I have been watching in dismay as our Australian farmers continue to battle fire and drought. One of the most heartbreaking things is seeing hard working people being forced from the land due to crop failure and the high price of hay. Of course those on vast acreages may survive, gobbling up the smallholders. Sadly, t’was ever thus.

Hard times for farmers.

Some years ago my partner and I were walking the 298km Thames Path. Near Oxford we passed the now tiny settlement of Eaton Hastings. In the church notes at  St Michael and All Angels the following rhyme appears: ‘Horn and thorn have left England all forlorn.’   ‘Horn’ stood for  sheep and ‘Thorn’ was a reference to hawthorn hedging, which was used to enclose huge tracts of land for sheep runs in the 15th century.  As a result of the enclosures  tenant farmers were ousted and villages  like Eaton Hastings became depopulated.

Eaton Hastings Church. Small farmers  in the area were forced from their properties due to The Enclosures.
St Michael and All Angels’ Church., it was once the centre of a rural community, but the farmers have long since gone.

The English statesman and humanitarian Sir Thomas More realised what was happening in the Countryside and commented;  ‘The shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame and so smal eaten, be become so greate devourers and so wylde that they eat up and swallow the very men themselves.’  Of the displaced tenant farmers he wrote sadly: ‘By one means or by another, by hooke or crooke,  they must needs departe away, poore wretched souls.’ With no alternative means of earning a living, many  took to the roads as tramps.

In the 18th Century the establishment of extensive sheep runs played a big part in the tragedy of Scotland’s Highland Clearances.

From The Scotsman;

Farmers on Highland crofts were often forcibly evicted.
Abandoned crofts. Photo by Sarah Egan


A century later a similar problem was occurring in my home state of Tasmania. The following is from an editorial in the Launceston Examiner, on May 23 1907;

Our national life-blood is being drawn away, and therefore some drastic steps must be taken to renew the flow, and one of the best means is to put the plough at work again on those areas which have gone out of cultivation. No state can expect to progress which allows the farmer to give place to the shepherd, or a whole countryside to be depopulated by one or two men.’

From The Daily Post two years later, writing on the same issue;

‘The solution of the whole problem is to be found in the land. So long as Tasmania carries nearly ten times as many sheep as human being to the square mile there will be neither room for our people nor for newcomers. Because there is land monopoly, population drains away. The cause that led to the depopulation of Ireland are in operation here, and if they are not checked the result must inevitably be the same.’

Today, there is still injudicious land clearing in Australia, and an increase in vast, corporate holdings.

And as I mentioned at the outset, Australia is in the grip of severe and prolonged drought. I am a dairy farmer’s daughter and watch with distress as families are forced to give up farms and prized, much loved milking herds.

Sad times for farmers ...the sale of a dairy herd due to drought.

Most of these properties and/or the breeding stock will be purchased by large lot farmers. Rural communities die and so an age-old trend continues. I wish there were easy answers…..or any answers for that matter!

NOTE -A road trip during an earlier period of drought led to a stronger sense of national identity for myself and my partner. You can read about it HERE

  1. The sadness of it all reminds me of the saying – ‘those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it.’ And in the case of agriculture, as we have seen so often in the history of the UK, the farmers leave the land for the towns, and find it even harder to survive. Those who do, struggle for a couple of generations to get back on their feet.
    In some respects it’s the history of migration – people move elsewhere to find something better. After that, it’s the survival of the fittest – and that’s heartbreaking to contemplate.

    • Pauline

      Yes, I agree Ann. I think our current crisis will change the nature of agriculture in Australia forever. There has been a big response to my piece in FB groups apportioning blame, but I didn’t write it with any political stance at all.

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