Nature conservation

Biodiversity Reform

Brigalow Belt South - regional history

Aboriginal occupation

The Liverpool Plains were the homelands of the Kamilaroi people, a large tribe that supported many sub-groups (HO and DUAP 1996). When Charles Sturt encountered these people on the Macquarie River during his travels, he described them as 'clean-limbed and stout, with pleasing faces and intelligent countenances' (HO and DUAP 1996).

European occupation

The explorer and then Surveyor General of NSW, John Oxley, first visited the bioregion in 1817 and again the following year when he reached the junction of the Macquarie and Talbragar Rivers near the current site of Dubbo. He noted the presence of the local Aboriginal people on the Macquarie River northwest of Dubbo and the suitability of the land for agriculture (NSW NPWS 2000b).

An Agricultural Convict Establishment, settled in the Wellington Valley in 1823 by Governor Brisbane, led to the first European community west of Bathurst and so began the era of pastoral occupation in the bioregion. The Establishment was shut down in 1828, by which time several stations had been set up in the vicinity. In the same year Charles Sturt arrived in the Wellington Valley on his way north. In subsequent years, pastoral occupation around Dubbo quickly escalated as it did throughout the colony (NSW NPWS 2000a).

The official settled area of the colony was divided into 19 counties and the region outside this designated area, including much of the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion, was considered to be 'beyond the boundaries' and was thus officially out of bounds for settlement. However, these rules were soon ignored and pastoralism continued to forge its way through the countryside (NSW NPWS 2000a).

Squatters moved into the bioregion around 1824 but it wasn't until 1836 that squatting licences were issued for grazing (NSW NPWS 2000a). By the early 1830s squatters were establishing runs, including 'Dubbo', a run set up by Robert Dulhunty on the Macquarie, along the Talbragar River Valley and on the Macquarie River near Goonoo. By the 1840s pastoralists occupied most of the Macquarie and Talbragar River frontages (NSW NPWS 2000a).

During the early days of European settlement the local Aboriginal people were subjected to violence, disease, sexual exploitation and, as a result of these and other factors such as diminished resources, population decline. One of the notable elements of the interaction between Europeans and Aborigines at this time was the fierce resistance shown by the Aboriginal people (Bickford 1980). Often portrayed as a passive people that let the Europeans simply take their land, the local Aboriginal people were described as 'becoming more audacious' in a record of 1842 (HO and DUAP 1996) and some records show a fear of the Aborigines among travelers.

Conflict was particularly severe on the Namoi and Gwydir, with conflicting reports suggesting the death of at least 25 Europeans along with much stock and the wounding of many Aborigines and settlers. In 1849 native police were sent to the area and much of the Aboriginal resistance was suppressed by the mid-1850s.

However, despite losing their lands or being forced to share them with the new settlers, the local Aboriginal people of the bioregion resisted covertly, holding onto their traditional practices, including knowledge of languages, stories and sacred sites (Bickford 1980). In some cases, retention of traditional practices was not so covert. Aborigines were known to perform corroborees for audiences of Europeans, performances involving Aboriginal participants from throughout the region. On some occasions, European settlers also observed other traditions such as funerals and burial ceremonies (NSW NPWS 2000b).

The last recorded corroboree was held in 1881, coinciding with the opening of the railway in Dubbo. If such ceremonies occurred after this, they were held in secrecy to avoid intrusion by Europeans or simply to ensure privacy. As settlement by Europeans increased and government control over Aboriginal people strengthened, the importance of continuing traditional practices grew and the need for secrecy became more crucial (NSW NPWS 2000b).

From the 1840s to the 1880s, working relationships between European and Aboriginal people were established in the bioregion, and European station owners allowed the local Aboriginal people to live on their lands in what they termed "station camps". These made workers readily available to landholders while Aboriginal people living on them were able to remain in their country, continuing the cultural and economic practices that had linked them with the land from the beginning.

