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Modern Cameleer: The Dromedary Solution

Seen by many as harmful feral animals, the humble camel has been put centrestage by a forward-thinking farmer at a regenerative dairy farm in Queensland.

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Paul Martin is having success with the ‘start where you are and use what you have’ approach. Photos By Tim Vermey & Rob Downer

In a classic case of ‘use what you have’, Paul Martin is not only addressing Central Australia’s exploding and problematic population of feral camels, he’s successfully integrating them into a diverse and sustainable farming business in southeast Queensland.

As well as transforming camel milk into a large range of low-lactose food products and skincare products suited to sensitive skin, Paul is finding ways to minimise the impact the large hard-hoofed animals have on his land.

But for Summer Land Camels, it goes far beyond simply minimising damage. Managed correctly, camels play an important role in biodiversity and weed control and, according to Paul, offer sustainable solutions to the challenges of feeding our growing future population.

The Problem

The beautiful but problematic camel is much maligned in many parts of outback Australia, where the species has thrived since its introduction to the country in the 1840s. They were originally brought here from the Middle East and India for outback exploration and transport, but when the motorcar roared into the picture, the dromedaries were made redundant and many were released into the countryside. And they’ve never looked back.

The Northern Territory government estimates there are now one million feral camels roaming the Australian desert. In their vast numbers they wreak havoc on water sources, salt pans and native plant species.

In dry years, the camels can be a real headache for farmers and Aboriginal communities – they’ve been known to walk right into a community and break the plumbing off a house, or ruin bores and other infrastructure trying to get to water.

Management plans include live export and culling, neither of which make all that much of a difference, with the Territory government’s own website stating: ‘Management of feral camels is not consistent and has little impact on populations overall.’

The Solution

So what to do about this species that are so perfectly adapted to survive our harsh outback landscape … but are not particularly wanted there?

Paul, as the director of Summer Land Camels, sees the unconventional animals as a chronically under-appreciated creature, especially in an agricultural setting.

‘I think, for me, it’s taking a resource that people have been so negative towards and just really exposing people to the benefits that they have,’ Paul says, when asked about what he loves about camel farming. ‘And they’re so unique,’ he laughs. ‘People just have to pull up and take a photo.’

Paul currently has about 700 of the photogenic beasts across his regenerative Summer Land Camels properties, which include Australia’s largest camel dairy, at Harrisville in the volcanic Scenic Rim Region, west of Brisbane.

How It Started

Originally Paul sourced wild camels from Central Australia himself. He wanted to give them a chance at being useful in his agricultural setting rather than simply be culled.

These days, the process is more streamlined. Paul waits for farming colleagues on large stations in central Australia to call him to let him know they’ve got a herd of camels on their property and ask if he could please take them off their hands.

Products And Impacts

The camel milk product development took a lot of research, beginning with Paul looking overseas to cultures who have relied on camel milk for a lot longer than camels have existed in modern Australia. From there, the team began to develop a range of products – starting with milk and soaps – and are constantly looking at new ways to use the milk and its by-products, such as whey.

The Summer Land brand has grown quickly, as has its range of skincare products and camel milk food products (including gelato, vodka and soon, chocolate). The skincare and milk products are selling well – in part thanks to the fact camel milk is missing the casein protein in cow and goat milk that can cause issues for some people’s digestive systems and sensitive skin. Paul and his team also host regular markets and other events, farm tours, school group tours, camel rides and more.

Beyond the development of the camel milk products and camel-centred tourism ventures, Paul was also really intrigued to see what the camels would do to the land. As a farmer with decades of experience and an interest in regenerative, biodynamic and holistic farming techniques, Paul has been keeping a keen eye on what impact the camels’ hooves, eating habits and manure have had on the environment.

But regardless of how they find their way to Paul’s place, from the start, the relocated camels are handled gently and slowly, grazing on various properties for two years until they become semi-domesticated. Then, the best milkers are chosen and trained for the dairy. The mother and calf bond is kept throughout the process and the non-milkers are allowed to continue to graze, moving from paddock to paddock, with some camels used for rides and tours, too.

