By Aleksandra Bliszczyk
The City of Whittlesea is home to kilometres of some of the oldest dry stone walls in the country that date back to the mid 1800s, and are protected under council’s planning scheme.
Of the 23 Victorian local government areas with dry stone walls, Whittlesea is one of only 12 with a conservation policy.
As urbanisation extends into rural areas on Melbourne’s northern fringe, historians and councils are having to weigh up their value against development.
Today, the stone walls are protected as heritage assets under under Clause 52.33 of the Victorian State Planning Framework, and in the City of Whittlesea planning scheme.
The City of Whittlesea requires a dry stone wall management plan be submitted as part of every planning permit pertaining to land with dry stone walls, ensuring they are conserved and, in some cases, restored, while preventing actions that damage the wall or remove rocks.
Each individual stone wall is then assessed for its heritage significance before it is included in a heritage overlay for protection in the planning scheme.
Dry Stone Walls Association of Australia’s acting president Jim Holdsworth is an architectural historian working with councils across Australia to assess the state and significance of dry stone walls.
Members of the association survey the walls for length, height, style and condition by air-photo interpretation, looking at old maps, and physically driving around the area. They then identify which walls are important under a range of criteria and make recommendations as to which ones are worthy of retention.
Mr Holdsworth said dry stone walls were worth protecting because they detailed geology and colonial history.
“They proliferate really from the City of Whittlesea all the way to South Australia to Mount Gambier, because that’s the big volcanic plain,” he said.
“They talk about geology, about European history and settlement and they’re interesting aspects in the landscape – the style of wall tells you a bit about who built the walls, if you look closely.”
In the City of Whittlesea, the walls were largely built by German and Scottish immigrants, carefully constructed with rocks of varying shapes and sizes found on the ground to divide land and enclosure animals.
But with wall maintenance being a rare skill and a costly venture, and the demand for development and infrastructure increasing in the area, Mr Holdsworth said councils had to deal with a difficult conundrum.
“I admire what Whittlesea’s doing in surveying their walls and identifying the most representative or the best examples, but that still leaves an open question, what do you do to retain those best examples in face of urbanisation?” he said.
“As soon as you allow urbanisation to happen, the visual context of the wall disappears.
“When you’re looking across rolling paddocks with those old river red gums, a beautiful dry stone walls running over the hill, that’s a lovely landscape.
“But when you stick houses and roads and the whole thing in there, do you say, ‘oh well forget it, goodbye dry stone walls, the landscape’s so changed, they’re so out of context, they’ve lost their historical value? … There’s no right answer, it’s a tough one.”
City of Whittlesea chair administrator Lydia Wilson said dry stone walls continued to contribute to the rich aesthetic of the landscape, and that council maintained the walls located in public spaces.
“Council has spent many years identifying the locations and significance of dry stone walls in our city to ensure these important heritage assets are protected and preserved,” she said.
“While many dry stone walls are visible from the road, most are located on private property. These are mapped using light detecting and ranging imagery and then sighted to ensure the information is accurate.”
Council has also developed a phone app that verifies wall locations and contributes to building a database of wall size, style and condition, which Mr Holdsworth said was a promising step.
“It’s really quite exciting because you can’t protect every dry stone wall in the country, but if you collect data on as many as you can then you see which are the best examples and take steps to ensure they are protected,” he said.