Making a living off the land
Opening up the land
Whitewells Station plan
Leases
Beekeepers
Sandalwood
Eucalyptus oil
Pastoralism
Shepherds to sheep stations
Fencing the hay paddock
Making hay
Mining
Tourism
Vermin
Wells

Managing vermin

Agriculture and pastoralism in Australia have been a battle between the domestic species of plants and animals introduced for production, and a number of native and introduced species deemed to be vermin or weeds.  The coming of conservation has reversed the roles of many animals and the attitudes towards them, depending on which side of the fence the assessment is on. Favoured or ignored species in a pastoral setting have now become the pests of nature conservation.  Some species such as the emu and goat have been both pest and product at times.

 

The Agricultural Protection Act and its precursors provided State support and regulation for the control and destruction of plants and animals seeen as threats to pastoralism and agriculture. Fences, called barrier fences or vermin fences or named after the animal they were designed for, were a favoured strategy for keeping pest animals out of agricultural areas, but they also interfered with the movement of other native animals.

Dingos were the first pest of pastoralism.  Shepherds and their dogs kept dingos at bay when sheep were first introduced into the area in the late 1860s, before fencing.  Dog proof fences were built around station boundaries, but trapping and baiting became the control methods when the fences proved ineffectual.  Domestic dogs also went wild and interbred with dingos.

Wedge-tailed eagles Aquila audax were accused of taking lambs and were declared vermin and shot or poisoned.   Any hawk was considered a threat near the homestead chicken yard.  Now the ‘wedgie’ is fully protected and recognised as a top-order natural predator symbolising a productive ecosystem.

 ‘Poison bushes’, the native peas of the genus Gompholobium and Gastrolobium, are toxic to introduced animals and were declared weed species early in the agricultural occupation of the south-west of Western Australia. Special legislation encouraged their eradication.  LINK to Austin in Explorers

The Rabbit Proof Fence (there were in fact three, officially named the State Barrier Fence) remains the popular romantic symbol of a lost fight against vermin. Rabbits invaded Western Australia from the east in the early 1900s and threatened grain crops.

Emus invaded the wheatbelt in droughts, following the previous good seasons when they bred up in huge numbers inland.  Emu proof fences were the barriers first constructed in the late 1950s to keep them out.

Goats, used as milk and meat animals by early miners and prospectors, were well-adapted to the arid pastoral region and bred up to become major grazing competitors to sheep.  In the 1990s attempts were made at broadscale control. When the economics of sheep declined, goats became a major supplementary source of income to pastoralists and they remain a major cause of land degradation.

The European fox and the domestic cat have devastated native mammals, reptiles and ground birds.  Baiting programs are beginning to control them on conservation lands. The house mouse has established itself as a common predator and competitor for small native fauna. The European honey bee takes over nesting hollows in trees, and competes for nectar and pollen.

As Charles Darwin Reserve and its neighbouring properties are converted to conservation management all introduced species are now part of eradication programs.  Baiting for foxes and cats has been successful in reducing their numbers. A new vermin proof fence is proposed on the Mt Gibson Sanctuary next door, to keep foxes and cats at bay so some of the locally extinct mammals can be reintroduced.

Rabbits and the rabbit-proof fences

The rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) spread from a a small number of individuals introduced into eastern Australia in the 1850s. They crossed the Nullarbor Plain into the south-west of Western Australia in the late 1880s.  Construction of the No. 1 Rabbit Proof Fence commenced in 1901.  It runs 150 km to the east of the Charles Darwin Reserve.

Even as the No.1 fence was being surveyed, rabbits appeared west of it, so the No. 2 Rabbit Proof Fence was commenced in 1904, to the west. (E. Braid, Explorer Surveyors Classification Work, RWAHS vol8 pt 4 p22) This fence runs through the Jibberding area on the southern edge of the Lake Moore – Lake Goorly – Mongers Lake region, where it crosses the Great Northern Highway at Rabbit Proof Fence Road. It then runs up the western side of Mongers Lake , 30 km to the west of Charles Darwin Reserve. It formed the northern boundary of the cleared farmland of the wheatbelt until it too proved no barrier to rabbits, so farming advanced beyond the fence to its current edge 16 km south of Charles Darwin Reserve.

   

A series of wells was dug along the fence to supply the construction team and the maintence riders employed by the Department of Agriculture which took over the management of vermin and fences from the Rabbit Department in 1907.

A 1964 plan shows an ' Abandoned Line R.P.F.' running through Wanarra Station roughly parallel to the boundary with Whitewells Station, then veering north-west near Banawar Soak. The year this alignment of a rabbit proof fence was proposed has not been ascertained.

