Nature conservation

Biodiversity Reform

NSW - European occupation

European land settlement commenced in NSW in 1788 when Governor Phillip claimed possession of the land for a penal colony on behalf of the British Government. The historic accounts of the bioregional areas are diverse and detailed in the bioregional overviews. Further information on the European occupation of the Western Division bioregions is provided below.

Non-Aboriginal occupation of the Western Division

(This section is largely based on HO and DUAP 1996: Chapter 16 of Regional Histories of New South Wales.)

Charles Sturt approached western NSW from South Australia in 1829, returning in the 1840s, while Thomas Mitchell approached from the north-east in 1835 (HO and DUAP 1996). The intensification of the squatting era in the 1840s occurred after squatters followed in the path of the explorers of the previous decade. Squatting continued until nearly 1900 (Denny 1994).

The route often taken by overlanders, from the Namoi south to the Murray via the Barwon and Darling, required regular supplies and this prompted the birth of several small towns along the way (HO and DUAP 1996). By the mid-1840s, river frontages on the western section of the Murray and the lower Darling supported several pastoral stations. Aiding the development of these towns, the Commissioner of Crown Lands held offices first at Balranald in the late 1840s and later at Euston after 1853 (HO and DUAP 1996).

East of Bourke along the Upper Darling, settlement spread in the 1840s from the pastoral regions already established in the east, towards the west and north-west along the Bogan, Castlereagh, Namoi and Gwydir Rivers of the Darling Riverine Plains Bioregion (HO and DUAP 1996).

The best grazing land was occupied along the Barwon and Mooni Rivers by 1850 and by 1859 on the east bank of the Warrego River and along the rivers up to and beyond the Queensland border. The arid area between the Culgoa and Warrego Rivers became occupied during the "land boom" of the early 1860s (HO and DUAP 1996).

Cattle remained the most significant element of the pastoral industry up to 1860. Sheep were present but were consistently outnumbered by cattle and since it appeared they could subsist on smaller land areas per head, were allocated much less land than cattle. While cattle comprised the dominant industry of the time, wool production was of significance in the 1850s, with local Aborigines an important part of this industry, using canoes to ferry wool across the Murray.

Steamboats began operating on the Murray in 1853 and their range was extended to the Darling in 1859. Although the Darling had been relatively ephemeral in the past, it was unusually full from this time and allowed riverboats to travel as far upstream as Brewarrina and beyond. Riverboats were known even to reach Queensland from the Darling via the Paroo River during times of flood.

Wool was transported to the Victorian town of Echuca, where the riverboat route linked with the Victorian railway, and also by riverboat to Goolwa in South Australia. When the railway from Sydney reached the upper Darling in 1885, riverboats turned instead to Bourke and thus this town became an important destination for trade, continuing as the destination for wool trade until 1931 (HO and DUAP 1996).

The riverboat trade - and the movement of cattle overland before this - led to the development of several towns along the major rivers of the Western Division during the 1850s and 1860s. The Murrumbidgee saw the settlement of Balranald (gazetted in 1851), Hay (1859) and Maude (1861) in the Riverina Bioregion; Wentworth (1859) in the Riverina Bioregion and Menindee (1863) sprang up on the lower Darling in the Darling Riverine Plains Bioregion along with Wilcannia (1866) on the central Darling.

The settlement of the towns of Walgett, Bourke, Brewarrina and Collarenebri occurred on the upper Darling and Barwon in the Darling Riverine Plains Bioregion from the late 1850s to mid 1860s. All of these towns remained fairly small even with the booming riverboat trade.

Like Aboriginal people before them, the new settlers were reluctant to inhabit vast areas of the Western Division away from the major rivers, due to unreliable access to water. Dams were attempted but were not often an option as the western plains lacked the rock formations offered by the land to farmers in the east (HO and DUAP 1996).

In the north of the Darling Riverine Plains Bioregion, attempts were made around 1873 to dam the Narran River, but the river rebelled, refused orders to desist and within a few years had found an alternative route, defiantly bypassing the dammed section.

Other elements of the landscape were not so assertive, or had no escape from the control imposed by the settlers. For example, the red soils characteristic of the west quickly succumbed to trampling and compaction by grazing animals (HO and DUAP 1996). Graziers in the Bokhara River channel country near the Queensland border saw this change to the land favourably as it meant rainfall runoff reached the channels more readily. However, the improved flow in the channels wasted a lot of water and, ironically, compaction inhibited the growth of feed for the very stock that had trampled it in the first place.

Groundwater was available to some stations such as Kinchega station around Menindee Lakes in the lower Darling, which had access to the overflow lakes and flood channels near the Darling. The availability of water allowed the station to support around 143,000 sheep on 400,000 hectares in the 1880s and the station employed many of the Barkindji people as shepherds (HO and DUAP 1996). Control of the water resources of the area allowed transportation of wool bales by water to the Darling.

