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Sat, 22 September 2018
Steam Plains


Some interesting historical notes compiled by Mr R.G. Kiddle regarding changes in the pastures and other features of the country on Steam Plains, situated in Riverina some 42 miles from Deniliquin and 38 from Jerilderie, having come under our notice, we have permission from Mr Kiddle to summarise and publish them.

Steam Plains is an oblong block about 15 miles long by five miles wide, and consisted of open plain land intersected by pine ridges and belts of timber, a wide, very shallow creek and various shallow lignum swamps, which in very wet seasons fill and overflow and form other shallow creeks. The pine ridges, or sandhills as they were called, were covered with a forest of Murray pines of all ages from seedlings to mature trees, interspersed with various kinds of acacias and similar trees, such as needlewood, wild irishman, hopbush, deadly nightshade, sandalwood and willows (cuba), and below these were numerous kinds of the smaller blue and salt bushes. In this condition the sandhills were not good feeding grounds for sheep, as the grass was not as sweet nor as plentiful as in the open country. Also they were a great harbour for noxious animals, dogs and marsupials etc.

On the edges of the pine ridges and extending out on to the plains, in some cases perhaps only two to three hundred yards, and in others two to three miles, were timbered areas generally of a hard red soil, carrying grasses which were very sweet and quick growing after a dry period, and timbered with large quantities of edible trees, mostly boree (myall), cuba (willow), quandong and wilga etc. Beyond these timbered areas and sometimes amongst them were swamps timbered with box (eucalyptus) and gum trees, and the balance of the country was open plain interspersed with swamps and depressions, the biggest of which grow large quantities of lignum, growing in many cases 10 ft. high. Such lignum swamps produced very little useful fodder. The wide shallow creek, generally dry, crossing the property was also heavily timbered with box and it and similar box swamps produce very little grass. Towards the southern end of the run there occurred one large and two small swamps filled with a heavy growth of cane grass.

The open plain country, which when dry is either crumbly red or grey clay, and the open boree hard red country, were generally bush country with annual and perennial grasses growing around and between the bushes. These bushes consisted mostly of Old Man saltbush, and considerable areas of blue bush and smaller saltbushes and cottonbush. At this time, taking a line from Narrandera to Corowa, which would run along about 70 miles east of Steam Plains, the country all to the east of that line was forest. Today, so much timber has been killed that. generally speaking, that forest line is now one hundred miles further to the east.

About 1850 fencing was started in the district and Steam Plains was fenced about then. This enabled more stock to be carried, but as a result the bush was more severely eaten during dry periods, and the less there was the more it was punished, so that by 1874 the bulk of the saltbush had been eaten out and killed and only certain areas of the cottonbush remained. The exception to this is that about 400 acres close to the homestead was preserved and still retains its original cover of Old Man saltbush and bluebush etc.

However, large numbers of sheep were successfully carried, for though the bush was gone, the country was not eaten out, and responded to rains quickly; also thousands of edible trees were continually dropping edible leaves and branches. Large sums of money were spent in killing the box trees in the creek and swamps, and the sandhills were cleared of much useless scrub (needlewood, hopwood, wild irishman), and the pine trees were pollarded to a height 8 ft. This period of improvement lasted approximately till 1897.

Rabbits were first known on Steam Plains in 1880, and in 1882 29 scalps were paid for at 2s. 6d. each; in the same year 884 kangaroos and 136 emus were paid for at Is. each. In 1890 the property was rabbit netted on the boundaries, and continual but ineffective methods of destroying the pest were adopted, and the whole district became very badly infested, it being nothing unusual to poison from ten to twelve thousand at one waterhole. The result was that during any dry period both the rabbits and sheep were underfed and the country was being eaten out. It was not fully realised what damage the rabbits were doing, but many of the edible trees were ringbarked and killed, and practically all bush and perennial grasses were killed.

In 1837 the autumn was very dry, and over 13.000 lambing ewes were fairly successfully fed on branches of boree and cuba trees until June, when the season broke. The years 1898 and 1839 were dry, and the country became very bare and started to drift. During 1900-1901 the rabbit burrows were all dug out and all rabbits destroyed, since when there have been practically none on the property.

Unfortunately, before the country could recover the 1902 0 1903 drought started, and during the summer the whole country was in effect a moving sand-drift, with most netting fences and yards covered with sand. Blinding sandstorms occurred frequently, and many of the excavated dames were practically filled with drift.

As mentioned previously, in 1897 13,000 sheep were satisfactorily fed on the leaves and branches of boree and cuba trees: In places these trees were so thick that in mustering sheep it was not possible to see more than 300 yards, but generally the boree country was more open than that. About this time it was first definitely noted that the tent caterpillar (very hairy and living in woven bags during the day time)were attacking the boree trees and killing them by eating all the leaves. This caterpillar continued its destruction, and 90 per cent of the boree trees are now dead. A bush fire swept the property in 1918, burning many of the dead borees, and today it is practically clear country, where once it was possible to see only 300 yards. Though there is an abundance of young boree trees growing, which would soon reforest the country if protected from sheep, such precautions would only result in fostering them for the benefit of the caterpillar.

Today the sandhills are clear of all useless scrub and the pines have been considerably thinned out, and the two principal sandhills have been fenced in paddocks by themselves. That result is that during the growing season they produce a heavy crop of herbage, mostly crowfoot and barley and corkscrew grasses, which can then be eaten, and the more suitable country reserved to a limited extent for summer use. The trees in the box swamps creek have nearly all been killed, and most of the dead timber has disappeared. This part is now the heaviest carrying country on the property, the growth generally being a mixture of trefoil and barley grass. The boree country is now mostly very open and forms the main areas of the perennial grasses, such as whitetop and corkscrew, together with local herbage. The lignum swamps carry a good solo of herbages - mostly trefoil, barley, blue, and small crowfoot.

The open plains;where it has been possible to treat them generously, are now well covered with cottonbush to an extent of about 12,000 acres, and are growing the usual herbage and grasses, while in several areas large quantities of wild oats grow in good seasons to a height of 3 ft. and to an extent of several hundreds of acres. The cane grass swamps have been burnt at times and are now producing more feed than in the past.

Where the sand-drifts of 1902 covered the fences and other obstructions these drifts now grow similar grasses to the sandhills. This is the case, even to a large extent, where the drifts were held on fences crossing grey clay plains.

About 1900 blowflies first became really troublesome and the position worse and worse, but absolutely varying according to the seasons, the times the rains fell, and the type of weather at or soon after the various rainfalls. Various precautions were taken such as crutching which was started about 1900, and has been done every autumn since, and shearing is not started till about 25th or approximately a month later than on most other properties in the district.

The flies are generally worst in the late spring when the grass is drying off; at this time the weather is hot and there is plenty of moisture about, also the new growth of wool on the sheep after shearing is carrying abundance of yolk, even to its tip. It was to improve this condition of affairs that shearing is carried out somewhat later than usual, and that blade shearing was finally abandoned in favour of machine in 1927. As the season advances moisture disappears, the tip of the wool becomes dry, and as this condition develops, the attacks of the flies are reduced and finally cease. They do not start again, seriously, until the autumn rains come.

It is estimated that in bad years at least 50 per cent of the hoggets are struck in the spring, and many more than once, but with constant attention the bulk of the strikes are dealt with before serious harm results. Mr Kiddle considers, however, that if the precautions mentioned were not adopted every hogget would be struck in bad fly times. He states that the fly trouble has not increased during the past ten years, and that practically no sheep are struck, as they are in wetter districts, on the backs and
shoulders.

Pastoral Review, 1931 excerpt

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Australia
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