Margaret Betts – tree planter

SHE-OAK Hawkesbury cattle farmer Margaret Betts (Photo
SHE-OAK Hawkesbury cattle farmer Margaret Betts (Photo: Hawkesbury Gazette).

A Writer’s encounter with a rural rebel.

MY two decades of research on the descendants of Mary Pitt eventually led me to the Hawkesbury Valley, where many of Australia’s first settlers were granted land for the purposes of contributing to the survival of the fledgling colony by farming.

With their indelible link to their benefactor Lord Nelson, the two Pitt family farms were named, at different times, ‘Nelson’ and ‘Trafalgar’, in the wake of Nelson’s great 1805 maritime victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Finding these original land grants took time.

Nelson Farm had gone by another name for many years, but, as I was to discover, it was still under the stewardship of an indefatigable woman. This feature was published in Blue Mountains Life in June-July 2010.

Out on a Limb

How Margaret Betts reforested an original Hawkesbury farm.

On Nelson Farm near Agnes Banks stands a house known as Bronte, with uninterrupted views of the Blue Mountains.

Even before this region became the cradle of modern Australian agriculture, the fertile river flats yielded food for generations of Aboriginal people.

The house is positioned on an 1802 hundred-acre grant of land to Thomas Pitt. Originally called Nelson Farm, the property was amalgamated with adjacent land granted to Thomas’ mother Mary Pitt and renamed Bronte.

This name remembers British naval hero (and Mary’s benefactor) Lord Horatio Nelson, first Duke of Bronte.

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HAWKESBURY HOUSE Bronte on Nelson Farm (Photo: Mary Matcham Pitt family history website).

Mary Pitt’s land grant was eventually sold off, although Bronte remained in the family until 1919.

The impressive mid-Victorian building is not the original, but from Castlereagh Road, the giveaway stands of hoop pine (Araucaria cunninghamii) and bunya trees (Araucaria bidwillii) reveal traces of the original settlers’ use of the land.

Many Hawkesbury heritage properties are open to the public or have become public places, but Bronte on Nelson Farm has always been in private hands, and a working farm since 1802.

The current owner, Margaret Betts, has lived there since 1998, and her parents William and Mary farmed the land since 1955.

“Dad did the hard work and Mum did the reading,” Margaret says, recalling her parents’ years as dairy farmers at Bronte. “They were both from logging country, so they were both what you’d call ‘old school’ farmers,” Margaret relates. “Trees, to them, were just something that sapped-up the goodness out of the soil.”

Mary Betts’ wariness about trees on dairy country became particularly pertinent in 1998, when an enormous oak tree came down in the westerly wind the night after she died, an event which made the local news.

Margaret recalls many such nights taking their toll on the few trees left on the property, and she realised “that if we didn’t do something about it, there’d be nothing left.”

Margaret knew the farm’s history, including the years when her father leased acreage to vegetable farmers with a strict stipulation to leave the stands of Casuarina running down the spine of the property towards the river. “They killed the lot,” Margaret remembers, “and they were original trees on the property.”

For someone who spent her career teaching music and in school administration, continuing her parents’ work at Bronte seems like a totally new angle for Margaret, but I get the feeling she sees farming as something in her genes, and that common sense counts for more than experience.

Margaret had a plan to develop beef production at Bronte, with very different needs to dairy farming, and certainly requiring a lot more shade than vegetable fields provided.

“I could have counted the remaining trees on one hand,” she recalls, “and I needed to do my research,” Margaret stresses.

“This region is part of the Cumberland Plain, in terms of its vegetation. If I was going to plant a large amount of trees I needed to know they were going to be viable.

BUNYA PINE Araucaria bidwillii (Photo: Bidgee)
BUNYA PINE Araucaria bidwillii (Photo: Bidgee)

“We’ve had hoop pine and bunya growing here for well over a hundred years. The settlers planted those, and even though they’re not native to this region, they’ve done well.

“At one stage the bunyas at Bronte were described as the largest stand in the western suburbs, but they’ve very much diminished in recent decades.

“I propagated seedlings from ours and they came up no problem.

“Hoop pines need shelter to get established, but the bunya trees just take off. There were also a few Kurrajong trees (Brachychiton populneus), and quite a few local gum trees which I assumed would do well.”

“But I also remembered the Casuarinas, which are local,” Margaret says. “In my research I found they were one of the only trees which soak up pesticides.”

With high use of pesticides on all sides of her property, Margaret had stumbled on a natural solution to an age-old problem.

The planting of trees did nothing for relations with her neighbours, particularly the vegetable farmers. “They thought I was destroying good farming land,” Margaret says, “so I got a lot of abuse. I still do, only last week one of them was shouting at me over the fence. I just wave back,” she laughs.

“I taught many of them, so they know what I’m like,” she hastens to add, illustrating how her resolve to reforest Bronte has never wavered.

After failed attempts to establish Landcare groups in the area, Margaret realised that if she was going to succeed then she needed to take action on her own. She also discovered that the tree problem was not just apparent above ground – the local water table was severely degraded.

After generations of development, the original reservoirs and lagoons of the Agnes Banks region had become choked with weeds (including water hyacinth and alligator weed), and polluted with litter and sewerage.

Insufficient drainage and water retention from nearby farms meant the water supply for Bronte was contaminated, and that affected Margaret’s cattle with outbreaks of salmonella.

The water problem only seemed to sharpen Margaret’s resolve. “At one stage I was planting around thirty trees a day, I must’ve planted thousands of them over twelve years,” she recalls.

“If you looked out here in 1998,” she says, throwing an arm out to the vista above the nearby Hawkesbury River and distant Yarramundi Lane, which is her western border, “there were only these trees close to the house and little else.”

Now, in a great green belt below Bronte is a reforested barrier of green, mainly Casuarina (river she oak, and swamp she oak), looking more like the glimpses of natural bush at the foot of the Mountains across the river. Twelve years seems like barely enough time for this result.

“The cows love the shade, they’re up here under the trees by seven o’clock on a hot day. The trees have also brought the birds back,” Margaret adds, which surely must annoy the vegetable farmers, I suggest.

“Birds are a natural pesticide,” Margaret replies.

“The water table has been improved so much with those trees,” she indicates, and indeed there are shallow lakes at intervals along the lowest points of the property.

“It’s made me more conscious of water,” Margaret says, “but we need clean water,” she adds, explaining that drainage problems caused by the use of poultry litter as fertiliser on higher-set nearby farms, combined with ineffective Council drainage along the road, contributes to the continual pollution of Bronte’s water table.

The solution was to drill a bore. “Dad was an excellent water diviner,” Margaret recalls. “He found the old wells on the property that way,” illustrating how Bronte’s past has once again become a part of its future.

The Department of Environment and Climate Change Cumberland Plain Recovery Plan draft document of November 2009 suggests private land holders like Margaret are on the right track: “Conservation of the rich biodiversity of the Cumberland Plain in western Sydney is one of the most challenging issues facing natural resources management in New South Wales,” the introduction states.

“Extensive loss and fragmentation of vegetation has occurred, land values are high, and competing land uses are placing extraordinary pressures on the remaining areas of bushland in the region.”

PLUCK COVER copy“You’ve really got to take care of your patch, and keep at it,” Margaret says. “I won’t see most of what I’ve planted come to anything, but others will,” she adds, indicating the hoop pine saplings she propagated and planted, trees which will stand long after their parents have fallen.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Pluck: Exploits of the single-minded

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