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Peter Sherwin: The Battles Of A Real Strange Critter
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday January 7, 1989
ROBERT Holmes a Court sat in a room in Sydney's Regent Hotel in late 1988. Opposite him was Peter Sherwin, cattle king, a man who over three decades rose from the saddle as a contract drover to be the largest individual landholder, boasting the biggest herd in the country.
It was a meeting of opposites. The urbane Holmes a Court, accustomed to accoutrements of affluence, and the somewhat rustic Sherwin, ill at ease with the grandiose surroundings. The product of corporate breeding was face to face with the school of hard knocks.
But they had at least one thing in common. Each had embarked on privatisation bids during the year, attempting to take their respective empires off the stock exchange boards, away from the public arena and back into their own hands.
Holmes a Court had succeeded, albeit in an humiliating fashion, losing most of his empire along the way and making headlines around the world.
Sherwin's bid to again become his own boss was still under way; so far it had been a disaster. It had come to this. His empire was effectively on the auction block. Two takeover bids were already on the table - from Elders IXL and Bankers Trust - and a third, from the takeover master opposite him, had been foreshadowed. Sherwin would be lucky to get out with a fraction of the asset base he had painstakingly built. Or would he?
Over the years, Holmes a Court has earned the sobriquet, the Man of the Long Pauses. In face-to-face negotiations he can sit and stare out of the window, putting the wind up his opponent. He has turned these takeover confrontations into an art form.
But, in the pauses stakes, Holmes a Court had met his match in Peter Sherwin. In meetings, Sherwin says virtually nothing; this man, who has built up more power at the Top End than any other man since Sir Sidney Kidman, is a recluse.
Since 1976, when he began his extraordinary expansion program, he has withdrawn more and more into himself. Eschewing the usual trappings of a successful entrepreneur - the extravagant lifestyle and the outspoken countenance - Sherwin, through his silence, has become the stuff of legends. He is possibly the quietest achiever of all. It is more than just the clamming up of a drover who has been forced by the sheer scale of his success to deal with the chrome-and-glass brigade (the brokers and bankers of the corporate capitals of Sydney and Melbourne). Sherwin is considered an oddity in his own territory.
Not only does he let his solicitor, George Cridland, speak for him in big city business meetings, he lets his daughter, son and wife do the talking for him on his properties.
"He's not the man he was 10 years ago ... I don't know whether he is going through male menopause or what; but he's a real strange critter," says a stock inspector who has dealt with him for 16 years. And this interpretation is repeated again and again throughout the Territory in the slow drawl of cattlemen, reaching ludicrous proportions in the tale of the cook at the Sherwin homestead on Walhallow Station who saw her boss only once in six months, as he disappeared through a doorway. Even the local publican reports that he deals with Mrs Sherwin and not her husband.
Attempts to interview Sherwin for this report were met with a flat no. A neighbour said: "You would have more chance of an audience with the Pope." But it is not just the aloofness and obsessive pursuit of privacy that makes Sherwin so fascinating. He has another reputation; he is tough.
One story of Sherwin's prowess in the Territory has become notorious: when he chased a neighbour in his plane, landed on a road blocking his way and then engaged in a shootout. His reputation for fights in the Territory has, one suspects, grown far beyond the reality. A colleague who knows him well says: "He won't take any s... from anyone, he'd rather knock your block off your shoulders. But he hasn't had a fistfight in 20 years. Nobody is game to take him on."
The North's fascination with Sherwin spread nationwide two years ago when two of his young jackaroos disappeared off stations in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and were found dead in mysterious circumstances five months later. The focus moved to Sherwin's whole modus operandi: why were two youths each put in charge of a huge station, living alone with defective vehicles and radio equipment?
They were just children. One piece of evidence presented at the coroner's inquest (still dragging on after 14 months) was their accounts at the station store. They did not present a picture of tough cowboys; they comprised lolly purchases, soft drinks and sweet biscuits. Why were these boys put in the position where they were so exposed to dangers?
