Belltrees Station takes in 23,000 acres on either side of the Hunter River immediately above Glenbawn Dam. One of the earliest land grants in this part of the valley, Belltrees has been owned and run by the same family for over 175 years.
In 1824, an Act passed by the British Parliament led to the establishment of the Australian Agricultural Company, an incorporated body that was issued, free of charge, one million acres of land, anywhere in Australia. James White left Somerset, England in 1826 having been commissioned by the company to carry 79 head of French merino sheep to the new colony (White, 1981).
In 1831 Hamilton Collins Sempill received a primary grant of 2,560 acres at the junction of the Hunter River and Woolooma Gully and named it Belltrees. That same year James White took possession of his primary grant of 1,280 acres at the Junction of the Isis and Pages Rivers, just five miles away, naming it Broomfield after his Somerset home (White, 1981).
In 1853, realising the wool producing potential of the vast Upper Hunter area, the White family took ownership of Belltrees, combining it with holdings at Broomfield, Ellerston and Waverley, and other positions in between. For the next 41 years, James White Junior and his brothers, Francis, George and Henry Charles managed Belltrees (White, 1981).
Henry Luke White was born in 1860 to Francis and Mary Hannah White. H.L., as he was known in the family, was a keen amateur ornithologist and oologist. His collections of 8500 bird skins and over 4200 egg clutches were donated to the National Museum of Victoria, Melbourne where they are known as the H.L. White Collection. He was also a prolific letter writer and penned 54,000 letters to his agents, friends and fellow collectors. These have been compiled into books and are kept at Belltrees.
In 1907 at the peak of Belltrees' sheep-grazing period, H.L. White built the 54 room Homestead which is now home to the current generation of Whites. It is a heritage listed building, designed by architect J. W. Pender. In this interview from the ABC River Stories program Judy White gives reporter Phil Ashley-Brown a tour of the historic homestead. (interview)
By 1912, the station was a self-contained community, with a public school, a store, a community hall and its own post office. All in all the station took in 240,000 acres, surrounded by 2,000 miles of fencing, and 64 houses (White, 2008).
Up until 1920, there were 100 people working in the woolshed where up to 180,000 sheep were shorn and 3,000 bales of wool exported to England. The sheep enterprise eased in 1960 and was replaced by the Angus Beef cattle breading venture. Today around 5,000 head of cattle are grazed on Belltrees (White, 2008).
Brothers Antony and Peter White now manage the property with their children, who are the seventh generation of Whites to grow up on Belltrees. The late Michael White, Anthony and Peter's father and husband to Judy White, instilled in the family a strong commitment to the preservation of the rural heritage of Belltrees. This commitment continues through the family's care and upkeep of the historic buildings on the property, including the Woolshed, the Post Office, the Chapel, the old stables and the magnificent Homestead. There is also a Belltrees museum, containing some fine relics of agricultural history.
For many years Peter White had been investigating, on behalf of his family, the best way of protecting the unique environment at Belltrees, which includes a substantial area of Hunter River frontage and large areas of the regionally significant Grassy Box Woodland.
Peter talks about why protecting the environment at Belltrees is so important to his family:
"The Belltrees property has been starved of replenishment over the last 20 years. The same old practice of set stocking, spraying of herbicides and fertilising by organo phosphates were still being implemented. The most difficult element to manage can be the reluctance to change. Farmers are notoriously conservative in nature and can be stubborn and the White family is no exception!"
"Perhaps the reason we hadn't addressed it seriously until now was the prolonged period of drought and the economic down turn that accompanied it, but it's the perfect time to rectify that now. The season is in our favour and we have the opportunity through the government assistance we've received to make some changes."
"The project is of significant importance to both me and Belltrees as my late father Michael White instilled in us the importance of conservation and preservation. There is an abundance of important heritage at Belltrees, architecturally speaking, and it's equally important for environment at Belltrees to be supported and maintained, for it's from this source alone that we derive the majority of our income."
"It made sense to look at practical measures we could take to eliminate unnecessary waste, whilst also encouraging environmental sustainable practices. Belltrees expends anywhere between $50,000 and $100,000 annually just in managing the Hunter River, on things like spraying weeds, mending river crossings, drafting escaped livestock, and fixing damaged property."
"So I thought, 'Why wait until a drought or flood to implement change? Why not develop strategies to alleviate the risk of both these unfortunate circumstances by introducing measures like fencing off riparian corridors and expanding off river water systems to not only save money but build a sustainable platform for the property itself?"
"The White family over the generations have realised that there needs to be a balance for there to be a positive outcome. To not move forward is a crime by nature but it must be done with sensitive control. It takes too long for environmental mistakes to be rectified and it takes even longer to heal the injuries of a family quarrel."
"It is a crying shame that the farming future of family properties is at risk. There is no longer a reasonable return in farming pursuits; certainly not enough to weather the hardships of drought and floods. If by developing conservation areas that have marginal grazing or farming value, on properties like Belltrees, that can attract either a carbon or ecological trading value, then perhaps farming practices can become profitable and sustainable."
"My ambition for the Belltrees property is for future generations of the White family to live and enjoy the magnificent property, without the need to sell off land to support its continuation."
In 2008 Peter was successful in establishing a Property Vegetation Plan for the property, which meant receiving some government assistance to implement a plan which would include, among other things, fencing off areas of native vegetation, including 237 hectares of Box Iron Bark Redgum woodland, an endangered ecological community in the Upper Hunter, and fencing off river frontage from stock access.
Peter has worked to develop the plan from its inception and has also been instrumental in implementing it, laying kilometres of water pipe, building kilometres of fences, and planting hundreds of trees.
Peter has also had some help from the students at Belltrees Primary School who have been getting their hands dirty planting some trees along the river's edge.
The students will continue their involvement in the project by observing changes they see in the health of the environment over time by keeping journals, testing the water quality of the river and recording the changes they see around them.
"The Hunter River is the lifeblood of the Belltrees property. Without water the business would fail. It provides sustenance to livestock and moisture to pasture. Most importantly it gives great aesthetic value to the ambience of the property which brings guests from all over the world to stay and admire this wonderful Australian Heritage."