The most numerous and impressive networks of dry stone walls in Australia are found on the western volcanic plains of Victoria. The walls, most of which are on private property, are beautifully crafted and have functional, aesthetic and heritage value. They provide a blend of the natural and cultural history of the region and contribute to its special look and atmosphere.
Few could pass through the region without realizing their impact on the landscape. In some places, in the Stony Rises at Pomborneit and at Kolora north west of Mount Noorat, they dominate it. In fact some of the walls look as though they have always been there; looking so natural and in harmony with the environment. The walls in the Stony Rises are of national significance in terms of quantity, style, heritage, skill and empathy with the landscape.
The western plains of Victoria comprise one of the world’s great basalt plains. The volcanic activity which has shaped the landscape, that is generally flat except for the volcanic cones, occurred in the relatively recent past, between 20,000 and 4,000 years ago. These volcanic cones as well as crater lakes were the result of volcanic activity which provided the natural materials for the walls.
The eruption sites most visible are Mount Elephant, Mount Noorat, Mt Leura and Mt Porndon. Hollows in the basalt surface have resulted in the formation of numerous crater lakes including two particularly scenic lakes, Bullen Merri and Gnotuk near Camperdown. Other lakes found in the district were formed when lava flows blocked the valleys of streams and Lake Corangamite, the largest in Victoria, is one of these.
The natural landscape was given new form and function by the immigrants who began arriving in the region in the middle of the 19th century. Realizing the fertility of the volcanic plains, they set about clearing the land first of natural vegetation and then of surface stone in order that they could introduce stock and grow crops. In the process of clearing the land and preparing for stock, first sheep and then cattle, fences had to be built. The stone cleared from the ground provided the earliest building material for fences. Building stone fences was an economic and practical way to utilise the stone cleared from the land.
Today the dry stone walls of the Plains are still performing the same functions for which they were built over 100 years ago. They create enclosures, provide boundaries between public and private land, subdivide properties, protect cultivated paddocks, livestock, homesteads, crops and act as barriers against fires as well offering protection from the elements. They also provide an ideal habitat for small fauna and flora.
Although there is evidence of dry stone walling in the 1840s, most of the enduring stone fences in the region were built after the gold rush, in the 1870s and 1880s when many labourers returned from the diggings without a fortune. This coincided with the Land Acts of 1862, resulting in large holdings being divided up for closer settlement which needed to be fenced in a more permanent way. Around volcanic cones, dry stone walls were carefully constructed, so that paddocks could be enclosed and cleared of stone in one operation.
Up until this time the squatters employed shepherds and stockmen to watch their flocks and herds or used timber to build post and rail fences or simple brush fences. Stone fences were a sign of tenure, security and investment in the future.
From the 1870s many pastoralists began to rebuild earlier walls in an attempt to make their properties rabbit-proof. Several construction techniques were used: overhanging copestones, wooden slats projecting under the copestones, wire stretching out from the top of the wall, trenches about a metre deep, plugging of holes in the wall to prevent the rabbits colonizing the walls, and even asymmetrical walls with stepping stones up one side and a sheer wall on the other.
The Rabbit Wall built by the Manifold brothers at Purrumbete in the 1880s is perhaps the most significant wall in the region standing up to two metres high and which originally ran continuously from Lake Corangamite to Lake Purrumbete.
Dry stone walling although back-breaking work is a skillful craft and in earlier times was handed down from one generation to the next, creating stone walling families. Each wall is in fact two walls because the craftsman or Cowan would lay two rows of stone about a metre apart, filling in the centre with smaller stones. In fact a well built enduring wall is a work of art adding interest and character to the agricultural landscape.
Today the dry stone walls of the region are threatened by changes in the operation of commercial farms since they were built in the second half of the 19th century. We have seen gradual changes in land use from grazing to cropping and particularly the increased importance of dairying in the south of the region and more intensive agricultural enterprises. More recently, concerns have been raised about incursion of forest plantation into valuable agricultural land. Technological advances and the greater mechanization of agriculture, has made many tasks easier and quicker but has also necessitated large investment and changes to the internal layout of the farm thus putting walls at risk.
In 1997 Corangamite Arts installed the Corangamite Dry Stone Walls Heritage Trail which has become a popular tourist destination adding greater economic value to the walls primary utilitarian function. The walls attract eco, geo and cultural tourists who want to learn about our past as they enjoy both the natural and built landscape. More recently the Dry Stone Walls Association of Australia was formed in order to ensure a future for dry stone walls and the craft of walling in this country.
At the same time more and more people want to learn the craft of dry stone walling not only so that they can mend and build walls but also so that they can experience working with a natural material to create something of their own, for this reason popular dry stone walling workshops are regularly conducted in the region at Glenormiston College near Terang.
As written by Josie Black OAM