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Vale Russ Watts – the Birdman of Barraba

Russ Watts, the Birdman of Barraba, died recently at the age of 92. Russ, with his wife Jen, created Barrabaís famous bird routes and also compiled a native flora trail of the Woodsreef area.

Russ made considerable efforts to save the white box woodlands along the Travelling Stock Routes around Barraba that are critical habitat for many bird species. Russ and Jen lived for 12 years at ìDeenderahî south of Barraba on Tarpoly Creek.

Russís eulogy was written by sister- in-law and close friend, Meg Larkin.

Russ Watts was a man who lived fully and lived well.

Born in Melbourne in 1928, the youngest of three children, Russís father was a jeweller.When the Depression started in 1929 the family moved to Sydney and developed a leather business, making soles and heels for shoes.

As a child, Russís family experienced hard times because of the depression. His parentsí marriage failed and he lived mainly with his mother attending a number of schools, but making the most of life close to the Sydney beaches before finally attend- ing Sydney Grammar. Russ wrote in his memoir that he didnít do particularly well at school, but that he did make two lifelong friends while he was there, David Hunt and Howard Cooper. Sadly, Howard died some years ago, but David has been Russís close friend until the end. It seems that Davidís family practically adopted Russ and Ted Hunt, Davidís father, became Russís mentor and long-time advisor. He took the boys camping frequently, learning bushcraft, fishing, walking and shooting rabbits and ducks. David Hunt says the boys were known as ìThe Three Musketeers.î It was here that Russís love of the country life began.

After school, Russ joined his fatherís firm for a short while. He was not happy there and after completing a bookkeep- ing course he wanted to go to the coun- try to be a station bookkeeper. He set off from Sydney with a horse and sulky under which he camped. He got jobs at Forbes, and Orange and then at Keelandi Station in the Pilliga Scrub. Sometimes he worked as a bookkeep- er, but often as a stockman. Russ loved life in these places and wrote warmly of those years. For Russ it was all about the people he met. Station owners and stockmen, barmen and cooks. Colourful characters who populate his stories and writings.

In 1954 Russ joined his friend David Hunt on a trip to UK and the continent. They had a great time together. In London he met his first wife Henny who was working as an au pair for his broth- er Keith and his wife Alison. Russ and Henny returned to Australia and were married in Sydney. They had two sons, Ian and Andrew.

Russ worked as a Stock and Station Agent from 1954 to 1965, spending time in West Wyalong and then in Guyra. His marriage was not successful and his boys returned to Sydney with their mother.

In 1965 Russ came back to Sydney and established himself as a real estate agent. For some time he was in part- nership with John New and Tony Balch. They referred to themselves as ìNuts, Washers and Boltsî and were quite successful. Russ had a property at Mosman and one at Lane Cove which was converted into flatettes. His son Andrew came to live with him there, as did his niece Vic. He took up sailing and over the years had a series of yachts on Sydney Harbour. Much later, when he knew my sister Jen Bright, and the tall ships were in Sydney Harbour for the Bicentennial, he took Jen and my fami- ly sailing amongst these amazing tall masted beauties. It was a brisk day. We shot down the Harbour, heeled over, ducking and weaving like there was no tomorrow, with me clutching my young children, sure weíd never make it home. But we did.

Russ had met my sister Jen Bright sometime in the eighties. For some time they lived in Sydney, renovating houses in Manly and travelling extensively to Europe and Asia.

Russ wrote in his memoir, ìI have moved many times during my life. More than twenty. My happiest recollections, my most worthwhile times of achieve- ment happened after I married Jenny Bright in 1990. We married under the Jacaranda tree at ìGossanbarî the Bright family property at Barraba.î

ìWe purchased 320 hilly acres fronting Tarpoly Creek halfway between Barraba and Manilla. We called it ìDeenderahî. Situated on a hill, long views to the west and north. I thought of some lines from a poem, ëWe live in a timber castle, covered with corrugated iron. Almost any day you can see more than a country mileíî.

Jen and Russ lived at ìDeenderahî for 12 years. Russ said he was the hap- piest he had ever been. They bought some cows and a bull, but becoming more and more environmentally con- scious, understocked the property to allow the land to regenerate. The calves were all called ìThe Ratepayers.î The Barraba community welcomed Jen and Russ. They were soon included in many community activities and they were able to develop their passion for birds and enthusiastically undertook actions to protect and save our environ- ment.

Russ came up with a plan which he took to the Barraba Council. He named it ìHow to make Barraba the most attractive small town in Australiaî. Russ
proposed to set up flora and fauna trails to attract visitors. The Bird Routes of Barraba had begun. With a $1200 grant from the Council he, Jen and their team of volunteers, set up 12 signs around the district and created brochures describing the bird routes and the birds that the bird watchers could hope to find.
It was first for Australia. The project was submitted for a National Award for Innovation in Local Government in 2000. Barraba Council was awarded two national awards as a result of this, one for the state and the other for the entire nation.

