Peter Ayres, Terry Whelan and Bryan James were all part of the formation of Field & Game Australia and in telling their stories for the 60th anniversary celebration they set a challenge for the new generation.
The simple fact is that little has changed from those formative years when a range of challenging issues led to the creation of the original Victorian Field & Game Association.
Threats to wetland habitat, access for hunting, public opinion of hunters, hunter behaviour and political advocacy were very real issues in the 1950s, and they still are, so the fight is really a constant one to maintain and build on what we have.
Terry Whelan worked at a tannery with a lot of hunters and clay target shooters, and quickly joined Field & Game.
“I was always a keen shooter,” he said. “I remember going to church as a kid with Mum and Dad and following flies on people’s backs with my finger; I didn’t get any, I didn’t have the lead right probably.”
Terry, the youngest of seven children, grew up on a farm in Gippsland and by the age of 10, he was the proud owner of a Daisy air gun.
“It was ‘watch out for the birds’ around home then,” he said.
“I think I bought the first Lithgow .22 with rabbit skin money when I was 12. We roamed the paddocks; you didn’t even ask for permission then, you just went with the dogs and a rifle, or later a shotgun.”
Times were changing though, and in the early 1950s, the Field Sportsman’s Association formed to build better relationships with property owners and maintain areas to hunt.
Peter Ayres recalls meeting in Sale, where the idea for a hunter conservation organisation was first floated.
“There were several things on the agenda, the most important one was that all the wetlands were privately owned and we looked like losing them,” he said.
“We could see the writing on the wall.”
Peter said it was a reporter from the Gippsland Times, where he worked for 46 years, who planted the seed.
“He got up and said, ‘The only thing I can see is you fellas have to form an organisation and you have to pay a fee’, which brought a lot of groans,” Peter said.
“In those days there was no licence fee, no arms licence, nothing, but he said we needed to do it to buy the wetlands back.”
Peter said hunters were drawn to the idea because they had come to the realisation that if nothing was done, the habitat and hunting opportunity would be lost forever.
In those days, after a string of flood events, Peter said water was considered an enemy of progress.
“All they thought about was draining it,” he said.
Saving wetlands and convincing the government of the day to impose a fee on hunters and use the proceeds to set up the State Game Reserve network created a legacy still enjoyed by members today.
“I was really pleased when the Association formed and I’ve been involved ever since,” Terry said.
“Our family has always helped with the nesting boxes; I’ve got five boys and I have always encouraged them to be conservationists, we help with anything.”
Bryan James was also involved from the beginning of the Field Sportsman’s Association and later Field & Game.
“The Shire president Ray Archibald had property down at Hollands Landing and he was having a lot of trouble and looked like closing access to his property. He thought we should do something to create an organisation land owners could trust,” Bryan said.
“It didn’t take long to realise we needed an organisation that could also deal with government because there were concerns about the draining of swamps for farming and it was clear that government intervention would be needed.
“We needed something more than a disconnected crowd of shooters.”
Bryan said the achievements of those early days were made easier by having a sympathetic government led by Sir Henry Bolte, who was also a keen duck hunter.
Even so, he said the conservation efforts of hunters, and their willingness to pay to protect precious habitat, established a reputation that continues to serve us well.
“Our reputation speaks for itself,” he said.
Bryan was unable to make the 60th dinner but in a video message he said it should act as a new beginning for the next generation of hunter conservationists.
“It is perhaps a fresh starting point for the younger generation to strive to achieve the same things,” he said.
“You have to be pretty vigilant to make sure other people with different opinions don’t hold sway and you have to emphasise your conservation credentials.”