By the 1930s, rabbits had spread across the entire south-west agricultural region and the fences no longer served their purpose. The only section of the No.2 Fence still in use is that running north of Karara Station (purchased by Department of Conservation and Land Management for conservation). This section was fortified to serve as part of the Emu Proof Fence constructed over 1957-59 to protect the agricultural region from emus invading from the inland in drought years.

Biological control

The campaign against rabbits continued with the introduction of the Myxomatosis virus. First trialled in the 1930s in South Australia, it was not successful because of the absence of mosquitos to spread it. Further releases by the CSIRO and Victorian Government along the Murray River in the 1950s succeeded and it quickly spread across Australia. The evolution of less virulent strains and resistance in rabbits has reduced its effectiveness, although rabbits showing myxomatosis symptoms were reported at Charles Darwin Reserve in May 2006.

The next attempt at rabbit control came with the release of the rabbit calicivirus in 1996. It was very effective in arid regions including at Charles Darwin Reserve where several years of drought restricted breeding. The rabbit population is now increasing again (2007), possibly because of the reduced pressure from foxes which prey on them.  Charles Darwin Reserve and Mt Gibson Sanctuary both bait regularly to control foxes which prey on malleefowl and native mammals and reptiles.

Rabbit trapping

Rabbits were a common source of food in hard times and known as 'underground mutton'. Every farm had a few rabbit traps. Although commercial rabbit trappers operated in parts of Western Australia including the Nullarbor, supplying the metropolitan meat market and the fur market (rabbit fur is used to make felt, especially for hats), there is no record of commercial trapping in the region. The two rabbit traps in the old shed at Charles Darwin Reserve are reminders of the time before trapping came to be considered cruel and the need for supplementary game passed.

 

Every farm had a few rabbit traps to supplement the meat supply.

Photo courtesy C.Nicholson

The trap was set in the evening at the entrance to a burrow or rabbit dung heap, being placed in a shallow hole. The chain pin was hammered into the ground to prevent the trapped rabbit dragging the trap away, or a fox or dog making off with both rabbit and trap. The lever arm and ring were pressed down with a foot to open the jaws. These were locked open with the clip on the side of the pressure pad. Foot and hands were then carefully withdrawn to avoid setting the trap off, and a sheet of newspaper laid over the jaws and covered with a thin layer of earth to conceal it. The traps were checked in the morning and rabbits removed, often with the trapped leg broken, and killed with a blow to the head.

Emus: the Emu-proof fence

Emus were another threat to crops and pasture. Emus Dromaius novaehollandiae migrated in large numbers into the south-west during the 1930s inland droughts, trampling and eating the wheatbelt grain crops.  The response from landholders was yet more fencing.

The 1957 Emu Proof Fence

The first emu-proof fence was constructed between 1957 to 1959 south of Charles Darwin Reserve, from Lake Moore across the southern boundary of Mt Gibson Station to join up with the No.2. Rabbit Proof Fence west of Mongers Lake. It passed through what is now Unallocated Crown Land, previously part of the original Whitewells pastoral lease from 1919 until that section was surrendered about 1940.

The Great Northern Highway crosses the section of the old fence at the chain of small samphire salt lakes 2 km south of the White Well, from which Whitewells Station took its name, and which is now a Highway rest stop.

   

The fence was constructed with locallly cut native pine posts, with the galvanised emu mesh fixed by loops of wire to a bottom plain wire at ground level to prevent the emus and other animals pushing underneath the fence. It was fixed at its top to another plain wire. Above this ran a plain, then a barbed wire, with a plain wire at the top of the fence. All wires ran through holes drilled in the posts. These wires were kept taught and evenly spaced by spiral droppers of heavy wire.

1981 Emu Proof Fence

A new section of the Emu Proof Fence was constructed in 1981 from Lake Moore through the northern end of Charles Darwin Reserve, across Mongers Lake to join the existing fence on Karara Station about 50 km to the north west.

During inland droughts, large numbers of emus move up and down the north-eastern side of the fence, unable to move through. This occurred in 2003.
Charles Darwin Reserve has a small resident breeding population of emus on the south-western side of the fence.

Keeping emus in

Emu oil was well known by Aboriginal people for its medicinal properties as a salve. Emu skins make good quality light leather suitable for clothing. Emu meat became recognised in the 1980s as a gourmet food. These attributes led to a short era of emu farming, with domestic-bred stock.

