Walcha history: A tough life looking after the sheep

A bit rough and ready: A shepherd’s hut as depicted in the Sydney Illustrated News of August 15, 1866.
A bit rough and ready: A shepherd’s hut as depicted in the Sydney Illustrated News of August 15, 1866.

Boundary and paddock fences were still improvements of the future when pastoral settlement was established at Walcha in 1832.

Sheep grazed during daylight hours with a shepherd in attendance and spent the night penned up in makeshift yards to prevent them from straying and to protect them from attack by dingoes and wild dogs.

The shepherd and his hut-keeper, who was also the cook and night watchman, led an isolated existence but had regular visits by a stockman from the run’s head station who brought the pair’s rations of flour, meat, tea, sugar, salt, soap and tobacco.

A hut-keeper’s busy life

The hut-keeper spent most of the night in a portable watch-house, which was about the size of two dog kennels placed end to end, affording barely enough room for a man to lie down.

The entrance to the hut was on one side and was covered with a bag to provide some privacy.

Regular patrols were made around the yard overnight to ensure the sheep were OK and, when having a break in the watch hut, the hut-keeper relied on his watchdog to start barking furiously at any sign of trouble.

The hut-keeper rose before sunrise to prepare breakfast.

He raked and removed the droppings from the yard after the sheep had been let out then swept the hut’s earthen floor and attended to the fire before going to bed for a few hours.

The hut-keeper had to be up and about again in the late afternoon to collect firewood, prepare the evening meal and help the shepherd run the sheep back into the yards for the night.

The daily fare was damper, boiled or fried meat, and tea. In making damper, flour was mixed with water to a thick paste that was then kneaded for half an hour and formed into a two-inch thick dough, which was baked in a bed of hot ashes.

Sad end for straying sheep

Sheep often strayed onto adjacent runs, resulting in a number of court cases seeking damages for willful trespass.

In one notorious incident in 1853, a shepherd from the Walcha Run, who had been lost for two days, brought scabby sheep onto the “clean” Europambela Run before being found by a neighbouring shepherd.

Albert Norton, who was a 17-year-old lad at Waterloo at the time of the Europambela Run incident, reported: “Eight reckless men rounded up the 1200 intruding scabby sheep and brutally slaughtered them.”

This resulted in three court cases, the final one of which resulted in Huth & Co. of Europambela successfully suing Jamieson & Co. of the Walcha Run for damages.