THEY were only wild orchids, but the sheer delight of spotting such gems of nature was as good as finding buried treasure as far as little Shirley Duffield was concerned.
Eight decades have passed since those idyllic family picnics when her nature-loving mother and aunt would take Shirley and her siblings on forays into the bush near Horsham in search of the exquisite flowers.
“There would be such excitement when we found one,” she recalls, the memory of the awakening of a lifelong love of nature still fresh.
Ms Duffield never married, but in Warrnambool’s Field Naturalists Club (WFNC) she found the kinship and shared passion for nature in like-minded souls.
“It was just made for people like myself,” she said of the club as it marks its 60-year anniversary.
“The club has been a big part of my life. I’ve always lived by myself, but those people (club members) are like my family.
“You share so much. Living in the country, you would see a lot of things, and each month you have a show-and-tell.”
She recalls one such highlight back in 1967 when she spotted an endangered Eastern Barred bandicoot at Brucknell Creek.
Now 85, Ms Duffield lives at the Ralph Illidge Sanctuary, runs a nearby small beef farm and delights in her nine-hectare bush block whose native vegetation is forever protected by a legally-binding conservation covenant. Since moving at the age of 18 from her childhood farm at Horsham to Naringal, she has rarely strayed far.
The longest-serving member of the Warrnambool Field Naturalists Club, Ms Duffield signed up alongside founding members like Ralph Illidge, Keith Shrader and John Edge, just months after the club’s inaugural March, 1958, meeting.
Allansford’s Reverend Shrader and Mr Edge had called a meeting with a view to establishing a local bird observers club, but the idea failed to gain support and a wider-interest Field Naturalists Club resulted instead.
Present and longest-serving club president of eight years Rob Wallis says the fledgling organisation’s immediate focus was the “appalling degradation” of Tower Hill.
Despite being classified in 1892 as Victoria’s first national park, mismanagement by the then Koroit Borough Council and years of grazing, mining, farming and clearing, had left the volcanic landmark degraded and denuded.
Ms Duffield recalls rolling up her sleeves and joining club members in 1959 on one of its many tree-planting excursions to Tower Hill after council allocated the club half a hectare of land to revegetate using plants grown by Warrnambool Primary School pupils.
Control and use of the park became a hot topic of public debate in the next few years with a visit by National Parks Authority chairman Dr L. H Smith and lobbying by WFNC for sanctuary status. In 1961 control was handed to the Fisheries and Wildlife Department, giving it state game reserve status.
By 1966, about 24,000 trees had been planted, and by the 1980s, many wildlife species and 160 bird species successfully reintroduced. WFNC members were also instrumental in building the reserve’s natural history centre.
In the club’s 60-year history, the Tower Hill revegetation project remains one of its most significant achievements, playing a pivotal role in the outcome, according to Professor Wallis: “The club kickstarted the revegetation project which the government then supported,” he said.
“It can take credit for reigniting interest in Tower Hill. It got off its backside and did something about it and mobilized a lot of other groups into acting.”
In line with the club’s stronger contemporary advocacy role, WFNC is once again preparing to go into bat for Tower Hill, this time backing a push to reinstate the landmark’s national park status.
Professor Wallis said despite its small size, from a geological perspective alone, Tower Hill was significant enough to warrant national park classification.
“Once national park status is granted to an area, by law, there has to be certain management actions to ensure the goals of the park are met,” he said.
With a current membership of 20, all of them retirees, the Warrnambool Field Naturalists’ halcyon days of the 1960s and ‘70s when it boasted a 100-plus membership may be well behind it.
In an era of so many competing interests and pastimes, both Professor Wallis and Ms Duffield despair of attracting younger members to the club.
“A lot of the clubs are struggling. It’s been hard to get new people to keep the club going when the older ones are gone. Perhaps we need to try and get little children interested,” Ms Duffield said.
Nevertheless, monthly field outings to sites such as Maam wetlands north of Allansford, Ralph Illidge Sanctuary, Framlingham Forest or the Bay of Islands Coastal Reserve continue with flora and fauna sightings duly recorded. Monthly meetings with a guest speaker remain popular.
While other regional naturalist clubs have folded – less than a handful remain of the 12 that once operated Victoria-wide – Professor Wallis is optimistic that Warrnambool’s is sufficiently relevant to ensure its survival.
“By taking on a different role as an advocacy group for the environment, a learning group and by being closely linked with Deakin University, I think there’s a future for the club,” he said.
In recent times the club’s advocacy role has extended to the Belfast Coastal Reserve management plan, the Middle Island Maremma project and the Southern Grampians Harman Valley lava flow.
Professor Wallis said he believed the club would continue to be recognised as an expert advisory community group to local councils and Parks Victoria which is currently enlisting members to help document wildlife and weed species at designated sites.
The club also enjoys a strong working relationship with organisations such as Warrnambool Coastcare Landcare Network, Friends of Pallisters Reserve and the Basalt to Bay Landcare Network.
The former Deakin University head of the School of Ecology and Environment and the Pro Vice Chancellor (Rural and Regional) based at Warrnambool, Professor Wallis acknowledged the university had played an important role in the survival of the WFNC.
“It has provided a constant source of interesting speakers presenting research to the club, particularly having PhD students come in and talk about their research,” he said.
“Having that academic credibility of the people who come to speak has been key. We have had some very prestigious people because of Deakin.
“Some have been good enough to come back several times.”
The club also counts among its highlights the publication of a book The Nature of Warrnambool, comprising a series of 25 articles related to local nature and conservation issues.
Produced in the early 2000s and reprinted twice, it was used as a textbook for university students.
As part of the WFNC’s 60-year celebrations, two lectures are scheduled in the coming weeks with the public invited to attend.
On Wednesday, August 22, Federation University’s Grant Palmer will discuss a book he has been commissioned to write by the CSIRO entitled Mammals of the Otways.
On September 26 Professor Wallis will talk about the club’s role in the restoration of Tower Hill with reference to artist Eugene Von Guerard’s iconic 1855 Tower Hill painting as a historical document to inform the revegetation project.
Both lectures will be held at 7.30pm at the CWA Hall in Kepler Street, Warrnambool, RSVP to Warrnamboolfnc@gmail.com