Nature conservation

Biodiversity Reform

Cobar Peneplain - regional history

Aboriginal occupation

The Cobar Peneplain Bioregion has been managed and occupied by Aboriginal people for at least 40,000-50,000 years (Flannery 1994, Palmer 1994). The bioregion falls within the traditional homelands of several Aboriginal language groups and within these groups are communities living in what they term their "home country". The main language groups are Ngiyampaa in the centre, Ngemba in the north east and Wiradjuri in the south, with the Paakantkji group occupying the area along the northwestern border of the bioregion.

The Ngiyampaa people traditionally occupy the area towards the centre of the bioregion, southwest of Cobar (Smart et al. 2000b). To distinguish themselves from other language groups in the area, they refer to themselves as the people who speak Ngiyampaa the Wangaaypuwan (Wongaibon) way, that is, they use the word wangaay for "no".

Ngiyampaa people also group themselves according to their home country so that the Pilaarrkiyalu (Belah Tree People), Nhiilyikiyalu (Nelia Tree People) and Karulkiyalu (Stone Country People) all occupy different areas of the Ngiyampaa language group within and around the bioregion (Smart et al. 2000b). Some Karulkiyalu refer to themselves as Ngemba because their home country to the north of Cobar borders the two language groups. However, these people still speak the Wangaaypuwan way.

The Ngemba people in the far north of the bioregion and the Darling Riverine Plains Bioregion use the word wayil for "no" and hence refer to themselves as the people who speak Ngemba the Wayilwan way.

To the west of this group, also in the north of the bioregion, is the homeland of the Paakantkji or Darling River People who are traditionally linked to the plains of the Darling River from near Bourke south to Wentworth (NSW NPWS 2000c). Paakantji means "belonging to the river" and these people traditionally occupied the Darling River floodplains, spending more time in the Darling Riverine Plains Bioregion (NSW NPWS 2000c).

The southern and eastern parts of the bioregion are traditionally occupied by the Lachlan River people known as Kaliyarrkiyalung, who are part of the Wiradjuri language group and use the word wirraay for "no" (NPWS 2000c). Wiradjuri is one of the largest language groups in NSW (NSW NPWS 2000c).

The Ngiyampaa (words shown in bold), Paakantji (words are underlined) and Ngemba language groups were divided further by a totemic system, where sections of each group comprised individuals linked to an animal or plant totem (Main 2000). The people were traditionally responsible for protecting their totem and would usually refuse to eat the totem that they identified with. Not all totems were food items. Some individuals were responsible for significant stands of vegetation such as grey mallee (mali, kaarima, Eucalyptus morrisii) which was important for spear timber (Main 2000).

European occupation

After the first settlement at Port Jackson, western NSW was not explored immediately. This was due to several factors including the need to maintain law and order and the colony's focus being on development in the Sydney area (Austral Archaeology 2000). However, between 1817 and 1846 major exploration of the area west of the Blue Mountains was undertaken by Oxley, Sturt and Mitchell (Whitney 1997) and by 1830 European squatters began to occupy large areas of land in the west (Denny 1994). By 1850 land settlement had occurred through the Cobar Peneplain, as far west as Wilcannia in the Darling Riverine Plains bioregion (Denny 1994).

Newspaper reports in the 1850s printed enticing descriptions of the plains between what are now the townships of Louth and Bourke, encouraging settlers to utilise the productive grazing country of the Cobar Peneplain (Main 2000). Sheep (thumpa, Ovis aries) and cattle (kurrukun, kiyata, Bos taurus) were grazed along the Darling River and by the 1860s about half a million sheep and 40,000 cattle occupied its banks.

Riverboats on the Darling increased the accessibility of the pastoral country on the Peneplain and wool production in the area was prolific (Main 2000). The first river steamers reached Bourke and Wilcannia in 1859 (Clelland 1984), providing an important transportation link from the wool stations of the Cobar Peneplain.

The settlement of Europeans in the Cobar Peneplain Bioregion and the rest of NSW brought disease and violence to local Aboriginal communities. By 1860 the Aboriginal population of the bioregion had been decimated and this saw an end to many traditional land management practices (Main 2000) that were rapidly replaced by high agricultural production, which had an impact on biodiversity.

