Rabbits and Governors

Omeo, 1984.
The banking crisis of 1893 that saw several of the commercial banks within Australia collapse, was over.
Many settlers at Omeo, unable to meet their bank’s demands, had walked off their land, resulting in the Commercial and Colonial Banks being the largest landholders in the Shire.
The farmers of Omeo Plains and Benambra were the most fortunate, having managed to hold on to their land.
A flour mill, established in Omeo, provided a ready market for their produce, its flour and by-products being far cheaper than Melbourne products that had to be hauled over vast and difficult terrain to Omeo and surrounds.

The winter of 1894 saw heavy flooding with extensive damage to roads and bridges throughout Omeo Shire.
Heavy rains had made the Tambo Valley road impassable. Flooding had resulted in Omeo being entirely isolated for ten days. The telegraph line was cut, and mail unable to be delivered. Bridges were completely washed away.
The council fought hard to finally secure funds from the State Government to make necessary and vital repairs and improvements to roads throughout the Shire.
With the economic crisis behind them, and a harsh winter over, conditions seemingly appeared to be on the improve.

Unfortunately, a new element was about to enter the picture.

Approximately fifty kilometres west of Omeo, and just north of what is now the Great Alpine Road, lay Brandy Creek Mine.
The mining operation worked an area of about twenty acres, both with deep mines and later, hydraulic sluicing.
Over its lifetime, the mine produced an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 ounces of gold.

However, it was not gold that was to be of concern in 1894.
In June of that year, it was reported to the council, that rabbits had been seen at the mine.
Two had been shot at Bindi, approximately twenty kilometres east of Omeo.

A new crisis was about to begin.

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The release of twenty-four wild rabbits by Thomas Austin for hunting purposes in October 1859, on his property, Barwon Park, near Winchelsea, Victoria, was about to impact on Omeo.

Experience in other parts of Victoria, had made the Omeo council realize that if the rabbits were not checked, the vast majority of land in the Shire would become useless.

It was a complex problem. Most properties had been fenced with logs, providing a perfect haven for the rabbits, and no netting was readily available for vermin-proof fencing. The banks, who owned large tracts of land, were reluctant to fund any purchasing of wire netting.

In 1896, the council, desperate to control the growing rabbit menace, requested people from as far away as Dargo to report any rabbit sightings.
It appointed a rabbit inspector, Mr W Hollonds, and offered a reward to anyone finding and reporting a rabbit burrow.
Over the next few months, Inspector Hollonds, armed with traps supplied by the council, tackled rabbits at Boucher’s property at Uplands, and Gilmore’s holding at Omeo.
Despite much enthusiasm and gusto, he faced a man-sized job.

In 1897, rabbits were on the increase in the Tambo Valley.

In 1898, a well supported public meeting was held at Omeo to form a Rabbit Suppression League, and that year, the bonus on rabbits was discontinued.

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The following year, 1899, the Omeo Rabbit League was formed, with the council ordering two cases of poisoned jam and two cases of phosphorus for use by its members.
Applications called for a rabbit destructor to destroy rabbits in the Omeo riding.

The turn of the century saw the gradual unyielding advance of the rabbits.
There was a general disquiet throughout the region, as the realization that these pests could render the grazing and farming areas of the Shire useless, began to take hold.

The council rescinded all previous bonuses paid on rabbits and a bonus of one penny per scalp was substituted, and the secretary was instructed to keep landholders supplied with poison.

The rabbit invasion was not only effecting grazing and agriculture.
Rabbits, along with hares and foxes were having a detrimental effect on native marsupials.
Native koalas, native cats, bandicoots, wombats, and opossums began to decline.
Once numerous monkey bears, who gave their name to Monkey Creek, began to disappear.
Over a very short period the native animals became almost extinct as rabbits, foxes, and hares, all pests, began to take their place.

