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Drought-stricken land

Located 112 kilometres north of Broken Hill, the 39,000-hectare property was established in 1966 and has been extensively used by researchers from UNSW and other institutions in Australia and overseas. Some areas of the site have been continuously monitored for more than 30 years, providing a unique, long-term ecological record that earned the Station a place on the Register of the National Estate in 1996. A wide range of research on the birds, kangaroos, reptiles and other flora and fauna has been carried out as well as projects in areas including management of the arid zone, soil conservation, solar energy and astronomy.

Fowlers Gap is an important site for teaching, with regular field excursions by students from both UNSW Science and UNSW Art and Design. The remote Station, with its impressive landscape, eco-trails and wildlife-viewing platforms, attracts artists as well as local and international visitors. UNSW holds a lease in perpetuity on the property, which is a working farm with more than 5000 sheep.

History of Fowlers Gap

The Research Station at Fowlers Gap, established by the University of New South Wales in 1966, has its origins in the disordered and unruly nature of the settlement of the remote West Darling region. The Fowlers Gap district covers the arid rangelands around the northern Barrier Ranges to the north of Broken Hill. It is distant from major permanent water; the Darling River is far to the east. Charles Sturt explored this region and further north in 1844-5 and his expedition camped on a waterhole at Floods Creek in December 1844. From there he reconnoitered the nearby area of the current Research Station to the east. He noted good grass across the plains near the ranges but his party was impeded by forests of pine (Callitris columellaris) on the sandy country further to the east. Such ‘pine forests’ are no longer present. Sturt’s expedition led to the rapid establishment of pastoral stations along the Darling River frontage. By 1859 paddle steamers were operating on the Darling River and tributaries, moving wool to market.

Remote pastoral activity could profitably focus on wool because it was highly compressible for transport and it did not degrade during belated storage and transport overseas, but settlement in the Fowlers Gap district was initially restricted by water availability. With rain, sheep were moved into the district from the Darling River but in a nomadic, shepherded manner. The first settlement in the area in 1864 started in this manner when Abraham and Matilda Wallace brought 1400 sheep across the Barrier Range from South Australia and established on Sturts Meadows. Water supplies were stabilized by a successful well and 18,000 sheep were utilizing this when the first homestead was built in 1871. Adjoining lands were settled as Corona Station by the 1870s and these included those of Fowlers Gap, which largely operated as one of Corona’s outstations until 1947. Who Fowler was is uncertain, but the name was in use in 1892 when the Fowlers Gap Hotel was built on the road that serviced the goldfields of the Milparinka and Tibooburra region and the pastoral stations further north.

The pastoral history of the district until the turn of the century was largely one of increasing land degradation and ecological and financial disaster. Both settlers and governments grossly over estimated the long term stocking capacity. By the 1890s conditions were critical and this led to the Royal Commission of 1901 by New South Wales “to enquire into the position of Crown tenants in the Western Division”. The Commission recognised that the region was unsuited for close settlement and made changes to land tenure. The assessed carrying capacity was halved to about a sheep per 10 ha and rents were also lowered. In 1903, a new lease until 1943 was issued for Corona of 376,250 ha, which went to the pastoral company Goldsbrough Mort and Co. A map of the Fowlers Gap ‘Block’ shows 4 paddocks, Gap Creek, Fowlers Gap, North Mandleman and Mandleman. It also gives descriptions of the vegetation, with overall carrying capacity being assessed at a sheep to ~7 ha.

After 1903 the district recovered somewhat as better lease security led to improvements in fencing and water supplies. However, the pastoral industry beyond the Darling River was a marginal enterprise (as it is today). Pastoral conditions improved in good seasons but long-term productivity still declined, though at slower rate. Corona Station, including the Fowlers Gap Block, passed to the pastoral empire of Sir Sydney Kidman in 1917. Leases were again adjusted in the early 1930s to give more financial certainty to leaseholders but at a cost of surrendering part of their holdings. However, the Kidman group of companies kept their lands intact by not exercising this option. In 1932 the lease for Corona was gazetted until 1947, when it was to be subdivided.

The parlous state of the arid rangelands finally evoked conservation responses from the mid 1930s. The State Soil Conservation Service started in 1938 and Dr. N. C. W. (Noel) Beadle commenced surveys of the Western Division. Beadle’s extensive work emphasized the need for field studies for successful vegetation regeneration and soil stabilization. As a result the Department of Conservation acquired Fowlers Gap, the smallest block (~42,000 ha) of the Corona Station subdivision and in 1952 a Special Western Lands Lease No. 7318 was gazetted for 20 years “for conservation purposes”. Dr. Beadle and his students continued important studies at the new Fowlers Gap Rural Investigation Station although he had move to Sydney University in 1950 and then to the University of New England in 1955. Conservation Service researchers also examined the reclamation of severely eroded areas and the regeneration of major forage plants. Much of this work was undertaken in Conservation Paddock, from which stock was excluded but not rabbits, kangaroos or feral animals.

A sub lease of Fowlers Gap Station (other than experimental areas) was granted in 1953 to O. J. (Owen) Hayes. The lease was for 5 years but it was extended until 1965. The short-term nature of the lease and meager seasons led to poor conditions on the Station. Since Conservation Service activity on the Station had also lessened, the State Government canvased universities about maintaining conservation studies on the site. The University of New South Wales acquired the lease at the beginning of 1966 and undertook the development of Fowlers Gap as an arid zone research facility. The University was in a major phase of expansion at the time and studies of land use, the biology of native animals and wool and pastoral sciences were part of extended interests that were focused on Fowlers Gap.

Emeritus Professor T. J. Dawson, School of Biological, Earth & Environ. Science.

This brief history was largely extracted from an article by Professor Jack Mabbutt who was Foundation Professor of Geography at UNSW and a major contributor to the successful establishment of Fowlers Gap Arid Research Station. 

Mabbutt, J. A. Historical background of Fowlers Gap Station. Chapter 1. Exploration and early settlement. (1973) In Lands of Fowlers Gap Station New South Wales. Edited J. A. Mabbutt and M. E. Sullivan. Research Series No. 3. Fowlers Gap Arid Zone Research Station, University of New South Wales, Sydney.