Prior to settlement of the land by Europeans, forests in the bioregion were open eucalypt and cypress pine woodlands with a grassy understorey (Anon. 1988). The Aboriginal people of the bioregion preserved these open woodlands by regularly burning the vegetation (Anon. 1988), a technique known as "fire-stick farming".

When Europeans arrived they reduced burning practices and extended the area in which their stock could graze by ringbarking and clearing the woodlands (Cunningham et al. 1981, Anon. 1988). Of 88 mammal species recorded at European settlement, almost 30 were extinct by 1990 (Main 2000). The end of traditional practices such as fire-stick farming led to devastating bushfires in the 1860s and 1870s. The extinction of many medium-sized mammals of the area has been partly attributed to these great fires (Main 2000) as they could not burrow underground like small mammals to avoid the flames. The loss of these species may have also had an impact on the vegetation of the area.

Louth, in the north-west of the bioregion, was established as a 40-acre (about 16 ha) property on the Darling River in 1865 (Clelland 1984). Later it played a key role in the development of mining at Cobar. By 1870 the township of Bourke, just north of the bioregion, was a thriving river port (Clelland 1984). That same year copper was discovered at the Kuburr (Cobar) waterhole and the area was soon established as the Cobar Copper Mine. This was soon followed by the discovery of copper and the establishment in 1871 of two mines - the Cornish, Scottish and Australian (CSA) mine and the United (Occidental) - but these were closed temporarily when they did not achieve immediate financial success.

By 1873 Cobar began to establish itself as a permanent township, growing from its former status as a mining outpost (Clelland 1984). Some travellers did not look upon the landscape favourably, an early poem reporting:

There's not a mountain, dale, or valley,
No babbling brooks make sudden sally;
Just sand hills fringed with stunted mallee,
That's Cobar.

In 1877 severe drought conditions took hold of the area, but rainfall improved in the following years (Clelland 1984). Stock numbers declined during this severe drought. Drought followed by several wet years after 1878 allowed many of the cypress pine stands of the area to regenerate unimpeded and a large proportion of these forest stands remained into the 1980s (Anon. 1988). The 1870s also saw the appearance of rabbits which, along with grazing and drought, added to the struggle of the vegetation of the bioregion and much of western NSW (Cunningham et al. 1981).

Copper mining commenced in Nymagee in 1878. The commercial mine commenced operation in 1880 (Clelland 1984) as did the local school at Nymagee. Sawmilling in the bioregion began around 1876 when mills were located at Cobar, Canbelego and Coolabah to produce timber for the mining industry and developing towns in the area (Anon. 1988). High demand for firewood for the smelters meant that forests around Cobar were cleared extensively. The mill at Coolabah operated until it burnt down in 1980 (Anon. 1987).

The separation of NSW into Western, Central and Eastern Divisions in 1884 (Whitney 1997) meant that the western proportion of the Cobar Peneplain was held under Western Lands Leases which, due to the restrictions placed on the lands, were used mainly for grazing (Clelland 1984).

The railway reached Bourke in 1885 (Clelland 1984) and was approaching Cobar from Nyngan by the 1890s. The Great Cobar Mine was closed in 1889 due to low yield and heavy rains which made transport difficult and restricted the provision of adequate supplies (Clelland 1984). The mine was later taken over and reopened by the end of the 1890s. Many other mines progressed alongside the Great Cobar, mining copper, gold, silver and lead. In 1889 gold was discovered near Canbelego (between Cobar and Nyngan) and in 1893 there was a rich find at Mt Drysdale (Clelland 1984).

Droughts in the bioregion have occurred in approximate cycles of 20 years' duration over approximately the last 100 years (Anon. 1988). Following the drought of the 1870s, a great drought gripped the Cobar Peneplain between 1895 and 1902 and although rain fell intermittently during this time, overstocking of the land teamed with rabbit and woody weed infestation meant that pastoralists were hit hard financially (Clelland 1984), and lost thousands of sheep.

By the late 1800s violence towards Aboriginal people had abated somewhat and European pastoralists began to cooperate with survivors, allowing them to remain on their traditional lands in exchange for ecological knowledge and technical skills (Main 2000). It has been estimated that by the turn of the century Aboriginal workers undertook 30 per cent of pastoral labour in northwestern NSW (Main 2000).

