Article: The Bullock Team

By Mavis Thorpe Clark

Published in Walkabout, 1 July 1954

There are many old crafts lost to the world to-day, and one fast falling into that category, in Victoria anyway, is that of the bullock-driver. Mechanization is pushing him out, though, in those parts of the country where teams are still to be found, there are dozens of stories of bullocks being called upon to release bogged tractors!

Another reason why it must die out is that, with few teams operating, young fellows who are bullock-minded are becoming few too. To be a successful bullocky a man must have an understanding 
and love of his beasts – the true bullocky would not exchange his team for the best tractor. He is often contemptuous, too, of the horse, swearing that the bullock is the more intelligent of the two.

It is unlikely that there are more than a dozen teams working in Victoria to-day. These are scattered throughout the State, mostly in scrub or timbered areas. A bullock team can go where neither horse nor tractor can make headway. One bullock would not be as strong as one working horse, but it has a cleft hoof which prevents it from bogging. With a heavy flexible chain for a centre shaft the bullocks can wind in and out of the trees of the scrub country with the sinuousness of a snake. A team may consist of as many as twenty-two bullocks, and the driver walks beside his team or sometimes rides a quiet horse. No reins are used. He controls them entirely by the whip and voice – mostly voice. Each bullock knows his own name and is extraordinarily obedient. To see the team turning in a circle or veering to right or left, or easing back and forward a few inches at a time, obedient to a man’s quiet tones, is like watching the routine of trained circus performers.

This particular man was Mr Eric Storer of Hotspur – a township now of only a few scattered houses – in a stretch 
of forest country in the Western District. In the early days the Western District relied almost entirely on the bullock team. It is on record that Edward Henty, the founder of permanent settlement in Victoria, landed at Portland on November 19th, 1834, with thirteen heifers, five pigs, two turkeys, six dogs, ploughs, plants, vines and seeds, and four working bullocks. These bullocks turned the first Victorian furrow, and were, no doubt, the forerunners of those teams that did so much to open up the new country.

Hotspur, on the Smoky River, was, because of the inn it then boasted, a favoured resting-place for the teams on their overland route to Ballarat.

To-day, Mr Storer’s team of ten is one of the few remaining links with that past. He hauls the tall straight trunks of stringy-bark or messmate, which are demanded for telegraph poles, etc., out of the scrub to the roadside. The logs are fastened behind the team by chains and dragged along the ground. Sometimes they are hauled to a local mill, and sometimes they are picked up from the roadside and taken the rest of the distance by motor-trailer. In the latter case the bullocks load the trailer. Skids and chains are used, with the bullocks pulling at right angles to the trailer. They are so obedient to their master’s voice that, if just a movement of a few inches is needed to put a log in exactly the right position, the bullocks can oblige. The average bullock, weighing about nine hundredweight, can pull a little less than half a ton.

To see them get ready for the day, in the cold grey mist of early morning, is a delight. When their yokes were taken off the previous night, each yoke and chain was laid a bullock’s length apart, facing out the swing gate, ready again for a quick start. After an early feed – Mr Storer feeds his team on chaff, each beast having a separate feed-tin about eight feet apart – a few quiet, deep-throated words set them moving gently into position.

“Come on-n there, Spanker – come on-n, Smoky – now there, Clipper – easy there... In you go, Sailor – in you go...”

Each called by name, the team fell into place, two by two, each pair directly behind the other. Any fractiousness was quietened by that slow deep voice, running names and words into one another so that they became a patter that was a different language – bullocky talk – and the bullocks knew and understood every syllable. Mr Storer himself has acquired a distinctive lilt to his voice through years of handling his beasts.

They stood quietly to be yoked. The heavy wooden yoke, shaped to fit a pair, was laid across the top of both necks. Each animal was then fastened to it by a separate piece of iron rounded and shaped like a U – called the bullock’s bow – which fitted under each throat and was bolted to the yoke. A bullock must not be yoked too high or his pulling power is reduced almost to nil. A bullock’s back-bone ends at the hump on the top of his neck; from there down his neck is hard gristle. This is the part that carries the yoke. The yoke, made of stringybark or blackwood, is heavy to stand the strain of the pull and lasts only about twelve months.

A bullock begins his working life when about four years old and may work until he is sixteen-sometimes longer. Its longevity, despite hard work, is probably due to the fact that it never hurries. Bullocks can bolt, but their usual speed is a slow, deliberate walk.

They are magnificent animals, their quiet movements and strength giving them a very real dignity. Lined up against a background of green scrub, the rich beauty of their varied colouring is indeed striking – roan, shining black, red and white, yellow and white, strawberry. Jerseys and Shorthorns are used most, but there was a touch of Hereford, too, in a couple of this team.

So big and strong, they look like a species apart from the bullocks we see driven to the slaughter-yards, and, in a sense, they are. Most of the bullocks that go to market are less than four years old and nowhere near full-grown, whereas the working bullock’s life is then just beginning.

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First page of the article - scanned.

"The Bullock Team" - Walkabout, page 14.

Second page of the article - scanned.

"The Bullock Team" - Walkabout, page 15.

Bullock team wade through waist-deep water.

Bullock teams hauling logs across a stream in northern New South Wales; photo from the article by C.S. Harnett

He – or generally a pair – is selected from a herd in this age group and training begins. The first lesson is to get them used to travelling in pairs. This, perhaps, is the hardest for the bullock. The two of them are secured to a post or tree, then yoked together with a chain about a foot in length on a centre swivel – the swivel is to prevent them from choking each other. They are kept tied to the tree for a couple of days; then, still yoked together, they are turned out to roam the paddock. It takes about a week for them to adjust themselves to this community living, but when, at the end of that time, the bullocky goes after them and with one accord they make off, he knows they have settled down together.

They are then put into the centre of the team, and it is not long before they are as wise to their master’s tones as the proud leaders. Some bullock-drivers use the whip more than others – that depends on the man – just as some parents control their children with a word rather than a slap. Like children, a bullock reacts favourably to understanding and kindness.

Bullocks are individuals, and sometimes when unyoked and turned loose in the yard after the day’s work, they squabble among themselves. But there is always a boss of the team, and it isn’t always the biggest bullock either, though it is certainly the strongest-minded! If they fight too hard and get too bad-tempered they rip each other with their horns – then they have to be de-horned. This is always a pity, for there is something majestic in the mien of the bullock with beautifully curved horns.

Mr Storer has been driving bullocks since he was twelve, when, as a lad in the Mallee, he made a deal with his father whereby he acquired his first bullock team.