breeding, raising, processing and distribution of livestock

The granting of large areas of land to a relative handful of men who were also given access to a cheap but unskilled labour force was highly conducive to pastoral endeavours. The boom in the wool industry after the destruction of the Spanish wool trade during the Napoleonic Wars meant that many of the new settlers in the Williams Valley at first attempted sheep breeding. In the long run, however, cattle were to prove more suited to the environment of the Williams, Paterson, and Allyn Valleys. Alongside sheep and cattle, horse breeding has been undertaken and this also continues today.

According to one study of social and environmental change in the Paterson Valley, the Europeans inherited an ‘open park-like landscape’ that was the result of Aboriginal practices involving regular burning.1 This landscape is clearly described by Peter Cunningham, an early visitor who in 1827 stated:

The alluvial banks of Patterson’s and William’s River are heavily timbered, but the forest behind is open, grassy, and in every way suitable for pasture without cutting down a single tree.2

A few years later, in 1832, we have a similar account:

The principal characteristics of this district, from Clarence Town upwards, are open forest land, affording excellent sheep pasture … the track between the William and the Chichester is said to be the finest bit of sheep country in the whole Colony.3

Webber at Tocal on the Paterson River, and Lord, Hooke and others in the Williams Valley, and of course the extensive runs of the Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) just to the east which lasted until 1857, all attempted to raise sheep for wool. However, the drier lands further west proved better suited to sheep and by the 1860s cattle predominated over other livestock in the Williams, Paterson and Allyn Valleys. Nevertheless, sheep numbers were substantial while they lasted. Webber at Tocal had 1,200 sheep in 1827 and 3,000 by 1834. One shepherd would care for 300-400 sheep on the unfenced land, which would graze by day and be penned at night near the shepherds’ huts. Cattle were easier, however, as they did not require yarding and were less prone to disease, dingo attack and, overall, needed less men.4

Whether sheep or cattle, livestock were vulnerable to attack by native peoples and bushranging convicts, as well as anyone looking for a cheap meal or extra income. As a result, local landowners formed themselves into, ‘An Association for the Protection of Stock on the Upper Districts of the Paterson and William’s Rivers’. The major landowners who joined included; Charles Boydell, J H Boughton, Alexander Park, George Mackenzie, W H Windeyer, John M’Lean, and Duncan Mackay, with Chairman, George Townsend, Treasurer, Lawrence Myles, and Secretary, James Adair. A ‘Protector of Stock’ was also appointed in 1834 to ‘reside in the vicinity of the Court-house, at Dungog, William’s River’.5

The protection of stock was serious business and in the year after:

At the close of the Criminal Sessions on Friday last, the following prisoners were placed at the bar to receive their sentence: Thomas Skeefe, for shooting at with intent to kill William Burke, ranger for the Association for the Suppression of Cattle Stealing, at Williams’ River. Death.6

Skeefe’s hanging naturally did not put an end to the landowners’ problems with what seems to have been at times well-organised and extensive operations. Dungog Police Magistrate Thomas Cook, for example, gives an account of the activities of one such bane of the landowners, Thomas Ford. Ford was a prisoner who had been recaptured and while free had been selling and branding cattle ‘for the purpose of raising money and deceiving government’. Ford had made contact with a Dark of Hinton who had borrowed money from Andrew Lang of Paterson. Phillip O’Brien was the principal purchaser of the cattle, and one beast of landowner John Hooke had been killed and six others stamped over 10-12 days according to witness James Doherty. Ford and his partner Latham had bought casks off William Miller to cure four tons of beef. Thomas Bamford was their cooper, employed to seal the casks.7

This was a problem that would continue, with more reports in 1842 that Williams’ River gangs were stealing cattle.8 Later, the Barrington Ranges were used as a base for cattle duffers in the 1860s.9 And again in October 1883, a meeting of the Cattle Stealing Prevention Society of Paterson and Dungog was held in Gresford with rewards offered for the conviction not only of cattle stealers (£500) but also for the conviction of those willfully (£50) or negligently setting fire to grass (£25).10

Despite their problems with stock thieves, the larger landowners were able to sustain the numbers to make this form of pastoralism profitable and from these build grand homesteads such as those at Cangon and Dingadee. Usually the original homes were demolished in this process, though sometimes a barn or other outhouse has survived, such as Blackett’s barn at Tocal and that at Melbee at Dungog.