In 1902, men employed in rabbit suppression in the Hinnomunjie council riding were dispensed with. It was deemed that the rabbit plague was beyond the capabilities of a few men, and that each individual land holder had better start to look after his own property.
The council purchased two poison carts that could be hired by farmers to poison rabbits with pollard and phosphorus. This method was partly successful in very dry weather, but had very little effect in average seasons.
The Omeo Shire, as well as the shires of Orbost and Towong, began to float special loans to buy rabbit-proof wire netting that could be resold to landholders, on long repayment terms.
By this stage, farmers and graziers were seriously concerned and alarmed.
Rabbits were now appearing in the Shire in their millions.

Rabbits around a waterhole during myxomatosis trials at Wardang

 

In 1904, the Government advanced much-needed funds in the form of a loan, enabling the council to purchase all the wire netting they could afford.
At this stage, the rabbits were winning, attacking not only pastures, but crops as well.
In March of 1905, the people of the Shire of Omeo were provided with a slight reprieve from the battle with the rabbits, when the Governor of Victoria, Sir Reginald Talbot paid a visit.
Sir Reginald was sworn in as Governor of Victoria on 25 April 1904. He was born into English aristocracy in 1841, and after being educated at Harrow, pursued a career in the British army, as well as serving as a politician. He served in the Zulu War, led the British army of occupation in Egypt, and also served as a military attache in Paris.
The Governor attended the Omeo races on Thursday, March 06, and was entertained at luncheon by the president of the club, Councillor Brumley.

In January of 1906, the Sir Reginald Talbot again visited Omeo, this time arriving over the Alps from Bright.

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Equipped with tents and camping gear, the vice-regal was on a two weeks fishing trip that would take in Omeo and Jindabyne, New South Wales.

The good Governor drove via Harrietville and St Bernard’s Hospice, arriving in Omeo on January 24.

 

 

 

 

He visited the state schools at Omeo Plain and Benambra, had lunch at Mount Leinster with the Pendergasts, spent the night camped by the Benambra Creek, and then on the morning of the 26th, pushed on through the bush toward Mt Bogong, and eventually Jindabyne.
The Governor may well have had a good time, but not so the people of Omeo and throughout the Shire.

The rabbits were in control, invading even the township.

In the evening, thousands of rabbits would move from the cover of blackberries and of fences, and advance on the town to cause great destruction to gardens.
Vegetable gardens and fruit trees were destroyed and pastures were cleaned out.
Dogs would not bother to chase them; they were content to catch and eat one or two and leave the rest alone.
Eventually half the houses in Omeo had a rabbit warren under the floor.

Hunting rabbits had become a part of life.
Even on this Sunday outing in the picture below, one of the men has brought along a rifle.

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Many people who had struggled through the land boom now abandoned their properties.
All the land from Hinnomungie to Tongio, with the exception of a few blocks in the Upper Livingstone and Dry Hill areas, was held by the banks.

In an effort to turn the tide, the council ordered 20,000 pounds of wire netting for resale.
Wire netting was the only solution to the problem but, unfortunately, was hard to obtain.
The demand was so great, manufacturers simply could keep up.

The Governor Sir Thomas Gibson-Carmichael visited the Omeo region in 1911, among other things, skiing on Mt St Bernard.

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Meanwhile, the fight against the rabbits continued.
They had infested the grazing areas of the Shire to the extent that the productive value of the land had been reduced by at least sixty percent.
Some of the best properties were now almost of no value.

The river flats at Hinnomungie Station were one huge rabbit warren, and land at Bindi and the Tambo Valley was literally crawling with rabbits.

The council had no choice but to continually write off rate assessments as land owners abandoned their properties.
At Omeo, at least seventy-five percent of original selectors had walked off their land.
The banks,now holders of thousands of acres of rabbit infested land, had done a lot of netting fencing, but were not attempting to eliminate the trapped rabbits.

Rabbit drives were frequently held.
This social occasion involved netting-in a paddock, then driving the rabbits towards an enclosure or trap in a corner of the property.
The event saw men on horseback, yelling and cracking stock whips, all the while assisted by numerous barking and yelping dogs. As many as 15,000 rabbits were often slaughtered in these drives.

