A cloud of flies buzzes noisily around the carcass of a cow that is decomposing in a barren, grassless paddock. “She died of urea poisoning, which is a big risk when you don’t have any grass and have to feed cattle supplements,” said Ian Clifton, who has lost at least a dozen animals on his farm in New South Wales in one of Australia’s worst recorded droughts. “Seeing your animals like this really takes a toll on you,” he added. Although drought is a recurring feature of the Australian climate, the current dry period in eastern states is pronounced and devastating for farmers, who cannot grow crops or fodder for their animals.

NSW has seen the driest start to the growing season since 1982 and the third driest on record, while daytime temperatures in the first seven months of 2018 were the warmest that the country’s Bureau of Meteorology has ever seen. The drought has prompted the government to sanction A$2bn in aid and make it a priority. However, it has also sparked a contentious debate about climate change — a politically toxic issue in Australia that divides political parties, communities and played a role in the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister last week.  “Farmers see the climate is changing before their eyes. Our summers are getting hotter and cooking our pastures,” said Brent Finlay, a former National Farmers’ Federation president, who owns a farm in south-east Queensland.