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The Matthews at Bedarbidgal

Supporting biodiversity in the Hay Plains | Published  January 2024

‘It was eye opening. We’d managed our way into just having annual grasses on the property. We became aware of how beneficial perennials were and that we needed to change our grazing management to improve the perennials.’ – Bert Matthews

Bedarbidgal has a long agricultural history, beginning in 1861 with the establishment of the Robertson Land Acts. Originally spread across 40,000 hectares, the size of the farm has decreased over the past four generations to meet the changing needs of the family. The property has been managed for over 40 years by Robert Matthews (known as Bert) with his wife, Elizabeth (known as Liz) and their four children.

There have been some significant turning points in Bert’s life as a farmer, including a major bushfire in 1990 that badly damaged 65% of the farm, and the final years of the Millennium drought when Bert travelled the old stock route for 4 months to keep his flock alive. These experiences pushed Bert to deeply question what could be done to improve things on the land and prepare for an uncertain future.

Today, the Matthews holistically graze merino sheep and angus cattle on 7,000 hectares. In 2018, they reduced their merino flock to focus on the restoration of native pasture areas across the property. With a wealth of knowledge and experience to draw on, Bert and Liz have dedicated a lot of time to improving the country, building biodiversity back into the landscape and supporting soil health. Bert also undertakes leadership roles in the local community, including as Captain of the local Bushfire Brigade, twice Chair of Hay Trees on Plains Landcare group, and in 2017 participating in the Australian Rural Leadership Program. The Matthews hope their commitment to land and soil stewardship inspires others in the local region and beyond.

Image 1. Bert and Liz inspect a self-seeded boree (Acacia pendula sp.) in Kyeema Paddock, which they are protecting from grazing stock through the Local Land Services Riverina project. Source: Grow Love Project.

Farm Facts

Wiradjuri Country |South Hay, Riverina, NSW

Hot dry summer, cold winter

Average Annual Rainfall
337 mm (recent, 1993-2022)

Agro-ecological Region

Property Size
7,000 ha

93 m

Social Structure
Family owned and operated

Enterprise Type
Dryland grazing merino sheep and angus cattle

Flat alluvial plains dissected by distributary channels (ancient and contemporary creeks and streams) and abandoned lakes. Wind blown clays (parna) are a feature of the landscape.

Grey and brown cracking clays (Vertosols) on the low plains; red sandy loams over clays (Chromosols) higher in the landscape; some deep sands (Rudosols) which are either windblown or alluvial (associated with past or present creek and stream lines).

*Learn more about soil classifications at

Landscape and Soils

Bedarbidgal lies approximately 50 kms south-east of Hay on the vast Hay Plains of the Riverina region. This landscape formed from the alluvial deposition of ancient streams interbedded with wind-blown clays, resulting in a range of soils.

 The low-lying plains are characterised by non-self-mulching and self-mulching (finely aggregated surface soil) cracking clays, which typically have a high nutrient and water holding capacity. Although historically heavily grazed, these soils support a range of shrubland and grassland vegetation, including boree (Acacia pendula sp.), saltbush (Atriplex sp.), windmill grass (Chloris sp.), white top (Danthonia sp.), and spear grass (Austrostip sp.).

 Scalding is evident elsewhere on the plains, which may be a reflection of older floodplains or terraces. These areas can include cracking clays, but also feature red and brown texture-contrast soils. Some of these soils may become hardsetting when dry, restricting water infiltration rates into the soil when it does rain.

The scalded plains support similar vegetation to the low-lying plains, with the exception of myall, but including cottonbush (Maireana sp.) and wallaby grass (Austrodanthonia sp.). Much of the plains feature the sandy ridges of prior streams, which support white cypress pine (Callitris sp.), needlewood (Hakea sp.), pittosporum (Pittosporum sp.), and spear grasses (Austrostipa sp.).

Image 2. Aerial image of Bedarbidgal. Source: Grow Love Project.

More about the Matthews

Motivations for change in the early years

After a period working as a jackaroo on a merino stud, Bert took up management of Bedarbidgal in 1984. For several years he followed in his forefathers footsteps with a large flock of set-stocked sheep. A massive bushfire in the early 1990s prompted his interest in restoration and biodiversity. After witnessing widespread devastation Bert began questioning what could be done to repair the landscape.

After the bushfire, Bert started to see that the mode of dryland grazing practiced at Bedarbidgal for over 100 years was also a cause of ‘decline to our environment and landscape.’ His early realisations were based on observation, alongside his participation in a Holistic Management course and learning from the work of Allan Savory. He came to understand that altering grazing management on the farm would improve pastures and promote ground cover, and that providing rest to the landscape in paddocks to build biodiversity would encourage more species that are desirable, particularly perennial grasses and forbs.