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Many men worked as rabbit trappers, selling their skins to local dealers.
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Prices were low, about three pence in the summer months, and nine pence to one shilling in the winter.

 

Despite the work of the trappers, and the poisoning attempts by the rabbit inspectors, the vermin continued to breed, the only successful method of containment being the long and arduous task of netting-in, paddock after paddock.

 

 

 

 

By 1912, the population of the Omeo Shire had declined by twelve hundred people in three years.
The decline in mining, and the effects of the rabbit plague produced a steady stream of people vacating the district.
An attempt by the rabbit inspector to have the council clear the Lake Omeo Common of rabbits fell on deaf ears, as councillors had enough on their plate, trying to clear their own properties of the menace.

In the midst of struggle and despondency, Omeo was again visited by the Governor, this time, Sir John Michael Fleetwood Fuller, who described himself as ‘just an ordinary type of English country gentleman and a good sportsman – fond of hunting, shooting, stalking and the rest’.
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He was a British Liberal Party politician and colonial administrator, and along with Lady Fuller and an entourage visited Omeo as part of a trip that took in the Buchan Caves and Bruthen.

They arrived by motor-car on Thursday November 21, after travelling a distance of sixty miles and were met by Councillor J.W. Brumley and a large number of councillors and residents amid much ado.

 

 

 

The vice-Regal party enjoyed a lunch, then drove to Omeo Plains where they were entertained at afternoon tea, before returning to Omeo for dinner. An address by Councillor Brumley was given at a well attended function at the shire hall.

 

In January of 1918, amid the rabbit battle, Omeo was visited by the Governor, Sir Arthur Stanley.
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After spending a couple of days at Bindi Station, Sir Stanley arrived on Saturday, January 12, at 10 o’clock at which time he visited the hospital where he was shown the recent additions and was entertained at morning tea by Matron Cameron.

At 11 o’clock he attended the Shire Hall where he was welcomed by council dignitaries and many towns folk, before heading off to Hinnomungie Station for afternoon tea, and then on to Angler’s Rest for the night.

 

 
The Governor returned to Omeo Sunday evening in time for dined off to Bairnsdale to catch the train back to Melbourne.

 

 

Later in the year, Omeo was visited by the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, arriving on Saturday , November 4, via Swift Creek, Bindi Station, and Tongio. Much needed heavy rain accompanied the Governor-General as he paid his visits.
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A dinner was held at the Golden Age Hotel, followed by a well-attended function at the Shire Hall that involved music, singing, and speeches.

Sunday morning saw Sir Ronald visit the Plains before returning to Omeo for lunch, and then departing for Bairnsdale.

 

 

 

Throughout the following years, the battle against the rabbits continued unabated.

In 1927, bridge and culvert heads were invaded and government inspectors were continually demanding that the council eradicate the vermin.

In 1936, unemployed persons were given some relief, by being engaged to trap the still numerous rabbits for their skins. Rabbit carcasses at this stage had no commercial value.

In 1944, the Department of Army was urged to release men to expedite the manufacture of wire netting.

The rabbit pest was hard to cope with in the steep hill country that exists in the Swift’s Creek, Cassilis, Tongio and Bindi localities, but by 1948, the grazing industry of Swift’s Creek was showing  progress, albeit slow.

In 1959, the Soil Conservation Authority held a Field Day at Bindi Station, which for many years had been infested with rabbits. Extensive sheet and gully erosion had taken a heavy toll of its soil surface, yet implementation of control measures showed that badly eroded land could be successfully reclaimed.

Progress against the rabbit menace was slowly being made.

Myxomatosis, a virus disease of rabbits, was eventually used in Australia to control the population.
The initial release of the myxoma virus led to a dramatic reduction of the rabbit population and within two years of the virus’s release in 1950 Australia’s wool and meat production recovered from the rabbit onslaught to the tune of $68 million.

The impact of myxomatosis gradually declined over time as both the myxoma virus and the rabbit population changed genetically and a new rabbit control agent, calicivirus, was introduced in the 1980s.
Its impact has generally been greatest in arid and semi-arid zones, with a lesser effect in   wetter areas.
Scientists are also aware that because myxomatosis was only effective for 15 to 20 years, rabbits could also become resistant to calicivirus.

