Ron Elliot: Living off the land
Ron Elliot knows what it means to live off the land – his family have been managing his 1200 acre sheep and cropping property, ‘Yonda’, 20km north of Balmoral, for over 100 years.
Since European settlement, much of Ron’s property has been cleared, because it was actively encouraged by the Government of the time.
“When blocks were first allocated in 1874, you had to ringbark and clear 15 acres a year, otherwise you lost your blocks.”
The widespread land clearing was shortly followed by the rabbit plagues. Ron describes how the original settlers finished up ‘against the wall’ because of the damage caused by the rabbits.
“They all ran out of money. Edwards (who settled the southern end of the property in 1874) put in four acre each of oats, wheat and potatoes. The rabbits ate the lot.” Ron takes out photocopies of telegraphs and letters the settlers sent to the bank, pleading for more money.
“They’d all gone insolvent and went back to the bank.” Unable to afford to maintain the property in the face of the rabbit plague, the settlers were forced to declare bankruptcy.
In 1899, Ron’s grandfather bought the property. But the rabbits did not let up. “The rabbits here would have to be one of the biggest (environmental) degraders, next to the carp.”
Salt Creek, a small tributary of the Glenelg River, runs through Ron’s property. Ron attributes the gullying of the creek to a combination of the land clearing and erosion from rabbits. “These valleys here (where Salt Creek is today) were just valleys, no creek, no nothing.”
Salt Creek’s name could not be more appropriate.
When Ron started to see the effects of salinity on his property, he decided that it was time to put some of the vegetation back. “I could see it was starting to salt, so I said ‘Righto, we’ve got no choice here. Better to take a big bite now rather than later down
the track, we’ll have to do it.”
Ron revegetated about 15% of his property in the area around Salt Creek with local yellow gums and red gums.
From horses to steel
The early 50’s saw a revolution in farming methods, with the introduction of the tractor. Ron says that not everyone was ready for the change. “You could try and put someone on a gig and horse into a tractor but you’d have better luck talking to one of the red gums out there.”
Farming changed from small scale blocks to large, big business farms. “With the mentality back then, if you had 30 acres of cropping you were big time, whereas now, unless you’ve got over 2000 acres, you keep your mouth shut.”
As family farms continue to be bought out by large multi-national companies, the responsibility for maintaining the Glenelg River’s health is falling more and more on a handful of farmers. “The structure of the neighbourhood is going. Only three or four of us (farmers) can do anything.”
Over the years, Ron has seen how bad agricultural practices have impacted upon the Glenelg River. “The rural industry needs to have a good hard look at itself and its practices to at least keep the river at its present state.”
Picnics on the Glenelg
Ron and his wife, Enid, recall how they used to swim in the Glenelg River in summer at Fulham bridge. “On Boxing Day, everyone would take a picnic down to the river.”
Ron says he misses the annual gatherings of the five families in the district on the banks of the Glenelg. “It was used as a social point, whereas now that doesn’t happen.”
A different river
Rocklands Dam was built in 1953 to divert water from the Glenelg River to irrigate farms in the Mallee region north of the river. “The Minister at the time, Mr Glaury said the next big project was to pipe the water to the Mallee – what a joke! They’ve been dilly-dallying since time began!”
In February 2005, the Minister for the Environment, John Thwaites, announced that the State Government will fund the first stage of the Wimmera-Mallee pipeline project, which aims to replace the inefficient channel system with pipes.
Ron says that the diversion of water from the Glenelg River at Rocklands Dam and changes in farming practices have turned the Glenelg into a different river. What was once a naturally flowing river, flooding heavily in winter and drying up in summer, has become little more than a slow trickle. The natural flow regime is important for maintaining channel features, flushing out silt and sediment, cleaning the water and triggering fish breeding. Ron describes how Frenchmans Creek and Mather Creek, tributaries of the Glenelg River, became very salty after the construction of Rocklands Dam. Yet, surprisingly; “It never killed the yabbies and they’re usually the first things out.”
Ron’s father was a keen fisherman and very fond of the river. “Dad knew every hob, reach and corner in that river and I look back now and think: What would he say if he saw it today?”
Like his father, Ron also enjoyed dropping a line into the river – “its man’s hunting instincts I suppose.” He’d use worms or yabbies to catch redfin, blackfish, taupin, eel and tinch with a rod and reel. At Fulham Bridge, Ron points to his father’s favorite fishing spot. “This is where he used to fish for blackfish. There used to be a hole several feet deep here!” Today, the river is just a few centimetres deep.
The freshwater crayfish, or yabbies, in the Glenelg also provided a good feed. “You’d boil them and add a bit of vinegar or salt – beats your prawns any day of the week!”
But the river no longer provides the same bounty of fish. Nearly all of the old fishing holes have long since silted up.
“I saw people fishing, catching eels into the 1940s – you can walk all over it (the river) now”.
He describes how his late neighbour and friend, Charlie Jones, could remember that “eighty years ago, the holes down there were twenty foot deep! Today you can ride a motorbike down it. Why were those holes there? There must have been a hell of a lot of rain!”
Erosion and gullying of the land around the river and its tributaries causes more sand, silt and soil to wash into the river. “There’s thousands of yards of silt slowly moving into the river. When it’s gonna get here (into the Glenelg), I dunno.”
Kangaroos also contribute to erosion around the river, as they graze on the vegetation along the river’s banks. “Uncle Jasper said that in the 1880s there were never any kangaroos here – today they’re everywhere! - I believe we need something in place to control them.”
Contemplating the future
Ron would like to see less talk and more action to restore the land around the Glenelg and the river itself.
“We’re all ‘gonnas’ – ‘gonna’ do this and ‘gonna’ do that, ‘gonna’ nothing! At least I can say I have done something – sown in plantations and returned some credit to the property. We need to stop saying ‘gonna’ and do something about it!”
Ron says that what the Glenelg River really needs, is water. “Without water, we will only see the river go backwards.”
“To put more water into the river, we need to hold the water back, wait until we get a big rain and then let it go, to flush out the river. Otherwise we’re going to see a slow moving river silting up.”
Reflecting upon decades of hard work, struggling to live off the land, Ron says that he has tried to repair the damage done by his forebears. “It’s been a change, because I’ve seen it (the land) raped and left in disarray. I’d like to think that today it’s better than it was. When I’m gone, I want it left better. I’m in it for the long run.”
Written and edited by Anna Boustead, April 2005.
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