 ‘It was eye opening. We’d managed our way into just having annual grasses on the property. We became aware of how beneficial perennials were and that we needed to change our grazing management to improve the perennials.’ – Bert Matthews

While Bert understood the value of holistic grazing during the early years as a young farmer, he also admits that he ‘always made excuses for the flock.’ This would often mean following the principles of holistic grazing for a few months each year, and then falling back on previous habits, which would inevitably lead to over-grazing and land degradation. It wasn’t until the Millennium drought that Bert began to commit to sustained and deeper levels of change across all areas of management.

Responding to dry conditions

During the final years of the Millennium drought, which ‘lasted three years longer than expected,’ Bert saw the land without any ground cover, significant loss of topsoil and the impacts of massive dust storms. Prior to this, Bert believed they could retain all of their stock in very dry conditions. Forced onto the travelling stock route with his flock to keep them alive, Bert experienced a significant change of perspective, which led to his practice changes over the following decade.

In 2018, the Matthews turned their full attention to groundcover and strict holistic grazing, and they sold 95% of their self-replacing merino flock. At Bedarbidgal, they don’t grow grain or pasture unless it rains. As Bert describes, they ‘were once on the treadmill and sourcing grain from across the state.’ Bert now believes that stock must be removed to maintain ground cover and to prevent over grazing. Part of their commitment to prevent overgrazing, protect groundcover and prepare for dry conditions at Bedarbidgal, they installed a stock management area (SMA) through previous support from Riverina LLS. However, Bert believes that set-stocking is a ‘simplified activity’ and that it is fundamental to understand that ‘groundcover is king.’

Like most properties in the region, the dry climate means Bedarbidgal is prone to drought, so swales have been designed and built on some areas of the property to hold water higher in the landscape for longer as part of an overall strategy to rehydrate the landscape.

Monitoring soil health at Bedarbidgal

In recent years, the Matthews have come to understand more about what they can do to support underground diversity. In 2018, Bert studied soil biology, participating in Elaine Ingham’s Soil FoodWeb course and he has since been more focused on practices that support biology and increase nutrient cycling. Bert has also been involved in a long-term soil testing program and has years of soil data that he works with. The NSW Soil Conservation Service began monitoring a site on Bedarbidgal in 1994. This was known as the Range Assessment Program and annual data was collected of vegetation species, rainfall, stocking rate and soil surface cover. More recently Soil Management Systems and Converte have been engaged to better understand the limitations of the soil in this area. Testing has been done by EAL (Environment Analysis Laboratory) and Microbewise for soil.

Recently the Matthews joined fifteen other farmers in the Riverina through the Riverina Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes project. The farmers will be supported to implement one of three practices (enhanced farm dams, native shelterbelts, or stock management areas) to improve landscape-level drought resilience, and to set up long-term soil health monitoring. Bert says that the soil health monitoring they are doing as part of the project is giving ‘confidence that I know that we can improve the productivity of this land going forward.’ The Matthews are working to increase organic matter in the soil through revegetation across the landscape and they have been looking for opportunities to trade soil carbon through the carbon market. Early investigations with a carbon farming service provider have shown that rainfall in marginal areas will likely limit the ability to sequester tradable volumes of carbon in this landscape. Bert is wary that good land managers will not be rewarded for their diligent management of the land resource and those with degraded landscapes will benefit by having lower base line measurements of soil carbon.

Image 3. Soil monitoring with Bert Matthews at Bedarbidgal. Source: Grow Love Project.
Image 4. Soil monitoring with Bert Matthews at Bedarbidgal. Source: Grow Love Project.

Reaping the rewards of rotational grazing, ground cover and biodiversity

Over the years, the Matthews have come to see the farm in a more integrated way, recognising how multiple factors influence the overall flourishing of the land. While there are still challenges on the property such as feral animals (particularly rabbits) and weeds, the way the Matthews think about them and address them has changed. For example, providing rest to 90% of the landscape at any one time, and building biodiversity has encouraged the return of perennial grasses, rather than weeds. For many years the Matthews used to spray out weeds, but recently discontinued this.

