In 1921 James Matthams wrote
In the 19th century, many colonists felt that the Victorian environment needed to be ‘improved’ to make it more like England. In 1861, the Royal Acclimatisation and Zoological Society formed in Melbourne, with the aim of introducing to Victoria plants and animals from Britain and its colonies. These well-meaning colonists had no way of knowing the disastrous impact their actions would have on the Victorian landscape.
Victoria’s worst pest animal, the rabbit, was introduced in 1860, near Geelong. Rabbits soon bred in plague proportions and spread across much of the colony within ten years:
The most serious self-imposed disasters and the most stupid of the white man’s interferences with the environment were the introduction of the blackberry and the rabbit.
In 1865, rabbits burrowed into graves at Point Ormond and dug up human remains and by 1870, moves were made to curb the growing rabbit population. In one hunt at Colac, between 4000 and 5000 rabbits were killed in half an hour. Those that escaped continued to breed, wreaking havoc on crops and vineyards.
Foxes were introduced in the hope that they would help combat the problem, but this experiment failed and foxes became a new environmental pest, preying on farm animals and native wildlife.
It wasn’t long before the rabbit plague reached the Mallee along with an influx of wild dogs and foxes it became impossible to sustain the sheep flocks on the Runs. Rabbits consumed all vegetation and ring barked trees. The wild dogs and foxes followed the new source of food supplied by the rabbit population but did not confine themselves to just rabbits killing sheep and lambs in great numbers. Land that once supported thousands of sheep now struggled to support hundreds and the pastoralists now had the added problem of the dogs and foxes to contend with. Properties hired shooters and trappers in an attempt to control the pests but were not succeeding.
The Victorian Government had a fence constructed along the 36th parallel from the South Australian border to the Murray river near Tyntynder some 204 miles which was completed in 1885.
This fence was designed to stop the spread of the rabbits north and the wild dogs from migrating south. Evidently the reason for the selection of the 36th parallel was that it marked a weather line and it supposedly rained more south of this line than it did to the north which consisted mostly of sandy plains and dunes. Local farmers even today will confirm this theory and report that crops are often better on the south side of the fence.
The fence was about six feet high with rabbit mesh at the bottom buried into the ground, above the rabbit mesh was a much larger dog mesh and above the dog mesh was strands of barbed wire. Periodically in locations where there was a road or track a gate was installed to allow travellers through and these gates were often manned by a gate keeper. One of these gates was located where the 142 meridian and the 36th parallel crossed and was known as Geppert’s gate.
At this location you will find a marker indicating the location of the start of the survey for the fence to the South Australian border by Tom H Turner State surveyor. He began the survey on Monday 20th May 1884. On the opposite corner is a local art societies impression of Geppert and his gate and cabin.
The construction crew followed, building the fence along the survey line. The mesh and wire etc were supplied but the posts were procured by cutting local saplings. Just west of this point along the survey line lies Lake Hindmarsh but as it was very low at the time they were able to continue the fence through the lake. Local mythology has it that when the lake filled again some of the posts took root and grew.
(Comment by Philip N A Leahy)
Thomas Heppingstone Turner (Government Contract Surveyor) is third from the left in the photo, and Michael Shortall is standng at the far right. The photo was taken in 1884.
The above photo is Thomas Turner and his survey team in a camp built by lake Hindmarsh. The use of forked tree trunks was a very common building technique of the time and can be seen in old stables and sheering sheds in the area. The photo was kindly provided by Mary Shortall, the grand-daughter of Michael Shortall who is one of the team in the photo. Unfortunately at this time I am unable to identify which one is Thomas Turner or Michael Shortall.
In another article on the town of Werrap in the minutes of a meeting they wrote that they would build their new hall 2.4 miles north of Geppert’s gate.
Today the fence is gone and the rabbits are being kept down to manageable numbers, as are the wild dogs. However keeping the rabbits under control is a continuing problem for the farmers. Dogs are still a problem for the sheep farmers and wildlife but no where near the level they were. However there has been dog hunters employed from before the fence was built and they are still active today.
This fence is a part of history that could be soon be lost as fires ravage sections of it regularly and it is replaced with standard fencing. It was started 130 years ago in 1884 and next year 2015 will mark its 130th year since completion.
You will find more photographs in the Photo section under The Netting Fence heading.