Of all the environmental modifications created in the Maitland area by Europeans in the nineteenth century, few were more far-reaching than those to the vegetation on the floodplain of the Hunter River, the home of the cedars, and the lower reaches of the valley's sides which were covered in eucalypt forests interspersed with grasses.
The imperatives were, from 1801, to fell the cedars for timber and soon after (especially after European settlement in 1818), to create an agricultural economy. The thick brush had to be removed.
Contemporary accounts indicate how radically the vegetation assemblage was altered. One individual, writing under the pseudonym 'Memory', wrote a letter to the editor of the Maitland Mercury in 1877 in which he detailed the situation in the 1820s before wholesale vegetation removal got under way on the just-created large estates. Here is an excerpt from Memory's letter.
"I can . . . well recollect the imposing and magnificent appearance of the dense brushes which covered the greater proportion of the splendid estates now known as Berry Park, Bolwarra, Phoenix Park, Wallalong, Dunmore, Hinton, . . . Magnificent indeed was their appearance. Gigantic gum trees towered far and away above all others, and spread their radiating and mighty limbs far and wide like umbrellas over the green ocean of lovely foliage, which crowned the tops of the closely wedged mass of their smaller brethren. And less lofty, but still imposing and inconceivably beautiful, were the fig trees, which in many instances were of enormous size . . . The whole of the large cedar trees had long before the period of which I write disappeared, but the huge stumps remained as evidence of their vast proportions . . . So thickly did the timber grow that it was often very difficult to proceed . . ."
The replacement of the riverbank she-oaks and the dense floodplain brush, much of it rainforest, with pasture grasses and crops was completed within a small number of decades. The impacts were utterly transformative, much moreso than the Aboriginal fire-stick farming which had earlier increased the amount of grass cover. More rain ran off to the river than before and did so more quickly, and floods rose more rapidly. The banks, denuded of the trees that held them together and now grazed by cattle, became unstable and were eroded. Silt built up in the river channel, and the river steadily became wider and shallower.
Much fertile farmland was lost, soil deposited in huge volumes in Newcastle Harbour and requiring costly dredging to remove.
Meanwhile the floodplain lagoons like Lake Paterson near Woodville and Lake Lachlan (from Lochend and Louth Park to Farley) were drained during the 1820s and 1830s to convert wetland to farms. The environment was radically altered once more.
Maitland and District Historical Society