largest sheep station in Australia at 2 million acres and running around 53,000 sheep. This mammoth enterprise came into new ownership in 2014 with C & C Cooper Co purchasing it for $10 million. I had assumed that with such large numbers attached to this place that everything would be done in bulk. Sheep would just be numbers. A faceless commodity. I had never experienced such a huge operation before, so I did what anyone else would do – drew on my own experience (or lack thereof) and the small amount of info that had popped up in my newsfeed about large scaling farming.
I really wanted to provide transparency with the farming practices that I would have the time to cover, so I documented what I was seeing and learning through live videos on my instagram and facebook. I took my social media community along with me around the property and gave them a behind the scenes and unedited look at exactly what a day in the life of Madura Plains looks like.
There was no time for set ups, no time for that type of princess from me. There were sheep to muster, draft, shear, vaccinate, back line, feed and truck. While the shearing and station teams were both happy to have me around taking photos and videos, I was left to my own devices. With a baby on my hip and phone and camera in hand, my time was valuable. I had no luxuries of picking and choosing what kind of edit I would like to present of the farming practices, it was all shot as it was with no coat of sugar or interference from me.
I was granted full access to the entire 2 million acres and even took to the skies for an aerial view of mustering. The mob below us was 7,000 strong and the dust they kicked up slowly wafted across the plains as a signal that there was huge movement on the station. We flew over troughs, tanks and laneways. The jillaroos and jackaroos on motorbikes, walking the sheep to the woolshed were like ants. Personally, it was something I will never forget and being able to get up above it all and see just how small we really are put somethings in perspective for me. From my advocacy point of view, it was reassuring seeing all of the watering points within the huge amount of miles that we covered.
The yards filling up at the woolshed was something to see and once again, with an aerial perspective at my disposal with my drone, it was so impressive to watch the sheep move through the yards. While mustering and the back yards processed the sheep in bulk, once they hit the drafting race, the sheep suddenly went from a mob to individuals. Of the month that I spent on this property, this was the part that impressed me most.
Every single sheep was handled individually. Drafted, shorn, vaccinated and back lined – they were all touched by a human. Each and every one had their own personalised services. If there was an injury or any sickness, these sheep would be treated. Not only that, they were also given preventative treatments to make sure that when they are returned back to their paddocks to graze freely, their days would be comfortable and god willing, sickness free. This took a lot of man power, hours and financial investment from C C Cooper & Co but it showed in the health of their sheep.
Madura Plains hasn’t been immune to the drought and it’s slowly taking a firm grip of the land. While it is impossible to hand feed 53,000 sheep while they graze inbetween shearings, when they are spending their time around the woolshed, their bellies are filled with export quality, high density hay. Here’s some numbers on that –
2 road trains full of hay
700kg per bale of hay
$300 per bale $30,000 per road train $60,000 worth of hay during shearing time
While it’s not absolutley necessary for the sheep’s wellbeing to be fed A1 hay after shearing, this has always been a practice in place here. I like to see it as a thank you from the station team and owners for provding them with another year of beautiful fleece and a lamb.
Moving into the woolshed I knew exactly what to expect here. I have been travelling with Essential Shearing for a few months now and have never had any hesitation taking my camera into any woolshed that this team is shearing at. Animal welfare is paramount for this team and every sheep from lambs to crossbred rams are all handled the same – with care and respect.
Madura Plains was no exception to Essential Shearing’s norm. While big numbers were still being pumped out of the shed (1200 – 1300 per day) with 8 stands running and 5 woolhandlers also running around the shed, it was still incredible to watch. The choreographed dance between the shearing and wool teams was mesmorising.
The entire time I was there, not once did I hesitate to document an act, a practice or an animal. Experiencing this farm firsthand taught me so much more than I ever could have learned just from looking in on it online. Even after working in the wool industry and living on a sheep property myself for the last 11 years, I still learnt about sheep and wool every single day. I met the people who are dedicating their lives to the health and safety of the livestock here. They rely on each other to survive.
I, myself am an animal lover. I eat meat and am part of a commercial livestock industry but I still feel deep compassion and respect for animals. I rescue moths from sinks and will step well over any line of ants. My dog sleeps inside and I gladly will give her the last bite of my steak. I rescued injured wildlife and once saved a sheep’s life by giving it CPR. I don’t stand for animal cruelty and will never cover it up. But, with the wool industry and Madura Plains in particular, I wouldn’t have to anyway.
I stand by my industry. I stand by our Aussie farms. Its safe to say that I won’t be walking away from my career in wool anytime soon.
For all those behind the scenes, watch the ‘Madura Plains’ stories at www.instagram.com/chantelrenaephotography
Thank you to
- Al and Seth Cooper for allowing me full access to their poperty
- Matt Haines (manager) for all your patience and time spent teaching me the ropes
- The Haines family for all your time, babysitting and help with adjusting to life in isolation.
- Jaime and Bernie for adult company and all the coffee
- Ros Allsop for your reassurance and advice
- All the station workers and contracted teams for allowing me to get my camera up in your faces
- Kiwi for taking me up in your plane and distracting me during my panic attacks
- Essential Shearing for another ripper shed and providing us with everything a young family needs