Grazing in Arnhem Land

Type of operation

At present there is very little organised cattle grazing taking place in the Arnhem land region. There are a few small operations, such as those at Gumbulunya and Mawangi, which supply local abattoirs. However, there is a growing interest from some communities in setting up pastoral enterprises, and of managing more intensely the wild cattle populations in the area. In addition, there is a growing awareness of the potential for harvesting wild buffalo, which is already being carried out around Bulman, and supplies the traditional owners of Kakadu.

To the south of the region, there are several large cattle grazing properties which could potentially be part of the operating strategy. Depending on pasture availability, younger cattle could be sent to be fattened on these properties to the south of Arnhem land. Access to transport and other infrastructure could also be improved via cooperation with these producers.

Arnhem pastoral history

By the end of the 19th century, the pastoral industry had begun to push north, and Europeans had already settled on homesteads and in small communities on the fringes of what is now known as Arnhem Land. In many areas Aboriginal people and pastoralists were in direct competition for land. On the border of Arnhem land near the Roper River between 1882 and 1885 Elsey, Hodgson Downs, Valley of the Springs and Urapunga stations were stocked. To the west of Arnhem land, Fisher and Lyons had taken out a lease on the entire area from the Adelaide River to the East Alligator River. In 1885, McCartney's lease covered an area from Gove Peninsula to just west of the mouth of the Blyth River.

Many of these early producers went broke, or chose to move to more hospitable country such as that around the Victoria River to the west. One of the most ambitious of these ventures was initiated by a Melbourne-based syndicate, the Eastern and African Cold Storage Supply Company, which leased land in 1899 and in 1903 decided to attempt a pastoral venture. The lease was vast, covering the whole of North East Arnhem Land or 51 800 square kilometres. This lease took over some of those abandoned late in the nineteenth century to the north of the Roper River. However, this lease also failed and was abandoned within five years. Some of the reasons may have included the lack of fences, lack of stockmen, difficulties of mustering cattle over such an enormous area, low quality of feed and Aboriginal people spearing cattle. Several accounts of large scale massacres of Aboriginal people and atrocities have been recorded by historians as occurring during the tenure of the company in the area (Dewar 1985). It seems likely that these pastoralists faced increasing hostility from local Aboriginal people, and this combined with an apparent lack of knowledge of the land forced them to abandon the enterprise.

The Arnhem Land Reserve was set up in 1931 and this act ensured that settlement within the region was only open to those with spiritual rather than commercial ends in mind: the missionaries.

Pasture land communities

Only one pasture land community (annual sorghum) covers more than two thirds of the region. Other communities are distributed in medium to small, localised patches mainly around wetland areas. Monsoon annual tallgrass pastures of annual sorghum (Sorghum intrans, S. stipoideum et al.) are found throughout the region. Hummock grasslands of curly spinifex (Plectrachne pungens) are associated with sands and skeletal soils. Patches of these are scattered through the inland regions.

Wanderriegrass (Eriachne spp.) is the LPU of monsoonal tallgrass, pasture lands of coastal and seasonally flooded lowlands associated with some of the major rivers in the region.

Fragmented patches of perennial shortgrass found in coastal country are dominated by saltwater couch (Sporobolus spp.). These grasslands have little fodder value and are without top feed (palatable shrubs and trees). Upland tallgrass (LPU) of monsoon perennial ribbongrass — golden beardgrass (Chrysopogon fallax ) pasture communities are scattered in numerous small pockets around the southern sectors of the region.

A small strip of bluegrass (Dicanthium fecundum) and golden beardgrass (Chrysopogon fallax) occur along the Wilton River in the southern Arnhem region. These bluegrass grassland pastures are associated with clay soils.


Dewar, Michelle (1985). Strange bedfellows: Europeans and Aborigines in Arnhem Land before World War II, University of New Engalnd: Thesis (M.A.)

Thiele, S. (1982) Yugul: An Arnhem Land cattle station, North Australia Research Unit Monograph, Darwin.

Tothill, J. C. & Gillies, C. 1992, The pasture lands of northern Australia: Their condition, productivity and sustainability, Meat Research Corporation, NSW, Australia.

Wheaton, T. (ed) (1994). Plants of the Northern Australian Rangelands. Government Printing Office, Darwin, Australia.