How will the wool quality and behaviour of sheep be affected by wind turbines operating in the adjacent paddock?
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: Victorian graziers Anne and Gus Gardiner recently got some great news. The Italian fashion house Zegna declared them one of Australia’s top two fine wool producers.
But the recognition comes right as the Gardiners are pondering the future of their business.
They fear they might need to shut down their award-winning sheep property because of a forest of wind turbines rising on their boundary.
Here’s Greg Hoy.
GREG HOY, REPORTER: A wicked wind can Howell across the rich volcanic plains of Victoria’s western districts.
GUS GARDINER, WOOL FARMER: This is seriously windy country.
GREG HOY: For fine wool Merino sheep, this is like the promised land. And near the hamlet of Macarthur, Annie and Gus Gardiner grow some of the very finest fleece in all Australia from their ultra-fine wool Merinos.
GUS GARDINER: We have the challenge of producing hopefully the best in the world.
ANNIE GARDINER, WOOL FARMER: If we do succeed, you are handsomely paid.
GREG HOY: Indeed, their ultra-fine wool is in great demand amongst the world’s premium fashion houses such as the iconic Italian brand Zegna. Paolo Zegna himself was in Sydney recently to award the Gardiners the second prize trophy for ultra-fine wool production in Australia and New Zealand.
GUS GARDINER: Probably one of the most prestigious awards in the world for wool.
ANNIE GARDINER: Well it is. It is the.
GUS GARDINER: It is the.
PAOLO ZEGNA, FASHION DESIGNER: They are important because they supply the proper ingredients for us to make beautiful products.
GREG HOY: But back down on the farm, the Gardiners are looked in a fierce feud with their neighbours and a good many others around Macarthur as they fight to fend off an invasion of giant wind turbines.
ANNIE GARDINER: We’ve been told we’re mad, we’re crackpots. It even divides families. Some believe …
GREG HOY: Your family?
ANNIE GARDINER: We’ve had instances in the family. It’s mainly through ignorance.
GREG HOY: Meet the neighbours, the Robertsons, Tom and Tom Senior, whose idea it was first to farm the wealth of wind that frequents these parts.
TOM ROBERTSON, WIND FARMER: It’s using a natural asset to produce something that we humans want. If we’re gonna use electricity, we have to get it from somewhere and this is a source that’s pretty benign.
GREG HOY: So, with the billion-dollar backing of a consortium led by energy giant AGL, the 140 giant turbine Macarthur wind farm will soon tower over 10,000 acres adjoining the Gardener’s property, 7,000 of those belonging to the Robertsons.
SCOTT THOMAS, HEAD OF POWER DEVELOPMENT, AGL: The Macarthur wind farm when it’s completed will be 420 megawatts. That will be the largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere.
GUS GARDINER: To within 40 metres of the boundary, 146 metre top of the blades. Twice as high as the MCG light towers.
GREG HOY: But the sheep are nervous, seriously nervous, or so say the Gardiners, who insist their stock and hard-earned livelihoods are imperilled.
ANNIE GARDINER: The ultra-fine sheep are highly-strung. They are highly vulnerable if they are stressed.
GUS GARDINER: I have my hard-earned capital threatened by this monster.
GREG HOY: A monster, says Annie and Gus Gardiner, that other farmers claim has made them sick.
CARL STEPNALL, FARMER: It started with the headaches and the tingling in the head, and then eventually the sleepless – waking up at two or three in the morning.
GREG HOY: But the Robertsons and AGL remain highly sceptical.
SCOTT THOMAS: There certainly has been no scientifically peer-reviewed evidence that claims or points to any negative health effects from wind turbines.
GREG HOY: You don’t believe that it makes people sick or that is makes sheep sick?
TOM ROBERTSON: No, I don’t. I really don’t. There’s noise in everything we do. Sheep are noisy, they baa and carry on; cattle are noisy.
GREG HOY: Indeed, about 100 kilometres further north, a different story is told. Here the Challicum Hills wind farm has been operating for seven years, adjacent to the neighbouring Hartwick family sheep farm.
LYN HARTWICH, WOOL FARMER: Just so majestic and they do look lovely. And they’re producing the power that’s not going to hurt the environment.
???: You can see the sheep grazing right underneath them.
GREG HOY: Some people worry that it can upset sheep.
NOEL HARTWICH, WOOL FARMER: I don’t think that ever happens.
LYN HARTWICH: That’s just a myth.
GREG HOY: You think so?
LYN HARTWICH: Yes. Well, why can we grow fine wool and we haven’t had any problems. And I don’t know whether to say this, but our sheep have won prizes. Last year, they won the Victorian ewe of the year.
GREG HOY: The Hartwichs are mighty proud of that, though the Gardiners seem ever prouder of their award.
ANNIE GARDINER: We grow a very superior fibre, which is wonderful to be recognised as such by the top designer in the world.
GREG HOY: But at what price the Golden Fleece? The finest quality Merino wool will pay a premium price of some $2,000 a kilo, whereas a lesser quality clip will earn just $20 a kilo. But controversially, to realise such a big difference, the pick of a Merino flock must be confined to a sheep shed for the 12 months or so that it takes for them to produce their coat.
ANNIE GARDINER: They’re a thoroughbred sheep, really, so they are susceptible to stress if their environment is not satisfactory.
GREG HOY: The Gardiners asked we not film inside the shed where they keep their sheep for fear of stirring up animal rights protestors.
TOM ROBERTSON: They’re really very placid animals in their natural habitat. If you’ve ever kept a little dog in a flat, how upset they get because they haven’t got the room to run around in. So if you keep them too enclosed, they will get upset.
GREG HOY: On that, the Hartwich family seems to agree.
RUSSEL HARTWICH, WOOL FARMER: Personally, I like to see sheep running around on native pasture.
NOEL HARTWICH: They’d rather be out of the shed in the natural environment, grass and stuff.
GREG HOY: Wool vs. wind farming: can they live in harmony or will their collision across the western districts only intensify?
ANNIE GARDINER: It’s actually emerging a bit like a religion, really. This is pretty well Australia’s richest gracing country and it’s going to be absolutely littered with literally thousands of enormous wind turbines.
GUS GARDINER: I’m now being forced to sacrifice my life’s work to enable a multinational corporation feed their frenzy.
TOM ROBERTSON: They might believe that, but I don’t.
LEIGH SALES: Greg Hoy reporting.