Whether it was a solemn duty or a passion for fishing that motivated Governors to visit the remote and isolated regions of Omeo is unknown.
It is also unknown as to whether the vice-regals and their parties hunted, shot, or even saw any rabbits, or were even aware of the desperate struggle that was being undertaken.

One thing is for certain, however.
The rabbit war continues.

 

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References and photographic acknowledgement:
“Echoes from the Mountains” by A.M.Pearson
Trove: http://trove.nla.gov.au/

The producer supports the intellectual property rights of others and every reasonable effort has been made to respect the historical significance of images used.

Where the attempt to locate copyright owners has not been successful, the producer apologises for any accidental infringement where copyright has proved untraceable, and has made every attempt to respect the historical significance of images used.

 

 

 

 

Omeo, Cars, Trucks and Bikes

In Omeo’s early years , the only method of transport in the  region was by horse or bullock.
Supplies had to be brought into the town by pack-horse and it was only in summer months that bullock drays could make the journey.
There were no roads, there were no bridges.
Loads had to be taken off and reloaded time and time again to enable the team to get through the mud and get up steep inclines. And wheels had to be continually chocked to stop the wagon rolling backwards.
The entire trip was hazardous.

 

On the tops of ridges, there was always the danger of going over the edge. Some hills were so steep that the only way of going down safely was to tie a tree behind to steady the wagon.
Creeks and rivers had to be continually crossed and horses and bullocks had to be rested along the journey, sometimes for days.
Bullocks were used to haul heavily laden wagons over some of the roughest roads and tracks in the country.

 

A good all-weather road system within the Omeo Shire, and beyond, was vital to its residents.
The town was always hindered and hampered by its isolation. It was not only always a task to get equipment to the area, but also to get funding from a state government so far away.

If the council was not battling against the elements – rain, snow, flooding, and bushfires, it was fighting state bureaucracy for necessary funds to carry out vital infrastructure works.

At the time Omeo was declared a township on April 7, 1885, a road, albeit the worst in the state, was in place connecting it with Bairnsdale.

The road, however, was barely fit for horses and bullock wagons, the latter frequently becoming bogged in wet weather. Flooding in the Tambo Valley regularly made the road impassable, and bridges were frequently washed away.

Over the coming years, construction of the Omeo Highway was to prove to be one of the toughest road construction projects in Australia, and one of the most costly per mile.

In August of 1890, Omeo streets and roads were named. They took their names from local eminent citizens and local councillors. Bazley Street, Bilton Street, Coughlan Street, Crisp Street, Gill Street, Hamilton Street, McCoy Street, and Margetts Street were all named by sitting councillors.

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By the turn of the century, although constantly battling a lack of funds, the Omeo Shire had put hundreds of miles of roadway in place, and most streams had been bridged. The roads, however, were still bad, with construction being limited to the use of local material, as gravel could not be hauled long distances by horses and drays.

Horse teams were now being used to transport goods on the Omeo road, rather than bullocks. These proved faster, and were often provided by local farmers along the route. Bullock teams were reserved for carting heavier loads.

In 1905, a government regulation, the Width of Tyre Act was brought in requiring all vehicles to have tyres of a certain width, according to the load carried.
The Act was implemented with the aim of trying to avoid heavily laden vehicles travelling with thin tyres, and hence cutting up the road surfaces. It required heavy enforcing, and over time, did little good, with the mostly dirt roads eventually having to be strengthened with the inclusion of road metal.

By the time the first cars began to appear on roads in the region, the condition of roads was far from ideal. They were unsealed, and still prone to damage from rain, and flooding.

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In time, however, motorcars began to appear on roads in the area.

At first, people were sceptical, and they were regarded as something of a menace.
Horses were scared of these noisy, strange-shaped, creatures,  and often frequently bolted causing many accidents.

The motorcar was here to stay, however, and when it did arrive and its popularity grew, it began to change Omeo people’s lives.

