ONE of the first things that settlers noticed pretty quickly after the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 was that Australia was a land of regular and devastating droughts.
The first was noticed in 1791. Extreme dries came and went throughout the 19th century. They continued during the 20th century and now – with climate change as an added worrying overlay – they are just as threatening during the 21st century.
In earlier times, when agriculture had a greater grip on the national identity, the fear of drought was a palpable and rarely absent curse. Catholic priest Patrick Joseph Hartigan – a poet under the pen name John O’Brien – captured things perfectly with his 1919 bushy’s lament, Said Hanrahan.
If we don't get three inches, man, or four to break this drought, we'll all be rooned, said Hanrahan, before the year is out.
Ninety-nine years later, we have a much greater scientific understanding of weather patterns, and of human impact on the broader climate, but for the farmer on the ground, the problem – how to keep crops and animals alive without rain – is as pressing a problem as ever.
As our exploration of conditions around Scone and Merriwa has revealed, sections of the Upper Hunter are again as dry as a bone, and predicted to remain that way for the foreseeable future. Farmers are again selling stock, and describing the conditions as the worst they have seen them for a long time. The question that some will be asking is whether this is just more of the same – harsh, but natural weather – or do the temperature charts showing record numbers of 40-degree days in a row provide ample evidence that something new and man-made is going on here?
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, conditions in some areas are in the worst 10 per cent when compared with historical averages, with parts of the Upper Hunter going through what the bureau calls a “one-in-20-year rainfall deficiency”. This definition, as it happens, is the same that the Federal Government uses as one of its parameters for financial drought assistance, saying the one-in-20-year conditions must have lasted for a year or more.
Bureau maps show the Australian continent is largely free of drought, but the Upper Hunter is shown as having had a “severe” rainfall deficiency for the past 10 months. The science, then, is telling the farmers what they already knew. That things are very dry.