Sherwin didn't attempt to answer. He stayed silent in the face of an extraordinary media barrage, and he only confirmed the prejudices which were building when he refused at first to let the boys' parents on to the properties their sons disappeared from. They later gained access in the company of police. To this day, Sherwin is yet to convey his sympathy to those parents whose boys died so painfully in his employ.
Sherwin's methods of husbandry came under the media microscope, too. A home video clip, shown on national television, showed a huge muster where cattle were left to die as Government inspectors stood by helpless, because Sherwin would not allow the cattle to be moved from flooded yards.
Until then, the Australian public had been dished out a limited diet on Sherwin. But it was full of the man who had taken on the mantle of Sir Sidney Kidman, the success story of modern agriculture, the drover's son who began with nothing and gained so much through sheer hard work and talent.
All of that is true, but there is so much more as well.
The latest takeover battle for Sherwin's empire has added another dimension to what we know of the cattle king. This was no boring bid and counter bid based purely on price; there was also an intriguing dispute over cattle numbers, belated reports of thousands of cattle deaths, devastating monetary losses when competitors were raking in the profits, a board split, a secret visit to the Corporate Affairs Commission with an auditor and independent chairman seeking advice and Peter Sherwin toughing it out until the last.
The story of Peter Sherwin's route from drover to cattle king, as we discovered it, begins in Elliott, a small dusty settlement on the Stuart Highway between Tennant Creek and Katherine in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory.
Only those in a tearing hurry would pass through Elliott without stopping. It is 93 kilometres from the last roadhouse, at Renner Springs, and 109 kilometres to the next, at Dunmarra. It has three service stations and an outback-style pub dominated by a pool table and decorated by six aging tea towels hung above the bar showing faded Australian wildflowers and maps of the Northern Territory. Stickers (some of dubious taste) cover the bar fridges. A sign proclaims: "You are now drinking in the most exclusive hotel in Elliott.
Elliott's 350 inhabitants are mostly of Aboriginal descent. They live in monotonous Government-issue housing. Their families' breadwinners work for Peter Sherwin.
The late November heat was blazing and oppressive. The road to Elliott was lined with dead cattle, hit by cars or road trains and dragged to the roadside by frustrated drivers. As the Barkly waited for the wet, the cattle still alive spent their days trudging 16 kilometres between the artesian bores for water and what little grass was left for feed. The sight was pathetic. The animals were dreadfully thin. The men who managed them spoke hopefully about the wet: "This year, we may get a good season." Last year's was a disaster.
Just over 30 years ago, Peter and Florence Sherwin were the mainstays of Elliott. They owned what was then the only roadhouse, a stopping-off point for drovers to gather supplies. The next stop on the stockroute was Rankin, perhaps as much as six weeks' droving away. The roadhouse was made of galvanised iron, and doubled as a liquor store. Florence Sherwin was in charge and her new husband, Peter, worked as a contract drover, taking cattle through the Territory and down into Queensland and South Australia.
Florence came from a hard-working family, the Beebes. She was one of 13 children and was brought up on Ucharonidge Station, only two stations away from Elliott.
Peter was born in Texas, Queensland, the youngest of four and the son of a drover who had died when Peter was nine. He was sent to Marist Brothers'College in Brisbane to complete his education and is remembered by schoolmates as a good boxer and footballer who could have made the State side if he'd put his mind to it. He was considered competent and ambitious. But at 16, in 1946, Peter headed for the Territory to become a jackaroo at Alexandria Station.
Over six years, he saved enough money for the dogs, wagons and horses needed for a contract drover. He progressed to head stockman at Helen Springs- owned by the Vestey family - and then left the land for an eight-month spell as a public servant, as a stock inspector for the Department of Primary Production, a breed he would later treat with distaste. From the Public Service, Sherwin went droving again. By 1957, when he married Florence, he had saved enough to buy the Elliott roadhouse.
