The Government Land Regulations—The Poison Plants—The Agricultural Commission—What Constitute Improvements in the official sense.
The sale and occupation of the public lands in Western Australia are still governed by the "Regulations" issued in March, 1887, which, as Sir John Forrest has often stated, were specially framed with a view of limiting lavish alienation and rendering the acquirement of the soil conditional on its improvement. For the purposes of these "regulations" the colony was divided into six divisions, viz., the South-west, the Gascoyne, the North-west, the Kimberley, the Eucla, and the Eastern.
Roughly speaking, the South-west Division includes four fifths of the present population of the colony, and comprising, as it does, the whole of the reliable coastal rain-belt from Gantheaume Bay to the mouth of the Fitzgerald River, may be regarded as covering all the territory at present available for agricultural purposes. The Eucla and Eastern Divisions comprise the vast scantily-watered area lying between this favoured region and the western boundary of South Australia, whilst the Gascoyne, North-west, and Kimberley Divisions embrace the tropical and semi-tropical portions of the colony to the north of the other three. In the pastoral divisions, as all except the South-west may be called, areas of many thousands of acres may be leased by runholders at rentals of from 2s. 6d. to £1 per 1,000 acres, and subject to varying conditions as to stocking and improvements. As I only propose to deal in detail with the suitability of the colony for agricultural settlement I shall refer to the regulations merely so far as they affect the South-western Division. Subject to such reservations as the Government may see fit to make for public purposes, and to the sale by public auctions of town and suburban lots, any person desiring to take up land in the South-western District may purchase a maximum amount of 1,000 acres by deferred payments, either with or without residence, and either in agricultural areas specially selected and surveyed by Government, or outside of the latter on still unappropriated and unsurveyed lands-in all cases, be it remembered, under improvement conditions of varying stringency. As the agricultural areas are laid out with proper roads and reserves for public purposes, and as the Government choice of them is at least some guarantee of their suitability for purposes of cultivation, probably, all things being equal, the new-comer would be well advised in trying his luck in an "agricultural area," especially as he need not in the first instance take up the full quantum of 1,000 acres, but is allowed subsequent opportunities of increasing his holding to the maximum extent. Any conditional purchaser under this portion of the "regulations" must be at least eighteen years of age, and is charged not less than 10s. an acre, payable by equal instalments extending over twenty years. For the first five years the purchaser merely holds a licence, and is, in fact, a probationer, with no disposable interest in the freehold. If, however, he pays the rent, fences in the land, and resides upon it during the five years, he is then granted a Crown lease for fifteen years, and if at the expiration of that time, or at any time previously thereto, he can show that he has effected improvements, exclusive of fencing, equal in value to the full purchase money, a Crown grant will be issued to him placing him in full possession of the freehold. Of course if he takes up his grant at any period anterior to the expiration of the lease he has to pay up the whole of the balance of the twenty years' rents in a lump sum.