The shortage of European labour during the gold rushes strengthened this system of 'dual occupation' and, as a result, the Aboriginal labour force was crucial to the functioning of the pastoral economy between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries. This was particularly due to the willingness of the local Aboriginal people to remain on their homelands and retain the ability to practice spiritual and ceremonial traditions. In 1882 the total Aboriginal population of the area around Dubbo was recorded as being 741 people (NSW NPWS 2000b).

The Liverpool Plains southeast of Narrabri became a site for European settlement in the 1830s and was used mainly for sheep and cattle grazing until the 1880s (Hunt 1980). Wheat farming emerged around Dubbo in the south of the bioregion in the 1860s and by the 1880s cropping was beginning to occur extensively throughout the bioregion, especially on the lighter textured red soils at the footslopes of the Liverpool Ranges (NSW NPWS 2000a). Although there were also droughts at this time the intensification of cropping and demand for land for this purpose led to widescale clearing of forests and other native vegetation (NSW NPWS 2000a).

A transition from pastoralism to agriculturalism based on wheat occurred in the Dubbo area from the 1880s to the 1920s. This was prompted by a major change in land tenure and management. There was a push to 'unlock the lands' to allow small selectors access to the vast lands formerly held under pastoral leases. These shifts were aided by legislation changing the nature of land holdings and while these helped unlock the land to small-time farmers, they effectively shut out Aboriginal people from their traditional lands. So began a period of struggle for the Aboriginal community of the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion (NSW NPWS 2000b).

In the 1890s, as agriculture around Dubbo increased, land enclosure continued to decrease property size. The conditions that had allowed dual occupation to occur in the past had now ceased. As a result, Aboriginal communities were driven from their homelands and onto reserves on the outskirts of towns. This served to alienate the Aboriginal community who could now no longer use the land as they had traditionally, due both to their limited access to the land and its changing ecology under agricultural production (NSW NPWS 2000b).

With the loss of their traditional lands, Aboriginal people were even more dependent on European landholders for use of the land than they had previously been on the squatters. They obtained work on the lands, engaged in timber cutting, feral animal shooting, shearing, domestic labour and worked as farm hands and stock hands. In this way they were involved in the local economy while remaining on their lands (NSW NPWS 2000b).

Those who were unable to remain on their traditional lands and who lived on reserves or in fringe camps came increasingly under the control of the government which established the Aborigines Protection Board in the 1880s. While the Board was initially responsible only for the distribution of blankets and rations on the reserves, it began to exert a tighter grip on the lives of the Aborigines, placing ever more restrictions on the rights of the communities.

Children in Aboriginal communities were increasingly the targets of the Board, which relied on the power vested in it by the Aborigines Protection Act 1909. By 1915, the strength of the Act had increased, giving the Board the power to remove Aboriginal children from their families where the wellbeing of the child was in question.

The reserve closest to Dubbo was the large Talbragar Reserve established in 1898 at the junction of the Macquarie and Talbragar Rivers, where John Oxley arrived in the region only 80 years before in 1818. Other local Aborigines lived in camps along the Macquarie River although the Talbragar Reserve was home to the core of the local community. Aboriginal families often chose to remain in or near reserves to allow their children to gain an education, but in the early to mid-1900s, they found themselves unofficially excluded from local public schools (NSW NPWS 2000b).

During these times, areas such as Goonoo Forest became more important to the Aboriginal community. The forest was dedicated as a formal public 'reserve' in 1917, during the period when agricultural production was intensifying in the area. The protection of the forest enabled the Aboriginal people to use it to gather food, both plants and animals, and for social and spiritual purposes without close observation by Europeans (NSW NPWS 2000b).

Areas like Pilliga and Goonoo that were not dedicated in public forests came increasingly under threat from clearing for agriculture and settlement. The passage of the railway line further north and west also contributed to clearing as thousands of trees were felled for use as timber sleepers, further razing the land that had been cleared of timber for housing and fencing since the start of European settlement (NSW NPWS 2000b).

