Urimbirra Co-operative was formed in 1973 to purchase 400 hectares of more or less virgin bush in the Little Desert region of the Wimmera district of Victoria. It followed a controversy in the late 1960s when the State government had a proposal to subdivide most of the Crown land in this area for farming. At the time of our purchase, privately owned bushland properties in good condition were still being sold for farming purposes. Professional people from outside the area were buying this land and gaining tax concessions on clearing costs. ln this area, the climate and soil type ensured that, once it was used for farming purposes, the land was likely to revert to a weedy scrub after the first drought year. There are several examples of properties which have been devastated in this way close to Urimbirra. The Blackburn & District Tree Preservation Society, which had had a substantial involvement in the fight to save the Little Desert from subdivision for farming, decided to form a co-operative to buy land on which the bush was still in good condition. Urimbirra, situated immediately to the north of what is now the Little Desert National Park and south of the Western Highway between Nhill and Kaniva, became ours in 1973.
Since then the Society has visited the area nearly every year. We had originally thought to set up a camp site on the block, but before we ever went there as a group, it was decided that the area was too fragile, and access too difficult, to justify camping there. Instead, we camp at the Bills Gully Hall, situated on a public reserve in farmland about 15 km from the block. We have developed a good relationship with the Hall Committee, particularly since a younger generation took over the management and made many improvements to the hall and its surrounds. Our camping fees over the years have probably played their part in these improvements.
When the land was first bought, the intention was to eventually give it or sell it to the National Parks Service if and when the adjacent Crown land became national park. But when the Little Desert NP was finally extended, a combination of lack of interest by the National Park Service and a perception by our members at that time that national parks were not getting the management they deserved, led to the decision that we should continue to retain Urimbirra for the foreseeable future.
This decision to retain ownership of Urimbirra was reinforced with the development of an interest in purchasing other bush blocks in the vicinity of the Little Desert NP. ln 1992, we were close to purchasing land on the southern boundary of the park, but, after our negotiations with the owner resulted in a substantial reduction in the price, it was bought by the Department of Conservation and Environment and is now part of the Little Desert National Park.
ln 1995, a 600 hectare block on the northern boundary of our original block came on the market. It consisted of virgin, basically weed-free bushland fairly similar to that of our original block. The contract of sale was signed in August 1996 and the property became ours on 17th January 1997. To raise the required capital to finance this purchase, additional $25 shares were issued and it was suggested that eight or more shares be purchased by those wishing to invest in the block, although lesser investments were acceptable. We did not raise the full cost of the block before the settlement date, but we were able to obtain on interest-free loan from the Trust for Nature for one year. The loan has now been paid off, but we continue to be happy to accept new shareholders to become part owners of our 1000 hectares of Little Desert. This increases our invested funds, interest on which helps cover part of our costs such as rates, insurance and communication with our members.
However, beside our interest revenue, we still need to receive some other income on an ongoing basis. For this, we rely mainly on collecting levies from our shareholders. Under the Co-operatives Act 1996, which was replaced by the Co-operatives National Law Application Act 2013, members are supposed to be ‘active‘, which originally meant collecting a levy from each shareholder every 3 years under threat of expulsion from the co-operative. However, following a change to our constitution in 2001, we have been able to make these provisions less onerous, mainly in removing the automatic threat of expulsion but also in allowing us to levy our shareholders when we need funds. In addition to this major source of revenue, we often receive donations from our shareholders and, in the past, we collected attendance fees from those shareholders attending Annual General Meetings to meet the hiring cost for the venue – Bills Gully Hall. However, from the 2015 AGM, this impost has been abolished and the cost will be absorbed through the change in the frequency and amount of the shareholder levy.
In the late 1980s, members decided to approach the Trust for Nature (TFN) with a view to establishing a conservation covenant on the block purchased in 1973. A representative of the TFN visited the block in 1989 and the instrument creating the covenant was signed on 13/10/1990. A similar process was followed after the purchase of our second block and the deed of covenant was signed on 11/01/1999. Among other things, under the terms of these covenants, camping is now formally prohibited on the blocks and we are required to protect the indigenous flora and fauna and to remove non-indigenous species. These covenants are administered by the Trust for Nature and both were approved by the relevant Minister at the time. As a result, they can only be removed by an Act of Parliament. Together with the covenanted block immediately to the East of our 2 contiguous blocks and owned by one of our members, this makes a total of approximately 1,700 ha of protected land adjacent to the Little Desert National Park.
The land has remained in its natural state, including the effects of wildfires! In the spring of 1978, Urimbirra’s first block was almost completely burnt in a bush fire resulting from a farmer’s over-enthusiastic burning off. The second block, which was purchased in 1997, was also partially burnt in the same fire. Since then, both blocks had made excellent recoveries, but parts were again seriously burnt in early 2015 after a lightning strike in the Little Desert NP started a wild fire.