To sum up, for an expenditure of £1,000, spread, if he likes, over twenty years, with the addition of the cost of fencing, the settler from England can become the possessor of a farm of 1,000 acres. This he must have cultivated very carelessly if, with the unearned increment of a rising colony, he does not long before the twenty years expire, besides getting a good living off it, render it worth several pounds an acre more than the original Government price. I should have mentioned that one of the conditions is that he must fence the tenth of his land in the first two years, the remaining three of the licence period being allowed him to complete the rest. Conditional purchasers who prefer making a free selection outside of the "agricultural areas" may do so on terms similar to those prevailing within them. Persons desiring to take up land free from residential conditions may also do so by paying a double rental and executing the same amount of improvements as those enjoined on the residential purchasers. In case a man wishes to purchase land in the South-western Division on cash terms he can acquire not more than 1,000 acres in an "agricultural area," or 5,000 acres outside of one, for a minimum price of 10s. per acre. He must, however, fence the land within three years of the date of survey, and execute improvements to the extent of 5s. an acre within seven years, or the Crown grant will not issue. Though not a pastoral division in the same sense as the other five, land can be obtained in the South-west for grazing purposes in blocks of not less than 3,000 acres, at a rental of £1 per annum for every 1,000 acres. This style of tenure is, however, to expire in 1907, when fair compensation will be given the lessees for any permanent improvements made in the interim. As these pastoral holdings (even prior to 1907) are at all times liable to the incursions of "conditional purchasers," it follows, as a matter of course, that the latter must compensate the runholders for any permanent improvements effected on the areas they may select. The value of the improvements is fixed by the Commissioner of Lands, and the conditional purchaser pays the amount in five yearly instalments with 5 per cent. interest added. Perhaps the cheapest mode of obtaining land in the South-western Division—at any rate in large blocks—is by taking it up under the regulations with regard to what is called "poisoned land," the freehold of this being obtainable for something under 6d. an acre, payable, if preferred, in twenty-one annual instalments, subject to the condition of fencing the land and eradicating the poison within three years. Of the poison plants, which are dangerous and in most cases fatal to the sheep, cattle, and horses eating them, four, according to Mr. Nicolay, the local historian, are small shrubs, known as the York Road, the Box, Heart Leaf, and Rock poisons. A fifth, Kandinup poison, is a small herbaceous plant with a blue flower, common near the south coast. There is little danger to stock from these plants while the grass and other herbage is plentiful, but in summer, when the poisonous shrubs present an especially green appearance, they tempt the unfortunate animals to their doom. To eat of them, with sheep and cattle, is nearly always fatal. Immediately after doing so they are seized with a species of madness and rush straight ahead, ultimately falling down and dying in a state of paralysis. With horses the effects are not nearly so serious, so long as they are not ridden immediately after feeding on the poison plants. The owners, being generally unaware of their horses having browsed upon the poison, frequently lose valuable animals. Disastrous as the ravages of the poison plants are, they are easily got rid of when the areas containing them are enclosed with fencing. Contracts for their eradication have been taken as low as 6d. per acre, and 2s. 6d. might be regarded as a fair price. Vast tracts of the poisoned country have been assimilated by the Land Corporation of West Australia, which is doing a roaring business in reselling the land in small blocks, at, I believe, about 1s. 6d. per acre, to persons who, in addition, carry out the conditions which the Government impose upon the Corporation.
In 1887 a commission was appointed by the then Governor of Western Australia, Sir F. N. Broome, to inquire into the condition of agriculture in the colony, and make suggestions for its improvement. The commissioners traversed the whole of the South-western Division, taking a vast body of evidence, their labours being conducted with so much care that they did not hand in their final report till March, 1891. This very able document, understood to have been drawn up by the chairman, Mr. H. W. Venn, now Commissioner of Railways, taken in connection with the minutes of evidence appended to it, will amply repay a perusal on the part of intending settlers, giving, as it does, in addition to a general survey of the state of agriculture throughout the South west Division, much detailed information as to the climate and rainfall, the several localities, and the special cultures for which each respectively is suited. They arrive at the conclusion, which the impartial observer will endorse, that the productiveness of the different areas of the colony under a fair system of farming is in no way behind the sister colonies, and that its backwardness hitherto is in no way traceable to any inherent infertility of the soil, but is due rather to the isolation of the colony an d to the difficulty of obtaining a cash market for the products of agriculture.
