Thursday, 16 July 2020
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When emus roamed the Fassifern

Over the mountains to the west of Croftby, lies a vale where … “emus resort and camp”.

 There these tallest of our native birds comported themselves in the sunlit openings in the forest and to stretch their long legs, raced out along the downs.

The history of the 34,000 acre Emu Vale station run is as forgotten and vague as those curious birds after which it was named. In that vale, all that remains of those inquisitive birds and the squattocracy and early freeholders is the name, Emu Vale, pointing to where visitors may once have viewed emus in their “resort and camp”.

Yet in the days when emus were in residence in that beautiful tree-bordered vale, it’s likely that their DNA held traces of their more eastern cousins, which once supped at the extensive wetland waterholes which wended along the plains below Minto Crag at Croftby through to Dugandan.

This most curious of birds drawn by Richard Browne circa early 1800s. Photo: State Library of Victoria

A camp below the Crags

The diaries of explorers Allan Cunningham, Charles Fraser and Patrick Logan contain descriptions of the emus sighted on the plains around Minto Crag in 1828, when the expedition camped there one day in late Winter. 

Cunningham imagined that their camp on the reedy treeless flat would, in better times, be an expansive wetland rather than just a series of waterholes. He had already noted that the countryside appeared to be in the thrall of a protracted drought.

It may be that the general lack of available water further west had drawn the emus to those waterholes, yet it appears that the emus were familiar with their surroundings.

These flightless birds seemed unconcerned about the presence of the explorers, their convict servants and four-legged beasts, as a group of emus followed them for some distance after they broke camp. The emus only raced off into the distance when disturbed by the explorers’ dogs - it could be assumed that this was a threat they understood as the yapping dogs bore a resemblance to a known predator, the dingo.

And the following day, Logan shot an emu on a creek bank below Mt Shadforth (now known as Mt Toowoonan) in anticipation of the evening meal. 

Too swift to trouble

It seems those flocks of emus were still there when George Fairholme managed Coochin Coochin (then known as Dulhunty Plains - the name given to the area by Cunningham) for the Leslie Brothers from 1850 until 1853.

Fairholme, a keen amateur scientist who had studied at Rugby School in Warwickshire England, wrote a paper on the aborigines of Moreton Bay and Darling Downs in 1844. He chronicled his observations of the tribes encountered at Canning Downs and Toolburra on the Downs and from the groups with which he came in contact with on the trips to Brisbane Town.

While only a passing reference to the emus is made during his time at Dulhunty Plains, Fairholme’s paper perhaps explains why the emus were not wary of the two legged visitors to their wetland in 1828.

Fairholme wrote: “The forest Kangaroo & the Emu, are, I believe, seldom obtained by the [aboriginals]. The time and trouble of stalking them, or watching for them, is too great, as at the same time other food can be procured much more easily. 

“The Wallaby or Kangaroo rat, is however killed in immense numbers. It is a small Kangaroo which inhabits the hollows of logs. Bandi-coots, fish, mud-mussels, goanas, Emu & other eggs, snakes & grubs, all form food for the [aboriginals].”

In comparison, elaborate trap nets were crafted to snare the birds in areas inhabited by the Aboriginal People where food was not as plentiful.  

The beauty of the scrub

In the reminiscences by Rosa Praed (nee Murray Prior) in ‘My Australian Girlhood’ of her years spent on Maroon Station, she recounts the day-long journeys through the scrub to reach Boonah.

Of particular interest to this story of our emus, is a passage where Praed writes of a return trip from the town: “Dugandine (sic) Scrub was beautiful in the old days before Free Selectors spoiled it. 

“All that end of the journey was beautiful. 

“After the scrub, came a river with a crossing that used to look impossible when you had done it and gazed across from the other side; it is bridged now. 

“A little way on lay Dugandine head-station, the night stopping-place; and next day, on through Coochin Plain, where tall grass, with a purple flower that in the distance gave suggestion of a stretch of heather, overtopped the buggy-wheels. 

