Satirist John Clarke leaves conservation legacy

29 July 2020


John Clarke’s legacy was never in doubt. The actor, famed for his satirical comedy on the ABC, left a body of work fans will enjoy for decades when he passed away in 2017.

However the family of the late comedian, who was also a passionate conservationist and ornithologist, has now left another invaluable gift in his name - a small area of globally significant wetland on Phillip Island.

Helen McDonald, John’s widow, recently donated an eight hectare property that she owned with her husband to Victorian not-for-profit conservation organisation Trust for Nature. It’s a timely gift, given John would have celebrated his 72nd birthday this week (July 29).

The land is part of the unique, richly biodiverse Rhyll Inlet, which is one of the most significant sites for migratory birds in Australia and recognised as a globally significant wetland under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. 

The property will be used for environmental and educational purposes, with close consultation from the Bunurong Land Council. The Bunurong are the traditional owners of Phillip Island. 

“This is very much about leaving a legacy,” Helen said. “John would have loved to know this land is going to Trust for Nature. It’s the natural choice for me. It really is my heart’s desire.” 

John and Helen had a love affair with Phillip Island, owning a holiday house on a separate property to the donated land and living on the island part time for 37 years. During this time, John’s passion for birdlife and Rhyll Inlet grew, contributing to many happy memories with his family. 

“John became an avid bird watcher and photographer,” Helen said. “He loved to watch the kookaburras with his young grandchildren. We also enjoyed the project of spotting the huge and beautiful sea eagles.”

In 1999 an opportunity to purchase the eight hectare property as a conservation project came up, and John and Helen didn’t hesitate. “We wanted to continue this important work,” Helen said. 

The property was already placed under a conservation covenant - a legally-binding agreement permanently protecting native vegetation - with Trust for Nature by the prior owners. 

Over the following 18 years, John and Helen built on the previous owners’ conservation legacy by encouraging the regrowth of the indigenous grasses, orchid, and swamp paperbarks; eradicating weeds; allowing fallen wood to accumulate for habitat; erecting wallaby exclosures; and planting 2,000 indigenous cultivars with help from Bass Coast Landcare. These plantations are now thriving, hosting a wide variety of flora and fauna. 

After John died of natural causes while hiking and taking photos of birds in the Grampians National Park, Helen decided to donate the property to ensure the continued conservation of the precious land. “I’m devastated about climate change and I know every little bit helps,” Helen said.  

Trust for Nature Port Phillip and Westernport Manager Ben Cullen said the gift is invaluable. 

“This is such a significant part of the landscape and it’s a gift that gives new hope for threatened species in the area,” Ben said. “John and Helen have already done such an incredible job of rehabilitating the land and we look forward to continuing this work, incorporating traditional owner knowledge. We are very grateful.” 

Trust for Nature owns 44 conservation reserves across Victoria, mostly donated or purchased with donated money. Trust for Nature has partnered with 1,450 landholders across the state to protect their land with conservation covenants, bringing the total protected to more than 100,000 ha of Victoria.

Helen still plans to visit the property with her grandchildren and said the land will continue to hold a special place in their hearts. “After John died, every little thing seemed extra significant,” she said. “A sea eagle started to come and circle the property. They’re quite rare, so John would have loved that.” 

John was born in New Zealand but made his name as a comedian and political satirist in Australia after arriving in the 1970s. For 27 years, he appeared on Australian television conducting mock interviews and skewering politicians with his comedy partner, Bryan Dawe.

Media contact

Kathy Cogo, Media and Communications Manager, Trust for Nature, 0466 015 183,