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Clockwise from top Paul says all of his camels have large personalities; If they’re not good milkers, camels will play a tourism role; Cheese, skincare products and even vodka can be made from camel milk. Photos By Tim Vermey & Rob Downer
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Regenerative Practices

Paul says Summer Land Camels is a successful, sustainable regenerative farm. It’s chemical free, with rotational grazing used to rest paddocks and build biodiversity. Paul and his team companion plant their crops with 10–15 different species with varying root depth working together. They plant cover crops to increase the nitrogen in the soil, avoiding the need for artificial fertilisers. And the camels fit right in.

‘Just having the animals in a rotation, we’ve seen a massive increase in our grass density,’ he says. ‘We are now going to add some other animals to get some different manures in there. I’m interested in seeing what that variety of manures and microbes will do. When you get biodiverse herds you get a biodiversity in nutrients. Chickens will pass out a different manure to a cow, so you’re looking at trying to get multiple species in the system to also get that benefit of the different microbes in the manure.’

Changing Perceptions

Seeing the visitors’ perceptions of camels change over the years has been a big positive for Paul and his crew. ‘To be able to introduce people to their personalities has been one of the hidden highlights of it. Getting people right down to one-year olds who are just camel fanatics now, to people in their 90s that probably had some built- up negativity towards a camel and they walk away with this changed view of them. They just had no idea,’ he laughs. ‘And I think if there is anything more rewarding, it’s that awareness that we’ve been sitting on this animal that other people in other countries worship – we’ve had it readily available – it’s just never been part of our normal agricultural scene.’

Sustainable Management

It’s a classic case of ‘using what you have’, on a potentially large scale. Paul sees the positives in accepting that this so-called feral creature – so often viewed negatively – is here to stay. So we may as well make use of them as best we can. He’d love to see the national focus on sheep and cattle turn more in the direction of camels, and towards having a deeper understanding on how herding animals change the environment.

‘Australia is a completely different landscape to what we were at the time sheep first walked onto this country, and I don’t blame sheep and cattle, I blame how we manage them and how they are allowed to engage with the landscape,’ he says. ‘Animals need to move. When they stay in the same paddock all year with no rest … I don’t see any animal as a general problem, it’s humans and how we manage those animals that makes the difference.’

Camels And Climate Change

Paul sees camels as a piece of the puzzle when it comes to trying to prepare for and minimise the effects of climate change – predominantly through their ability to help in the sequestering of carbon.

‘For us, it’s about showing a model that can sequester carbon and I suppose that predominantly is what we’re doing – by default – we’re trying to grow a deeper-rooted pasture.’ Camels, as part of a diversity of creatures and inputs in a property, can help this to occur.

‘To sequester carbon in the soil you’ve got to push the roots down into the landscape, so instead of grass being a two-to-three inch root system, if you can get roots going down metres, you’re putting carbon back into the soil.”

The Next Step

With so many camels still wild, and so much pressure on the ability to feed our population into the future – especially meat – Paul says the logical next step is to foster an Australian camel meat industry.

‘Ironically, we started the camel dairy to save camels and now we need to see a meat industry to make them worthwhile and not classified as feral,’ Paul says.

Camels were first classified as feral in Australia in the 1930s, nearly 100 years after their arrival. Prior to that they were classified as livestock. Paul says that classification change has made things tricky now.

‘This is the big challenge we have. With camels classified as a feral animal, it’s easier for me to get funding to shoot them than it is to get funding to do a meat research project because they’re no longer classified as livestock.’

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Creating awareness and changing perceptions is an important part of Summer Land Camels’ work. Photos By Tim Vermey & Rob Downer

In The Balance

He says if camels could be reclassified as livestock, the industry would have a lot more access to funding assistance through things like meat research and milk research. He says it just makes sense.

‘Where an animal like that sits in the supply chain as being so adaptable – it’s an animal that doesn’t require lots of irrigation and really high-quality country to fatten,’ he says. ‘And farmers move quickly if there’s potential. They can use camels quite well in biodiversity and timber control, weed control, they can become part of their system, as long as there is a strategy in the end.

‘I think there’s a good balance there in having a dairy industry and having a meat industry’.

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