The commissioners in their report, whilst they advocate a mixed system of farming, divide the country visited for purposes of convenience, into wheat, fruit-growing, and dairying areas. Taking the first of the areas, they consider the average cost of wheat production to be 2s. per bushel, which leaves a handsome profit on the present local price of 4s. Having regard, too, to the fact that the average yield of wheat in Western Australia exceeds that of South Australia to the tune of six bushels per acre, and that the wheat areas of the former possess an average rainfall of thirteen inches, the commissioners contended, with considerable show of reason, that Western Australia will ultimately be in a position to enter into profitable competition with the sister colony in the foreign corn market. It may also be remarked that the local farmers are protected from the effects of outside competition by an import duty of 4d. per bushel of 60 pounds. A vast portion of the South-western Division is admirably suited to the growing of nearly every variety of fruit-trees, especially the vine. The latter is already a good deal cultivated and with very profitable results, as I shall show later on; but of course if viticulture were gone into on a large scale the present local prices both for the grapes and the wine would be considerably lowered, and the export market have to be looked to. Dairying is certainly in its infancy in Western Australia; and even with a very gradual increase in the population—which, by the by, the latest returns assess at just under 54,000—might be most profitably carried on, the large amount of butter imported from South Australia being some measure of this, and by no means a credit to the energy of the West Australian farmers, who, however, have bad the excuse, as I have pointed out before, that they could make a living easier than by undertaking industries requiring capital to start and constant care and exertion to sustain them. The commissioners think that the average size of a profitable farm should be from 500 to 700 acres, and this I found was a very common opinion, but it is subject of course to considerable modifications to meet individual exigencies and capacities and climatic and other conditions; men who combine the wages of labour with the acquirement and cultivation of vastly smaller areas being amongst the most successful of the old colonists, and likely to make some of the most affluent of the new. Sir F. Broome thinks that 300 acres is quite enough for a good farm in Western Australia, and that a capital of £250 to £300 is about the right thing. Indeed, it may be taken, I think, as an axiom that about £1 per acre capital is what the pioneer farmer in Western Australia should possess. The Lands Department, I understand, are very obliging and liberal in placing what information they have about the available territory at the service of intending settlers, and even bear the expenses of their transport when inspecting likely locations. But what is now done spasmodically and without much method might, I think, be done more systematically by an Intelligence Department established for the purpose, and the expenses of which might be defrayed out of the £50,000 rather indefinitely allotted in the schedule of the new loan for immigration purposes. The idea of an Intelligence Department was suggested to me by Mr. Woodward, the Government geologist, a most capable officer, whom the administration seems utilising in a very worthy and practical manner for developing a knowledge of the mineral and other natural resources of the colony.
With regard to what constitute "improvements" under the Land Regulations, as previously explained, they must have been bonâ fide made for improving the land and increasing its carrying capacity, and must consist of wells of fresh water, reservoirs, tanks, or dams of a permanent character, and available for the use of stock, or of fences, sheds, and buildings erected for farm or shearing and station purposes, not being dwelling-houses (except where such dwelling-houses exist upon a pastoral lease); or of cultivation, subdivision fences, clearing, grubbing, draining, ring-barking (at not more than 2s. per acre). It may, however, be presumed that whilst the above definition of what in an official sense are recognised as improvements would be strictly construed against an outgoing Crown tenant who was wanting to be paid by an incoming conditional purchaser, for the improvements he had effected, a much more literal interpretation would be put on the term as between the Government and the conditional purchaser, when his compliance with the regulations regarding improvements came to be considered on his asking for his lease or Crown grant. There is plenty of land for the would-be conditional purchaser, without his taking up areas which are subject to the incumbrance of paying for the improvements effected by some previous occupier, but in case he should choose land so weighted it is as well to remind him that he need not pay for the improvements (the value of which is assessed by the Government) out and out, but may do so in five yearly instalments with 5 per cent. interest added.
It must always be borne in mind by the intending settler that though he may be inclined to deal with the Land Companies for the land he wants alongside of their railway lines, yet that in each case the Government frontages alternate with those of the Companies, so that he can always have his choice of Government or Company land, the former being available on the terms and conditions above stated. Then there are still large areas available alongside of the existing Government lines, and will be still larger and more tempting ones so available on the Northam to Yilgarn and Perth to Bunbury and Busselton lines, which the Government are about to commence constructing.