Heavy rains have been falling in south-eastern Australia, bringing welcome relief for the region's drought-stricken farmers.

Some areas recorded their best rainfall in years, but farmers warned that much more was needed to end the six-year drought - Australia's worst on record.

The rains, which began on Thursday, have raised hopes for a successful winter harvest in the region.

PM John Howard warned last month of an irrigation ban if rains did not come.

Rains have so far bypassed most of South Australia and the Murray-Darling river system, the country's main agricultural system.

Water storage in the basin was only at 6% capacity, local officials said.

The basin, which covers an area the size of France and Spain combined, accounts for 41% of Australian agriculture and usually provides about 85% of the nation's irrigation supply.

At least 25mm (one inch) of rain has fallen in much of eastern Australia in the last 24 hours, with some areas of New South Wales and Victoria getting up to 70mm.

"Absolutely fantastic. Went to the pub last night, had a couple of beers with some blokes, every five minutes sticking your head out the door, still raining, still raining, going good," a New South Wales farmer told the BBC.

Another farmer, Wayne O'Mally, told Reuters news agency from his farm near Bourke, 800km (500 miles) north of Sydney: "It's certainly put a smile on a lot of faces and created some optimism for the future. Things have been so dry out here for the past seven years."

Mr Howard said much more was still needed.

"We can't overestimate the morale boost that this will represent," he said.

"But we have got to keep hoping and praying for more rain because they will need more than the falls of the past 24 or 36 hours to break the drought."

The prime minister announced in April that unless heavy rainfall fell in south-eastern Australia within a month, there would only be enough water for drinking purposes.

Farmers warned that Australians could face major food price rises if no water was allocated to irrigators.