action-story | 3rd Nov, 2008

Theo Barlow: Governed by the Gellibrand River

Lifetime dairy farmer Theo Barlow says his 73 years have been governed by the Gellibrand River and that his forefathers would be shocked by its current condition.

ActionStory_Theo Barlow_top (1)“When they first came to the Lower Gellibrand area they fought their way through the scrub and settled it because of the river,’’ Theo says. “It was a pristine and beautiful free-flowing river but now it’s reduced to a drain. They wouldn’t believe what’s happening here over summer.’’

Theo is upset that water extraction and tree plantations further upstream have left the Gellibrand a shadow of its former glory.

“The river is very important to this farm. It fertilises our flats in the winter time and we use the water for our garden and the stock. But it’s not the river I grew up on because they’re sucking it dry. For two months of the year we can’t call it a river because it doesn’t flow. Our farm is six miles from the mouth but sea water comes all the way up here when the flow is low’’.

Theo’s green, rolling 400-acre farm hosts about 400 head of cattle. He remembers when his father used to load milk from the local dairy farms onto a horse-pulled barge that would make its way upstream to the butter factory.

“The horse would pull the barge and my father would have to keep polling it away from the bank. It was fine coming back with the current, but going upstream with the load of milk was very hard. Especially if a duck landed nearby and the horse decided to run across the paddock’’.

He says his whole life has revolved around the Gellibrand and each day he observes what the river is doing. “You can tell how much rain has fallen on the hills by the way it is flowing and that dictates if you have to move cattle to higher ground. I also don’t have to go over the hill and have a look at the sea to know what sort of surf is running. I can tell by the behaviour of the river’’.

Theo remembers being able to hear trout splashing in the river from 50 metres away.

“Now you hardly hear a movement and it’s pretty hard to get a good fish. During the Depression years we used to catch 100 eels in a couple of hours and that’s what we lived on’’.

Despite a gammy leg and a farming enthusiasm that belies his age, Theo bristles at the mention of retirement. “I’ll meet you halfway – I’m not retired, just tired. I’m pretty crippled up with my ankle but you put wheels under me and I can make dust. I still run the farm on my own….with a bit of help,’’ he smiles. “Hopefully they’ll be carrying me out feet first”.

“My 19-year-old grandson is a farm apprentice and he would be here tomorrow if he was allowed. He bloody near sheds tears every time he’s been here and has to go home. Hopefully the river can stay healthy and things work out for the best but I’ve still got a few kicks in me yet’’.

By Daniel Clarke, Environment Victoria, November 2008