Kimberley sandalwood producer trades in pesticides for hungry goats to tackle invasive weeds in Ord Valley

The Kimberley’s biggest flock of goats and lambs has been very busy keeping multi-million dollar Indian sandalwood plantations free of invasive weeds in the Ord Irrigation Scheme this wet season.

Silvopasturalism – the practice of integrating forestry with the grazing of livestock – is not a new concept in agribusiness.

But Santanol’s trial is thought to be a first for the Australian sandalwood industry and has helped to drastically reduce chemical usage, as well as delivering significant savings for the company.

“In mahogany they often use cattle, but obviously cattle are a bit too big for our smaller trees, so we’ve got the goats in here doing the same job,” operations manager Mitch Firth said.

“It has been 15 months without any herbicide or insecticides in these paddocks.

“We’re finding there’s some real benefits other than weed control — we’re able to irrigate more regularly, and it’s also meaning we’re getting healthier trees which are more resilient to pest and disease attack.”

Santanol has been grazing goats in their Kununurra plantations to cut back on pesticide and herbicide use.(ABC Kimberley: Courtney Fowler)

No holidays, no overtime

Mr Firth said the 650 goats, kids and lambs that grazed the plantations every afternoon played a crucial role protecting the company’s valuable forestry assets from being smothered by damaging vines.

“We’ve had some recent rain, so the weeds are growing really rapidly,” he said.

“If the vine is left there for a long period, it will actually kill the tree.

“If we can’t get a tractor in there over the wet, we’re putting people into some pretty weedy plantations, so it’s a safety benefit as well.

“These guys work on public holidays, no overtime, the induction process is very quick we don’t have to put high-vis on them either.

A man standing with his hands on his hips in front of pen full of goats.
Barry Lerch owns the largest known flock of goats and lambs in the Kimberley.(ABC Kimberley: Courtney Fowler)

Unusual Kimberley livestock

Kununurra’s cutest farmhands belong to a flock owned by Kimberley goat breeder Barry Lerch.

Mr Lerch initially started with a flock of less than 24 stud goats and has slowly built up his numbers.

“Originally in 2003 I bought some goats up from Perth, which are very different to the goats I work with today,” he said.

“There’s not many of them around — I’ve picked up all that I can across the whole of the Kimberley, I’ve driven as far as Derby to pick up around 20 goats.

“This herd is only as big as it is today because they’re constantly having kids.

Mr Lerch said he had started breeding and training guardian dogs to protect his goats and lambs from dingoes.

He said the maremma breed, with its natural instinct to protect small livestock, acted as a live-in nanny for the flock.

A guardian dog lying outside a goat pen.
Maremma dogs are used to protect the livestock from wild dogs and dingoes in the Ord Valley.(ABC Kimberley: Courtney Fowler)

Silvopastoral trial to expand

Mr Firth said Santanol had been running the trial across several of the company’s plantations in Kununurra for three years.

“We’re ready to expand, but it’s quite difficult to source animals,” he said.

“There’s no small animal industry in the north-west, so we’re sort of pushing into new ground here,” he said.

A close-up of a goat.
Barry Lerch hopes to keep growing his flock.(ABC Kimberley: Courtney Fowler)

“We might try to source more animals, probably out of the Carnarvon region — it really is just a bit of a trial at the moment.

“We need to extend this out to make some significant difference.”

Santanol is the world’s second biggest producer of Indian sandalwood and completed its biggest commercial harvest in Kununurra last year.

The oil from the 2020 harvest will be distilled and refined over the next 12 months at the company’s facility in Perth.

Thank you for stopping by to visit My Local Pages and reading this news release on NT news published as “Kimberley sandalwood producer trades in pesticides for hungry goats to tackle invasive weeds in Ord Valley”. This story was shared by MyLocalPages as part of our national news services.

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Coogee murder: Kimberley McRae’s alleged killer ‘so sad’ about what happened

An international student who allegedly killed a Sydney sex worker before fleeing the country had previously served in his home nation’s navy and army. 

Hector Enrique Valencia Valencia, 21, returned to Australia last week to face a charge of murdering Kimberley McRae, 69, in her apartment in Coogee on January 8, 2020. 

Ms McRae’s body was eventually discovered on January 14 by which stage Valencia had allegedly fled to Aruba, a small island in the Caribbean, where his mother lives. 

