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Technology in Australia 1788-1988Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
Table of Contents

Chapter 1

I Groping In A Strange Environment: 1788-1851
i The land and its resources
ii Aboriginal use of resources
iii The arrival of Europeans with their technology
iv Technological adaption for human survival
v Technological adaption for economic survival

II Farmers Take The Initiative: 1851-1888

III Enter Education And Science: 1888-1927

IV Agricultural Science Pays Dividends: 1927-1987

V Examples Of Research And Development 1928-1988

VI International Aspects Of Agricultural Research

VII Future Prospects

VIII Acknowledgements



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Technological adaption for economic survival (continued)

By the 1830s sheep numbers in Australia were increasing rapidly and graziers, or 'squatters' were moving inland from the coast and occupying the more readily accessible grazing lands of, the colonies. Capital from the United Kingdom was being invested in livestock grazing and increasing numbers of immigrants were arriving to take up sheep runs. Between 1841 and 1843, however, a severe financial depression occurred in the Australian colonies and the rapid expansion of the sheep industry came to an abrupt halt. Sheep prices had risen steeply as animals were sought to stock the new runs, but when the expansion was halted, surplus sheep were no longer needed and prices fell dramatically. At the same time English wool prices fell and this further exacerbated the situation of the graziers. Thereafter, until 1851, there was a period of consolidation and adaptation in the grazing industry.

The technology of sheep grazing and wool production up to 1841 had been simple and derived from English practice. Initially the sheep were shepherded in flocks of about 300 in the charge of one shepherd but, as sheep numbers increased and labour remained scarce, flock size was increased to as many as 1,500 sheep. This led to much less attention being given to individual animals than previously. At night flocks were enclosed with hurdles and watched over by a night watchman to prevent attacks by native dogs (dingoes). Before shearing, sheep were washed in a river or creek in accordance with English practice.

Confronted with surplus sheep in 1841-43, for which there was no market, the settlers sought ways of minimising their losses and in 1843 adopted the practice of boiling surplus stock down for tallow, an exportable product for which there was a market in the United Kingdom. Boiling down was already practised in Russia, so this was not an Australian innovation as is sometimes claimed, but it was given enthusiastic publicity in New South Wales. It was widely practised whenever the local livestock market could not absorb surplus stock, until the advent of refrigeration made meat exports possible.[14]

After the depression, pastoral expansion continued slowly and grazing activity was consolidated on the runs already taken up. Wool prices improved until 1846 but then fell again to a very low level by 1849. With wool prices low, clips had to be well prepared to gain the higher prices and already London brokers were complaining of dust and vegetable matter in Australian wool. The grazing of sheep on the native pastures was changing the nature of the pastures and aggravating this problem. The perennial kangaroo grass, with its growing point above ground, was being eaten out and replaced by other indigenous and accidentally introduced species, including burr medic (Medicago polymorpha), the burrs from which became entangled in the sheeps' wool. This process tended to leave more bare earth exposed and so increased the prevalence of dust and the risk of erosion.

The settlers tried to overcome these problems by avoiding the pastures which were most likely to contaminate fleeces with dust and vegetable matter, by shearing early before the legumes, grasses and herbs set seed, and by improving sheep washing methods. Spout washing was tried in the mid-1840s, in which sheep were held under a falling stream of water rather than merely washed in a pool in the river. By the end of the 1840s warm-water washing of sheep was being tried and during the 1860s wool scouring works were set up on some large properties. Scouring not only improved the appearance of the wool to the buyer but also reduced the weight of the product that had to be carted long distances in bullock drays and then shipped across the world. The extent to which the various washing or scouring systems were adopted depended on the likely increases in returns that could be obtained for the extra costs incurred. These varied from property to property and from year to year as prices and costs fluctuated. With the improvement of transport and introduction of railways the advantages of washing or scouring became increasingly marginal. By 1890 only runs long distances into the interior were still washing sheep.[15]

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© 1988 Print Edition pages 5 - 6, Online Edition 2000
Published by Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre, using the Web Academic Resource Publisher