As well as a popular attraction, many kelpies work on Casterton’s farms. (ABC South East: Bec Whetham )
When one small Victorian town staked its claim as the birthplace of the kelpie 25 years ago, it attracted some attention.
- Casterton has claimed to be the home of the kelpie breed since the mid 1990s
- The Casterton Kelpie Muster started as a one-day auction in 1997, off the back of a ute
- Around 10,000 people were at the 23rd Kelpie Muster over the June long weekend this year
But since opening the Australian Kelpie Centre last year, Casterton’s tourism has more than doubled, putting this part of Australia on the map.
When kelpies saved the day
The town, near the South Australian border on the Glenelg Highway, has not always been the tourist hotspot it is today.
Casterton Kelpie Association president, Karen Stephens, said the town hit a crisis point in the mid 1990s.
“Casterton, like many Australian rural communities, was facing decline, and we wanted to have something that was quite unique to us — to brand ourselves with something,” Ms Stephens said.
“And we came across the fact that the kelpie was bred at Warrock Station just north of Casterton.”
In 1997 it hosted its first kelpie muster, a one-day auction where kelpies were sold off the back of a ute for $2,000 — at best.
The auction on the Sunday remains an integral part of the annual kelpie muster. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)
Word spread and the crowds grew.
In 2001, organisers decided to expand the regional event into a two-day national festival.
One of the most popular events is the hill climb, which sees kelpies race up a steep hill to the famous Casterton sign. (ABC South East SA: Isadora Bogle)
“It morphed out of the auction, becoming so popular we needed to entertain people on the Saturday of the long weekend,” Ms Stephens said.
But one weekend a year was not enough to keep Casterton thriving.
Casterton rescued again: national kelpie centre
A year ago, the town opened its Australian Kelpie Centre. Since then, the number of visitors has more than doubled.
Casterton Kelpie Association president Karen Stephens at the new Australian Kelpie Centre in the heart of town. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)
Glenelg Shire CEO Greg Burgoyne said it provided a focal point for visitors, which Casterton lacked in the past.
“What we’ve seen here is visitation numbers going through the roof but visitation in other centres declining,” he said.
“So this is a great example of creating a focal point in a community like Casterton for visitors to come and learn about the kelpie.
“Visitors come from all over the world to see this iconic breed, Australian breed, unique to this country.”
If you bring a puppy to the festival, prepared to be stopped (a lot). (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)
People returning to Casterton after years of uncertainty
Jo McDonald is making the most of Casterton’s booming popularity. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)
The new cash flow through town has also lured old locals back to the town.
Jo McDonald left a career in medical research in the city to open a cafe with her mum in Casterton two months ago.
“When I was younger I didn’t really see myself back here … I never really thought there’d be an opportunity for me to work here,” she said.
“But opening this cafe has allowed me to follow my other passions of coffee and food and, with the tourists passing through, this is the perfect business to take up.”
Ms McDonald said that was thanks to the year-round visitors to the centre.
“I definitely think there are more opportunities to stay around … to move back and to set up base here,” she said.
‘Integral part of faming life’
This year the 23rd Casterton Kelpie Muster drew record crowds of close to 10,000 people over the June long weekend.
Ms Stephens said, as crucial as these dogs were to the town’s economy, their worth was beyond financial.
“You’ll see most utes around here with a kelpie in the back; they are an integral part of everyday farming life,” Ms Stephens said.
Ms Stephens says there’s not a kid in Casterton who doesn’t know the history of the kelpie. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)
She said the real value of this beloved working dog was on the farm, with their owner.
Sixteen-year-old Casterton farmer Claire Foster’s parents helped her buy her kelpie, a Tasmanian free backer, at last year’s auction for $10,000.
She has spent the past year growing a bond with the dog — named Katie — which Claire said had “a really nice nature”.
While farming life was far from easy, Claire said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s honestly the best … the people you meet and the bond you get with animals, it makes life a lot more enjoyable being on a farm,” she said.
Claire Foster sees herself working on the family farm with Katie for many years to come. (ABC South East SA: Bec Whetham)
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