Nature conservation

Biodiversity Reform

North Coast - regional history

Aboriginal occupation

The high diversity and abundance of natural resources available to the Aboriginal people (Berndt and Berndt 1964) of the North Coast Bioregion resulted in a high density of Aboriginal occupation in the bioregion, particularly around the northern rivers close to the coast. The marine environment coupled with the lush vegetation along the coast provided the people with much of what they needed to subsist.

Towards the grassy plains of the bioregion further inland, Aboriginal people were hunter-gatherers, living similar lifestyles to the people of the New England Bioregion and in the west. The coastal and inland groups were linked by trade and all shared a common interest in the landscape, which was closely linked to their spirituality, a factor which was threatened significantly by European settlement (HO and DUAP 1996).

The traditional lands of the Muruwari and Gumbaingirr people are on the mid-North Coast in the bioregion. Despite the hardships they encountered in association with the defence of their homelands during European settlement, they have retained their strong links with the land up to the present time (English and Brown 2000).

During European settlement in the mid-nineteenth century, the Muruwari and Gumbaingirr people were subjected to much violence, including bloody massacres. After these clashes, the people were determined to remain on the land and gained pastoral work on farms, or lived in station camps or on vacant crown lands nearby, enabling them to achieve this (English and Brown 2000) while avoiding being moved onto Missions.

European occupation

John Oxley first explored the bioregion by land around 1818 and was soon followed by early settlers.

A penal settlement, which up until the 1820s was located at Newcastle, was moved to Port Macquarie in 1823. Here, convicts grew maize for their own consumption and also attempted to grow sugar on the Hastings and Wilsons Rivers. The sugar-growing venture was not viable due to frost and floods although its mild success prompted another attempt to be made in the 1860s.

Cedar cutters who were initially stationed around the Hunter region followed the convicts north in the 1820s, reaching the Macleay in 1837, the Clarence in 1838 and moving further north to the Richmond River in 1842. Logs transported on the rivers were intercepted at ports downstream before being shipped to Sydney. These ports, including Ballina on the Richmond River and Grafton on the Clarence, were based on the cedar industry and were the first settlements on the rivers of the north coast (HO and DUAP 1996). Around the same time the demand for ships to transport the cedar to Sydney, and the abundant timber sources along the rivers, encouraged the shipbuilders to accompany the cedar industry in its move northward (HO and DUAP 1996).

The Port Macquarie penal settlement was removed in 1833, leaving only a prison until 1846. This enabled the government to open up the land around Port Macquarie to free settlement, prompting the start of the pastoral occupation of the North Coast Bioregion (HO and DUAP 1996).

The early farming settlements of the North Coast Bioregion began in the late 1830s with holdings owned rather than leased by the landholders. These were concentrated on the small areas suitable for grazing. Beyond its beginnings in the 1840s, the expanding pastoral industry formed the basis for several towns such as Casino and Kempsey along the north coast.

Much of the land in the bioregion was unsuitable for grazing and so experimental crops were planted and, when successful, harvested. Such crops included wheat, maize, tropical crops such as arrowroot, mangoes, sugarcane, breadfruit and opium poppies, while coffee, tea, tobacco, cotton and rice were also grown experimentally (HO and DUAP 1996). Of these experimental crops, maize and sugarcane were most successful although maize was worth little, often being fed to pigs, and after rapid expansion of the sugarcane industry through the 1860s and 1870s, sugarcane crops were struck by disease in the 1890s, at which point many farmers turned to dairying.

Despite early seasonal problems with dairying, the industry became highly successful towards the turn of the century, gradually expanding from the floodplains in the direction of the beef cattle industry further inland and then to the basaltic plateaus above the river valleys. Dairying began in the north around the Richmond River, but progressed further south with time, remaining successful beyond the 1920s (HO and DUAP 1996). It formed the foundation, complete with butter factories, for many towns of the bioregion, which also relied on maize and sugar farming.

The tourism industry accelerated in the 1960s and is still prolific today. Sand mining is also a relatively new industry in the bioregion. While dairying has withdrawn from the bioregion, the beef cattle industry has continued, and now occupies much of the former dairying land. The discovery of gold, silver and copper at fields in the north west of the bioregion in the 1880s saw the establishment of yet another land use in the bioregion (HO and DUAP 1996).

The bioregion has become a popular target for retirees who, along with younger people, have moved to the area to experience a more relaxed lifestyle than that seen in Sydney. The bioregion is illustrative of an environment that is so complex that it provides a wide diversity of niches, both ecologically and in terms of the land-use potential available within the bioregion (HO and DUAP 1996).

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Page last updated: 26 April 2016