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Fortress Farming in Western Australia? The Problematic History of Separating Native Wildlife from Agricultural Land through the State Barrier Fence

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The Western Australia (WA) State Barrier Fence stretches 2,023 miles (3,256 kilometres) and divides Australia's largest state. The original 'Rabbit Proof Fence' fence was built from 1901–1907 to stop the westbound expansion of rabbits into the existing and potential agricultural zone of Western Australia. Starting as a seemingly straightforward, albeit costly, solution to protect what was considered a productive landscape, the fence failed to keep out the rabbits. It was subsequently amended, upgraded, re-named and used to serve different purposes: as Vermin Fence and State Barrier Fence (unofficially also Emu Fence or Dog Fence) the fence was designed to exclude native Australian animals such as emus, kangaroos and dingoes. In the Australian 'boom and bust' environment, characterised by extreme temperatures and unpredictable rainfall, interrupting species movement has severe negative impacts on biodiversity – an issue aggravated by the fact that Australia leads in global extinction rates (Woinarski, Burbidge and Harrison, 2015). The twentieth century history of the fence demonstrates the agrarian settlers' struggle with the novelty and otherness of Western Australia's ecological conditions – and severe lack of knowledge thereof. While the strenuous construction, expensive maintenance and doubtful performance of the fence provided useful and early environmental lessons, they seem largely forgotten in contemporary Australia. The WA government recently commenced a controversial $11 million project to extend the State Barrier Fence for another 660 kilometres to reach the Esperance coast, targeting dingoes, emus and kangaroos – once again jeopardising habitat connectivity. This paper examines the environmental history, purposes and impacts of the State Barrier fence, critically discusses the problems associated with European farming and pastoralism in WA, and touches on alternative land-use perspectives and futures.
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Keywords: AGRICULTURE; BIODIVERSITY; ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY; FENCING\; NATIVE SPECIES; WESTERN AUSTRALIA; WILDLIFE CONSERVATION

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2020

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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