The Argus at KellyGang 21/6/1880
AMONG THE FREE SELECTORS
(BY OUR SPECIAL REPORTER)
THE BENALLA DISTRICT
In the agreeable period of autumn, when the days are only moderately warm, the sky clear, and the roads in a favourable state for driving an excursion through the rural districts is attended with much physical enjoyment. The scenery north and west of Benalla, however, is rather monotonous, the surface of the country being mostly flat and seldom rising into hills of any considerable elevation. The parishes have been laid out geometrically by the surveyors, and the roads run along meridianal lines and parallels of latitude. Owing to the abundance of the box trees, which appear to occur in a certain fixed number on every acre of ground, the view right and left is limited; and a hut standing back more that quarter of a mile is likely to be missed. In the neighbourhood of Benalla there are several large areas, the remnants of old squatting runs, now converted into freeholds distinguishable from selections by the superior quality of their fencing, and the absence of cultivation. The owners find it more profitable just now to devote their lands to sheep - breeding than to enter into competition with agriculturists, for the purpose of bringing down the price of grain, and perhaps it is well for struggling selectors that they are allowed to keep the market pretty much to themselves.
There are three or four sorts of fences in vogue amongst selectors. The cheapest is the brush fence, valued by the Crown lands bailiff at £20 a mile, consisting of logs under neath and branches above. A fence of this kind is not lasting, and usually fails to keep stock in. The scrub fence is supposed to be worth £23 an acre. Few examples of either were met with in the course of a three days' excursion. The prevailing fence is one made up of heavy logs, topped by boughs and other small timber. The chock and log is also common, consisting of logs of uniform length resting on thick cross pieces. Fences of this kind are valued at from £30 to £45 a mile. Post and rail fences with or without wires belong to the most expensive class, the prices ranging from £60 to £65 per mile. Each 320 acre selection may be regarded as forming half a section, and requiring a fence round it three miles in extent. The log fences seem to be preferred, because, while building them up, the selector is at the same time clearing the adjacent land, and lessening the quantity of dead timber, which will have afterwards to be burned off. They are more liable than post and rail fences to be destroyed by fire, but otherwise are enduring and serviceable.
For hours together nearly every yard of the road lay between parallel lines of log fencing. Patches of new ploughed land occurred at short intervals. Usually the selector was seen at work with a team of horses, turning up the red soil. Dead timber was still standing plentifully in the field, and it was only where a selection had been held some time under lease that we came upon 40 acre fields cleared of the last vestige of the old forest. For the first few years the agriculturist has to be content with getting down two thirds or three-fourths of the trees on 30 and 40 acre blocks; the residue have to be left standing, even though he finds them a constant source of annoyance. Not only are the roots in the way of the plough, but dead branches are always falling, littering the ground and destroying the green crop or the matured grain. In a few cases there were several parties ploughing in one paddock - the father and his two sons, or three brothers. It was only at rare intervals that we came upon any hired servants," the majority of the selectors either being unable to engage assistance, or finding that they can do without it.
first article of this series ended with an account of a family living in rather poor circumstances. On the opposite side of the road to them we found another selector, likewise engaged in a struggle with adversity. His bark hut stood 200 yards off the road. It had no outhouses surrounding it, no signs of a garden, poultry shed, &c. There were merely the four bark walls, the bark roof, and the bark chimney, mud floors, and three apartments divided from one another by low partitions. The proprietor had been about two years in occupation of 148 acres, and 12 months in occupation of 170 more. Much of the distress in the district is attributed by officers of the Lands department to the covetousness of the selector. Though he may have only enough money to cultivate 20 or 30 acres, he will always be found pegging out 320, being apparently in dread that if he does not take up the full quantum now he will not be able to get more hereafter when he wants it. In one instance, to be described later on, six of a family (two of them young women) were found in possession of 1,920 acres. They were heavily in arrears of rent the annual charge (which had really to be met out of the labour of three brothers) amounting to nearly £200 a year. For working an estate of this size a capital of £2,000 would be necessary, but the occupiers started with only £600 amongst the six, who were now all in debt. But let us proceed with the special case under notice. There was nobody about the hut, but by cooeying we managed to find the whereabouts of the proprietor, who was engaged with his axe amongst the timber while his wife was helping at burning off. "I was a miner at Wood's Point," he said "before coming here. I had £100 when I began, but you don't see any of it about me now. How has it gone? In fencing and clearing. The hut is not much to look at, but I have got sawn stuff on the ground for building a better one, when 1 can raise a little money."
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