I’ve been trying to get a little gap for writing a journal update all day. This morning I was feeding home-made hazelnut-honey cluster muesli to guests before giving them a farm tour that lasted most of the morning. When they left to go sight-seeing on the coast, I started juggling.

I was a little late for the milk delivery after that little tour, so the three 3L bottles in the mailbox were lukewarm by the time I got to them. With no further ado I went into the house and made a batch of cheese using one of the bottles, and the remainder of the bottle we had in the fridge. The other two will last another five days or so and if any milk starts to go on the turn, you can always make it into cottage cheese if you catch that early – and I do catch it early, I can tell before most other people when milk is about to go on the turn.

I’ve been making cottage cheese since I was a teenager with a goat. You simply put the milk in a saucepan with a bit of lemon juice or white vinegar, and start heating it. The combination of heat and acid causes the proteins to come out of solution – in biochemistry language – in normal talk we say it causes curds to form and to separate from the whey.

While that was happening, I put on some bread – I often juggle several things in the kitchen – and heated up some vegetable soup for my lunch. I’m shifting sprinklers around every 15-40 minutes during daytime, to keep the garden, vegetable garden, and small utility areas where the horses and donkeys have their hard feeds reasonably green and under vegetation cover so the soil doesn’t erode. The dog’s sofa cover was dirty and it’s in the washing machine right now. I’m also supervising the three yearling steers I’ve let into the lower section of our garden so they can get some green grass (we’re in drought) and I don’t have to mow. Win-win. They’re still quite small, under 250kg, about like our bigger donkeys. The 2yo Friesian steers are like bulldozers, easily 700kg each already, and you can’t let them anywhere near a garden, or polybraid fencing when they get that big. They’re supposed to go off to market, but because of the drought, the butchers are oversupplied and prices are therefore depressed, so we’re holding them a little longer. We have maybe three weeks of pasture left for them unless it rains.

The drought is really bad. We’ve had just over 400mm of rain this year so far with one day to go, and usually we should get 750-800mm here. The last decent rain fell in late September. The farmland looks like February. Usually this place is still green at Christmas. The honey harvest is just enough for us and a few friends, because the eucalypts can’t flower properly with this little rain. Last year we had zero honey – that was also a drought year – the bees made just enough for themselves, to stay alive. Usually a hive will make 20kg of honey a week during peak eucalyptus blossom, which can go on for six weeks – and with four hives, that’s a lot of honey. Our honey usually makes us more pocket money than our cattle do. We’re not dependent on our farm to survive financially as both of us work part-time for an off-farm income as well – Brett does four days a week administration support for a local medical practice, I write for a couple of independent magazines at the moment and am also doing the farmstay trial we’ve just started this month.

The bushfires over East are heartbreaking. 5 million hectares of bushland burnt black with over 90% of the animals in it wiped out. The beekeeper’s association told us they are trauma counselling young apiarists going into forests to check if any hives survived, because of the terrible sounds of burnt, dying animals in those forests – koalas, kangaroos, emus, wallabies, and lots of smaller things that can’t make noises as they lie on the ground waiting for a slow death. It is so horrible I can’t bear to think about it – millions and millions of animals in that situation. It’s bad enough when they have to go around shooting burnt cattle, horses, sheep etc after a wildfire runs through agricultural areas – but with the wildlife, there’s not enough resources to put them out of their misery, and the ones that didn’t die immediately are dying slowly of their burns and wounds, and inability to eat anymore, even if there was food. I’ve never known anything sadder than this.

All we can do is try to protect our own patch. Brett has been in the volunteer bushfire brigade since age 13 and had a lot of involvement in mosaic-style preventative burning, and also in fighting emergency wildfires, up in the Perth Hills, where he grew up and lived close to until we got married in 2008 – after which he moved to the South Coast because he loved it here. Our local brigade doesn’t believe in doing much preventative work – it’s an odd one out; neighbouring brigades do a lot more. Our community firetruck sits in the fire shed for months on end during autumn and winter, when preventative work is best done and the bush recovers best and there aren’t young animals in nests. They only seem to believe in taking it out when there is a wildfire. The rest of the time the >$100,000 truck just sits there. It’s quite scandalous, and Bill, who’s 84 and used to do a lot of fire management in our area when he was a young person, is disgusted, as are we. Aboriginal people firestick farmed this country for 30,000 years, and Europeans are just neglecting this since they’ve pushed the indigenous people off this land 200 years ago.

This morning I was showing our visitors our 50ha conservation reserve, showing them what various types of vegetation look like various numbers of years after cool burning, or hot burning (previously neglected areas). They could see how operating in a mosaic fashion allows a patchwork of vegetation of various ages to exist side-by-side: Green lush regrowth next to old-growth patches full of nesting holes for possums and cockatoos in the trees and dense scrub for little birds, protected by the low fuel load regrowth around it. Autumn burning in patches that are small enough so that most of the animals can escape into adjacent areas, and when the rain falls later in autumn, a flush of regrowth there that the wildlifes like to feed on. If you burn just as the first rain comes in for the autumn, the ash doesn’t get blown away by the wind, but stays to fertilise the regrowth that can’t occur without water. If you spring burn in our climate, you burn when young are in their nests and burn them in their nests, and the burnt land lies bare over the whole of summer, with the ash blown away and weed seeds blown in, and it’s half a year before any regrowth can start. With autumn burning, it’s immediate.

It’s just what the indigenous people did. Our visitors were amazed that Brett and I work on foot to do our mosaic burning, and use hand rakes to control the fire – and obviously, firebreaks, and right timing – wind direction, moisture levels, dew at night etc. The indigenous people did this work barefoot…

We love our bushland with a passion. It’s a leftover piece of Gondwana, never cleared, lineages millions of years old.

Sue & Jess on fireground patrol, 2018

The story of a burn we did and photos here:

More photos here:

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