John Hagan worked as a drover for Sherwin in the 50s, and today he remembers that it was from a deal struck at the Elliott roadhouse that Peter Sherwin got his first breakthrough as a future station owner: enough money to apply for a pastoral lease in the Territory.
The catalyst was a Territory boy called Elmore Lewis. Lewis had worked on Montejinnie Station, branding calves. The deal was that he would be paid with a percentage of the calves, to be picked up after 12 months. Lewis was entitled to 500 head of cattle. Instead of going back to Montejinnie to pick them up, he sold them to Sherwin at the Elliott roadhouse for Pound3 ($6) a head. Sherwin went out to Montejinnie with his contract from Lewis and, according to Hagan, offered to buy another 1,000 head. A price was struck: Pound6 a head. Sherwin and Hagan then drove the 1,500 cattle down through the Territory to Camooweal, just over the border in Queensland, where he sold them for Pound17/10/- ($35) a head, a gross profit of Pound18,150. Sherwin was on his way.
By the time Sherwin had become the cattle king of the country, in 1986 -with 78,000 square kilometres of land and more than 300,000 head of cattle -he had gained a reputation as a tough deal-maker with an uncanny eye for cattle numbers. He could estimate more accurately than the operators how many cattle a station had and, along the way, earned windfalls of thousands of additional cattle with his purchases. He could then strip them off and help finance his debt burden.
The Sherwin path began with Wallamunga Station, on the border of the Territory and Western Australia, gained through a Government land ballot and financed from the Elmore Lewis transaction. From the beginning, he was expansionist. Within six years, he had three stations. He financed his way through cattle trading, the Elliott store (which he kept until 1972) and the stations themselves.
But the real expansion program began in 1976 with the purchase of Anthony Lagoon Station from the failed Australian Pastoral Company.
Through the late 70s and the early 80s, Sherwin was there to pick up the pieces when the big operators and corporates - such as the Vestey family, Hooker Corporation, CSR, the Tancreds and Winthrop Investments - sold out or scaled down their operations at the Top End. And Sherwin had a willing backer: Elders, which financed him along the way until, in 1986, he had racked up $40 million in debt to counterbalance his extraordinary asset base.
The massive expansion program had revealed Sherwin as a consummate deal-maker. For example, in the purchase of Anthony Lagoon from Australian Pastoral Company, he stepped on the toes of the Mortimer family from Adelaide. They had virtually struck the deal for the purchase of Anthony Lagoon at a price of $1.2 million and had sold two properties in South Australia to finance the purchase. One of their men was already on the station preparing to take over and the Lands Department had been contacted for the transfer of the pastoral lease. Then Sherwin struck, offering $500,000 more and gambling on his belief that the station had a lot more cattle than the operators believed. Sherwin was right. A 12-month legal battle followed his coup but he won that, too.
The same pattern was shown again in the purchase of three prime properties on the Barkly Tablelands from CSR in 1983. Sherwin waited until a final price had been struck with the Tancred family, then moved in offering more money. CSR refused to budge at first, sticking to its original agreement with Tancred. Here, Sherwin got some political help: Ian Tuxworth, MP for the Tennant Creek area and later Chief Minister of the Territory.
Tuxworth encouraged CSR to sell to Sherwin, claiming he would get his cattle slaughtered in the Northern Territory and Tancred would not. CSR relented. Sherwin got the stations, but he didn't get his cattle slaughtered in the Territory. The people at Tennant Creek, whose abattoir stands abandoned today, haven't forgotten. "The only cattle Sherwin got killed in the Territory are the ones that were run over," was the dry comment of a publican in Tennant Creek.
Daryl Elliott worked for CSR, managing Eva Downs, one of the stations Sherwin bought in the controversial 1983 transaction. But Elliott wasn't there for the change of ownership. After 16 years in the Territory, he had lost his position at Eva Downs in the early 80s after he had messed with his neighbour, Peter Sherwin. The contretemps between Sherwin and Elliott is well known in the Territory, and John Hagan, another neighbour at Brunchilly Station, remembers it thus:
Elliott was manager of Eva Downs Station when there was a fairly small breakdown in procedures. Some of his cattle broke down a fence bordering Eva Downs and Walhallow (Sherwin's home property) and wandered loose. The unspoken law among cattlemen in this part of the land works along the lines of "finders keepers".
