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Butcher, Alfred Dunbavin (Alf) (1915–1990)

by P. S. Lake

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Alfred Dunbavin (Alf) Butcher (1915-1990), biologist, manager of natural resources and public servant, was born on 4 June 1915 at Hamilton, Victoria, fourth child of Thomas William Butcher, Methodist clergyman, and his wife Grace Eliza, née Trevena, both born in Victoria. On leaving Geelong College, Alf began studying agricultural science but switched to science at the University of Melbourne (B.Sc., 1939; M.Sc., 1943). On 23 August 1940 at St David’s Presbyterian Church, Newtown, Geelong, he married Bessell Carter Batten, a clerk.

In 1941 Butcher was appointed a biologist in the fisheries and game (later fisheries and wildlife) branch of the Victorian Department of the Chief Secretary. With rudimentary facilities he researched a variety of problems in fisheries management, including diseases of fish in hatcheries, the state of Quinnat salmon stocks, conservation of bream in the Gippsland Lakes, and the diets of Victorian freshwater species. His M.Sc. thesis was on parasites of fish. He was promoted to inspector of fisheries in 1947 and director of fisheries and game in 1949. His branch managed game birds and mammals and commercial fisheries, and attempted to meet the demands of sporting hunters, anglers and professional fishermen. Eager to educate the public, he produced material such as pamphlets, newspaper articles and chapters in books, and travelled extensively to consult fishermen and shooters. In 1954-55 he undertook a study tour of North America and returned strengthened in his belief that wildlife management and conservation must have a scientific foundation.

The prevailing view of conservation was a utilitarian one in which wise use of natural resources based on scientific investigation was the guiding principle. Butcher worked tirelessly to develop a strong research base. In the 1950s the staff was increased and facilities improved at the Snobs Creek Freshwater Fishery Research Station and Hatchery, near Eildon. The Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research was opened at Heidelberg, Melbourne, in 1970. Progressively under Butcher’s direction, the branch expanded its role and addressed a wide range of issues, such as pesticides, pollution, land degradation and sustainable resource utilisation. He successfully blocked attempts to divide and `rationalize’ the organisation. In 1973 it was transferred to the new Ministry for Conservation, in which he was promoted to deputy-director.

In 1966 Butcher had been appointed the first biologist on the Land Utilization Advisory Council. This body became embroiled in the controversy over land use in the Little Desert, a significant issue in the rise of an environmental consciousness in Australia. Advice by the council in 1968 played a major part in convincing the government to halt development and convert the area into a national park. In 1971 the LUAC was replaced by the Land Conservation Council, on which Butcher served until 1973. Having acted (from 1968) as deputy-chairman of the co-ordinating committee which supervised a pioneering environmental study of Port Phillip Bay, in 1971 he was appointed chairman of the executive committee responsible for a similar investigation into Westernport Bay, which recommended the preservation of the natural values of the region and judicious planning for its development.

Butcher was a member of the Victorian State committee of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (1961-78), the National Parks Authority (1957-71), the Victorian Environment Protection Council (1971-73), the Australian Fishing Industry Research Committee (1970-72), the council of the Victorian Institute of Marine Sciences (1977-89) and numerous other scientific, conservation and resource-management organisations. He had attended the inaugural meeting of the Australian Conservation Foundation in 1964 and joined its executive committee in 1966, but he resigned in 1973 over what he perceived as a `radical takeover’ of the foundation. In 1971-72 he was president of the Royal Society of Victoria. He was a guiding force as a trustee of the World Wildlife Fund Australia in 1979-84.

Appointed an ex officio member of the Zoological Board of Victoria in 1947, Butcher became chairman in 1962 and held office for twenty-five years. He transformed the (Royal) Melbourne Zoological Gardens from a `B grade’ to an `A grade’ institution, replacing barred pens with spacious enclosures, setting up an excellent education service and inaugurating the Friends of the Zoos Society. The highlight of his work was the Butterfly House (opened in 1985 and named after him in 1990), which `united all four objectives of the modern zoo’: conservation, research, education and recreation.

Butcher retired from the public service in 1978. Six feet (183 cm) tall, he had been an imposing senior officer, `absolutely devastating when he got into action’. In 1986 the University of Melbourne awarded him an honorary doctorate of science. He was appointed CMG (1978) and AO (1987). Although he listed gardening as his only hobby, he belonged to the Melbourne Club and also found time to support the Boy Scouts’ Association. He died on 28 May 1990 at Heidelberg and was cremated. His wife and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. de Courcy, The Zoo Story (1995)
  • L. Robin, Defending the Little Desert (1998)
  • B. Broadbent, Inside the Greening (1999)
  • Australasian Science, vol 19, no 4, 1998, p 56
  • Herald (Melbourne), 22 June 1963, p 6
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Feb 1978, p 4.

Citation details

P. S. Lake, 'Butcher, Alfred Dunbavin (Alf) (1915–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/butcher-alfred-dunbavin-alf-12273/text22033, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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