Spear Trapping – an alternative to helicopters

Host: Dampier Downs Station
Written by Anne Marie Huey – Manager, Dampier Downs Station.

Many of the recent stories on this site have detailed the excitement – and hard work – that is part and parcel of a standard mustering round. Here on Dampier Downs, while we do use helicopters as well, we also use a method known as spear trapping. Now, for those of you who think perhaps I spent too much time in Maasai country when in Africa, rest assured this has nothing to do with long sticks with pointy ends.

Anyone who has ever used public transport in the city will be familiar with the concept of a one-way gate that lets you in but won’t let you back out. This is exactly how spear trapping works. Cattle are funnelled onto a water point, usually in a set of yards or small holding paddock, through a set of ‘in spears’. Once in the yard, the funnel shape prevents them from exiting the same way and so the cattle are effectively trapped. Basically, the cattle muster themselves.

6.1Aerial view of a spear trap – the cattle can walk in but can’t walk back out.

When all goes to plan, the yards are set one day and you show up the next day to a yard or holding paddock full of cattle, ready to be drafted. There are a lot of advantages to mustering with this method. The first is cost. It is obviously a lot cheaper to set some spears than pay for helicopters to locate cattle and bring them in to the yards.

Another advantage is that it can be less stressful for the cattle. Once the cattle are used to walking through the spears, it is a relatively relaxed process. Also, having the cattle trapped in their home paddock means we can draft then and there. Any cattle we don’t need, such as breeders and young calves, can be let straight back into the paddock, eliminating the need for unnecessary trucking. Cattle we do need, such as weaners or sale cattle, can be loaded onto the truck and moved to wherever it is they need to go.

Of course, there are a few disadvantages as well. Not all cattle will trap. Some wily old rogues will sense when a yard has been set and simply walk on to the next bore for a drink. A common reason for this might be that the yard being trapped into is not quite big enough. Cattle, like people, all have a different sense of personal space. Just as I dislike being jostled, poked, and prodded when on busy public transport, some cattle just will not enter a crowded yard.

Bulls can also be problematic to trap at times. A young bull that has taken a bit of a hiding by older, more experienced bulls over the mating season might be reluctant to enter a confined space with those very same bulls later in the year.

6.2Looking through a spear trap.

Obviously, spear trapping is only effective when there is no surface water available. If you get unseasonal rain cattle may not need to come to the yards for water, which can throw the best laid plans into disarray. Also, when the weather is cool, not every animal will water every day so you may miss some if you don’t trap for enough days.

Another disadvantage with trapping is that cattle can miss out on the education that often comes along with walking cattle back to yards. When done properly, the walk back to the yards provides an excellent opportunity to accustom cattle to being worked and can teach them to accept pressure and learn to trust that they will be rewarded with relief. This makes them much easier to handle in the yards and results in less stress for everyone.

So while there are some disadvantages, spear trapping can be a very useful tool in the right circumstances. Some people swear by it, some people won’t go near it but we find it works well for us. There are also many variations on this theme, with every practitioner having their own preferred method. However you do it, it is neither as easy nor as difficult as some would have you believe. I guess it all comes down to horses for courses – or in this case jobs for mobs.