Nevertheless, Elliott was allowed on to Walhallow to remuster his cattle, on the proviso that he also mustered and transported Sherwin's fat beasts into another paddock. It was a tough but reasonable bargain, and Elliott accepted.
He and his men had finished mustering Sherwin's cattle and had begun doing his own when a light plane arrived carrying Sherwin and his brother-in-law. Sherwin demanded that Elliott pay him $10 a head in agistment fees, not part of the original deal. Elliott called the police, who told him he was within his rights to take the cattle away. Elliott went about his business and headed off with his cattle to the F Bore. But Sherwin, with brother-in-law in tow, followed Elliott in his plane. When Elliott saw them coming, he took off for the Eva Downs homestead in his four-wheel-drive vehicle. Sherwin was in pursuit. He landed on the roadway, blocking Elliott's vehicle from reaching the homestead. Guns were drawn. Elliott's saviour was his gun, an eight-gauge shotgun. Sherwin had only a revolver, and soon retreated to the safety of his plane. Eventually, the police arrived, but the matter was left to the warring parties to sort out among themselves.
In Brisbane, Sherwin and CSR held a meeting from which Elliott was excluded, in an attempt to resolve their differences. A compromise was reached where Sherwin allowed CSR to keep the cattle and Elliott was removed as station manager at Eva Downs. As the locals tell it, Elliott and his family were heartbroken. They moved to Toowoomba.
Until 1986, it seems, Sherwin was winning most of his battles, cutting a swathe through the Northern Territory and the Top End in Queensland and Western Australia. Then, the dream run came to an end. The bankers began to baulk at the the huge debt burden. Sherwin owed Elders more than $40 million, and they could see a way out: bringing in public money through a float of the Sherwin pastoral empire on the Australian stock exchange.
Sherwin won't give us his side of the story, but the advisers who dealt with him over the next few years believe he was a recalcitrant partner in the stock exchange float. But he went along because it was either that or sell up
The float was masterminded from Melbourne and was a consummate public relations exercise. The prospectus - 120 glossy pages - was more like a coffee-table book than a financial document. The figures looked wonderful. Now they attract a barrowload of scepticism. The independent verification of cattle numbers by an employee of Elders Pastoral Company was heavily qualified. In the end, it came down to Peter Sherwin's word. There were too many cattle for a bangtail muster. (This is mustering and cutting hair off the tail of each beast. Bangtail musters are seldom used because they are long and arduous processes, often detrimental to the health of the cattle.)
Competitors point out that the timing of the float was propitious. The figures in the prospectus dated from April to December and - for a cattle enterprise in the North, where most cattle are sold after May 1 - this meant eight months' expenses and 12 months' revenue.
Accounting policies were optimistic, too. They are within Australian Accounting Standards but differ from those of the publicly listed competitor, the Australian Agricultural Company. The Sherwin accounts value cattle at market, which means that any increase gained from cattle getting older and calving comes in above the line and straight into profit. The more conservative method, used by Australian Agricultural, is to bring in the market price as profit when the cattle are sold. The Sherwin method means high profits in good years but correspondingly big losses in bad years.
These queries overhanging the float were not aired in 1986; instead, the Sherwin float had a dream run in the press. Sherwin was called the success story of modern agriculture. Australian Business magazine said: "The float of the Sherwin Pastoral Company will be greeted with the same spirit of optimism as the royal charter companies 160 years ago."
And for the year ended 1986, the Sherwin Pastoral Company brought in a profit of more than $12 million. Optimism was indeed running high. Unfortunately for Sherwin, the honeymoon with the financial community was short-lived.
