The incredible vanishing reserve

A SIMPLE research project into a tractor has unearthed a fascinating account of what could be Victoria’s best and worst ecological decisions involving a swathe of coastland on the western outskirts of Warrnambool. 

It portrays slick political brinkmanship in transposing 1088 hectares (2690 acres) from a permanent environment reserve and then subdividing and selling it off.

Records of the transaction were misplaced or lost — the only incomplete bundle exists in the vast Public Records Office of Victoria, according to author Ian Geddes, of Winchelsea.

Geddes, an agriculture engineer and inventor, uncovered the Belfast Coastal Reserve saga and more historical gems while researching the background of his unique post World War II tractor, which spent part of its life powering the former Belfast Shire stone crusher.

“This particular section of the coastline and coastal dunes is of great historical and environmental interest … being the only such reserve of its type ever proclaimed in Victoria."

He has published a booklet called Port Fairy, the Meadows tractor and the lost history of the Belfast Shire, which is available online.

“But for an old wreck of a tractor this story of the lost history of the Belfast Shire, or what is left of it, may (yet) be told,” Geddes wrote.

A central figure in the research is the late John Ryan, who was Belfast Shire secretary and engineer from 1943 to 1972, as well as an avid local historian, photographer, film-maker and surveyor.

He helped the shire secure the tractor at a time when post-war machinery was scarce and started a revenue stream from crushing and selling rocks for road making.

Unfortunately it seems the vast files of Mr Ryan’s records and most of his photographs vanished after his death in October 1972. A few remain with the Port Fairy Historical Society.

Allegedly, many of his records were cleaned out of the shire offices while he was in hospital and shortly after his funeral people claiming to be family members collected loaded suitcases from Mr Ryan’s residence at the Star of the West Hotel and took them away, never to be seen again. 

Geddes’ research led him to conclude “John Ryan was a truly extraordinary man, modest, unassuming and much loved”. Mr Ryan’s meticulous research work also delved into the Mahogany Ship legend and opened cracks for Geddes to follow in uncovering the coastal reserve saga.

The ship is supposedly buried roughly halfway between Port Fairy and Warrnambool in an area now known as the Belfast Coastal Reserve, under the management of Parks Victoria.

“This particular section of the coastline and coastal dunes is of great historical and environmental interest … being the only such reserve of its type ever proclaimed in Victoria,” Geddes writes.

“It is quite possibly colonial Australia’s very first piece of environmental legislation dealing with and redressing a man-made ecological disaster.”

Geddes found reference in the 1862 government gazette to allocate 1084 hectares (2680 acres) “more or less” of coastal land west of the Merri mouth, which was “temporarily reserved from sale”.

The reserve was proclaimed in February 1873 with the description “Yangery — reservation for prevention of interruption of sand” and stretched from Stringray Bay, Warrnambool, to Gormans Lane, Killarney, and to the coastline.

“It was created directly as a result of the disastrous consequences of early unrestricted grazing of sheep and cattle introduced in the early 1840s,” Geddes writes.

“In less than 30 years the resulting loss of vegetation contributed to destabilisation of the dunes to such an extent the shifting sands had not only blocked the Merri River by the late 1860s, but also posed a direct threat by blocking the entire flood plain on the town’s western boundary, thereby placing the commercial viability of Warrnambool at risk.”

Geddes says the fact that sand from hummocks in the reserve was different to sand blocking the Merri mouth and silting Lady Bay was “apparently of no major concern or consequence” to local authorities, who had identified the bay as being strategically important and decided the river should be diverted.

By the time the reserve was proclaimed an expensive cutting had been dug to divert the Merri from its original course,  which went through the centre of the present golf course and equestrian centre. This raises conjecture on the exact boundary of the reserve.

He says 1870 survey maps of Warrnambool and vicinity are missing from the bundle in the state Public Records Office.

By 1902 The Argus newspaper recorded that a large area of land had been reclaimed by Merri drainage works in the late 1890s and was used for grazing. About 20 to 30 people had applied for lease or purchase and the paper speculated the lands department would revoke a portion of what was then known as the Warrnambool municipal common.

By December that year the gazette proclaimed 1088 hectares (2690 acres) had been deducted from the common and by June the following year the state government had proposed to carve 25 lots from 18.5 hectares (46 acres) and reserve a site for a public abattoir.

Geddes deducts “the mechanics of the palimpsestic, political brinkmanship involving transposing so many hundreds (or thousands) of acres of permanent reserve to become part of the Warrnambool municipal common to be then diminished, subdivided and sold is perhaps commendable for its time and would certainly have involved the knowledge and tacit co-operation of many well-connected individuals.

“However, it remains quite unclear if in the first instance this so-called common was ever gazetted and proclaimed and if so exactly what area it occupied and from when.

“It would appear the permanent reserve itself (maps have evidently been altered and lost over time) has never been listed or gazetted as being diminished and therefore stands intact, not broken, just a little bent.”

Geddes suggests mistakes of the past could be rectified somewhat by creation of an eco-park, native wildlife sanctuary and wetland habitat as a tourism business for Moyne Shire.

“There is no reason why a democratic majority of shire ratepayers could not successfully petition the state government for exclusive managerial control of this permanent reserve.

“Never again should public servants be put in charge of or have any control in any way shape or form over this reserve which stands today as but a poor excuse of a shadow of what it was at the time of its proclamation.”

He says the reserve’s boundaries should be recognised to the letter of the law and discrepancies rightfully redressed.

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