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PASTORAL SOILS SHEEP-BREEDING.
The aspect of the pastoral portion of New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land is novel, striking, and characteristic of the Australian zone. Its mountainous district presents nothing in common with the appearance of the Alps, or the Westmoreland, Cheviot, or Grampian hills; its plains are far from recalling the recollection of the steppes of South-eastern Europe, or of the Prairies, Savannas, Llanos, or Pampas; and the forest, which covers the greatest portion of the country, lias nothing in common with the forests of Europe. A difference in lines, tints, and shadows seems to prevail, and to produce original effects in every part of the picture.
Throughout its whole extent, the pastoral ground may be said to present either the alternate fall or rise of a smooth undulating surface, sometimes running into flats; or one broken and riven, terminating in deep gullies or steep ridges. The Eucalyptce, with its everlasting olive-green foliage, uniformly covers the surface, and, whether boldly erect and widely ramified, or stunted in its growth, rarely yields a shade.
This character of the forest prevents the vegetation of the grasses from being impeded. Judging from localities, untrodden by flocks and herds, which the writer met with, in the Australian Alps, in Gipps Land, and in some parts of Van Diemen's Land, that vegetation was luxurious beyond description, and extended from the level of the sea to the highest altitudes of the two colonies. Thus, on ascending the Australian Alps, the pasture was observed to be as rich, at an elevation of 5200 feet, as that which is met with around Lake King; which was also the case in Van Diemen's Land, on the lower parts of Ben Lomond, Ben Nevis, Dry's Bluff, and Lake St. Clair, between an altitude of 3000 and 4200 feet.
The abundance and excellence of such pasture, combined with the mildness of the climate, could not fail to awaken the enterprising spirit of the first settlers to the advantages of pastoral industry; nor was their perseverance abated, either by the difficulties attending the acquisition of live stock, at such a distance as New South Wales, or the outlay of capital which the enterprise required, — or yet the obstacles and losses inseparable from shipments of such a nature, in a voyage of 15,000 miles, and which at that time required at least five months to accomplish.
Marvellous indeed must that epoch appear, in the annals of colonisation, to any one who, like the writer, has ventured on a journey to Australia by way of the North and South American (Spanish) colonies, of three hundred years' standing; and not less marvellous is the result, when it is borne in mind that hardly thirty years have elapsed since the first ram was imported into New South Wales, and that the number of sheep at present amounts to nearly 9,000,000!
Generally speaking, the earlier system on the stockfarms was both simple and unexpensive. For every 600 sheep, a shepherd was provided, whose wages and sustenance, under the system of assignment, and when circumstances were favourable,—that is, when the price of flour was low, — amounted to S5l. a year. The duty of the shepherd was to take the sheep out in the morning, and to bring them back again, in the evening, to the sheep station,—an establishment usually consisting of a bark hut, 8 by 12 feet in size, with or without a hut-keeper, and an adjoining enclosure, which sufficed to protect the flock, during the night, from the depredations of wild dogs and cats.
The keeping of the numerical account of the flock, washing and shearing the sheep, disposing of the wool and carcass, and providing the station with rations, comprised all the details of the business of a sheepfarmer in both the colonies.
The management of pastoral lands was as simple as that of the flocks. Those of the sheep-owners who were owners also of large landed property, covered it with their own flocks; those, again, who invested their capital in sheep alone, fell upon the unoccupied land belonging to the crown. If the tract which they came across suited them, they remained on it, erected, in a day or two, a bark hut, and, in the course of a fortnight, completed the sheep establishment, and applied for and obtained a squatting licence. If it did not suit them, they raised their camp and proceeded farther. In both instances,—that is, whether the sheeprun was private or crown property,—the choice of the daily pasture was left to the instinct of the animal; and, in nine cases out of ten, it was the flock which guided or determined the direction which the shepherd took. Carpe diem seems to have been the motto generally acted upon by the graziers: so long, then, as the herbage, thus singularly adapted for sheep, promoted their increase, the evil working of the system, or rather, the absence of all system, and its consequences, were lost sight of, in the immediate profitable result which such an increase realised. But, when that increase began to react on the pasture,—when the grass of the granted lands, and that of those in the vicinity of the eastern shores, began to disappear, and the nakedness of the soil to be exposed, — then, had not fresh grounds, with fresh pasture, been at hand, the sheep-owner would have paid dearly for this mismanagement of the pastoral lands. Fortunately, however, room was not wanting. The dividing range, which, in the early period of colinisation, limited the grazing operations, was soon passed over; and new pastures, as luxuriant as the first had once been, were discovered. Bathurst, Liverpool Plains, Manning, Moneiro, and Murrumbidgee, were soon overrun and covered with flocks, and pastoral pursuits again became replete with life and promise. The pasture, however, here, as in the foreground of the colony, began to diminish: the occasional burnings which were from time to time resorted to, in order either to ameliorate the pasture, or to produce a new growth from the roots of the grasses, did but accelerate the slowly but evidently approaching evils. Dews began to be scarce, and rain still more so: one year of drought was followed by another; and, in the summer of 1838, the whole country of New South Wales between Sydney and Wellington, the Upper and Lower Hunter Kiver, Liverpool Plains, Argyleshire, &c, presented, with very few exceptions, a naked surface, without any perceptible pasture upon it, for numerous half-starved flocks.
In Van Diemen's Land, the evils of mismanagement, accompanied with that of drought, also attacked the flocks, but spared the pastoral land. The limited space of the island did not admit of squatting licences; there, every sheep-owner pastured his flock upon his own property; and although overstocking it as much as was done in New South Wales, still, by preventing burning as much as lay in his power, he saved his sheep-runs from an additional injury. This prohibition of burning was enforced in Van Diemen's Land, not because it was considered injurious to grasses or soils, but because the owners of flocks, not being squatters, but proprietors of the land upon which the flocked grazed, fenced those lands in, and, dreading the destruction of valuable fencing, abstained and prevented their shepherds from setting fire to the country.
Few improvements, either as regards the management of sheep, or of pastoral land, have as yet made their way into the colonies. Thus, what in Scotland and Silesia is called the art of breeding and rearing sheep by means of assortment, division, infusion of the best blood, and what may be termed rotation of pasture-ground, is still an unknown science in New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land.
The reason is obvious: the majority of wool-growers in Australia is composed of persons whose occupation in England was not that of a sheep-farmer, which is a science, as well as any other. They belonged mostly to the army or navy, or to the professional and commercial classes. Those, again, who were left in charge of the flock, had been anything but shepherds at home. Such improvements as were introduced by the minority, more practically conversant with the subject, had to struggle against the ignorance of subordinates. Then came the extraordinary profits which the mere increase of the flock, and of the quantity of wool, realised. The state of the market, which in every country regulates the line of industry, chalked out a very simple one for the sheep-breeders of Australia. The greatest numerical amount of sheep being shown to lead immediately to the best of all possible results, the increase of the stock was promoted by all practicable means, and the carrying out of the measure was left to the uncontrolled management of nature. Her bounty soon crowned the desire of the settlers, even beyond their expectation; but the concomitant conditions of the boon greatly modified its advantages. The country became overstocked; the pasture began to fail; sickness was introduced into the too large and unmanageable herds; the wages of shepherds rose; the capital of the mother country, which had hitherto helped to keep up the value of sheep, found a more profitable investment in banking operations and land speculations, than