Just weeks after the float, the two young jackaroos, James Annetts and Simon Amos, disappeared from Sherwin's Stuart Creek and Nicholson Stations in the Kimberleys. And the expansion mentality that had made Sherwin Australia's undisputed cattle king was sitting uneasily with the brokers and bankers, who wanted to see healthy profits down the line.
Sherwin wanted to control more of Australia's cattle properties. He wanted to double the size of Sherwin Pastoral Company through a takeover of Australian Agricultural. The chrome-and-glass brigade was horrified, and increasingly found it almost impossible to deal with a man who stayed silent and let his long-term advisers, Darwin solicitor George Cridland and Adelaide accountant John Stacey, speak for him.
A broker, disillusioned by the performance of Sherwin Pastoral Company, said: "Sherwin had just been a herd builder. He was like a Hindu, where wealth is measured by how many cattle you've got. Shareholders needed cash flow, profits; but that was an anathema to him. He just wanted to get bigger."
Sherwin's own barometer for success, size rather than profits, was only one of the problems; but it was an important one. So too was his failure, or inability, to communicate. It sent the city types into despair. "He was very quiet and reserved. Cridland did all the talking. It was ridiculous, he would say 'Peter would think this', 'Peter would say that', and Peter was sitting there all the time. There was no expression on his face; he is one of those expressionless people. Sometimes you would wonder if he was even listening to what was going on," said a broker close to the action at that time.
"During the negotiations over the Austag (Australian Agricultural)takeover, you could definitely see the megalomania coming through. I don't think he really understood what was going on. He was like a little boy. He just couldn't understand why he couldn't have it."
Despite the opposition to the Australian Agricultural takeover, Sherwin plo ughed on. He changed his broker, continued building his own stake in the company and the takeover bid went ahead. It failed.
Financial reporting was another problem. Banks, brokers and board members were frustrated by the lack of data coming forth. One adviser commented: "I saw their cash flow projections. It was one page of scribble. His daughter did the books. He just couldn't get used to the amount of information you have to give out once you go public."
The secrecy associated with Sherwin also showed up in his list of shareholders. There were more nominee companies (effectively disguising identity) among Sherwin's top 20 shareholders than for any other publicly listed company.
The tensions between Sherwin, his brokers and his bankers eventually began to show at board meetings. Three independent directors had been elected to the Sherwin board - the chairman David Stewart, Barry Capp (now chairman of Ariadne) and Ross Bradfield. They sat on the board along with Sherwin and his two long-time advisers, solicitor George Cridland and accountant John Stacey.
In September 1987, nine months after the float, Bradfield and Capp resigned from the board. No explanation was ever given and both steadfastly refuse to speak about it now. A fallout with Peter Sherwin was part of the problem, according to those close to the action. One adviser commented: "I really admire David Stewart ... if it wasn't for him, none of these queries today would have seen the light of day. He hung in there and did his job."
The 1987 calendar year was a disastrous one for the Sherwin Pastoral Company. As shareholders later found out, the losses were more than $5 million before tax. Thousands of cattle apparently perished. Sherwin had been subjected to the media barrage that accompanied the deaths of the two jackaroos. He wanted out, and he had a plan.
Early last year, Sherwin and George Cridland privately retained advisers to investigate the possibility of selling-out all the properties in the group to the Japanese. The plan was that Sherwin Pastoral Company, cashed up with the sale of all the properties, would then be wound up with a return of capital to shareholders. Sherwin would then buy back four of the properties from the Japanese and go back to being his own boss.
But the Japanese weren't interested. Even if they had been, Sherwin and Cridland's plans for the death of the Sherwin Pastoral Company, as shareholders knew it, would never have got off the ground. Events were moving too fast on other fronts.
The profit results for the 1987 year (ended December 31) were out. And it was at this time that Sherwin clashed head-on with the chrome-and-glass brigade. The losses had occurred at a time when beef prices were high and competitors Australian Agricultural and Stanbroke Pastoral Company were reporting fat, healthy profits.
