Remote and rewarding experiences on the land

Tammy Hughes owns and operates North Head Station with her husband Barry.

First published in the Rural Weekly.

I’m a grazier from the Gulf region in north Queensland, where my husband Barry and I operate North Head Cattle Station, near Forsayth.

The property has been in Barry’s family for more than 100 years and we are proud of the unique vegetation, geology, and wildlife of the area.

Growing up for me, was the whole family living in a very large caravan, constantly on the road - a totally different lifestyle to the one I live nowadays.  My parents owned and operated a heavy vehicle business and as machinery contractors they were part of the team, which built many of the roads in Northern Queensland back in the 1960s and 70s.

I attended school in little outback towns - whichever  school was close enough to where my parents were working at the time. When we were miles from anywhere, we received papers from Brisbane Distance Education. It was an extremely adventurous life and whenever possible my dad would pack us all up in his Landrover and off we’d go visiting different places in the outback.  So, I got to experience some unique places and of course one of those places is where I settled to live.

There were challenges along the way that were unique - like having no power, telephone or other services. There were no houses to move into, so we built a bower shed (a bush structure covered with fresh branches for shade) and lived under that for some time. At that time the roads were nothing like they are today. A trip to town took us well over two hours and the roads were rough, whereas today we have a very good road and you can zip into town in an hour and a half. As a young woman, my experience living on an outback cattle station was quite a challenging one.  There were many trials and tribulations having and rearing children in such an isolated place, even scary at times. The Flying Doctor was a god send, and when my children started with the Cairns School of Distance Education a whole new world opened up for us. Contact with other families, visits to town and school camps were a valued part of our year.

Being part of a family business of running a cattle station was a new experience for me - very different from being in the front of a big truck or helping my parents shift camp to a new job. I knew very little to nothing about cattle, fencing, mustering, employing ringers and above all the characters of the outback men that primarily worked and operated the cattle stations in the outback.  At that time women were just starting to become confident enough to show their talents and become part of the working team or even part of the management of their cattle businesses.

Women living and working in the outback on cattle stations have learned to wear many hats. One day you may be teaching your kids in the school room, the next you and your kids could be saddled up and part of the mustering team. Then there are the days when you pack the kids in the old Toyota and head out on a lick run or running fences, checking dams in the dry years - whatever needs to be done at the time.  And of course, there is always the house to be run, meals to be prepared for the family and mustering team.  You’re the nurse when someone is sick or injured and above all you’re the wife, mum, friend, homemaker and in most cases the peacemaker. I can tell you, you very quickly learn how to multitask.

I love the way outback life helps you grow as an individual. It is a totally different experience to anywhere else. It teaches you to appreciate your family, what you have and the environment you live in. The beauty and scenery of places you work give you a reason to appreciate where you live. The landscape out here is like no other- from the conglomerate rock, deep red ochre cliffs to the beautiful white gums and paper barks that line the river. The native animals that call our property home are an incredibly important part of the ecosystem, and we’re also very lucky to witness bird migrations that are breathtaking when they occur. Recently we had around 500 ibis take up residence around our house for a few days before they continued their journey. It’s moments like this that remind us that we have a responsibility to manage this land so it can support native species.

The work can be hard but I’ve always found it fulfilling. I would say out here the land and the people ground you. For me it’s always a reminder of “back to basics”. Nowadays we have power, phones and all the mod-cons but the best part is when you leave the homestead you’re back in the outback. Being part of your local community is very important in the outback. Forming relationships is crucial to any young person and when you’re isolated it is even more so.  Neighbours and community groups become close friends and give you a sense of belonging to your local town. I can tell you, you have to be in an outback town a good while before you’re considered a local!

We’ve lived through hard times before, and it’s always the support and connection of our community that enables people to bounce back after disasters. In 2013, massive bushfires burnt 94% of our property, and we were left with the prospect of having to feed our cattle amidst the aftermath of a devastating fire. We witnessed the generosity of hay producers and others in the cattle industry from the Atherton tablelands through to Brahman Breeders as far south as Rockhampton who provided feed until we could get things back in order was testament to the comradery that exists out here. These acts of kindness and support give us reason to be proud of the industry and communities we are part of.

My kids have grown up here, they went through distance education to the end of their junior schooling. Now they’re having to look for career opportunities elsewhere. A lot of people in our situation have done succession planning where your children will slowly progress into your role and then you can take that step backwards and let them in. We love our property, and would love for them to continue its legacy. But we also want them to take all the opportunities to follow their dreams.

Our focus is a long-term sustainability within the grazing world - we are proactive and are shifting to practices that take into account our climate, our ecosystems and a respectful management of our land.

A few years back, we made the decision to work with the government to put in place a nature refuge on the property, which has been a truly rewarding experience for both us and our property. It has helped us show what we’ve always known to be true - that cattle producers care deeply for their land and for its future prosperity. For us, it is important to demonstrate that if you manage your land right, you can protect nature, all the while running a successful business and providing food for Australian families. There are more than 500 nature refuge landholders across Queensland, managing 4.4 million hectares - that’s a lot of land to be managed, and if we manage it sustainably it will have a huge positive impact on our economy.

We’ve done a lot to ensure that this land is being protected for future generations - building fencing around the ecologically-sensitive areas of our property and installing new watering points for better grazing management. Feral animals can have such a negative impact on the area through increased grazing pressure which in turn damages natural waterholes. The work we’ve been able to do has made huge headway towards protecting our land from these threats, whilst also reducing the numbers of introduced species and feral animals.

A strong part of our way of life is to ensure that we don’t take from the land without giving back. It’s important that we think about this country differently, and change our land management practices to be more sustainable and drought resilient.

It never ceases to amaze me, when visitors to the property see the connection of what we are striving to achieve and are in ore of how we incorporate our grazing business whilst always having the ecology of the natural landscape as a priority. Working these two identities together, we can ensure the survival of our natural landscapes for everyone, and everything, into the future.