After being provided with intelligence by NSW Police officers, local authorities were able to arrest Valencia and hold him in custody for nine months until his extradition – which was delayed because of COVID-19

His mother Gabriela has now told Daily Mail Australia of her shock at her son’s arrest, saying he was always ‘caring’ for others and volunteering for not-for-profit groups.

Ms Valencia also revealed he had completed his mandatory service in the Colombian military, before being discharged with ‘excellent’ reviews from his commanders. 

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Gabriela Valencia (left) the mother of student Hector Enrique Valencia Valencia (right) who is charged with murdering a Sydney sex worker said he was ‘so sad’ that his trip of a lifetime had ended with him behind bars

Valencia, 21, is charged with murdering Kimberley McRae, 69, (pictured) at her apartment in Coogee, in Sydney's east, on January 8. NSW Police only discovered her body six days later

Valencia, 21, is charged with murdering Kimberley McRae, 69, (pictured) at her apartment in Coogee, in Sydney’s east, on January 8. NSW Police only discovered her body six days later

Ms Valencia said her son had arrived in Australia in the hope of ‘progressing’ his life.

She said he was a regular volunteer with environmental groups and the Red Cross, a top diving instructor, karate competitor and had completed his military service.

While in Australia he completed an English language course at the University of New South Wales before taking up further studies at a business college in Surry Hills.  

‘I am a mother, (the) head of a family, a working woman. I am not wealthy, but with a lot of love and effort I supported my son to fulfill his dream, to study and progress in Australia,’ Ms Valencia said.

‘Two years ago he did his military service in the Colombian Navy which he came out of with excellent behaviour. At the end of his military service he made preparations for his trip to Australia. 

‘It is a country that we have like a lot and it always caught our attention.

‘He is a young man who shares what he has with others and as a son he has been very affectionate and always attentive to me. We have a very good relationship. 

‘He was a Red Cross volunteer and has been apart of groups of people who worry about caring for the environment.

‘Enrique has my full support. Since he was a little boy he has (cared for) homeless animals, (been) concerned about improving and caring for the environment.

Ms Valencia said she had spoken to her son before his extradition and he remained ‘so sad’ that his trip of a lifetime ended with him in custody and on a murder charge. 

‘We spoke last Friday. He was still here in Aruba,’ Ms Valencia said.

‘(The last time I saw him was) on Saturday when the police officers were waiting for him at the airport. 

Valencia had done his mandatory military service in both the navy and army

His mother said he received 'excellent' reviews from his commanders

Valencia had done his mandatory military service in both the navy and army, which his mother said saw him receive ‘excellent’ reviews from his commanders

Valencia had come to Australia to 'progress' his life, his mother said, and had studied at both the University of New South Wales and a business college in Surry Hills

Valencia had come to Australia to ‘progress’ his life, his mother said, and had studied at both the University of New South Wales and a business college in Surry Hills 

Valencia (left) is pictured in a lighthearted photo receiving a certificate of graduation from an English language course at UNSW

Valencia (left) is pictured in a lighthearted photo receiving a certificate of graduation from an English language course at UNSW

Valencia briefly faced Central Local Court on Thursday via video link, where he did not apply for bail and was ordered to reappear in court on January 19, 2021.

Ms McRae was well known in the local area and was regularly seen walking the streets of Coogee for exercise

Ms McRae was well known in the local area and was regularly seen walking the streets of Coogee for exercise

His mother said she was planning to speak to him for the first time since he arrived in Australia next Tuesday.

The prolonged situation with Valencia has also taken a toll on Ms McRae’s family.

Her twin sister Karen – who is believed to have been the one to raise the alarm when Ms McRae could not be contacted – said it had been an ‘incredibly difficult’ time and commended NSW Police for their efforts to seek justice during a global pandemic. 

‘It is incredibly difficult to express in words what our family has been through since Kimberley’s death,’ Karen McRae said. 

‘Kimberley was a cherished member of our family with a unique and vivacious personality. We grieve daily for Kimberley and are still struggling to comprehend that we will never see her again.’

Police believe Valencia met Ms McRae for the purposes of sex, but it is not known if it was the first time the pair had interacted.  

Pictured is the unit block on Mount Street, Coogee, where Ms McRae lived and where her body was found

Pictured is the unit block on Mount Street, Coogee, where Ms McRae lived and where her body was found


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Kimberley Granite Holdings, accused of destroying Aboriginal heritage site, parts ways with director

A mining company that started legal action against the Western Australian Government for knocking back its application to destroy an Aboriginal heritage site has parted ways with its managing director.