And there was more. Investors couldn't understand why the Sherwin directors' announcements in March and September 1987 had referred to good rains, but by February 1988 were talking about dry conditions during the 87 wet and consequent cattle losses. It wasn't until last May that shareholders became fully aware of the poor performance of the company during 1987, its first year as a public corporation.
Sherwin topped it all off by sitting silently throughout the company's annual meeting of shareholders, chewing Minties and refusing to field any questions. Once again, Cridland and Stacey played the ball.
By the early months of 1988, the bankers, Elders, had had enough. They weren't getting enough financial information to satisfy their needs and the company had built up another $30 million or so in debt. If profits stayed at that rate, there would be problems. Presumably, Elders market intelligence was astute enough to pick up the information that the Sherwin properties were on the market in Japan. Whatever the catalyst, Elders began building up a stake in the Sherwin Pastoral Company, buying shares on the market, and eventually reached 18 per cent.
There were problems on another front. The auditors, Pannell Kerr Forster, and the remaining independent director (the chairman, David Stewart) also felt they could not sit back any longer. The auditor and Stewart were both concerned about the cattle numbers reported for the Barkly Tablelands properties. Something was wrong: the numbers didn't stack up. There was a secret visit to the Corporate Affairs Commission in Brisbane in late April seeking advice.
And then the bombshell: the auditors refused to sign the accounts for the 1987 year until there was an independent review of cattle numbers on the Barkly Tablelands.
Incidentally, the auditors were also concerned about financial reporting and management systems within the company, and had prepared a hefty note to management to be handed over on completion of the audit.
This was the Sherwin Pastoral Company's first full year as a publicly listed company. Things were not going well.
The independent assessment of cattle numbers went ahead. And the result was at least 3,000 fewer cattle than the preliminary 1987 results had shown. Profits had to be adjusted. The loss before tax climbed to $5 million.
And the blood began to be spilled. Elders announced an on-market takeover bid for the company at 88 cents a share (12 cents less than the price at which the company was floated). The plan was for the company to be broken up and the properties sold off individually if the takeover bid was successful.
In retrospect, the Elders takeover bid simply served to put the company on the auction block. The price was too cheap and the market quickly outran it.
Bankers Trust, keen to snare some hefty rural investments to balance out its portfolio, entered the picture. They approached Sherwin for a chat. Perhaps there were alternatives. Could Sherwin privatise the company (buy up all the shares) and then sell-out most of the properties to BT to finance the bid? But these negotiations fell over and BT entered the marketplace with its own offer: $1.05 a share.
Holmes a Court had thrown in his hand, too, raising the possibility that he might be prepared to bid. He picked up the Elders 18 per cent stake at $1.10 a share in a deft sharemarket play. Then the waiting game began. It is now a battle of wits.
Both BT and Holmes a Court know that Sherwin wants to make sure he keeps at least three properties - Walhallow, Anthony Lagoon and Eva Downs, all on the Barklys - for himself. Holmes a Court, as a private investor, would appear to have more chance of finding a way for Sherwin to do this, than BT, a public company. But, in the end, Sherwin would have to trust Holmes a Court. The risk was too great.
With the takeover tussle in full swing, the concentration on cattle numbers became intense. The board was forced to present yet another assessment, this time up to October 1988. The news was bad, cattle numbers were down to 320,000.
And, in answer to the takeover bids, directors were forced to give a reassessment of the company's position. Again, the news was bad: the losses in 1988 would dwarf those in 1987. Compounding the companies woes, Elders moved to call in part of its multi-million-dollar loan.
Nevertheless, Sherwin dug his heels in. He maintained that the company was worth a lot more than the takeover offers on the table. His advisers were saying Sherwin's stake was now not for sale. He commissioned his own valuation(from an unlicensed valuer) and presented it to the board and advisers at the last minute. What has ensued is a Mexican standoff: Holmes a Court, BT and Sherwin all with the same goal and none of them prepared to back down. Observers believe the situation will be resolved, but at what cost? For the Sherwin empire, the game appears to be over, unless Sherwin's stubbornness and capacity for deal-making wins out again.
