Changing Landscapes – Farming and land clearing

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Ringbarking and erosion: a formidable partnership

Ringbarking and erosion
Ringbarking and erosion

Soil erosion is a natural occurrence in Australia as soil is moved constantly by wind and water. Living tree roots can stabilise soil particles by binding them tightly but, when trees die, the soil becomes susceptible to erosion.

Nearly every tree on the hills in this photo is dead, probably ringbarked. Ringbarking involves cutting a ring of bark from around the trunk, which stops the flow of vital nutrients to all parts of the tree. It was a cheap and effective method of clearing land and was common practice in the 1800s.


  1. What causes soil erosion?
  2. How can soil erosion be prevented?
  3. How are trees involved in the natural water cycle?
  4. How does killing every tree on a hill affect the water table under the soil?

Founding a dairy farm

Founding a dairy farm
Founding a dairy farm

Dairies were established up and down the coast in areas where fresh water was plentiful.

These included the Hunter, Illawarra and Shoalhaven regions, and lands around the Clarence, Richmond, Tweed, Macleay, Manning, Bellinger and Hastings rivers.

Typically, after selecting land, settlers cut down all the trees and left the logs to dry for about six months.

They then burned the timber where it lay and often scattered English grass seeds into the ashes for pasture.


  1. What effect did European settlement of the coast have on the Indigenous people who lived there?
  2. Why did European settlers cut down all the trees?
  3. What effect did cutting down trees have on the environment?
  4. Why did settlers scatter English grass seeds? Was it a good idea?

The reaper-binder: speeding up harvests

The reaper-binder
The reaper-binder

The reaper-binder was designed in 1858 to cut wheat, oats or barley stalks close to the ground, bind them into sheaves with twine, then drop them onto the ground.

Men following behind the machine picked up the sheaves and arranged them to dry in bundles known as stooks.

When dry, the sheaves were carted away to make a haystack, and were later threshed to yield their grain, or cut for chaff to feed farm animals.

This machine reduced labour costs and allowed farms to expand in size.


  1. What other technologies have allowed farmers to increase the size of their farms?
  2. What were the environmental advantages and disadvantages of expansion?
  3. How have farmers changed this environment?
  4. How has the biodiversity been affected?

Founding a homestead: clearing every tree

Founding a homestead
Founding a homestead

Until the 1980s state and federal governments actively encouraged farmers to completely clear land of native vegetation.

Some Crown grants and leases even said that land must be cleared.

This led to soil erosion and dust storms, local extinctions of plants and animals and, in some cases, dryland soil salinity.

Many farmers are now revegetating up to 30% of their farm’s area to try to reverse the damage, raise soil productivity and increase biodiversity.


  1. What damage has farming done to the environment in this photo?
  2. What are the likely longer-term affects?
  3. What happens when rain falls on land cleared in this way? Why?
  4. How does clearing land for farming reduce the biodiversity of an area?

The long paddock: feeding stock in hard times

The long paddock
The long paddock

During drought it is common for farmers to graze their animals along roadsides.

It takes the pressure off paddocks, which can be eaten bare when sheep are left on them too long.

Many farmers are now using a system that involves moving sheep between paddocks every couple of days to allow pasture to recover between grazings.

The fences in this photo are made of enormous amounts of timber. They would also have been time-consuming to make.

The introduction of fencing wire in the 1860s made it economically possible to fence larger properties.


  1. How would the building of fences have affected Indigenous people who previously belonged to the land
  2. How did the introduction of fences affect the numbers of sheep that could be grazed?
  3. How has the distribution of native grasses changed in NSW since sheep were introduced?
  4. How does fencing affect the biodiversity of an area?

Stripper-harvesters: making farming easier


Stripper-harvesters, like those pictured here, saved farmers time, effort and wages by harvesting clean grain in one smooth operation.

The machines stripped wheat from its stalks, then threshed the grain in a revolving drum.

In 1883 James Morrow of Nicholson and Morrow perfected, patented and exhibited a stripper-harvester. It was a year before H V McKay built his stripper-harvester.

Mechanisation allowed farmers to increase the size of their farms and expand onto marginal lands.

This often led to serious soil erosion if crops failed.


  1. How can crop failure cause erosion?
  2. What is the environmental impact of growing vast areas of the one crop?
  3. How has the cultivation of wheat affected water tables and soil salinity, particularly in Western Australia?
  4. How did stripper-harvesters change the lives of farm workers?

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