Kimberley Granite Holdings had already started work on the Halls Creek site, in the East Kimberley, in 2019 before it sought the Government’s permission earlier this year following a complaint by traditional owners.

The mine’s location was called Garnkiny, a culturally significant tract of land that features in revered Indigenous artist Mabel Juli’s “moon dreaming” stories.

Garnkiny Ngarranggarni Moon Dreaming by Mabel Juli depicts the Garnkiny sacred site.(Supplied: Kimberley Land Council)

The company initially worked with a small team and the backing of a Chinese-based investor to purchase an exploratory licence at the Halls Creek site, and work began after the company said it consulted a number of traditional owners.

But the Kimberley Land Council disputed the claim, saying the company should have applied for a Section 18 approval from the Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt to destroy the site before moving ahead with any official work.

The company then applied for approval, but Mr Wyatt rejected it and the State Government said in a statement it had “referred the matter to the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage for investigation”.

The company then opted to challenge Mr Wyatt’s decision in the State Administrative Tribunal — a decision the minister condemned as “disappointing”.

The appeal also meant the Government’s investigation into the company’s actions in Halls Creek had to be put on hold.

Elias Christianos was the managing director at the time when Kimberley Granite Holdings came under scrutiny.

He departed the position in July.

Kimberley Granite Holdings formally withdrew its appeal in August.

In a statement, a company spokesman said Mr Christianos was asked “to resign as a director of KGH, which he did on July 29, 2020”.

“He has also agreed to sell his minority stake in the company.”

Mr Christianos disputes this account, saying he left the company as he intended to sell his stake in it.

The company’s new leadership said it was now looking to repair its working relationship with the Kimberley Land Council and traditional owners.

'Welcome to Halls Creek' sign.
The mine site is located 50kms north of Halls Creek and within the Malarngowem native title area.(ABC News)

Halls Creek mining operations questioned

Mr Christianos has a lengthy history in gem mining in Australia and has been a director for Yerilla Gems, a major shareholder and alternate director for Australis Mining.

At the Halls Creek operation, Mr Christianos maintained he had the approval of traditional owners at the time of the work.

The former director told the ABC he had taken a number of people out to the site who had told him there was nothing of significance in the area when the company took over the tenement.

He said the complaint was making a “mountain out of a molehill” and called the ongoing investigation “political bullsh*t”.

Mr Christianos was particularly critical of the role of the Kimberley Land Council (KLC) in the investigation into the site and said they had been obstructive when he had tried to work with them on the site.

“There is no way I’m going to let the KLC get their way because it’s not right for the place, it’s not right for the people there because there is a lot of work, a lot of income, and it should go on,” he said.

“There is no reason it should not go on … there is no reason. I will be the first one to get out of there if there was.”

A man stands with arms crossed in front of the Kimberley Land Council building.
Tyronne Garstone said the KLC would continue to protect the rights of traditional owners, particularly those affected by Kimberley Granite Holdings.(ABC Kimberley: Ben Collins)

In response to Mr Christianos’ criticisms, former KLC deputy chief executive Tyronne Garstone said the organisation’s past interactions with the company had been characterised by “wilful disrespect” and it would continue to do everything it could to help traditional owners.

Mr Christianos went on to dispute the fact the company had withdrawn the State Administrative Tribunal action.

“We will pursue this way … until the truth comes out,” Mr Christianos said.

He said he would also be participating in the State Government’s investigation.

Miner changes leadership

Kimberley Granite Holdings appointed Michael Elliott as the new director in August.

He said the company was committed to complying with the State Government investigation.

“In line with recent changes to the management of the company, Kimberley Granite Holdings is committed to ensuring any future activities on this land are only conducted in a manner that is consistent with our social, environmental and legal obligations,” he said.

“As a starting point for our renewed commitment to our stakeholders, the company has now withdrawn its appeal to the State Administrative Tribunal in relation to a decision made under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

“We also intend to provide our assistance to the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage in its investigation into this matter.”

The Government investigation into the alleged unlawful destruction continues.

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Kimberley fracking project ‘unlikely’ under WA onshore gas export ban

A Kimberley oil and gas fracking project that has gained the support of traditional owners after more than a year of negotiations is unlikely to go ahead under a WA gas export ban, the proponent says.

Karajarri native title holders in the West Kimberley signed an Indigenous Land Use Agreement with Theia Energy just two weeks after the WA Government announced an onshore gas export ban in August.