What happened? Perhaps it was simply a case of ego outpacing capacity for long-term performance. The classic small-business trap of growing too quickly, overstretching.
Without Sherwin's help, we can only rely on the view of others who have worked closely with him. And each sees it differently: the cattleman versus the chrome-and-glass brigade; the personable drover who, as he acquired more power, became a recluse; the entrepreneur, the self-made man, who was unable to handle the accountability required when his empire became public; the cattleman who was at the mercy of his bankers; the entrepreneur who can prosper only with growth and collapses with stagnation; the megalomaniac who wants to control 2 or 3 per cent of the nation's cattle herd; the employer who saw tragedy when two of his young jackaroos perished in the desert; and the family man who did not bother to convey his sympathy to the families of those who died so tragically.
A WIRY TALE OF CATTLE
"I'VE just come down from out the back of Nicholson," says Bob Baker, stock inspector. "There's 12,500 square kilometres that the coons have got and we've just been out and shot every beast on it. It's that bloody rough, Burke and Wills went around the bastard."
Bob Baker seems oddly out of place in the air-conditioned Government-issue atmosphere of the Department of Primary Production offices in Tennant Creek. Put simply, the senior stock inspector for the Barkly region makes Mick Dundee seem a Double Bay socialite.
Bob's wiry frame ambles down the corridor encumbered by a pronounced limp. He wears a blue work shirt cut off at the sleeves, an ill-fitting pair of shorts and well-worn Adidas running shoes. Snake tattoos run the full length of his sinewy arms and a "roll your own" cigarette dangles from the corner of his mouth. An unruly moustache winds its way around his top lip into a scruffy short beard. Perched atop his head is a battered Akubra, which is removed only when he runs his hand through a diminishing thatch of greying hair. Bob is the sort of guy who wears his hat inside.
As district stock inspector, Bob Baker knows better than most the cattlemen of the Territory, their land and their cattle. The drought afflicting the Barkly region, he says, is like nothing he's ever seen: "It's bloody bad. There's sandhills in the black soil for the first time in years."
Bob spends much of his working days travelling across the Barkly properties, regulating the Federal Government's brucellosis and tuberculosis eradication campaign program. It aims to totally eradicate brucellosis and tuberculosis in Australia. Cattle owners are subjected to regular tests conducted by vets and inspectors like Bob Baker, and any "dirty stock" must be slaughtered.
The Federal Government pays cattle owners the market price plus compensation for any beasts shot. This runs at a rate above meatworks prices of $80 a head for breeding females, $200 for herd bulls, $40 for calves and$40 for unmusterable cattle. Any cattle "outside the wire" (untested) at December 31 last year were to be shot by the Federal Government. One thing the program provides is a reasonably accurate count of cattle numbers. Indeed, it has been the cause of some conjecture as to why Sherwin cannot provide a more accurate estimate of cattle numbers on the Barkly properties if all his cattle are behind the wire.
Perhaps understandably, district stock inspectors and Department of Primary Production vets are not always greeted with open arms by cattle owners; this includes Peter Sherwin, who is said by locals to hold a healthy disregard for bureaucrats.
Bob Baker has known Sherwin about 16 years. He speaks with respect of Sherwin's accomplishments and is almost defensive about the controversial stock losses on his properties. Four of Sherwin's properties - Eva Downs, Creswell Downs, Walhallow and Anthony Lagoon - were tested last year. Bob says Sherwin has no cattle outside the wire. "No-one musters cattle like Sherwin. If he musters a paddock, you can rest assured there's no cattle left to shoot," says Baker. "You might find half a dozen cattle left, whereas on other properties you'd find 300 to 400 head."
This sort of statement, which was to be repeated time and again by cattlemen in the Territory, only serves to deepen the mystery surrounding Sherwin's apparent inability to accurately assess his cattle numbers.