Australia has a long history of land clearing, from indigenous burning practices to European settlement and the cultivation of farmland, altering Australia’s natural landscape.
A brief history of land clearing since European settlement
Despite changes to forest cover caused by indigenous Australians prior to European arrival through ‘Firestick Farming’, approximately 30 percent of Australia was covered by forest at the time of colonization in 1788. (Bradshaw, 2012)
Australia’s early settlers believed that to establish a healthy and sustainable colony, the land around its outposts had to be cleared of native vegetation to cultivate food crops, raise livestock and make room for housing and infrastructure. The highest clearance rates were in those areas near the continent’s coast with fertile soils best suited to agriculture.
In 1861, the Crown Lands Alienation Act was introduced to ‘open up’ the colony to settlement, guaranteeing the rapid clearing of vegetation for expansion and agriculture by penalising landholders for failing to ‘develop’ their lands. (Bradshaw, 2012) Most of Australia’s land clearing occurred over the next century, focusing on in south-eastern Australia. Afterwards, the focus shifted to Western Australia’s wheatbelt between 1920 and the 1980s and to Queensland in more recent decades.
Since the arrival of the First Fleet, more than 40 percent of forests, 75 percent of rainforests and 90 percent of temperate woodlands in Australia have been cleared. (Bradshaw, 2012)
How land clearing has shaped Australian farming
About two-thirds of Australia’s land is used for farming, with 90 percent of farmland used for grazing livestock on native pastures.
Cattle and sheep grazing is known as pastoralism. It has a long history in rural Australia, taking place on an extensive scale and accounting for considerable economic activity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, Australia’s output expanded well beyond the needs of the local population, and Australia became one of the world’s major food exporters.
Following The First World War, new areas were cleared for agriculture to provide returned soldiers with both a place to live and an occupation.
Throughout the last 100 years, Australian farmers have enjoyed periods of economic boom and prosperity, but they have also experienced times of extreme hardship, brought about by an unreliable climate and a volatile international market.
These factors have in turn impacted land clearing practices, and land clearing has shaped agriculture.
Bradshaw C; 2012, Little left to lose: deforestation and forest degradation in Australia since European colonization, Journal of Plant Ecology, Volume 5, Issue 1, 1 March 2012, Pages 109–120, https://doi.org/10.1093/jpe/rtr038
Pollard j, 2008, A hundred years of agriculture, ABS, viewed January 2018. Available at: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/94713ad445ff1425ca25682000192af2/3852d05cd2263db5ca2569de0026c588!OpenDocument