The Cloncurry Cattle Crisis –

Jacqueline Curley and her husband Robert are cattle graziers based in the Cloncurry area of outback Queensland. Operating Gipsy Plains Braham Stud for over 30 years, they have been breeding high-quality red and grey Braham cattle. Outside the cattle yards, Jacqueline is an experienced photographer capturing the beauty and rawness of the bush lifestyle and agricultural industry. She is a fierce advocate for those living and working on the land and her passion for the bush emits through her images. In 2019 the Curley family experienced one of the most catastrophic floods to date in the area (The Cloncurry Cattle Crisis), losing 50% of their herd and even with a hard knock on company finances, they found a way to pick themselves up and continue to work on the land they love so much.

The mental health ramifications of such an event can be devastating, the element of trauma, witnessing stock perish and the amount of stress following these floods is unimaginable. Rural and Remote Mental Health aims to be a voice for those in the bush, but we understand that they’re a tough bunch and asking for help is difficult. Jacqueline kindly agreed to speak with us about the floods and how they affected not just the Curley family, but those living around them. There’s no doubt about it, they breed em’ tough on the land.

“We run the places as an aggregation now, with our son and his family. Gipsy Plains is about 72,000 acres, Cotswold is about 26,000 and the other is 10,000 acres, but we run them as one unit. Gipsy Plains itself was one of the last of the government ballot blocks in 1963. Our daughter has her own block down in Blackall with her partner, “ said Jacqueline.

“We’d pretty much all been in drought for several years, we were all wondering how much longer we’d be this dry. Then that weather system came through on the 29th of January in 2019. It just came in like a normal wet season weather event and kept raining for about 3 days. We were all thinking this is wonderful, this is so great and what we need. But at the end of the 3 days, it intensified and didn’t show any signs of letting up. It became almost like a mini cyclone over land. It blew about 70km winds day and night for about 3 and a half days with driving rain, it just never let up.”

“We couldn’t get out there to see what was going on, and it was extremely cold. Livestock don’t eat or drink during that time, they turn their backs to the wind and the rain just thunders down on them. So, they pretty much went for 7 days and 7 nights without eating or drinking much and were totally dehydrated. When that finished, they were so traumatised that they wouldn’t go into a waterhole or through mud to get to a trough to drink, they just wanted to stay on their little dry patches. They were like zombies.”

“When it cleared, we were dropping hay to them in helicopters, privately at first as the government helicopters were sitting on the tarmac in Cloncurry and hadn’t been released yet by Anastacia Palaszczuk. We spent about $40,000 in three days on choppers alone and I believe another big company spent $700,000 on chopper bills alone. Fodder was very hard to get a hold of so anyone that did have it was pretty much sharing it out.”

“We had the 44’s here with the big straps on them pulling the animals out of mud areas and moving them to dry ground. We didn’t save much at the end of the day after we’d sorted through the cattle, medicated any that looked like they may survive and shifted them. When you are lifting them up into the air and moving them a hundred yards or so it’s even more stressful for them, however some of those survived.”

“We lost roughly half of our herd. They weren’t just commercial cattle either, they were all purebred stud type of animals. That made it a little bit more devastating, however a life is a life, and an animal is an animal. But they were a pedigree of many generations so it’s a bit more emotional.”

“At the time we thought we were coping quite well; we didn’t realise we were in shock. People came out of the woodwork everywhere to help. I still take my hat off to the people that came out to help, they came from everywhere, from all walks of life.”

“It’s the stress of not knowing what’s happening to your livestock, you don’t know to what extent or any ideas of what may be happening out there. Your mind can run away on you a bit and I just felt sick to my stomach until I knew what was going on. It was worse than anybody anticipated. The smell was the worst, after the first week, we had 150 cattle dead within a few hundred yards of the house and the wind was blowing directly at us. We had this horrible stench coming through the whole time and absolutely nothing you could do about it until you could get loaders and equipment out there which wasn’t for some weeks. It didn’t matter where you went, there were rotting carcasses everywhere.”

“We had more support from the Morrison Government than we’ve ever had from any government in my entire life in the agricultural industry, so we jumped straight back into restocking as much as possible and utilised every dollar that was available in government emergency grants.”

“No one knew this was happening out here, no one knew anything about it. I took hundreds of photos after flying over the place on one of the days following the floods and it wasn’t until I uploaded the photos to Facebook that my phone started ringing and I had journalists from Sydney to Townsville to Cairns asking what was happening out here. One journalist had told me that their bosses had said to not worry about what was happening out west and to concentrate on the East Coast and populated areas.”

The strong stigma associated with mental illness is still very much apparent in rural areas of Australia, even after life-altering events like the Cloncurry Cattle Crisis, the bushies are extremely hesitant to seek help. In small towns, news travels fast and can discourage people from getting professional services like psychologists and counsellors. Many on the land believe that if you can’t hack it, don’t do it. However, PTSD symptoms after a natural disaster are hard to avoid even for the toughest of them.

“Mental health is something that no one has talked about much, I haven’t had an in-depth conversation with anyone other than very close friends about it. I don’t know of anyone else much that has either. There was one person I do know that was forthcoming at a meeting that I was at and said it had affected his mental health greatly. When hundreds of cattle die in close proximity to your house and you can’t move them for ages, I am not surprised that it really rocked him for a long time and is probably an ongoing trauma.”

“I don’t think there are too many people in the bush now who will access mental health support, they just will not do it. There is too much stigma involved with mental illness. We are tough, you deal with so much in this lifestyle. From the time you’re a child you deal with death and destruction and disappointment your entire life. There are the good things that come with it too but that is always an underlying thing, you’re always dealing with that. You must learn to deal with it, or you can’t do it.”.

“People cope in such different ways, some people cry or some get angry, and we go through all the four stages of grief. Everyone goes through that in their own given time. But people probably don’t even know that the actual process exists for all of us in differing timeframes.”

“I think it’s important as a community to band together. I don’t know if you ever fully recover from an event like that. You do what you can do to get through. I think at the end of the day everyone just coped with it the best they could. We had a good family support system amongst ourselves and without them here it would have been so much more difficult to deal with everything.  I am so grateful we didn’t have to do it all by ourselves. Having that additional support is crucial, you need people around you because I think if you were on your own you would be in a very dark place”.

“It’s good to see that the Northwest weather disaster of 2019 has not been entirely scrubbed off the page with the advent of numerous natural disasters occurring Australia-wide since then. The physical evidence may be gone, but the memories linger on to resurface from various triggers. A group such as Rural & Remote Mental Health becoming involved can only benefit any rural community after such an event.”

“On an interaction level with participants, the comment I make is to perhaps steer in the direction of online workshops, to begin with.  This may bring people together who would otherwise not become involved.”

If you or someone you know need support, please reach out to the below organisations. On the other end of the line, you will find incredibly compassionate people who are wanting to help.

LifeLine: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636