25 Jun, 2003 10:00 PM

"THREE and a half stubbies" was the response from Nungarin fencing contractor, Stuart Murray, when I asked him how far it was from home to his current job on the State Barrier Fence, north of Westonia.

Having travelled across, up, down and through the roads and farms in the north of Mukinbudin and Westonia to get to the fence to examine it, I decided it was probably not a bad way to measure distance.

The current job on the State Barrier Fence is a special one for the Murrays, as it will see the 7000th kilometre of fence handled since they arrived in Nungarin back in 1975.

As the removal of an old fence is just as hard as erecting a new one, Stuart counts both in his impressive tally, a figure that includes 1500km of fence removed and 5500km of new fence built across the state.

The new fence specifications call for the use of 100 metre rolls of 10-line Ringlock steel posts every seven metres, steel strainer assemblies every 200 metres and a barbed wire top and bottom.

Having removed the old fence, Stuart and his team, son Clayton and Dion Jaxon, complete one kilometre of fence from start to finish every day, a task that is assisted by the use of a small Dingo loader and a pneumatic steel post driver.

The current contract calls for the "dismantling and removal" of the material on a 25.3km section of the fence, which includes the removal of the steel posts they had added to the fence around 10 years ago when they were awarded a contract to carry out some repairs.

This has meant that they have salvaged 2800 useable second hand steel posts, while the native pine fence posts have been carted back to Nungarin and are a part of the "15-year supply" of firewood they have on hand.

The strainer posts, which still have wire wrapped around them, have become the fuel for the campfire that burns 24 hours per day, with Stuart describing the previous cold night as a "five strainer night".


LATE in 1897, pastoralists in the Eucla district reported to the government in WA that thousands of rabbits were crossing the South Australian border and heading west along the coast towards Esperance.

The government decided to erect a rabbit-proof fence to keep the rabbits at bay, with the fence being surveyed by AW Canning and running from Starvation Harbour near Esperance to Condon, near Port Hedland.

This1833 kilometre fence was authorised in 1902 as were the two more being built further west in an effort to protect all agricultural areas, with all three being completed by 1908.

The fences were expensive failures, probably because travellers failed to close the gates after passing through, but the current versions are called barrier fences, designed primarily to keep pastoral emus out of the agricultural area.

The fence achieved a certain notoriety in the 1930s when Snowy Rowles murdered someone camped on the fence and burned his body amongst a number of dead kangaroos.

The discovery of human teeth in the ashes of the fire led to the capture, conviction and execution of Rowles, an event that was mirrored in fiction about the same time, when the Australian author, Arthur Upfield, had his part-aboriginal detective, Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony), solving a similar murder.

pA journey to Nungarin

Like many of Australia's rural identities, Stuart and Lynne Murray were born in New Zealand, both from farming families in the north of the North Island and meeting through the NZ version of Rural Youth.

Shortly after their marriage, they had a visiting Young Farmer from England billeted with them, a contact that came in very handy years later when they sold their farm in NZ and decided to travel.

Their previous English guest was able to provide the visiting Murray family with accommodation on an English farm, providing the base for a working holiday in the UK.

A later visitor from NZ had worked in WA and convinced the Murrays that they should visit, giving them an introduction to yet another Kiwi who had been a farm management consultant in the WA Wheatbelt and was then working in Merredin.

The Murrays sailed to WA, spending several months in South Africa along the way, eventually arriving in Fremantle from where they made contact with the ex-consultant in Merredin.

He organised accommodation and a job in Nungarin, where they arrived on Anzac day, 1975, and they have "never shifted".

They now live on a 36ha block north of Nungarin, an area shared with assorted livestock including a flock (?) of deer.

pThe art of fencing

Like all farmers, Stuart had done his share of fencing around the farm, but he was wise enough to obtain some professional advice before embarking on any full time fencing endeavour.

Fencing was fairly easy to obtain in the early days, but it tends to be a job that is postponed by farmers when things become a bit tight financially, a trend that was exacerbated during the wool crisis when farmers reduced stock numbers and increased cropping.

Stuart and Lynne have travelled widely around the state, sometimes working on pastoral properties, from Lyndon Station north of Carnarvon, Minara Station on the Leonora/Laverton road, another east of Balladonia on the Nullarbor and at Cascades near Esperance.

The advent of the pneumatic post driver provided a major leap in productivity, a machine that he "discovered" on a fax which arrived from Brisbane "10 minutes after my wife had taught me to use our new fax machine".

It was the day before the Dowerin field day and he faxed an order straight back, receiving the machine in time for the second day, where it attracted keen interest and convinced the Murrays to become state distributors.

Surprisingly, it was a couple of years before it caught the imagination of the public, with more than 700 eventually being sold throughout the state since that quiet beginning.

Electric fences are another innovation, but although the Murrays have installed 70 units around the state, they have not really caught on, probably because the maintenance on the fence itself is fairly labour intensive, with a small bush being blown against the wires often being enough to cause a fault.

Government contracts provide a lot of the current work, mainly from Landcare groups who commission the fencing of remnant bush as a conservation measure.

One of their more unusual jobs involved painting and/or replacing all the white posts on a stretch of highway from the southern boundary of the Shark Bay shire through to Carnarvon, a job they completed in just seven days.

But the award for an unusual job must go to the time they fenced the enclosures for the wallabies, Samba deer and cassowaries at the Perth Zoo.



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