MOUNTAIN CATTLEMEN


[Jane Holth]

Jane Holth Recounts Tales of the Cattlemen of the High Plains

The Bogong High Plains are in north-east Victoria. They occupy an area of 3,800 square kilometres and form part of the Great Dividing Range. There are 10 peaks rising above 1830 metres, with the highest areas being very bleak and inhospitable. In those areas above 1800 metres, the vegetation consists of heathlands, herbfields, grasslands and mossbeds. In the lowest areas there are dense forests of Stringy Bark, Messmates, Blackwood, Blue Gum and Mountain Ash. Wildlife abounds with wallabies, echidnas, possums, wombats parrots and lyre birds.

Above 1200 metres Alpine Ash predominates and from 1300 - 1600 metres, Snow Gums grow. These trees are contorted by the bitter winds and sub freezing temperatures. Above 1600 metres snow covers the ground for 5 months of the year but in mid summer there is an abundance of wild flowers including the Bogong Daisy-bush and the Silky Daisy which are found nowhere else in the world. Insects like the Bogong Moth thrive in the summer.

No animals live above ground in the snow, but the broad toothed rat lives in underground tunnels and the hibernating Mountain Pygmy Possum nestles in rock crevices.

The first cattlemen to follow the trail of the explorers to what would become Victoria was William Wyse in 1835. He was employed by the wealthy squatter Charles Hotson Ebden to organise a party to take a mob of cattle from Tarcutta in New South Wales southward. At the Murray River where Albury-Wodonga now stands they formed the 'Mungabareena' Station and later following some stray cattle, Wyse found a rich grazing area between the Kiewa, Mitta Mitta and Murray Rivers. The cattle run they started there, 'Bonegilla', was the first cattle run in Victoria.

Meanwhile from the Monaro district in New South Wales, James MacFarlane, George MacKillop and George Livingstone set out in 1835-36 with a mob of cattle and travelled south to the Omeo plains. Now known as 'Benambra', James MacFarlane's cattle run of 51,200 acres was originally called 'Omeo B'. Also near Omeo was the cattle run, 'Cobungra', thought to have been held by the Wells Brothers before 1842 and 'Tawonga' station at Mount Beauty which first appears as a holding in 1847.

Shocking weather, isolation, meat riddled with maggots, blow flies, miserable accomodation and sometimes conflict with aborigines made life very difficult for the early cattlemen. Self reliance and ingenuity were essential.

Few families settled in the area before 1851 but after gold was discovered at Omeo and Beechworth that changed.

John and Mary Maddison and their five children were one of the early families. John carted goods from Penrith in New South Wales to Melbourne, but when their son William died from a snake bite in 1857, the family moved to Yackandandah. Another son, George, went to work at 'Tawonga' station where he learnt bushcraft skills. In 1877 George took up a selection at the foot of Mount Bogong between the east and west Kiewa Rivers and built the first house on the land later called Mount Beauty. In 1878 he married Henrietta Caldwell and they had eight children.

Drought caused George to look towards Mount Bogong as a place to graze his cattle. With his wife riding side saddle, their 9 month old baby strapped in front and and their 2½ year old strapped behind they rode to the height where the snow gums started. George continued up on foot. He decided he could get cattle through and with Roper Hatch he cut a track known as Maddison's track. Three generations of the Maddison family have lived in the area.

On the other side of the High Plains were the MacNamara family in Omeo. Michael MacNamara married Anna Gray, whose father Ned and Uncle George had first lease a run at 'Cobungra' in 1851. George Gray with stockman Jim Brown and Jack Wells set off with a mob of cattle from Wangaratta in search of feed for their cattle. They discovered the High Plains and camped at Dick's Creek. By 1852, George Gray held 32,000 acres at 'Cobungra' Station. The Gray's may have been the first to take their Short Horn cattle to the high plains.

Michael MacNamara and his wife had five sons, and Michael's brother Tom had four sons. They and their descendants became good bushmen and cattlemen. The cattlemen, mostly farmers on small holdings of 320 acres, who drove their stock to the high plains, did so in summer from December to April. Even so cold winds made tents inadequate and en route they built huts. Sod huts were replaced eventually by wattle and daub huts with bark roofs and later huts were built of horizontal or vertical logs or palings sometimes with shingle roofs. The chimney was detached for fire safety purposes and the roofs were steep. Alongside the house was a small yard for horses and large yards for cattle. Cattlemen always had a dog.

Jane Holth and her husband set out to write about these huts but found the need to learn about the stockmen who built them also. They listened to tales from descendants of many early cattlemen and their stories are now held at the State Library of Victoria. Grazing cattle on the High Plains ceased in 2005, but time will tell whether it will ever be resumed.

[Jane Holth]

(The above is a report on Jane Holth's address at the General Meeting on 13 November 2010)

Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)


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