Death, drought, mining incursions and even tornados aren’t enough to drive the inheritor of a great Queensland station off the land.
Words and photography by Paula Heelan
Beryl Neilsen has been running her 36,000-hectare central Queensland cattle property, Winchester Downs, since losing her husband, John, in 1989. Most people assumed Beryl, 64, would leave Winchester. But this quiet achiever had long ago fallen in love with the bush when, as a 20-year-old bride, she was introduced to life on the land.
“When John died, I just couldn’t leave,” she says. “Too many treasured memories – and I was too attached to the place.”
In fact, Beryl resolved to not only stay but to take control on one of the district’s largest cattle enterprises. At first, managing Winchester on her own was a challenge – and finding a good manager difficult.
“If Ken Braithwaite hadn’t come along when he did, I doubt I could have gone on,” Beryl says. “He’s a wonderful manager and has been an absolute mainstay.”
Beryl looks after bookwork and keeps up to date with the management decisions and day-to-day work with Ken, often going with him to check the cattle and their water supply. But having a manager means she can come and go from Winchester. “With such a capable team, I can confidently be away, knowing everything is in the best of hands.”
And with life on the property flowing smoothly, Beryl can afford to take some time out for her other passion – travel. Each year she makes at least one major overseas trip and several Australian ventures. Rarely heading for common tourist spots, she has trekked in Tasmania and New Zealand and has explored many places much further afield, including Greenland, Canada, Egypt and even Antarctica and the Arctic Circle.
Since Beryl took over at Winchester, drought has played havoc among the farms of central Queensland. “It’s terribly sad to see the cattle during difficult times,” she says. “But we’ve always managed to keep abreast of drought by reducing stock, hand feeding and spelling the land when we need to.”
The herd, mainly Brahman cross, is bred and fattened for the Japanese market. Ken and his team manage around 4000 head – less in the dry, more in peak times. With such a big station, the land varies considerably. There’s a mix of black dirt, sandy soils and open country, and the property is sheltered by river gums and brigalow, a variety of silvery wattle common in the area.
Ken has no doubts that Winchester is among the state’s best cattle properties. “The country comes back extremely fast after just a small amount of rain,” he says. “The buffel grass (nutritious cattle feed) has save us during drought. It seeds and spreads widely and quickly, and responds to rain better than anything else.”
In the 1960s, when coal was discovered in Queensland’s central highlands, Winchester was one of the first grazing properties on which a mining company took up a lease through compulsory acquisition. Over the years the Neilsens have had to yield more than 12,000 hectares to several different companies. Yet despite being surround by mining operations vigorously extracting vast amounts of coal to feed an insatiable overseas market, pastoral life on Winchester continues.
“While adequate compensation is provided, it’s not easy to accept the mines coming in and taking over the land,” Beryl says. “But there’s no choice. We know we’ll lose a lot more, but at least we can still run our cattle – and while land is fenced off for mining, we still have agistment rights.”
And there are compensations. Mackay, the regional centre, is at least two hours away. But mining has brought people to the district, swelling the settlement of Moranbah – which means that Winchester is now only a 25 minute drive from a growing town, with all the services and opportunities that entails. The increase in leisure facilities means Beryl even finds time to play the occasional game of golf or to attend an aerobic class.
The homestead, surrounded by the manager’s house, a cottage and the men’s quarters, was built in the 1940s. Though flattened by a tornado in the early 1980s, the house was rebuilt, using the original foundations, in 1986. In a landscape of timber-framed buildings, water tanks and tin sheds, with tethered horses and yarded cattle in the distance and an old blue truck sitting quietly under shade trees, this is a quintessential rustic scene.
As a breathtaking sunset fades, the Winchester crew turn out their horses and meet at the homestead for a cool drink after a long day. The weekend is approaching and everyone has plans. Some are visiting friends at neighbouring stations, other will stay on Winchester. With the prospect of more rain, everyone is in extra high spirits.
And Beryl, with the longest knowledge of the property, knows that when the rain does come, the country will burst with new growth – birds will flock to brimming waterholes and creeks and the native wildlife will be restored. With that prospect, who would want to leave?