Sands Pastoral Directory of 1903 gives an indication of who these larger landowners were. J K MacKay is recorded as having 760 head at Bingleburra, Gresford and another 1,362 at Underbank on the Williams River. Various members of the Hooke family had nearly 500 head at Rocky Hill, near Dungog, F A Hooke over 700 at Dingadee, and J T M Hooke, 2500 at Crook’s Park, also near Dungog. At Tilimby on the Paterson River, A A W Nivison had over 1000 cattle, and at Tocal, F Reynolds over 700.11

While cattle, both beef and dairy, predominated over sheep in the Dungog district, they never entirely disappeared.12 In 1902, for example, some 6000 sheep were sent to Dungog from the western districts, which were suffering from drought at a time when grass was plentiful on the Williams River.13 This kind of transfer of livestock from district to district was of course fundamental to the pastoral industry, with sheep playing a major role in how the pastoralist industry evolved. An instance of this being sheep scab, a persistent problem in the 19th century which led to the establishment of government boards that ultimately evolved into Pasture Protection Boards (then Rural Lands Protection Boards, and now Livestock Health and Pest Authorities). A significant impact of the Pasture Protection Boards was their role in the development of the system of Travelling Stock Reserves or Routes (TSRs), many of which remain within the Shire boundaries today.14

Along with cattle, horse breeding was also undertaken by many of the larger landowners. In 1827, Edward Cory at Gostwyck bred with such horses as Young Cameron, and was continuing to do so in 1837. A horse famous in its day that was brought to the Williams Valley for stud was Chilton in 1829, owned by John Hooke. John Hooke, and at least some of his sons, continued to breed horses into the 1840s. Also on the Williams River in 1846: ‘… Mr. Chapman was the largest proprietor of horse stock in this part of the country, and the best judge of that noble animal.’15 Dungog Magistrate Thomas Cook also bred horses for a time, or at least in May 1859 he was selling 12 horses by auction at West Maitland.16 On the Paterson River at Trevallyn, George Townshend was also breeding horses in the late 1820s, and in 1846, Indiaman, ‘a beautiful bay, with black points’ was advertised as being ‘bred by G. Townshend, Esq’.17

Not only large landowners bred horses and sometimes conveniently located innkeepers stood stallions, such as Thomas Jones at the Settlers Arms Inn at Paterson.18 At a later period a Mr Mayo at Cardoness, ‘well known on the turf’ was also reported to be breeding horses, and at Tocal, horse breeding took place along with a Hereford stud at the end of the 19th century.19 Another interesting horse connection of the Williams River district worth noting is through Charles Bruce Lowe, the son of William Lowe at Clarence Town, who developed what is now a world standard system for assessing thoroughbred horses.20

Horses were not only bred as thoroughbreds for racing, but were also ‘part bred’ or ‘bush thoroughbreds’. Such horses became very popular with the British Army in India where horses imported from New South Wales became known as ‘walers’. This export market to India seems to have taken off in the 1830s and while William Arnold on his Allyn River property of Wortwell, was one such breeder, it is not clear how many others referred to as horse breeders were doing so for this trade.21

By the 1880s, there are numerous mentions of livestock auctions at Dungog in the Maitland Mercury at places such as Robson’s yards located opposite where the Dungog RSL now stands in Lord St.22 At these sales, a range of cattle (‘fat cattle’ & dairy cattle) were available, as well as bullocks and horses (draught horses & buggy horses). Sales meant the movement of cattle and significant to this before the railway, and even afterwards, were the travelling stock routes and places such as Abbott’s Ford across the Williams River near Dungog town, where cattle could avoid the bridge. Dungog town was also provided with a Common, on which many would place their stock, including agents waiting for the next sale day. Sale yards and cattle paddocks were established in various locations for this industry and later, stock yards at various railway sidings also became important.

When prices were good, a not untypical note was:

HAPPY DUNGOG. A telegram from Dungog, dated Friday last, says:- “A thousand head of cattle were sold at the local stock sales yesterday, when record prices were realised for store bullocks, which made £7/17s. More stock have passed through the local saleyards this year than in any two previous years combined, which is attributed to the splendid state of the district during the drought, and the high prices ruling.”23

As breeding and stock improvement progressed so too did the awarding of prizes and the annual Agricultural Show became a significant event in the life of many towns. Dungog has held annual agricultural shows from 1887 (Williams River Agricultural and Horticultural Association), and Gresford from 1927 (Allyn and Paterson Rivers Agricultural, Horticultural, and Pastoral Association), both of which still run. Eccleston also ran a show for a short time around 1903, and Paterson held its first show in 1949, running until 1969.24

At this first Dungog Show, cattle classes were Durham, Hereford and Devons, with the major prizes taken by such descendants of original land grantees as G A Mackay, J K Mackay and F. A. Hooke, though a Mr E Smith was also a prizetaker. With the Devons, Mr F and H Wilce represented a smaller class of landowner. Dairy cattle, pigs and sheep, were also represented.25