‘That’s another thing we don’t do anymore. We used to spray every weed that we saw, but now we don’t spray anything. We mulch and put it back on the ground if it’s causing us a problem.’ – Bert Matthews

Supporting healthy grasslands and groundcover at Bedarbidgal has been rewarding on many levels. In March of 2022 the Matthews celebrated the first ever release of captive bred plains-wanderers (P. torquatus sp.) at Bedarbidgal as part of the Paddocks for Plains-wanderers project. NSW Environment Minister, James Griffin MP, travelled to Bedarbidgal to take part in this significant event. A tiny quail-like bird, plains-wanderers are one of Australia’s most critically endangered bird species. Overgrazing is the biggest deterrent to the bird’s survival because plains-wanderers need ground cover that’s sparse, but not too sparse or too congested. The Oolambeyan National Park adjacent to Bedarbidgal was established in 2002 because it is ideal plains-wanderer grassland habitat. Bert became involved in the Management Board of the National Park and has worked closely with the NSW Government in that capacity. In 2018, a breeding pair of plains-wanderers were captured on Bedarbidgal, and transported to the breeding program in Dubbo. The recent return of six birds to the property was a proud moment for the many people involved and it is hoped the Paddocks for Plains-wanderers project will boost the bird’s population.

Bert’s role in local Landcare over the decades has had a profound impact on his appreciation of plant species and the role of native vegetation on the farm. Bert is also motivated by the value that Landcare provides in building and uniting agricultural communities.

The Matthews have fenced off several areas of remnant vegetation in collaboration with Landcare and plan to replicate this across other areas of their large property to ‘enhance the whole landscape.’ Bert believes this level of revegetation ‘improves the productivity of the stock and it’s good for your own wellbeing too.’ One of his daughters got married in their rosewood forest, which provided a scenic, shady place for this special occasion to occur, with many happy memories associated with it.

Protecting native vegetation with treeguards

Through the current Riverina Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes project, the Matthews are now focused on native vegetation management. Bert’s experience with Landcare, and the previous revegetation on the farm, mean that he has a clear picture of what will support local regeneration and the conservation of the Matthew’s natural assets.

‘After unloading the sheep and starting to view the landscape and reading what it was telling us, we noticed all the trees around the area were all aged and there was no recruitment of young trees. Once the stock were off and we had a couple of rainfall events, trees would come up on their own and we’d never noticed them in the landscape before.’ – Bert Matthews

The Matthews are installing 150 tree guards that will carefully protect self-seeded trees, boree, miljee, needlewood, grey box, butterbush, wilgah, emu bush and white cypress pine across several paddocks at Bedarbidgal. Protecting these trees will allow them to mature and offer a range of benefits that will contribute to farm productivity over the long term. Trees – whether shelterbelts or individual paddock trees – serve as vital tools on the Hay Plains for livestock protection, erosion mitigation, and wind-speed reduction across the pastures. Their significance extends beyond these functional aspects, as native trees play a crucial role in supporting diverse wildlife populations and aiding natural pest control on the farm.

Image 5. A close up of boree (Acacia pendula sp.). Bert and Liz Matthews are working with Riverina LLS to maximise the benefits of native vegetation management at Bedarbidgal. Source: Grow Love Project.

More to come 

The Matthews are working with best practice guidelines from Riverina LLS in order to protect their young paddock trees with tree guards. They are in the process of installing the tree guards on regenerating native trees seedlings using the following specifications:

  1. a minimum of 4 steel posts per individual guard
  2. a minimum of 1.7 m in height per individual guard
  3. a minimum standard of sheep yard mesh to ensure full protection
  4. a minimum diameter of guards to be 0.75 m.


Check back in early 2024 for more of the Matthews’ story as they share with us how they implemented 150 tree guards around regenerating native tree seedlings, and how they are going in monitoring their soils.

To read more about native revegetation explore our project partner’s resources Riverina LLS free training and Sustainable Farms, ANU.

This case study is part of the Riverina Drought Resilient Soils and Landscapes project, which aims to support producers in adopting drought resilient practices and enhance their landscape and soil monitoring capabilities. The Riverina Project is led by Riverina Local Land Services (LLS). It is supporting 15 producers to adopt one of three well-established management practices that enhance agricultural productivity and profitability during or after droughts while safeguarding natural resources. As part of the project, Soils for Life has prepared five case studies that follow producers as they implement their chosen practice/s, and their experiences with soil lab-testing and in-field observations. The producers are guided in their practice implementation with support from Riverina LLS, and have opportunities to learn through field days and webinars provided by the project partners, and an online discussion group. This project is led by Riverina Local Land Services, in conjunction with Sustainable Farms ANU, and Soils for Life. This project has received funding from the Future Drought Fund. We acknowledge that the contents of this page do not necessarily reflect the views of these contributors.
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