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Mustering from sky a massive challenge

HIGH FLYING: Moving Santa Gertrudis breeders off a bore in the lake country of Rockhampton Downs on the Barkly Tableland in the Northern Territory. The art of aerial mustering is to put just enough pressure on stock to get them walking, but not so much that they run, become over-heated and separate from their calves.
HIGH FLYING: Moving Santa Gertrudis breeders off a bore in the lake country of Rockhampton Downs on the Barkly Tableland in the Northern Territory. The art of aerial mustering is to put just enough pressure on stock to get them walking, but not so much that they run, become over-heated and separate from their calves. Scott Bridle

IN NORTHERN Australia, the reputation of chopper pilots involved in the mustering game ranges from reckless adventurers to strict safety-conscious pilots. The best are incredibly skilled stockmen even at 500 feet.

On the ground their presence has made a significant difference to the pastoral industry in terms of workload and mustering efficiency.

This week the Bush Tele runs a compelling extract from Australian author Evan McHugh's book, The Stockmen: The Making of An Australian Legend, looking at the art of aerial mustering.

"It was in the 1960s, when the use of light aircraft became more common for travelling the vast distances between outback stations, that a pilot (possibly Windorah's Sandy Kidd) discovered that stock would move if an aircraft passed near them.

It wasn't long before fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters were being used to muster cattle and sheep in tandem with stockmen on motorbikes and horses on the ground.

Mustering pilots tend to be a young breed.

The work is difficult and dangerous. The lifestyle on remote stations is challenging.

However, outback aviation has the advantage of giving aspiring pilots the opportunity to get paid while adding to the flying hours needed to progress in their careers.

But while a passion for flying is a pre-requisite, an ability to understand stock is also a necessity.

Most mustering pilots are stockmen first and pilots second.

On 16,000sq km Lake Nash Station, on the southern Barkly, chopper pilot Erin Gibson took me for a fly to muster Blenheim Paddock.

Erin's Robinson R22 was parked literally at the back of his house.

We couldn't take off until there was enough light, but it still meant fuelling up and doing pre-flight checks while it was dark.

The sun was still below the eastern horizon when we got airborne.

When we got out to Blenheim, the ground crews were already in action and Erin got straight to work.

We flew down the southern fence, flushing cattle out of a small belt of gidgee and heading them towards two horsemen who were gathering a mob around a waterhole, ready to walk them to the yards on the north side of the paddock.

We then flew down to the western end of Blenheim and made sweeps to push the remaining cattle east.

There was no dramatic swooping and diving, the preferred result being cattle walking in the right direction, calm and steady.

Occasionally a beast refused to co-operate, prompting Erin to call someone on the ground to assist, if they were nearby.

The cattle quickly got the message when a horseman appeared.

Erin was 26, raised in sheep country at Walcha, in northern New South Wales, but like a lot of farm kids he'd dreamed of the big stations.

He went to work as a jackeroo as soon as he left school, then worked as an engineer with Qantas before studying to be a pilot when he got enough money together.

From the chopper we could see the slowly moving threads of animals, hundreds of cows and calves spread across a plain deeply covered in grass, interspersed with man-made waterholes.

It was a profoundly impressive sight, more so considering Lake Nash is one of only nine properties that carry between them three-quarters of a million cattle.

From our lofty perch, it was hard not to look over the great sweep of country below and feel a little like a king in a grass castle."

To read more about these high flying outback stockmen cut out the coupon below and put yourself in the draw to take home a copy of The Stockmen: The Making of An Australian Legend.

Topics:  cattle farm products livestock mustering