The revised WA domestic gas policy prevents gas extracted from land-based reserves from being sold outside of Western Australia.

Theia Energy’s agreement with Karajarri allows for drilling and fracking a well in the Great Sandy Desert as part of a project that proponents hope will become a major oil and gas producer.

Karajarri Traditional Lands Association chief executive Martin Bin Rashid said at the time that the agreement offered economic benefits while ensuring the protection of the environment.

“We’ve had extensive consultation on environmental, cultural, social and economic impacts on our country,” Mr Bin Rashid said.

But Theia Energy’s chief operating officer Jop van Hattum said the Government policy to ban onshore gas exports to eastern states or overseas threatened the viability of the project.

“We haven’t had much detail on what that policy entails; there was no consultation with industry on that policy.”

The Theia-1 exploration well in the Great Sandy Desert, drilled in 2015.(Supplied: WA Department of Mines and Petroleum)

Waitsia exempted from ban

The ban on exports of gas produced from WA’s onshore resources was announced with one exemption to a project north of Perth associated with WA’s biggest media proprietor.

Waitsia is owned by Japanese conglomerate Mitsui as well as Beach Energy, an ASX-listed company whose majority shareholder is Kerry Stokes’s Seven Group Holdings.

Under the exemption, its operators will be allowed to process gas from the Waitsia field through the North West Shelf for export to liquified natural gas (LNG) markets.

Premier Mark McGowan defended the exemption at the time on the grounds Waitsia was a “shovel-ready” project that would deliver hundreds of jobs.

The Government declined to be interviewed or answer specific questions on whether Theia Energy could also be exempt from the export ban.

But a statement provided to the ABC did not entirely rule out further exemptions.

“The State Government will not agree to the export of gas via the WA pipeline network other than in exceptional circumstances,” the statement read in part.

Theia Energy hopes that its Great Sandy Desert Project will develop a network of oil and gas wells connected by pipelines to new and existing ports in north-west Australia.

Documents obtained from the company’s website, which have since been removed, show a conceptual plan based around their desert location 150 kilometres south-east of Broome.

A conceptual development graphic of the Great Sandy Desert Project
Theia Energy’s plans for the Great Sandy Desert oil and gas fracking project shows new pipelines, roads and ports.(Supplied: Theia Energy)

‘Policy jeopardises jobs’

The American-owned oil and gas company that in August this year made the first application to frack gas wells in Western Australia since a moratorium on fracking was lifted, has also criticised the onshore gas export ban.

Bennett Resources, a subsidiary of Texas-based Black Mountain, submitted a referral to WA’s Environmental Protection Authority to assess plans to drill and frack six wells on its newly acquired acreage on Noonkanbah Station, near Fitzroy Crossing.

The company has already clashed with the State Government over what it calls a “moratorium by stealth” on fracking in Western Australia.

In November 2018, the Government lifted its moratorium on fracturing, but subsequently said no projects would get off the ground until a code of practice and traditional owner and private landowner consent requirements had been agreed upon.

Black Mountain chief operating officer Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes said banning the export of gas from their project in the Kimberley’s Canning Basin would cut them off from their most viable market.

“The Canning Basin is nearer the east coast than the existing WA gas market and practically would be unlikely to ever compete with imported LNG for the Perth market,” Ms Zumwalt-Forbes said in a statement.

Building the gas pipeline in Queensland
Black Mountain’s Ashley Zumwalt-Forbes says banning export of gas could cut them off from their most viable market.(Supplied: Australian Pipeline Industry Association)

Ms Zumwalt-Forbes has previously said that gas from the Kimberley could provide security of supply to the east coast via the trans-Australia pipeline, proposed as part of a gas-led recovery from COVID-19 economic impacts.

Bennett Resources’ fracking proposal is based on an agreement with the Yungngora and Warlangurru traditional owners, and identified eastern states manufacturing as their preferred target market.

The chairwoman for the community’s Yungngora Association, Jayna Skinner, had previously told the ABC that the community “wants to see economic development opportunities and employment for its people”.

“We are very fortunate to have the strong support of the two native title groups that live on the land that we operate in the Canning Basin,” Ms Zumwalt-Forbes said.

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Alleged Kimberley sex offender Charles Batham to be extradited from Italy nine years after fleeing country

Alleged child sex offender Charles Batham is set to be extradited from Italy to face court in Western Australia after Italian authorities approved a request from the Australian Government.

Mr Batham fled Australia in 2011 after being charged with 31 child sex offences in the northern tourist town of Broome.

