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Grazing in Cape York Peninsula

  Pastoralism is the major land use, but is only marginally productive in Cape York

Pastoralism is a major land use, but is only marginally productive in Cape York

Despite the fact that it occupies over 7.5 million hectares, the Cape York cattle industry remains only marginally productive. This is largely a result of low soil fertility, poor nutrient value of pasture species, isolation and very limited infrastructure. A 1992 Queensland Department of Primary Industries report on the region estimated the total herd size of the region at only 130,000 head with annual sales (turn off) of about 18,000 which in turn generated around $6.5 million. In 1995 it was estimated that the average income generated in the region was around 90 cents per hectare (Cotter 1995). This compares, for example, to $1.90 per hectare generated in the Kimberley region.

Stocking rates are as low as one head per 60 hectares and as a consequence property sizes are very large. While turn off is low, operating costs for such vast properties are relatively high making profit margins slim. Infrastructure such as fencing and watering points also tends to be limited.

Land ownership

The conversion of land to National Parks and to Aboriginal and Islander use has reduced pastoral lease land to about 57 per cent of the total area of Cape York. (McKeague 1992:iv) Aboriginal people now oversee almost 20 per cent of the total area of Cape York , and National Parks manage around 10 per cent. Only 124 properties make up the total pastoral area, making the average property size 83,000 hectares. This figure though is distorted somewhat by several very large properties. In reality most leases are around half this size. Also, the 124 properties include a significant number of very small leases that exist around Cooktown. About 72 properties are actually large-scale pastoral enterprises of the kind discussed here (Shaw, K. 1999, pers. comm.).

CYPLUS (Cape York Peninsula Land Use Strategy) recorded the number of people living on pastoral leases at 690, or about one person per 11,300 hectares. Around half the pastoral leases are run by individuals or families, one-third by companies and the rest by Aboriginal people, foreign owners and public companies (Cotter, G.F. 1995).

Land systems

Mountains flank the east coast, which ease to foothills and lowlands towards the west. Most of Cape York is characterised by country of low to very low relief. The rangelands in the south east corner of the region, around Cooktown and Cape Flattery, consist of much smaller holdings. This section also has the highest rainfall in the region and supports areas of tropical rainforest. A strip along the west coast of Cape York consists entirely of Aboriginal lands, Reserves and mining areas. This section runs almost from the southerly border of the region to the tip and is around 70 kilometres across. The majority of the pastoral leases are located in the centre of Cape York and across to areas on the east coast.


The region's rainfall is high, but decreases in reliability along a gradient from north to south. What is important to note for the pastoral industry is that the Cape receives substantial rainfall each and every year, although a poor or early end to the wet season can lead to difficult conditions late in the dry season.

The soils are very poor and there are large areas of massive red and yellow earths and siliceous sands. Rivers that run east tend to be shorter and fall more steeply to the coast whereas those flowing west are much longer and fall more slowly. Homesteads and cattle improvements tend to be located near to rivers because of the assured water supply and the better grazing country. The land becomes less undulating further from the Great Dividing Range until the almost flat depositional plains of the west coast.


Pastoral properties of Cape York tend to have minimal infrastructure, particularly fencing. Given that most properties run their cattle in a traditional fashion, this is understandable for a number of reasons. For a start, cattle need to be able to move over large areas of land in order to selectively graze those areas which will provide them with sufficient bulk matter and nutrients. Paddocks then must be enormous if they are to contain a reasonable number of cattle. Another factor is the cost of fencing, estimated at $2000 per kilometre in 1995 (Cyplus 1995). Most properties therefore have a boundary fence, a weaner paddock and a holding paddock. Nevertheless, some properties have been carrying out extensive fencing programs so as to make their herds more manageable. Watering points are similarly low in the Cape although if stocking rates and/or the number of fences continues to grow then more water facilities will be required.