Nature conservation

Biodiversity Reform

South Eastern Highlands - regional history

Aboriginal occupation

The major Aboriginal groups that traditionally occupied the South Eastern Highlands Bioregion were the Walbanga in the centre, Ngarigo in the centre and southern parts of the bioregion, and Ngunawal and Gandangara in the north of the bioregion (HO and DUAP 1996).

Other groups were the Walgal towards the west of the bioregion near the northern part of Kosciuszko National Park, and the Bidawal, a coastal group whose homeland extended inland to the south of Bombala. These inland groups were more nomadic than the coastal groups, perhaps because of the less plentiful food supply away from the coast.

The people of the South Eastern Highlands Bioregion relied on the continuous supply of vegetables available in the tablelands. Spring, summer and autumn yielded the tubers of the yam daisy, wattle-seeds were plentiful in July and August, and orchid tubers were consumed in August and September (HO and DUAP 1996). Fish and crayfish were taken from the rivers from September to May, while possums and larger grazing animals were hunted throughout the year.

The Aboriginal groups around the centre of the bioregion made an annual pilgrimage in December and January to the Bogong Mountains and Snowy Mountains where the men of various groups participated in feasts of roasted bogong moths (Agrotis infusa) high on the rocky granite outcrops of the mountains.

The nomadic lifestyle of the Aboriginal people, so dependent on the land of the South Eastern Highlands Bioregion, was disrupted by the arrival and early settlement of Europeans in the 1820s. From this time on, there were reports of diminishing water, fish and native animals so important to the Aboriginal diet (HO and DUAP 1996). Some Aborigines adapted to the change by taking on work for the new settlers such as washing sheep, cutting bark and picking potatoes, while others chose to remain on the land and continue hunting.

The new settlers not only changed the lifestyle of Aboriginal people, but also their health which was affected by exotic diseases which devastated many populations, particularly the influenza epidemic in 1846-7 and syphilis (HO and DUAP 1996). Eight centuries of tradition in the bioregion's Aboriginal communities were destroyed within 50 years. The bogong moth ceremonies ceased and intertribal meetings and corroborees also came to an end.

Traditional Aboriginal life in the bioregion is considered to have ended by 1850 (HO and DUAP 1996). The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 1856 that the Aboriginal people in the south of the bioregion were extinct but the census indicated 166 Aborigines (likely to have been Ngarigo) around Cooma and 319 near Bombala (most probably Bidawal). The well-known Bony Jack and his son Biggenhook were surviving members of the Ngarigo people, with Biggenhook living into the twentieth century, a firm supporter of the Cooma Cricket Club. Ngarigo numbers were dwindling by this time and when Biggenhook died in 1914 at the age of 62, the Ngarigo people became extinct.

European occupation

The South Eastern Highlands Bioregion was first explored between 1817-20 by Hamilton Hume, Charles Throsby, James Meehan and John Oxley who indicated that the area showed clear potential for grazing and agriculture (HO and DUAP 1996). Soon after this exploration, land was settled in the area throughout the 1820s. John Macarthur settled Taralga in 1822, various Scots arrived in the Braidwood area in the 1830s, and almost 10,000 cattle and sheep were farmed in the open country around Goulburn in 1821. The 1830s saw the whole southern area of the bioregion occupied by squatting runs (HO and DUAP 1996).

Goulburn was earmarked as a town by 1828, founded between 1829 and 1833, and had a population of 650 by 1841, which almost doubled by 1845 (HO and DUAP 1996). Bathurst, in the north of the bioregion, was established in 1833 and the site of Orange chosen by 1846 (HO and DUAP 1996). Bombala was a successful town with 300 residents by the 1850s. Cooma was gazetted as a town in 1849 and grew quickly. By 1889, it was linked to the rail line from Goulburn (HO and DUAP 1996).

Other towns such as Bungonia and Marulan developed gradually or did not flourish while towns such as Bungendore and Braidwood were dependent on the crafts industry. Although slow to prosper in the depression of the 1840s, Braidwood blossomed with the advent of the gold rush in 1851 and many shops, banks and hotels experienced a boom, as did the agricultural industry (HO and DUAP 1996). At the turn of the century, when this progressive period ended, Braidwood's eminence soon faded, although its heritage remains as the basis for tourism in the area. Gunning and Gundaroo have similar histories.