The late 19th century brought innovations which helped to solve the water problem of the west. Wells were sunk in the 1860s along the stock route between the Darling and the Lachlan by the Public Works Department, which also made gradual improvements to water facilities in the far west. Graziers also sunk wells but salinity always caused problems: five out of six wells sunk on the western plains in the 1880s reached salt water at less than a depth of 30 m (HO and DUAP 1996).

The discovery of an extensive underground catchment - the Great Artesian Basin - near Bourke around 1878, led to changes in the access to and use of water. From then on this vast water resource deep underground could be used for watering stock and, along the Lachlan and Murrumbidgee where the water was less saline, for irrigation (HO and DUAP 1996).

The artesian bores were particularly important resources from the 1880s to the graziers and overlanders in the west. The government sank bores from Bourke west through the Mulga Lands Bioregion to Wanaaring on the Paroo (HO and DUAP 1996). Across the west graziers sank private bores throughout the 1880s although, as happened with ordinary wells, these did not always yield bore-water. By 1895, this widespread bore sinking led the Pastoral Review to publish a regular column titled "Boring Notes".

This reliable and seemingly unlimited water source changed the settlement of the west, giving landholders and industry the confidence to expand. In fact, this access to water in the far west enabled the significant mineral discoveries of the corner country at Tibooburra, Milparinka and of course, Broken Hill (HO and DUAP 1996).

By 1910 there were 364 artesian bores in NSW, which every day harnessed about 500 million litres of water from the Basin. Since then, the number of bores has increased although the total amount of water flowing has progressively decreased, falling by 35 per cent between 1915 and 1958 (HO and DUAP 1996). In the north, where the water is least saline, the Basin still provides the water supplies for the towns of Walgett and Lightning Ridge.

The discovery and exploitation of the Great Artesian Basin, although an immense advantage for the graziers of the west, spelt trouble for the landscape. Access to so much water encouraged overstocking, and just prior to the devastating drought of the 1890s, the western plains supported about 15 million sheep. Sandstorms intensified by erosion due to overstocking caused silt to block tanks and channels.

This increased the expenses of installation and maintenance of the bores and drained the economic resources of local graziers (HO and DUAP 1996). Rabbits, encouraged by the plentiful water supply, ran rampant in the west, competing with the stock for food. By 1902 sheep numbers on the western plains had dropped to five million, one-third of their former magnitude.

The Western Division, as well as its Central and Eastern counterparts, was a creation of the Crown Lands Act, 1884. Economic and social collapse during the drought and recession of the 1890s (Cambell 1994) prompted a Royal Commission into the Western Division which repealed the Crown Lands Act and conceived the Western Lands Act, 1901.

The aim of the Western Lands Act was to manage and control the western land resource, and included the creation of a lease system to enable rural and urban development in the Western Division of NSW. This established a system of leasing and administering land that was more relevant to the western landscape than land management undertaken previously in the Western Division.

Most of the land in the Division is held under perpetual leasehold as Western Lands Leases from the Crown for the purpose of grazing, with some small areas held under Special Leases for agriculture, freehold or in reserves (Cambell 1994, Hyder Consulting 1999). The Act does not apply to freehold land in the Western Division.

Since its inception, the Act has undergone several reviews designed to re-evaluate its direction and implement improvements to its functionality, the most recent being in 1999 (Hyder Consulting 1999).

The Western Division of NSW covers around 32,500,000 hectares or 42 per cent of the State (Hyder Consulting 1999). The boundary of the Division traverses the Darling Riverine Plains, Cobar Peneplain, Riverina and Murray Darling Depression Bioregions. The Western Division boundary has mainly leasehold lands to the west and freehold lands to the east and this results in fairly significant differences in the management and subsequent condition of land on either side of the boundary.

The Central Division lands to the east have been extensively cleared and intensely cultivated compared to the Western Division lands (Masters and Foster 2000). Dryland and irrigated agriculture has become more common in recent years, particularly along the rivers of the Western Division (Hyder Consulting 1999).

The landscapes of the Western Division are diverse, having adapted to the semi-arid climate of high summer temperatures coupled with low and irregular rainfall. Inappropriate land management of the Western Division in the past has led to degraded habitats and loss of species (Hyder Consulting 1999).

In 1996 the population of the Western Division was 52,830, a figure which had declined by more that 5,000 in the preceding 15 years, a loss attributed mainly to the decline of mining in the Broken Hill area. However during this time, the Aboriginal population had increased by about 65 per cent to around 5,000 (Hyder Consulting 1999).

The most recent Western Lands Review was established to "identify issues impacting on long term sustainable management and recommend actions to enhance such management" as well as to "resolve land administration problems and to develop greater flexibility in rural land use" in the Western Division (Hyder Consulting 1999).


Page last updated: 18 April 2016