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Where did the South Gippsland Great Forest go?

By Lyn Skillern. Leongatha Historical Society

When you look around South Gippsland today you see farmland, settlements and some rare remnant forests.

So, what was South Gippsland like before it was changed into a farming region by our pioneer selectors?

The hill country of our region was covered with a magnificent forest of mountain ash and blue gums with an under story of tree ferns, wattles, myrtles, blanket leaf and wire grass. The foothill areas south of Leongatha had forests of messmate and peppermint. Along the coast ti-tree and banksia dominated with mangroves in swampy sections. Lyrebirds, koalas, black tailed wallabies, possums and a wide variety of birds lived in these forests.

The great increase in population during the Gold Rushes of the 1850s and 60s created a call to unlock the land and make farmland available for small farmers. This led the Victorian Government to pass a series of Land Acts from 1862.  These allowed men and women to select 320 acres of crown land for £1 an acre. Land was purchased with a deposit and paid off over time.

The great gippsland forests

Above: Public Records Office of Victoria

At first the selectors could hire a guide to help them find land to peg out. They would then go to Melbourne, claim the land and pay a deposit. They would then have to return to the land and start to clear it. Later surveyor John Lardner and his team divided the forestland into farms and townships. Land was then selected from a map at the lands department. Selectors then travelled into the forest to find their land.

It is difficult to comprehend what these early settlers thought when they first saw these massive trees that had to be cleared with axes and saws. Almost every settler had to cut his own scrub, first, to clear a track in, then to build a hut or house out of bush timber.

Getting lost in the forest was a problem. Several selectors became lost in the bush. In one instance a settler was lost between Korumburra and Leongatha for nearly a week because he could not estimate the distance travelled in the forest. Others had been hopelessly lost within a few hundred yards of their own camp.

These pioneers lived in tents and make-shift housing and got on with clearing. Trees were cut down or ring barked. Huge stacks of plant material accumulated ready to burn on a hot day in summer. Bushfires also helped clear the land. In many cases wives and children lived elsewhere until a reasonable house was constructed and some food could be grown. When enough land was cleared rye grass and clover was planted and pastures developed. With pasture came dairy cattle and then small butter factories. Services for the farmers were established in the townships. South Gippsland became the unique farming region it is today.

Our communities were developed by these strong pioneers over 130 years ago. In recent years local farmers and other groups have rehabilitated the environment and reintroduced local vegetation to hillsides and river banks. Hopefully South Gippsland will survive all the changes the future has in store.

Those wishing to research the early history of a crown allotment can do so at the Public Records Office of Victoria. The Leongatha Historical Society can help you get started. Please come in on a Thursday or Friday afternoon from 12 to 4 pm and speak to our helpful members  

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