A 7,000 hectare emu farm was established on a special lease on Mt Gibson Station in the 1980s. However, like all emu farms in Western Australia, the markets for the products did not eventuate and the operation struggled, eventually closing.

In an attempt to maintain the viability of the business, the Mt Gibson Emu Farm had a moment of fame when its owner proclaimed ground emu egg shell a potent male aphrodesiac and cure for impotence, sparking short-lived interest from Chinese buyers.

Wild dogs and dingos

The dingo, Canis familiaris dingo, arrived in Australia about 4,000 years ago in the company of humans. Semi-domesticated in some areas by Aborigines, the carnivorous dingo turned to sheep and other domestic animals that were introduced after 1778. Dingos, or more often wild dogs, the product of cross breeding between domestic breeds and dingos, are still baited in State control programs in the pastoral regions of Western Australia.

Sheep were first brought into the Lake Moore – Mongers Lake area in the late 1860s by shepherds. These shepards were working on small leases mostly of 10,000 to 20,000 acres that were centred around natural springs and water holes. The shepherds had dogs to help manage the flock and protect them from dingos. They often built rudimentary brush fences to enclose the sheep at night.

At some time in the 1920s it appears that the government intended to build a ‘dingo proof fence’ across the White Wells pastoral leases.The proposed fence on Reserve 18361 appears on a 1924 map but was later cancelled. Dog-proof fences were not part of the government’s agricultural protection agenda in Western Australia, so it is not clear why this small section of fence was proposed. It was still on the plans of the area until the 1960s, described as a 'Proposed Dingo Proof Fence' long after the idea had been abandoned. Trapping and shooting by 'doggers' was the official control method, funded by levies on pastoral properties, and a bounty was paid for dingo scalps. Aerial baiting, using an aircraft to distribute meat baits injected with 1080 poison became the common method by the 1980s.

 

Tom Elder Barr Smith purchased Ninghan Station in 1925, and in 1926 added the White Wells leases. Barr Smith was a wealthy South Australian business man who inherited the large Elder Smith pastoral business. He set about developing his leases into a large and productive station, and is reputed to have 'dog-fenced' the boundary of his 777,000 acres.  A 1927 land classification map shows a ‘Dog Proof Fence’, described exactly as it stands (rather unsteadily) in 2007. It is not clear if Barr Smith constructed it, or earlier lessees. Whoever did, apparently did not wait for the government to construct their proposed fence.

The 1927 land classification map of White Wells Station describes the South Fence as it still stood in 2007, ‘Dog Proof Fence'.  Netting, 3 plain, 3 barb, soft posts & jarrah droppers’.
The ‘soft posts’ are the local native pine Callitris preisii – soft but durable and resistant to termites.

The thick diagonal line is a later addition showing the alignment of the Great Northern Highway.

Extract from 1927 land classification map 444, courtesy Department of Agriculture, Western Australia


 

The western boundary fence of the Whitewells leases, now the boundary fence between Charles Darwin Reserve and Wanarra Station, was built as a dog-proof fence. It also is shown on the 1927 land classification map of the area with the notation 'Dog proof fence (Netting)'. This fence remains intact, reinforced in places where holes have been mended and posts supported.

Denis Mason, owner of Whitewells Station from 1953 to 1973, refers to this fence in correspondence with the Lands Department: With reference to the western boundary we will contact Wanarra Station and get them to advise you in writing of the existing agreement with them that the Dog Proof Fence is considered our boundary, and not the lease boundary Mason to Undersecretary of Lands 14 April 1970, Department of Lands and Surveys file 2369/1964. State Records Office of Western Asutralia  Cons 3685 Item 2369-64

A State wild dog fence along the alignment of the Emu Proof Fence (which traverses the north-eastern corner of Charles Darwin Reserve) came under consideration in 2006, because in recent years an increased incidence of wild dog activity in an area from Lake Moore … to Esperance has created an interest within the agricultural industry to investigate the potential of upgrading the SBF [State Barrier Fence] to a true vermin proof fence that will not only keep out emus but wild dogs as well.” State Barrier Fence Management Advisory Committee (Agriculture Protection Board of WA), June 2006, Cost Benefit Analysis Summary of the proposed upgrading of the State Barrier Fence to a Wild Dog standard that incorporates all agricultural land in the south West Land Division of Western Australia.

Goats

Feral goats are the major source of uncontrolled grazing and damage to vegetation and soils in the Western Australian pastoral region.

In Western Australia, goats were introduced by prospectors and miners into the arid regions for meat and milk. Escapees founded the large population of feral goats.

 
 
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