The word Illawarra is an Australian aboriginal word early settlers used, and is still used today, to describe the land some 50 miles south of Sydney, land locked between the Pacific Ocean and what was once a near impenetrable escarpment which rears abruptly to the west. With few natural harbours it remained unexplored and unused until a big drought in 1815 forced such settlers as Charles Throsby to seek new pastures.
It was not until the 1840s that dairying commenced as an industry. Cattle up till then were mainly raised for beef. The early settlers had for the most part, cleared the Illawarra area with the assistance of convict labour. All breeds, types and colours of cattle had been introduced into the area.
Cattle grants from Government and private herds reached the Illawarra. These included Longhorn Durhams, Shorthorn Durhams, Red Lincolns, Red Ayrshires and Jerseys. However, three members of the Osborne family from Northern Ireland had, since 1829, laid the foundations of a dairy industry, and in doing so, the evolution of the breed we know as (the Australian) Illawarras. The Osbornes imported the best cattle, promoted the first Agricultural Show at Wollongong and encouraged others in forming a dairy industry.
The Australian and Californian gold rushes provided the impetus for an expansion of the industry and the Illawarra area took up the demand for butter and other dairy products, and dairy has remained an important Illawarra industry ever since.
The Illawarra breeders were credited with having a flair for stockbreeding and an “eye for a good beast”. The 1860s ushered in a new era about which records and facts became more accurately recorded. Several outstanding bulls were imported and breeding aimed at evolving a dairy breed of cattle to suit the environment was earnestly pursued.
In 1898 the embargo was lifted allowing a fresh wave of cattle imports. Breeders introduced Jersey, Guernsey, Kerri Dexter, Friesian, Shorthorn and Ayrshire bloodlines and it was from this amalgamation that the Australian Illawarra dairy cattle descended.
One Ayrshire bull from Victoria, named “The Earl of Beaconsfield” proved outstanding when mated with cattle of the Illawarra. The progeny was magnificent and amongst the most celebrated was a cow called “Honeycomb”. Claimed to be Champion Dairy Cow of the world in the early 1890's, she was also invincible in the show ring and winner of all the milk and butterfat awards. This was the cow that inspired the Illawarras, and the breeding programs began revolving around Red and Roan Shorthorns and Ayrshire bulls. Studs became more prevalent and spread to many other parts of Australia including Queensland.
In 1899 a contingent of “Illawarra cattle” were registered in the Milking Shorthorn Herd Book. In 1910, dairymen met at Kiama to establish another Herd Book, under the title Illawarra Dairy Cattle.
Milking Shorthorn and Illawarra Dairy Cattle Societies continued to flourish and expand throughout all Australian States. In Queensland the two breed Societies amalgamated to form the Illawarra Dairy Cattle Association of Queensland. This lead to further interstate amalgamations until, after protracted negotiations over many years, a national body called The Australian Illawarra Shorthorn Society was formed in Brisbane in 1930. For many years they were referred to as the Illawarra Shorthorns, or “the A.I.S. cattle”.
Now the term Illawarras is commonplace and the Society is called The Illawarra Cattle Society of Australia. The “Shorthorn” was dropped from the name because it caused confusion to some overseas buyers who associate Shorthorn with dual-purpose animals.
By judicious mating and well-planned breeding programs a standard type of conformation of dairy cattle has emerged which, having been adopted as “The Standard of Excellence” of the breed and zealously applied when examining for “Breed Type” by the Breed Inspectors, the results are evident by noting the consistent “Evenness of Type” of Illawarras whatever region they are found. International recognition has consolidated the breed worldwide.