After nine years on Interpol’s Red Notice list, the 76-year-old was arrested in March this year in a coastal resort town in Italy after an ABC investigation published in February resulted in a string of reported sightings and tip-offs.

The Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department has confirmed its extradition request had been approved.

“Australia is seeking Mr Batham’s extradition from Italy for prosecution in Western Australia for alleged child sexual offences,” it said in a statement.

“Australian authorities will work with Italian authorities to make arrangements for his surrender … [while] Mr Batham remains in extradition custody in Italy.”

Italian authorities swooped on Mr Batham in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there were concerns international travel restrictions would delay his return to Australia.

But the ABC understands detectives from the WA Police Force are hoping to travel to Italy before the end of the year to escort the Englishman to Perth.

It is not clear whether the charges will be heard in the Broome Magistrates Court or if the case will be relocated to Perth.

Mr Batham was spotted in Turkey after coverage of the case by the ABC earlier this year.(Facebook)

Tourist operator fled Kimberley after charges

Mr Batham was a well-known tourism operator who had lived in Broome for a decade at the time of his arrest.

The Englishman ran a successful ultra-light plane tour business and lived in a renovated double-decker bus.

The first allegations emerged in 2010, after police searched Mr Batham’s makeshift office and seized a large amount of material.

He appeared briefly in the Broome Magistrates Court in November that year to face charges of intent to expose a person under 13 to indecent matter, and one count of possessing child exploitation material.

At the time Mr Batham denied the allegations to his shocked friends.

Not long afterwards he slipped out of the country, catching a flight to Malaysia and moving on quickly to Europe.

The ABC later revealed authorities tracked his movements over the years and were aware he had been issued a passport under a new name in Britain in 2014, despite being listed on Interpol’s Red Notice register.

The coverage resulted in people in Turkey, Italy, and the United Kingdom passing on sightings, culminating in Mr Batham’s arrest in northern Italy in March.

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Theia Energy fracking, ports, and oil pipeline project for west Kimberley to be voted on by Indigenous group

Indigenous native title holders will vote in the coming days on giving approval to an oil and gas fracking project, connected by pipelines to new and existing ports, which may become Australia’s biggest.

Karajarri Traditional Lands Association (KTLA) chief executive Martin Bin Rashid declined to be interviewed by the ABC, but confirmed in a statement that a vote would be taken on the project by native title holders.

“KTLA will put the negotiated ILUAs [Indigenous land use agreement] to the Karajarri native title holders at an authorisation meeting on August 28,” the statement said.

“The ILUAs cover further exploration on Karajarri country and, if that exploration is successful and Theia Energy’s project proceeds, native title and cultural heritage approvals processes for future production and the development of infrastructure to support the project.”

Theia Energy declined to comment beyond saying, “this is really a matter for the Karajarri”.

The conceptual development of the project shows new pipelines, roads, ports and industry.(Supplied: Theia Energy)

The ABC has previously reported on the potential for Theia Energy’s Great Sandy Desert project to become Australia’s biggest oil producer.

Documents obtained from the company’s website that have since been removed say it has found as much as 57 billion barrels of oil in the desert location 150 kilometres south-east of Broome.

The oil find is described as “unconventional”, meaning it is locked in dense rock that will need hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to allow the oil to flow to the surface.

Theia Energy, a small Perth-based company, was created in 2018 when Finder Exploration split into Finder Energy for its offshore projects and Theia Energy for its onshore Great Sandy Desert project.

Potentially $250 billion in tax revenue

A project factsheet produced by Theia Energy and dated 2018 suggested that of the tens of billions of barrels of oil estimated to be locked in the shale rock, six billion barrels were recoverable.

The Theia-1 exploration well
Theia Energy’s only well is the Theia-1 exploration well in the Great Sandy Desert, drilled in 2015.(Supplied: WA Department of Mines and Petroleum)

This could be worth $250 billion in tax revenue and $55 billion in royalties to government and would require a $77 billion capital investment, the document said.

The project aims to ramp oil production up to 100,000 barrels a day, which, if achieved, would easily make it the country’s biggest oil-producing project.

But in an interview with the ABC in August 2019, Theia Energy’s chief operating officer, Jop van Hattum, was more cautious about the potential of the project to progress to this scale.

“There is a potential for that, there’s a lot of work to be done to see if that is all possible,” he said.