Not only large landowners kept cattle, many smaller owners and tenants also kept small numbers of cattle. Even those with a dairy herd might keep some beef cattle on their high pastures and in 1925 it was reported from the Allyn River that, ‘many of those who went back to breeding fat cattle when the market for beef was high have never returned to dairying’.26 The switch to beef cattle greatly increased as many gave up dairying in the second half of the 20th century. For these many small owners, beef cattle could mean simply buying young cattle and growing them up until they could be sold on. Fattening cattle until they are ready for slaughter is less suited for most of the land available within the three valleys, though this is possible with extra feeds and supplements.27

Cattle prices always fluctuated, but until the 1970s this form of pastoralism seems to have provided a reasonable income, at least for those doing so on a large enough scale. In 1942, for example, the sale of Aberdeen-Angus bullocks from Dungog at the Homebush markets were reported in the Charleville Times – they averaged £17/5/6.28 However, with the British entry into the Common Market and other factors, a sudden decline in beef prices occurred in the mid-1970s which saw many forced into cutting timber and other income producing measures before prices began to recover at the end of the 1970s.29

For much of the period, land use related to beef cattle has been of low intensity. Many owners did not live on or near their land and in the early 20th century often relied on single men living in simple accommodation to manage eucalyptus regrowth (grubbing), control rabbits and provide some measure of security. Such men lived rent free and could earn income from the rabbits. Owners of smaller properties might also work collectively when it came to rounding up their cattle, which might be bullocks brought down from Queensland for fattening and then sold on at the markets at Maitland or Singleton.30

With the lower prices for cattle after the 1970s and the introduction of four-wheeled drive tractors that have greatly reduced the need for labour and man-handling, a switch by many landowners to holistic farming practices has taken place. Cattle are grazed more intensively and paddocks are more carefully managed to remove unwanted species such as blady grass, lantana, tobacco, blackberry and eucalyptus, which is now done through spraying rather than grubbing.31

Despite its decline as a source of income, as other agricultural uses have declined and with an increasing proportion of land purchased to give the owner a ‘rural lifestyle’ rather than an agricultural income, much land within the Williams Valley is now being is used as agistment for those who buy and sell cattle at different stages of their lives. Cattle breeding, such as Charolais, Devons and Short Horn Devons, and the recently popular Angus, is also widespread.

Heritage Survivals

  • Travelling Stock Reserves

  • Graziers homesteads

  • Barns and outbuildings

  • Saleyards and resting paddocks

1 Archer, Social and environmental change as determinants of ecosystem health, p.92.

2 Peter Cunningham, 1827, in Archer, Social and environmental change as determinants of ecosystem health, p.106.

3 Raymond, The New South Wales calendar and general post office directory, 1832, pp.145-146.

4 Walsh, Voices from Tocal, p.47.

5 The Sydney Herald, 29/9/1834, p.3.

6 Sydney Gazette, 19/5/1835, p.2.

7 Cook to Colonial Secretary, 17/10/1837.

8 The Sydney Herald, 14/3/1842, p.2.

9 Hartley, Barrington Tops, p.11.

10 The Maitland Mercury, 18/10/1883, p.2.

11 Sands Pastoral Directory 1903

12 For dairy cattle see 3.3 Dairying.

13 The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, 1/10/1902, p.2.

14 Archer, Social and environmental change as determinants of ecosystem health, pp.129-130.

15 Maitland Mercury, 1/8/1846, p.3.

16 Maitland Mercury, 17/5/1859, p.4.

17 Binney, Horsemen of the First Frontier, p.271 & pp.262-263 & Maitland Mercury, 17/10/1846, p.1.

18 Binney, Horsemen of the First Frontier, pp.278-279.

19 Maitland Mercury, 7/12/1875, p.2 & Binney, Horsemen of the First Frontier, p.442.

20 Binney, Horsemen of the First Frontier, pp.455-479. For William Lowe and his shipbuilding see 3.7 Industry.

21 Binney, Horsemen of the First Frontier, p.88, & Collison & Handcock, Gresford 170 years, p.194. On Walers see,

22 For examples see Maitland Mercury, 24/11/1881, p.1 & 24/5/1883, p.1.

23 The Dubbo Liberal and Macquarie Advocate, 1/10/1902, p.2.

24 Archer, Social and environmental change as determinants of ecosystem health, p.154.

25 Maitland Mercury, 16/4/1887, p.15S.

26 Sydney Morning Herald, 19/1/1925, p.9.

27 Tom Boorer, interviewed 21/2/2012.

28 The Charleville Times, 24/7/1942, p.2.

29 Dugald Alison, interviewed 16/4/2012.

30 Archer, An Environmental & Social History of the Upper Webbers Creek Catchment, p.14.

31 Dugald Alison, interviewed 16/4/2012.