In 1912, one of the first cars to visit was a vehicle owned by Syme of the Melbourne Age and driven by Mr Clive Watson of Bruthen.
The car was a Sheffield Simplex with a fixed gear that allowed it to race along the flat country, but unfortunately, stop on the hills, resulting in a six hour climb over the Tongio Gap.

State Governor's visit to Omeo, 1912.

State Governor’s visit to Omeo, 1912.

 

In 1916, the first permanent motor mail service was  established , replacing the old horse-drawn coach.
Mr J. (“Jimmy”) Marriott was awarded the contract to carry mail between Omeo and Bruthen.
This new mode of service was a wonderful improvement for the residents, but because of the condition of the roads, and the mechanical reliability of his cars, Mr Marriott had a great deal of trouble connecting with the train at Bruthen.
Sometimes the cars failed to reach Omeo at all, because of bad weather.

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Attempts were made to improve the service, by having the train delayed and the time of departure from Omeo made earlier (6 am), thus allowing the mail cars eight hours to reach Bruthen.
The Postal Department approved the altered train timetable in 1918, but reliability was still an issue.
The often overloaded mail car frequently broke down, requiring the driver to make mechanical repairs along the way, and in bad weather, the roads were so bad, vehicles often became bogged.

In 1919, Mr Fred Condon, Mr Peter McCoy and Mr James Holston were the proud owners of the first three private motor cars in the district.

 

In 1921, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria held their first reliability rally in the Omeo Shire.

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Notices and warnings to drivers were posted along the road from Bruthen to Sunnyside, and local residents journeyed for some distance to watch the cars pass through.
All cars were laden with an array of spare parts, drivers being wary of the reputation of the region’s roads. Many had to call on the road foreman with his horses after succumbing to the Glen Wills – Sunnyside section of the route.

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In 1923, the Alpine Transport Coy., started operations between Bruthen and Omeo, using Sentinel steam wagons.
Drivers of horse-drawn vehicles protested at the introduction of these steam trucks.
Horses were scared to pass or go near the hissing steam machines.

The first stream powered truck arrived in Omeo in 1932, carrying 14 containers of kerosene tins.

 

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The steam trucks made a difference, but only enjoyed limited success.
Improvements in motor-powered trucks meant better reliability and faster transport, and consequently, they began to be the mode of choice, although horse wagons and an occasional bullock wagon still handled most of the heavy cartage for a time.

 

There were very few cars privately owned in the district.
Kracke’s store has purchased a motor truck and was the first to venture out as a motorist.
Mr J.O.Holston soon followed, but always rode a horse if he was in a hurry.

T model Fords were the most popular of the private cars, giving excellent service considering the rough state of the roads.

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The first motor truck was purchased for use on the roads by the Omeo Shire, but it was some years before motor vehicles superseded the horses and drays for road works

Motor spirit (petrol), was sold in four-gallon tins, and in 1923, the Shire received applications from A.W.Newlands, Taylor Bros., Ensay, and Sandy’s Stores, Swifts Creek, for permission to install petrol pumps.

 

In 1927, motor vehicles were now more numerous on the highway, and Messrs T. Doolan, L. Pendergast, W. Kracke, S.N. Clark and Taylor Bros were operating commercial vehicles.

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In the early 1930’s, Lorrel (Lorrie) Kracke  rode  the first motorbike to Omeo.
Children were running up and down the street sniffing petrol, such was the excitement generated.

 

The modern era had arrived, and Omeo and its surrounding districts were no longer as isolated as in the past.
Gradually roads and motoring facilities were improved,  for residents, travellors, traders, and tourists benefited all.

 

 

 

Circa 1932, the first aeroplane arrived Omeo, 7:15 pm, after a 25 minute flight from Bairnsdale (Written on Benambra House note paper). The type of plane and exact date is uncertain.

References and photographic acknowledgement:
“Echoes from the Mountains” by A.M.Pearson
“Omeo Standard”newspaper, 1935, 1940.
“The Gap” Magazine, 1924, 1926.
W.A.Kracke, original photographs