A wellhead behind a barbed wire fence.
North-west Australia has previously been touted as having a huge potential for oil and gas.(ABC Kimberley: Ben Collins)

‘Up to Karajarri people’

The WA Government officially lifted its moratorium on fracking in 2018 after an independent scientific inquiry found the risk of fracking to people and the environment was low.

But fracking remains effectively banned in the state, awaiting the introduction of new regulations including a right of veto for native title holders and a code of practice for the industry.

The Government has previously acknowledged that required legislation cannot be passed before the state election in March 2021.

Theia Energy will now be the second company attempting to proceed with an Indigenous agreement on fracking, ahead of the introduction of the Government’s new rules, after Black Mountain Metals announced its plan to drill and frack six wells on Noonkanbah Station in the central Kimberley.

In his statement, Mr Bin Rashid said the vote on the proposal came at the end of a long process to allow Karajarri people to make an informed decision.

“KTLA has undertaken its own due diligence and undertaken an extensive consultation process with Karajarri native title holders,” he said.

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Snapshot reveals suicide and self-harm spikes across the Kimberley as researchers urge reform

The first detailed snapshot of self-harm data in the Kimberley region has painted a grim picture, exposing rising rates of young Aboriginal women attempting or threatening suicide with numbers spiking in the steamy wet season months.

Researchers from the University of Western Australia have pulled together hospital, police, and coroner’s court data from recent years to track patterns in self-harm.

The 14-page report, titled A profile of suicide and self-harm in the Kimberley, shows the number of Aboriginal suicide deaths has stabilised slightly, falling from 57 in 2008-2012 to 53 in 2013-2017.

However, rates of self-harm are escalating, with Kimberley police attending an average of two calls a day.

The figures indicate a child in the Kimberley is more than twice as likely to end up in hospital for self-harming than in other areas of the state, while the region’s suicide rate remains more than double the rest of Australia.

Emergency department data shows hospital admissions spike in the humid wet season months.

University of Western Australia professor and Bardi woman Pat Dudgeon said the report’s findings, particularly the increase in suicides and self-harm amongst women in the Kimberley, were particularly concerning.

“I’d take that very seriously, because I think it’s a sign of things to come.”

The report recommends a thorough redesign of health services in the Kimberley and the need to ensure adequate resourcing to ensure better care is provided.

More than 100 Indigenous people died by suicide in the Kimberley between 2008 and 2017.(ABC: Joshua Spong)

Self harm data critical

The Kimberley’s alarming suicide numbers have been highlighted before, but Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Services (KAMS) chief operating officer Rob McPhee said the data on self-harming behaviour should prove critical.

While someone taking their own life represents a failure, Mr McPhee said tracking self-harming behaviour would give a clear indication of where services are needed.

A head shot of Rob McPhee speaking to the media.
Rob McPhee says better information on suicide that’s collected regularly will help target services.(ABC News: Kathryn Diss)

With the data indicating higher rates of self-harm among young women in the evening and overnight, for instance, he said service providers needed to respond.

“So they’re really important issues we can take up with service providers and at a policy level.”

But a key problem remains — different government agencies work to different definitions of self-harm and collect data in different ways.

This report uses data from WA Police’s Kimberley Police district, which began recording information on self-harm incidents 2014, while emergency departments have only recorded self-harm data since 2017.

Schools, health clinics, and other hospital staff also gather data using different methods and definitions.

“The stats show what we’ve known for a long time — the rates of suicide and self-harm in the Kimberley are unacceptably high,” Mr McPhee said.

“But the data the police capture is only one set. How do we better work to ensure some consistency in how that information is collected?”

Extended planning process for regional responses

Better information will be the first step in shaping the Kimberley’s dedicated suicide prevention plan.

Image of a young boy looking over the Fitzroy River, you can only see his sillhouette.
Research indicates better funded and more appropriate mental health support is needed right across the Kimberley.(ABC Kimberley)

Announced last month by the State Government, the plans were hailed as the first “Aboriginal-led” effort to reduce suicide formally backed by WA authorities.

But questions remained over which programs were working and which should receive funding under the plan.

With KAMS already leading the region’s federally-funded suicide prevention trial, Mr McPhee confirmed they had held discussions with WA’s Mental Health Commission around the Kimberley plan.

He pointed to efforts to develop youth leadership in the east and west Kimberley, and a trial of traditional healing practises to complement established mental health services, as initiatives showing positive signs.

“It’s more nuanced than just the numbers. You’re not going to have a reduction immediately as a result of an intervention,” Mr McPhee said.