Since European settlement, timber getting has been a regular activity around the Pilliga and Goonoo State Forest areas (NSW NPWS 2000b). Forest management began in the bioregion with forest reserves dedicated in the 1870s. The Forest Conservancy Branch of the Department of Mines placed the initial Forest Reserves over abandoned Pilliga Crown Land holdings in 1971 (NSW NPWS 2000b), marking the Government's first direct involvement with forest management. Such forest management was driven not by an understanding of ecological process and impacts but by the proposed use of the timber (NSW NPWS 2000b).

By the 1870s early landholders and explorers observed changes in the condition of the land and many people were aware of the impacts of agriculture on the landscape even before further damage was caused by drought and rabbits.

The 1950s saw the introduction of technology that allowed cultivation of the heavy-textured soils that had been used for grazing in the past. As a result, cropping on the footslopes of the Liverpool Ranges began to be replaced by grasslands which were used for grazing (NSW NPWS 2000b).

Commercial timber harvesting in the bioregion has concentrated mainly on white cypress (Callitris glaucophylla) and narrow-leaved ironbark (Eucalyptus crebra) in the last 100 years, although broad-leaved ironbark (Eucalyptus. fibrosa), bull oak (Allocasurina luehmannii), black cypress (Callitris endlicheri) and western box species (Eucalyptus melliodora, Eucalyptus pilligarensis, Eucalyptus microcarpa and Eucalyptus populnea) have all been harvested in the area in the last 80-100 years (Hartley et al. 2000).

Data collected in 1996-97 for the local government areas in the southern two-thirds of the bioregion reported that 34,970 people were employed and earning an average salary of $26,452 each, a figure lower than the NSW average at the time of $30,868 per person (Hartley et al. 2000). During this time imports to the region, one-third consisting of household consumables, exceeded exports.

Compared to NSW averages, the southern part of the bioregion is much more dependent on agriculture, forestry and fishing while its proportion of mining, utilities and building industries is comparable to the state figures. Although manufacturing and service industries were found to be less than the state figures, the primary industries contribute more than 70 per cent to the exports of the region (cited in Hartley et al. 2000).

The main industries, in terms of highest contribution to the economy of the region, are sheep, grains and beef, other agriculture, agricultural services, education, health, public administration, retail trade and wholesale trade.

The period between 1976 and 1991 was a period of high population growth in the region, fuelled by heightened agricultural development including increased irrigation areas. Between 1981 and 1996 the proportion of the employed population of the area was decreasing, apparently as a result of variable international commodity markets and poor seasonal conditions. Excluding Dubbo, the main town centre of the bioregion, the region appears now to be shedding jobs at the same rate as its population decreases, with population losses becoming more common in recent years (Hartley et al. 2000).

Early squatters in the Brigalow Belt South Bioregion grazed their cattle in the open woodlands common in the region at the time. After settlers initiated fire control measures, the woodlands were overwhelmed by dense cypress forest growth rendering these areas unsuitable for grazing (Hartley et al. 2000) and grazing was shifted to alternative areas. Grazing still occurs in the bioregion, and more recently has been used under grazing permits on State forest estate in the region, to reduce ground fuel, particularly in cypress forests in the Goonoo area, so reducing fire risks.

The mineral industry in the bioregion is based mainly on coal, as the region lies mostly within the Gunnedah Basin, which is a major coal-bearing sedimentary basin. Current mining titles are held for coal and some industrial minerals while exploration titles are held for coal, petroleum, gold, base metals, zeolites and clay minerals (Hartley et al. 2000). The majority of coal produced in the region, although comprising a small yield, is for export to overseas markets (Hartley et al. 2000).

In terms of tourism in the southern part of the bioregion, the area around Dubbo has both the highest level of visitation and the highest visitor expenditure, making it the major tourist centre of the area (Hartley et al. 2000).


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Page last updated: 26 April 2016