Yass developed as an agricultural centre after gazettal in 1837 and has remained established into the twenty-first century along with Crookwell, which developed later after the initial drive from the gold rush of the 1850s, becoming the local centre for wheat growing from the 1860s onwards (HO and DUAP 1996). Sofala, another town based on the gold rush of 1851-2, had a cosmopolitan population although the town itself was reasonably short-lived when the population growth shifted to Hill End in the 1870s as this area began to dominate in gold-mining (HO and DUAP 1996).

The copper rush from the 1840s to the late 1890s also had an impact on the bioregion. The area particularly in the north of the bioregion has the longest history of copper mining in NSW (HO and DUAP 1996). Copper was first discovered in the bioregion at Copper Hill south of Molong in 1845 and was also found at several locations throughout the region, including Carcoar, Sunny Corner and Blayney. Gold, silver, antimony and zinc were also mined at Sunny Corner, the landscape now barren and almost sterile from the lead and arsenic produced from the smelting of silver ores.

Crops and orchards have been common in the South Eastern Highlands ever since miners in the area planted apple, plum and cherry trees near Batlow in the 1850s and 60s, although the first commercial orchard of the area was not planted until 1895 (HO and DUAP 1996). By 1907, there were 5,000 fruit trees in the area and more orchards continued to be planted. Batlow benefited from this attention and was declared a town in 1910. The advent of the railway to the area in 1923 further enhanced it as a prominent fruit-growing district (HO and DUAP 1996).

When the railway reached Lithgow in the 1870s it managed to transform the sleepy rural town into one of the major industrial towns in the state. The local coal mine, Western Coalfield, began to realise its true economic potential as coal could now be transported by rail. Lithgow also benefited in 1900 from the opening of the first steelworks in Australia followed by the first modern iron ore blast furnace built there in 1906-7 (HO and DUAP 1996). These days, since the coalmines have closed and the wool industry has shifted, Lithgow owes much of its current existence to nearby electric generating stations at Wallerawang and Mt Piper and their open-cut coalmines (HO and DUAP 1996).

The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme considerably altered the bioregion (as well as the adjacent Australian Alps Bioregion) from 1949, both physically and demographically. Construction of the scheme began at Adaminaby on 17 October 1949 and was completed 25 years later in 1974 (Department of Immigration).

The purpose of the Scheme was to use the rivers of the Snowy Mountains to produce electricity as well as to divert water from the coastal rivers for use in irrigation around the Murray and Murrumbidgee catchments (Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre). More than 100,000 men and women from over 30 countries worked on the scheme during its planning and construction, the workforce reaching a peak in 1959 with 7,300 people (Snowyhydro renewable energy).

Australians (including indigenous Australians) comprised a third of the workforce while the remaining two-thirds were migrants, encouraged to Australia by an intensive recruitment campaign targeting migrants from Europe and by the Government's immigration scheme following World War II. The extensive workforce employed for the scheme required townships and camps for their accommodation. Several regional townships were either created (in the case of Khancoban, Cabramurra and Talbingo) or relocated (Adaminaby and Jindabyne) and other nearby towns (Cooma, Tumut and Corryong) benefited from the activities and population of the area (Snowyhydro renewable energy).

In both the South Eastern Highlands and Australian Alps bioregions, the Snowy Mountains Scheme has had, and continues to have, considerable impact on the environment. These impacts are now more recognised and efforts are being made to reduce them. At Island Bend Dam, for instance, the timing and flow regime of water releases for maintenance purposes have been altered to protect the breeding habitat of the spotted tree frog (Litoria spenceri). As well as ensuring that water is released gradually, the timing of this work takes into consideration the frogs' breeding season (Snowyhydro renewable energy).

In late 2000, the Victorian and NSW governments outlined a plan to restore Snowy River flows to a targeted 28 per cent of their original levels and the plan is now beginning to be implemented (Planet Ark).

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Page last updated: 18 April 2016