“Then to skirt a lagoon with great blue and pink lilies floating on it. The Minto Crags fringe the plain, and beyond them are the Marroon mountains.”

The great blue and pink water lilies (the native Giant Water Lily Nymphaea gigantica) are long extinct in those wetlands and perhaps too, the emus were approaching that status during Praed’s time at Maroon from 1864 to 872. 

That assumption is based on the readership Praed was writing for when her book was published in 1902. 

She was by then living in England and the manuscript was aimed at appealing to the reader who had never travelled to that ‘strange land’ called Australia.

If emus were sighted on her trips past the Minto Crag wetlands it is unlikely she would have omitted this ‘most curious of birds’ from her word pictures.

This suggests the flocks of emus may already have begun to disperse.

The emu hunter

However, according to an interview with William Watkins who managed the Peak Mountain station run for William Wilson and then for William Kent and one of the Wienholt brothers, emus still roamed in many of the districts around what we know today as Peak Crossing.

Watkins recalled that at one time the … “emu was hunted from the One-Eye Waterhole [Milbong] to Warrill Creek or Wilson’s Plains and were generally brought home in a cart.”

The interviewer then takes up the story … “Mr Watkins was a great emu hunter in those days [late 1850s and through the early 1860s], with old Schneider acting as his chief assistant in the chase. Many a bustard on Wilson’s Plains, and wonga wong [pigeons], whistling duck, and turkey on the Dry Flat, were shot by Mr Watkins when he was manager of the Peak station”.

Baled up by a bird

In the mid-1900s, Kent’s Pocket farmer, Oscar Badke set himself the task of capturing the memories of the oldest residents and wrote down those stories in tightly pencilled script in a series of notebooks.

He recounted the tale of a settler’s wife in the late 1800’s who was baled up on her front verandah by an emu.

He added his own footnote of how settlers believed close encounters with the emu could be dangerous encounters but did not elaborate on the reasons.

That emus were hunted as a food source in more open areas around the Fassifern and Dugandan Scrubs is without question. Whether the oil extracted from the fat was used as lamp oil as it was in other areas is not known but as many very early settlers lived a life of subsistence it is likely.

And so our emus became locally extinct. They were shot or their eggs were gathered for food or as curiosities. 

A clutch of nine eggs found by a Charlwood schoolboy in the 1920s, was reported in the Brisbane Courier as a form of ‘one day wonder’.

Perhaps those eggs were the last evidence of the presence of emus in the Fassifern. 

And the removal of the eggs from the nest probably wasn’t a factor of the loss. 

Female emus will mate with several different males in a season - the female moves on once she lays the eggs from a mating and the male remains to incubate them. He zealously guards the eggs and will not eat or drink during that period; loses weight and energy and is more vulnerable to the predatory dingo.

The fact that the story of the find of the eggs by the schoolboy didn’t include any mention of chasing off an emu, means that the male was already dead and the eggs would not have hatched.

If the emu was still to be found in any number on our more isolated open forest areas, it’s unlikely they would have survived the bounty placed on them, and on their eggs, by the Queensland Government in 1924.

The government was increasingly desperate to control the spread of prickly pear which by then had locked up more than 20 million acres of the State. In what was described by some as the “most shameful piece of legislation ever enacted”, a bounty was placed on the birds which feasted on the prickly pear fruit -  emus, crows and scrub magpies. 

These birds were blamed for the spread of the infestation at a time when there was already evidence that the greatest fault lay with prickly pear being trucked and trained all over the State as cattle feed during the drought years in the early 1920s.

The legislation only remained in force for 18 months, but it’s an easy assumption that this would have long enough to decimate any remaining emus in the Fassifern.

We don’t know the year our last emu disappeared from the region nor whether they died out completely or had begun to gradually disperse over the decades from the time of white settlement to find a home over the range at places like Emu Vale.

What we do know is that emus no longer roam our wetland plains.