SMH Date May 17, 2016 – 9:00PM
Audrey Lenning was known for her meticulous eye and vast knowledge and experience. Photo: Supplied
In 1964 Audrey Lenning was a foundation member of the Ashton Park Association, now Mosman Parks and Bushland Association Incorporated, and for the rest of her life was an active campaigner for the protection of bushland and open space both locally and further afield. She firmly believed in the motto, “The price of bushland is eternal vigilance”.
The Ashton Park group was the first association devoted to the conservation of urban bushland formed in Australia and was initially in response to the land being bulldozed for an unnecessary road. Lenning and others lobbied the then minister of lands to save the park from the construction of a car park by Taronga Zoo. Out of these efforts grew the bushland management industry.
Lenning was also revered for her work with the Bradley sisters in developing a system of bush regeneration that is still used.
Conservationist Audrey Lenning fought for more than 50 years to preserve bushland in Mosman. Photo: Supplied
Audrey Joy Corbett was born on March 19, 1926. She was the first of two daughters to Harold Corbett, a Mosman realtor and fifth-generation Australian, and his wife, Muriel (nee Read), who had been visiting Australia from London, aged 19, with her uncle, a British admiral, when World War I broke out. It was deemed safer for Muriel to remain in Sydney and her uncle returned alone for battle. Audrey and Harold met, married in 1921 and moved into the house that Harold had had built for them. It remains the family home to this day.
After a free-spirited Mosman childhood, sliding down gullies, hitching rides with the milkman, who kept his horse at Middle Head, and running through flannel flowers, boronias and grevilleas in heathland that is now Rawson Park, Audrey matriculated from North Sydney Girls High School. Her first choice of career was medicine – however, her father was not of the view that this was a profession for women. So she gained a Bachelor of Economics at the University of Sydney in the late 1940s then went travelling and working in Europe for three years. On her return she secured a position at Fairfax in the then male-dominated Financial Review as its first female commodities writer.
While she was at university, Audrey had met Ray Lenning, who had come to Australia as a refugee from Prussia, and the pair courted at the State Library in Macquarie Street. They would study together, reading philosophy and poetry, then Ray would walk Audrey to the ferry at Circular Quay. He was enamoured by what he described as her “quiet English reserve”. They married in 1955 and built a house in Clifton Gardens.
After leaving Fairfax to start a family, Lenning met Eileen and Joan Bradley while taking her daughter to a small kindergarten in the house next door to them.
On their walks around Clifton Gardens, the sisters had been observing that the bush was being overrun by weeds and that birdlife was in decline. The methods of the day for controlling weeds, slash and burn, were not working.
The Bradleys and their friends, Lenning and future mayor of Mosman Barry O’Keefe among them, worked on a new method of clearing out non-native growth. The system involved moving gradually from relatively weed-free areas to those more densely weed infested, disturbing the soil as little as possible so native seeds could germinate.
The method was slow but it allowed the bush to regenerate of its own accord.
The Bradleys, Lenning, Joan Larking, June Gram, Jean Walker and O’Keefe began applying the principle of working from good bush to bad in various reserves around Mosman.
For 46 years Lenning continuously held office in the original organisation and the MPBA, where she was still vice-president in 2010. Her role was key both as campaigner and bush regenerator. Early in her life as an activist and always in a voluntary capacity, Lenning became a person whose opinion and support was sought and valued by other activists and groups in their campaigns. She was known for her meticulous eye and vast knowledge and experience.
In the 1970s, when the battle for Kellys Bush in Hunters Hill began, Lenning and Joan Bradley attended meetings and gave advice from their experience, which helped to ensure the success of that campaign.
At Mosman Council Lenning was a constant advocate for public land and bushland, gaining respect for her knowledge, intelligent insight and dogged determination. She was an effective negotiator with government departments at all levels, her quiet gracious demeanour belying a steely will never to give up.
Her single-minded dedication to bushland over more than 50 years inspired and motivated countless individuals and organisations to take up the cause.
One of the more important and later challenges on which Lenning worked was the battle over zoning of Mosman bushland. The MPBA preference was to choose “E2 Bushland”, rather than as “Open Space”, which would promote inappropriate development.
For many years Lenning was also a member of the Nature Conservation Council’s Urban Bushland Committee and played an active role liaising with countless other organisations, including the National Trust and the Total Environment Centre.
From 2002 to 2007 Lenning was a member of the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust’s Community Advisory Committee formed after the decommissioning of Defence land on Middle Head and Georges Heights.
Nick Hollo, artist and former deputy executive director of the trust, remembers working with Lenning.
“She was wonderful to work with, always bright and passionate. She’d listen carefully then pull everything together so analytically. When we were dividing building blocks on Markham Close we wanted to preserve the ridge line. Audrey came to us, not in a meeting but on her own time, with a better plan, moving the blocks slightly and that is what was used. She was polite and witty and determined, but she just wanted to get the best outcome, and people like that are incredibly rare.”
The current president of the MPBA, Kate Eccles, said, “I was one of Audrey’s devotees and she was a mentor to me. She was a great inspiration to bush regenerators and people concerned with saving public land.” Indeed, Lenning continued to mentor long after she retreated from public life. One afternoon, after another visitor had left and a spate of telephone inquiries seeking advice or comment, she quietly remarked to herself, “They’ll just have to learn to manage by themselves”.
Lenning was also a founding member of the Friends of Bradley Bushland, established in 1984 to protect the reserve on Middle Head Road named in commemoration of the pioneering work of the Bradleys. Lenning continued working to maintain the reserve for moe than 20 years.
Lenning contributed to and edited many publications including Weeds & Their Control, the MPBA’s publication Bush Regeneration, Bringing Back The Bush, and Drug Dependence with Professor Catherine le Fevre in 1968, on behalf of The Middle Harbour Group of the NSW Association of University Women Graduates.
In 2008 Lenning was diagnosed with vascular dementia but maintained a healthy interest in all things political and environmental to the end. Ultimately she achieved her original intention to make a useful contribution to medical science by donating her body to the University of Sydney’s Body Donor Program.
She is survived by her daughter Angela, son-in-law Tom, grandsons Dean and Tommy and great-grandchildren.