Farmer forced to shoot 1200 starving sheep
FARMER Les Jones will this month shoot all 1200 of his starving sheep and bury them in a mass grave on his barren farm in northwestern NSW.
The sheep are living skeletons, so emaciated the Jones family can't even use them to feed themselves "unless we ate soup every day".
The cattle are so hungry they are scraping dried moss off rocks with their teeth and chasing stray leaves that blow off trees.
The Sunday Telegraph has been visiting farms throughout the rain-starved state, where many areas are suffering the driest conditions since records began in 1900.
At Goolhi, west of Gunnedah, the Joneses are in an impossible situation. Even if they could find an abattoir wiling to buy their livestock, which is highly unlikely, the sheep are too gaunt to legally put on a truck.
But they've run out of money to buy increasingly scarce hay and increasingly expensive grain.
Currently, 10 sheep a day die from starvation on the 670ha property, so the most humane option is to shoot them all.
"We own an old dozer and the husband is finding somewhere on the farm to dig a big hole and push them in," Les's wife Laura said.
"We don't have any choice but to shoot them. We've tried our utmost to keep them alive, but how can we?"
Visitors are warned not to accept a cup of tea from Mrs Jones because the remaining 60cm of drinking water in the family's rainwater tank is infused with the whiff of mosquito larvae and dead mice.
Each night Les, Laura and daughter Lillie take turns to have a bath in the same water, which turns black before it's emptied.
The farming family rations its bottled water, which is all they have to drink.
All 12 dams on the property are either dry or contain just a few centimetres of brown water, which they've had to fence off because sheep were getting stuck and dying in the muddy banks. There isn't any nutritious pasture left on the property - just red dirt and tufts of razor grass, which the livestock won't eat because it cuts their mouths.
The drought is taking its toll on Lillie, 15, the couple's only child, who doesn't want to leave her home behind but understands her parents have no choice but to sell up.
"I'm going to lose my home one day soon, which upsets me because I love it here," Lillie said.
"But there's no feed, no water and when the last dam dries up we won't have any choice but to leave."
Lillie has spent every day of school holidays helping her dad, which means dragging dead sheep out of paddocks.
Lillie's parents constantly worry about her. They describe her as "utterly heartbroken".
Les Jones "doesn't have a clue" what he'll do when he shuts the gate for the last time on the farm he's lived on for 60 years.
"I don't read and write too good and I've been on the land all my life," he said. The current drought is the worst he's ever endured and while the constant death and devastation is "f … king hard", it will be harder still to leave.
In an ordinary year, the property is highly productive and can sustain 1500 merino sheep or 500 angus cattle.
The farm has been up for sale since 2014 and is valued at $1.5 million on paper, even though there's currently not a single blade of green grass and it's impossible to make any money off it.
The Jones' neighbours are no better off and have listed their properties for sale as well. The family would have been forced off the land sooner, if it had not been for the generosity of Australia's largest farming charity Aussie Helpers and founder Brian Egan.
In just three hours in a car with Mr Egan yesterday, as reception faded in and out, The Sunday Telegraph watched the text messages and emails constantly come in. They ranged from straightforward requests for assistance to gruff-sounding farmers admitting they don't have mental fortitude "to keep burying cows every day".
Mr Egan will today visit an elderly farming family in Gilgandra near Dubbo who are shearing wool off dead sheep because they need the $80 they can make from each fleece.
Aussie Helpers currently supports more than 150 farming families with groceries and livestock feed at a cost of more than $100,000 a month without government funding.
Mr Egan backed The Sunday Telegraph's campaign for state and federal governments to reinstate freight subsidies for fodder and water, bring back drought declarations, and make it easier for farming families to access modest welfare payments.