Clinical services yet to be properly addressed

What is yet to be addressed is an acute shortage of clinical mental health services, repeatedly highlighted by both community leaders and the Hope and Fogliani coronial inquests.

Aboriginal affairs minister with group of Indigenous youth
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt announced the Government’s response to Coroner Ros Fogliani’s findings in March this year.(ABC Kimberley: Ben Collins)

The Government’s sole commitment to on-ground services in the Kimberley as part of its response to Coroner Fogliani’s investigation has been $3 million announced in March.


A Mental Health Commission spokesperson said that funding had been used to provided additional resourcing and education for staff responding to self-harming behaviour in the East Kimberley.

But they were unable to specify how much funding would be provided to support development of the Kimberley’s plan or the programs and initiatives it would support.

“The short- and long-term goals will be identified as part of the planning process,” the spokesperson said.

“It is anticipated that as part of the [regional plan] an assessment would be completed to identify what programs and initiatives currently exist in the region, and what evaluation data is available to support their effectiveness or ineffectiveness.

“The short-term and long-term goals will be identified as part of the planning process and will have a focus on improving the social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal people across the Kimberley.”

The revised Closing the Gap targets — which mandate Aboriginal leadership and include a reduction in Indigenous suicide rates — are also expected to play a role in shaping the Government’s response.

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Kimberley MP Josie Farrer to retire at next state election

The Kimberley will be guaranteed a new state member of parliament next year with incumbent Josie Farrer confirming she will retire at the March state election.

In a statement released earlier today, the two-term Labor MP confirmed she would be stepping down.

“It has been a great honour to serve the people of the Kimberley for the past eight years,” Ms Farrer said.

The 72-year-old Gija woman was first elected in 2013 and won an easy re-election in the ALP’s landslide victory in 2017.

Born in Halls Creek, Ms Farrer, a member of the Stolen Generations, served as a shire president and councillor before succeeding long-serving MP Carol Martin.

Her platform focused on advocacy and improvement for Aboriginal residents across the region, with a particular focus on issues such as domestic violence and youth suicide.

From the opposition backbench she spearheaded efforts to formally recognise Aboriginal people in Western Australia’s Constitution and played a key role in the most recent parliamentary inquiry into the Kimberley’s high suicide rates.

Kimberley Land Council chief executive Nolan Hunter said he was surprised by Ms Farrer’s decision.

“I didn’t think she would retire, it’s unexpected,” Mr Hunter said.

“The [achievement] that sticks out is the amendment to the WA Constitution. That resonated with a lot of people and it was a good outcome.

“We wish Josie well.”

Criticism over lack of presence, despite tributes

However, Ms Farrer faced increasing public criticism over a lack of public presence and leadership during the recent COVID-19 outbreak in the Kimberley.

She was also criticised for the slow progress of key election commitments around juvenile crime, with elements of the Kimberley Juvenile Justice Strategy only delivered this year.

She made limited public appearances and granted few interviews in her final years in Parliament.

Ms Farrer alongside Premier Mark McGowan and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt, after her constitutional amendments passed WA Parliament.(ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)

But Premier Mark McGowan paid tribute to Ms Farrer, calling her story one of the WA Parliament’s most remarkable.

“I thank Josie for her service to the Kimberley, to Aboriginal people, and to Western Australia, and wish her and her family well for the next chapter of her life.”

Candidates yet to be endorsed

Her departure opens an intriguing preselection contest for the ALP, which has maintained a near-continuous hold on the seat since the election of Ernie Bridge — WA’s first Aboriginal MP — in 1980.

Former Labor MP Tom Stephens said it had reshaped the nature of politics in the north and played an important role statewide.

“Before Aboriginal voices were in the Parliament it was a tough, harsh, and unfair set of circumstances, into which people like Ernie Bridge, Carol Martin, and Josie Farrer had to walk,” Mr Stephens said.

Ms Farrer retires on a margin of 13 per cent, making Kimberley one of Labor’s safest regional seats.

The Liberals, WA Nationals, and Greens are yet to formally endorse candidates.

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Isolated off-grid East Kimberley wildlife carer survives low rainfall, fire and coronavirus

Poor wet seasons, fire and coronavirus are just some of the challenges Barbara Walker faces living off the grid in the East Kimberley bush.

For 25 years she has lived at Roy’s Retreat near Lake Argyle.

