The first big storm saw the dam fill and rivers broaden to ten times their normal size for an afternoon. A neighbour’s creek crossing dissolved in the flow, the rock and rubble broadcast along the river bottom. The second big storm saw our rainwater tank, still awaiting a shed to fill it, lifted vertically from its nest of stardroppers, vaulting a tractor and four or five fences before being swept off in the swollen waters of the Anacotilla River, carried across two properties and wedged under a red gum. The third storm came with days of warnings, threats of winds over 120km/h and rainfall to rival all of the previous deluges. It left all of South Australia without electricity, the farm a sucking, gurgling swamp, and me walking home through a darkened, scrambling city.
It’s been a demanding few months on the farm. The persistent moisture has made the ground unworkable, most of the farm inaccessible except on foot and the weather generally hostile to both our motivation and ability to do anything useful. The vast quantities of rain we’ve received however, have meant that moisture has permeated deep into the subsoil, so we console ourselves with the hope that as the weather warms, our tree plantings (including those from earlier this winter) will rocket skywards.
Such circumstances are also ideal for testing erosion control strategies. While the persistent rain has had significant negative impacts on areas with dispersive subsoils (where the soil dissolves on contact with water and collapses, forming sinkholes and gullies), for the first time this year we’ve also seen waterflow along the gullies. One Rock Dams constructed last summer have been especially successful, slowing water flow along the gully floor and forming a barrier for sediment deposition. In some areas, this has worked especially spectacularly, raising the gully floor by 10 or 15 centimetres. In others, the One Rock Dams worked well at low flows, but as gully flow continued through the winter, the water flow began to carve a channel through the newly deposited sediment. In both cases, now the weather is drying out, the One Rock Dams will need a second layer of rock built onto the newly deposited sediment in preparation for next winter. Our Zuni Bowls have had mixed success: one constructed against a headcut in a gully floor has work admirably, another, constructed in dispersive soil, has remain intact but erosion has continued around it. One of the great strengths of these approaches to erosion control is their flexibility: they’re easy and inexpensive to establish, and through regular monitoring can be easy and inexpensively tweaked or adapted.
I’ve been very slowly working my way through Allan Savory’s Holistic Management, the decision-making framework that underlies his advocacy for managed grazing as a land restoration strategy. This year our pastures have outpaced us. Savory emphasises that in grazing, “timing is everything”, and it seems that for us, almost any number of sheep is too many for 11 months of the year, and any number is too few for the remaining month when spring growth climaxes. Spring has seen some of our pastures overrun with wild turnip, others boasting waist-high grass, and others, after producing nothing but wild turnip and soursobs for a few years are suddenly looking not-too-bad. It’s catalysed lots of reflection and planning on our current capacity to manage pastures at the level we aspire to, but also to remind ourselves of our purpose in developing Yarnauwi. Somewhere among all of this, we had our annual mutton harvest, wrangling seventeen beasts off to the meatworks in a window of calm between severe weather warnings. For all of their panache in handling the heat of a South Australian summer, our pure Damaras have not enjoyed our boggy clay soils, with their feet requiring regular trimming and monitoring with no dry, rocky outcrops to keep them in check. The Dorpers, Wiltshire Horns and the various combinations thereof have all acquitted themselves admirably.
When reading books about climate change, I’ve always thought that crippling heat and aridity would be our climate future, but perhaps that’s too predictable in the new era. We’re familiar with summers that bake us in their persistent, desiccating heat, but if one element of climate change is unpredictability, then maybe we also need to come to grips with occasional, unexpected seasons of relentless rain. Early accounts of life of the Fleurieu are punctuated with both vast fires and driving rains, with floods destroying crops, roads and bridges and “the heaviest rains for some years” falling almost annually. Foolishly, I thought that this kind of weather would no longer apply to us. One account of the Fleurieu climate from the South Australian Register in July 1883 could equally describe 2016, “Last Saturday was showery, Sunday night it poured down in torrents, Monday floods again, rain Tuesday, Wednesday, and Wednesday night, floods again on Thursday morning. Very little work has been done out of doors all the week. If we get a little sunshine, we get plenty of rain to make up for it.” Perhaps in one sense, as the climate and landscape become new to us through unpredictable change, we have more in common with our colonial ancestors than we first imagined.