Making a living off the land
Opening up the land
Whitewells Station plan
Eucalyptus oil
Shepherds to sheep stations
Fencing the hay paddock
Making hay

Pastoralism: from shepherds to sheep stations

On the sheep’s back

The From its beginnings as a collection of British colonies and settlements, Australian was said to have ‘run on the sheep’s back’. Wool was very important as an export commodity. After settlement in 1829, the desire for grazing country quickly drove the development of most of Western Australia, except the central desert areas.  Seeking better pasture than that in the wetter south-west with its problems of scab disease, pastoralists found the drier, open shrublands of the Yalgoo, Murchison, Gascoyne and Pilbara regions ideal. 

Several strains of Merino sheep, such as Bungaree, were bred.  They were well-adapted to the rough country, able to stand a coarse diet, often poor water and high temperatures. They were better suited for mustering across long distances when brought in for shearing, crutching and dipping to kill lice.


The Australian landscape seemed hard and resilient to the early pastoralists as it recovered from flood and drought. The sheep however, showed its fragility as the hungry animals nibbled annual herbs, perennial grasses and shrubs to the roots, and their sharp hard hoofs, designed for rocky, hilly landscapes, cut up the fine soils. The bounty of herbage that returned in the good seasons disguised both the loss of the most palatable plant species and the subtle but chronic changes in soil surfaces and rainfall runoff patterns.  In 1929, Ninghan Station, then including the Whitewells leases, was carrying almost 30,000 sheep. By the 1950s it was able to carry only about 15,000.  Areas of perennial grassland, described enthusiastically by the first explorers, are now bare red earth in dry times and monocultures of everlasting daisies in wet times. 

Wire fencing and windmills were introduced in the 1880s, allowing the division of large leases into paddocks, each with its wells and permanent water supplies.  Sheep were able to concentrate in areas around the water long enough to overgraze them. Graded lines for the fences and tracks disrupted, intercepted and diverted water flows from natural drainage patterns, causing localised 'droughts' in patches of vegetation and eroding the soils.  

The Whitewells landscapes are predominantly dense shrublands and have few good water sources. They therefore survived better than much of the country further north. The signs of regeneration since the country was largely destocked, or carried only a few sheep over the last decade, suggest that nature is benefitting from having the sheep off her back.

The shearing shed

The shearing shed was the heart of the Whitewells sheep station. Sometimes called the woolshed, it was where the year’s woolclip was sheared from the sheep, classed by quality and baled for trucking off to the market; by camel or horse train until motor trucks took over in the 1920s.

When the Masons took up Whitewells in 1953 there was an existing shearing shed, built as a bough shed. 



When Bruce Boucher bought Whitewells Station from the Masons in 1972, he at first sheared his sheep in a bay of the small shed behind the old cottage, using a Lister one-cylinder diesel engine to drive the shears.  Boucher was known to have taken advantage of the tall house stumps to pen sheep under the cottage when it rained during shearing to keep them dry.  He later erected a modern steel framed shed which still stands.



A few relicts of the early eras of shearing lie about the shearing shed and the homestead at Charles Darwin Reserve.


When Bush Heritage bought Whitewells Station in 2003, the shearing shed and its contents were much as they had been left after the last shearing.

Sheep were driven from the draughting pens up the timber ramp on the side of the shed into holding pens inside the shed. The holding pens had a slatted timber floor so the sheep droppings would fall through to the ground below, giving any shearing shed the unmistakeable odour of sheep and lanoline and providing a store of fertiliser for the homestead vegetable garden.

The shearer would pull a sheep from the pen through the swinging door next to his stand, sit it upright between his legs, shear it and then release it down the shute back into the yards below.

Each shearing stand had an electric Sunbeam shearing machine, the motor fixed to a solid timber rail above, with the handpiece attached to the end of the jointed arm, and a cord for pulling the lever to switch the motor on and off.

The fleece was gathered up by a shed hand and thrown across the wool table to be trimmed of twigs, burrs and dags (the faeces-encrusted wool around the tail), and separated into its wool bales according to quality.

The wool press

Wool had to be compressed to make bales of even size and weight.

In the days before electricity a manual wool press was required to compress the wool into the bales.  An old Ajax press remains on Charles Darwin Reserve from this era. 

Robin Tapper who owned Whitewells from 1997 to 2002 used to hire a wool press during shearing. The Sunbeam WP-12 electric twin press remained  in the shearing shed when Whitewells was purchased by Bush Heritage. It had been bought second hand by Tapper at a clearance sale in Dalwallinu in 2002 but was not used on Whitewells

The pressed and labelled bales were loaded onto a truck (or a camel wagon in the 1920s) from a deck at the front of the shed. A basic principle of shearing shed construction is that the packed wool bale packing area must be high enough to allow loading without lifting. It is easier to run sheep up a ramp than to lift a wool bale. This ramp was rebuilt in 2003 with a timber railing to serve as an entry deck for the shed which is now used for storage, overflow sleeping accommodation, meetings and workshops.

New Uses

The sheep were removed from Whitewells Station in 2003 after it became Charles Darwin Reserve. Three stragglers who missed the muster came in to drink at the yards in 2005. Since then, the yards and the shearing shed host the occasional collection of feral goats trapped for removal and sale,  the birds who come to feed on the weed seeds and drink at the trough, and the humans who come to manage the goats, weeds, birds and nature undisturbed by the nibblings, trottings, bleatings and droppings of thousands of hungry sheep.

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