Publicity followed, and Russ trav- elled with the Council GM to many shires, as far north as Townsville. Many communities established Bird Routes. He became known as ìThe Birdman of Barrabaî

During this time Russ also compiled a Native flora trail of the Woodsreef area and continued his efforts to save the white box woodlands along the Travelling Stock Routes.

Another project was ìA Tribute to the Age of Steamî, which involved the erec- tion of 17 Oppenheimer Patent tele- phone posts and the restored railway gate at the southern entrance to Barraba.

In the Queenís Birthday Honours in 2008 Russ was awarded an AM, the citation being:
ëFor service to conservation and the environment through advocacy roles for the preservation of endangered flora and fauna, particularly native bird species, and to the development of eco- tourism initiativesí.

In 2002, Russ and Jen had decided to move to Tamworth. Thinking they would like to live in town for a change, they bought a house in Calala, but soon were missing the country, so they sold that and moved to ìBalanjindiî in Porcupine Lane close to Kootingal. It had a comfortable house on about 50 wild acres. When they bought the prop- erty there was a small, but very proud dog called Brutus left behind by the pre- vious owners. He adopted Jen and Russ and became a really important and longstanding part of their lives.

It was always about the people. At ìBalanjindiî, Jen and Russís social lives flourished, with very memorable parties on their large gauzed in veranda for their many friends. They continued to be active in the Tamworth community and participated in support of the Regional Gallery and all of the cultural life that Tamworth had to offer.
Jen and Russ also became very involved in the Tamworth Birdwatchers. Russ noted in his memoir that Jen list- ed 104 species of bird at their home. She had a great memory for the birds she had identified and a great ear for their song. Both Jen and Russ thor- oughly enjoyed to company of the Birdwatchers and travelled extensively with the members. They had many tales to tell about their adventures. I recall driving them to Byron Bay for the Writers Festival, another of their great passions. We would be travelling along when suddenly there would be a call from the passengerís seat ìRaptor – 2 oíclock highî. Up would come two pairs of binoculars and we would slow or stop to watch those magnificent creatures soaring above us. Tamworth Birdwatchers awarded him a life mem- bership.

2008 is notable for several things in Russís life. He turned 80, he was awarded an AM and Tamworth Regional U3A was founded. Russ immediately joined the new U3A and with his characteristic enthusiasm par- ticipated in many of their courses. A Birdwatching Group was established which he helped to run, he loved the history classes, played chess and scrabble and later canasta. He joined a group who were supporting each other in writing their memoirs. He also joined a Current Affairs discussion group, which kept him engaged until the end of his life. With U3A it was not just the courses, it was the people. Russ loved to seek out interesting people and share their stories. Many lasting friend- ships were made.

In 2010 Jen and Russ moved from ìBalanjndiî back into Tamworth to a house in Hall Street, which they labelled ìthe Far Eastî It was their intention to just keep going with all of the things they loved, but sadly Jen developed an aggressive form of Melanoma and died on 28 May 2011. Russ was devastated and reluctantly had to learn to live alone. For some time he continued with the Birdwatchers and his interests in the preservation of the environment, joining the ëLock the Gateí movement. He joined in their campaign to stop mining in the Boggabri area.

In 2012, aged 84, Russ went out and chained himself to the gate of the Leard State Forest to protest against the destruction of the forest for mining. He was enormously concerned about the loss of habitat for his beloved birds and other fauna and flora. He was arrested and charged. Fortunately, the prosecu- tion didnít proceed.

Russ continued his active life, living at Hall Street until 2018. He loved to have people to stay long term and towards the end of his time there had a young Chinese couple who were trying to settle in Australia. They remember him fondly and have sent grateful thanks for his care.

Feeling his age at 90, in July 2018 Russ was offered a place at Alblas, Uniting Care Aged Care Facility, and decided to take it. He was content to be at Alblas and to be able to continue with the interests he was still capable of doing, frequently catching a taxi to town to enjoy a coffee and talk to friends. The Current Affairs Discussion Group at U3A was a great interest to him and he continued to scour the papers each week for items which would create controversy and stir discussion. Sadly, the Covid crisis put an end to his outings, and lockdown with failing health and failing eyesight made his life very difficult and sad. No one was allowed to visit him, however many continued to keep in touch by phone. He kept telling me that he had had enough and that he was ready to go. he wanted to go. He slipped away on 12 August.
Russ was my friend and it was my privilege to be his.

Be at peace Russ – a well-lived life and a life well-lived.

By Meg Larkin