The long paddock: Young girls attend ‘school of life’ droving cattle during a big dry

While farmers in western New South Wales are facing crop losses from a parched earth, some graziers are droving their starving cattle to greener pastures.

Drover and mother Bek Hourigan has been on the road — the ‘long paddock’ — with 600 head of cattle for five weeks.

“We’ve been very lucky to be able to come over here and get them to feed in the nick of time to keep them going,” she said.

The cattle were trucked more than 350 kilometres from Come By Chance, near Walgett, to the stock routes around Tamworth where the feed is dry but more nourishing than bare earth back home.

Ms Hourigan’s company on the drove are her two young daughters Tori, six, and Sienna, four.

None of them are strangers to life on the road.

“Previously we did it with both girls for two years [when] Sienna was 10 weeks old and Tori was just over two,” Ms Hourigan said.

“The way the season’s been out near Come By Chance, we need to get good rainfall.

“An inch or two inches isn’t going to warrant walking the cattle all back that way. We need five to six inches, and then follow up rain.”

A mother sits at a camp table helping her two girls do school work

But rain is not looking likely so, for the moment, travelling stock routes and a purpose-built van doubles as home and school, when time permits.

“I must admit, I struggle at times to get the time to sit down and be committed to actually do it [the schoolwork], but we’re certainly all trying our best,” Ms Hourigan said.

A typical day is letting the mob out to drift their way through grass which is dry but more nourishing than the empty paddocks back home.

Travelling stock routes are found across the country, often along country roads.

“Every day is completely different,” Ms Hourigan said.

“Livestock can be unpredictable, as is traffic going by [along the road].

Drovers on horseback walking alongside a road.

“Some people can be really courteous, other people have no idea, don’t see the signs, don’t have the understanding of when things could go wrong and what could happen.”

This time the Hourigan girls are on the road without their dad Justin, who is an assistant stock manager working on a property at Coonamble.

“It is tough [but] I love it,” Ms Hourigan said.

“I’m very lucky to have the kids with me doing a job; I’ve never really been away from them [and] that’s a huge plus for me.

“It is a lifestyle and it’s great to be able to help the owners [of the cattle] out too, they are struggling for feed.”

For the time being, the Hourigan girls will be facing all the challenges of the long paddock together, and like so many in the country, quietly praying for rain.