Named after her late husband, the reserve is the only “soft release” wildlife rehabilitation centre in the Kimberley, meaning the animals can leave the sanctuary straight into the wild from their pens, rather than being transported to a new location and set free.

There is no phone reception at Roy’s Retreat, the closest town of Kununurra is an hour away, and the property can become cut off during wet-season flooding.

During the dry season, Ms Walker hosts international volunteers who help with the wildlife and land care.

But with travel restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ms Walker is carrying out repairs and upgrades on her own.

The lack of tourists and volunteers has also meant fewer donations for the registered charity.

Barbara Walker lives off the grid at Roy’s Retreat, where she operates a ‘soft-release’ wildlife rehabilitation reserve.(ABC Kimberley: Rebecca Nadge)

Unseasonal fires

Ms Walker cares for native animals that have been presented to the vet clinic in Kununurra.

She said the lack of travellers on the road, combined with late season fires and cane toads, have meant fewer animals have been brought in for care.

“There’s hardly any joeys now coming into the vet clinic because there’s not a lot of animals around anymore through these recent fires that we had,” she said.

The fire tore through the area around Lake Argyle in late October, coming within a stone’s throw of Ms Walker’s home and damaging land and infrastructure.

“A lot of animals died,” she said.

“This was land that hasn’t been burnt for 15 years because I have looked after it and brought the land back what it should be, but it just went up in flames in five minutes.”

Close up of old wallaroo.
Aging Antilopine wallaroo Ballerina pauses for a rest in the shade near the retreat.(ABC Kimberley: Rebecca Nadge)

The fire also burned through the neighbouring Long Michael Plain, an area that Ms Walker has also worked to rehabilitate.

Most of the fences and gates were destroyed, and she said she will now focus on the pocket of land near her house.

“But I had two blue-tongued lizards here, and I had sand goannas that came to the camp for a feed.

“They’re all gone.”

Satellite dish and aviaries beneath towering rock face.
Roy’s Retreat would normally host international volunteers throughout the dry season.(ABC Kimberley: Rebecca Nadge)

Poor wet seasons

Ongoing dry conditions in the north have also had an impact on the property.

The spillway creek that flows from Lake Argyle has run dry over the last three dry seasons, as the lake levels continue to recede after drier than average wet seasons.

Ms Walker is starting to boil drinking water for the first time and is no longer able to pump direct from a spring into her tank.

“Normally my spring is going the whole year round, but not now.

“So many things have changed.”

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Researchers discover 26 new species of micromolluscs, the size of a grain of sand, off Kimberley coast

Researchers have discovered 26 new species of “exquisite” marine animals living in some of the worlds tiniest shells off Western Australia’s Kimberley coast.

Known as micromolluscs, the tiny animals are often comparable in size with that of a grain of sand.

Due to their microscopic nature, however, little is known about the creatures that live in abundance throughout our oceans.

But new research conducted off the Kimberley coast and published in the Records and Supplements of the WA Museum has uncovered the diversity of the tiny marine animals off north-western Australian.

Twenty-six new species were discovered and thousands more were surveyed.

Aquatic zoologist Lisa Kirkendale said half a cup of sand had revealed more micromollusc species than the total coral diversity for the project area off Kimberley coast.

Dr Kirkendale’s favourite new species, the cyloscala revoluta, under a microscope.(Supplied: WA Museum)

Dr Kirkendale said their study was an important first step in identifying and understanding the animals.

“So maybe they’re food for other fauna, maybe they’re parasites on other animals. We need to know what they are and then we can look into these other questions.”

‘Exquisite’ in appearance

While not visible to the naked eye, Dr Kirkendale said under the microscope the molluscs looked like “something out of a fairytale”.

“So you picture a tiny shell encased in something that looks like a sculptured silhouette, and you can see both the animal — which often has stunning marking and colours — as well as this translucent outline around it,” she said.

“One of my favourites … [looks like] a spiral, frilly staircase decorated literally with spun floss and what looks like a unicorn horn in its tip.

International attention

The Kimberley coast proved to be somewhat of a hotspot for the microscopic animals, with half of the 2,000 species considered rare.

Dr Kirkendale said the outcomes had caught the eye of international scientists who were concerned they were overlooking micromolluscs in their diversity inventory.

“I just hope this inspires people to have a think about the little things and the hidden world all around us,” she said.

“There’s just so much more to learn from the magnificent Kimberly, I can’t wait to get back.”

She said each of the new species would now be researched in detail to be properly placed in the “mollusc tree of life”.

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