The main land use in the bioregion is pastoralism (Creaser and Knight 1996), with sheep being the dominant grazing stock while cattle are grazed intermittently according to fluctuations in price and market availability.

Land degradation marked by soil erosion and woody weed infestation has occurred in the Cobar Peneplain and this is due largely to overstocking with sheep, cattle and domestic animals (Creaser and Knight 1996) and to feral animals such as rabbits and goats. Subsisting on edible shrubs and trees, goats are farmed in some areas in an attempt to increase incomes from these otherwise unproductive lands (Morgan and Terrey 1992). Cropping occurs opportunistically in the western parts and annually in the southeast.

The bioregion straddles the Western and Central Divisions (Whitney 1997), separating the bioregion into two distinctive landscapes. Cleared freehold land lies to the east of the Western Division boundary (63 per cent of the Central Division component of the Cobar Peneplain is cleared) and to the west lies the vegetated pastoral leases of the Western Division (where less than 21 per cent of this part of the bioregion has been cleared). Widespread clearing and cropping has occurred on the leasehold lands of the Western Division (Nymagee-Rankin Springs province, Morgan and Terrey 1992).

The bioregion encompasses the townships of Cobar, Nymagee, Byrock, Girilambone, Lake Cargelligo and Rankins Springs with Louth and Tottenham at its boundary, while Nyngan, Condobolin and Griffith lie just outside the bioregion. As population records are not kept on the basis of bioregional boundaries, the current population of the Cobar Peneplain Bioregion is difficult to calculate. However, it is likely that the population is in the order of 10,000-15,000 (Dick 2000).

Approximately 5,474 people live in the Cobar local government area itself (Australian Bureau of Statistics) with the majority of the remaining population living on rural properties throughout the bioregion, mainly in the east and south. This is a reflection of the increase in property size from east to west. Most small towns and villages on the Cobar Peneplain are experiencing a decline in population as people, especially the young, move to larger centres outside the region to continue their education or seek employment (Australian Bureau of Statistics 1999, cited in Dick 2000).

As the state's largest copper producer and a significant producer of gold, lead, silver and zinc (Creaser and Knight 1996), the bioregion is a lucrative mining region. Together with Broken Hill, Orange and New England, the other 3 major areas in NSW for metallic mineral production, the area around Cobar contributes significantly to the industry value of $1.27 billion (1999-00) (NSW Department of Mineral Resources).

There are 7 mines around Cobar: Peak Gold Mine, McKinnons, Girilambone Copper, CSA, Mineral Hill, Tritton and Elura, which principally mine from 3 major mining belts at Cobar, Canbelego and Girilambone. The Cobar belt holds major mineral deposits and its 60 km length passes through the Cobar town area (Creaser and Knight 1996). Together, the 7 mines in the bioregion contain resources of almost 50 million tonnes with a maximum yield of about 8 per cent for the metals mined in the region.

The cessation of operations at the CSA mine in Cobar occurred in early 1998 and soon after recommenced operations in March 1999, but only produced a little over 2,000 tonnes of copper metal in 1998-99 (NSW Department of Mineral Resources). Girilambone Copper Company, just inside the Cobar Peneplain Bioregion, produced copper metal from mining and processing operations near Girilambone in northern New South Wales until mining ceased in early 2000.

Concentrates of lead and zinc with silver by-product are produced from mining operations located at Broken Hill and the Elura mines near Cobar. The Elura zinc-lead-silver deposit is the largest mineral deposit yet found in the Cobar Basin (NSW Department of Mineral Resources). The Tritton copper deposit, located 85 km east of Cobar, is the newest project in the bioregion. It is likely that Cobar suffers from fluctuations in population due to mines closing and reopening. Cobar had experienced a local economic boost from mining until the CSA mine closed and over 300 people left the community (NSW NPWS 2000c).

Both the area south of Canbelego and the area around the Lachlan River have several scattered state forests, most of which have been managed for timber production (Morgan and Terrey 1992), mainly for white cypress pine (Anon. 1988).

Next page: Cobar Peneplain - bioregional-scale conservation
Previous page: Cobar Peneplain - biodiversity
Up to contents page: Cobar Peneplain Bioregion
    Page last updated: 26 April 2016