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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Ronald Francis (Ron) Hateley (1948–2011)

by Rob Youl and David Williams

Unassuming Ron [Ronald Francis] Hateley, a gifted ecologist and inspirational communicator, died recently, almost a year after publication of his life’s work, The Victorian Bush—its ‘original and natural’ condition.

Ron grew up in tiny Kiata, a pub and some houses on the Western Highway, but with the Little Desert as his backyard. Inspired by his park ranger father Keith Hateley OAM, an accomplished naturalist and anthropologist, the shy, easy-going seventeen-year-old left home in 1966 for the Victorian School of Forestry (VSF), unaware that its Creswick campus would play a big part in his life.

After diploma studies—he was dux—and a Bachelor of Science in Forestry at Melbourne University, he started post-graduate work in quantitative ecology. In 1976, he began lecturing in botany and ecology at the VSF, at the time still run by the Forests Commission Victoria. The extraordinarily informative notes on Australian forest types he distributed differed markedly from the traditional teaching of his own VSF student days, when lectures more or less meant dictation, and the set-in-stone course reflected European environments.

By then he had married Margaret Gorman, a midwife from Casterton. In 1978 Ron and Margaret moved to Clunes, and quickly integrated into the community, making many loyal friends. Renovating their old cottage and enhancing its substantial grounds became their passion. Ron’s cottage garden was outstanding, with salvaged basalt and bricks used creatively amongst heritage trees, shrubs and herbs.

His children did the lifting for these projects because, in the late 1970s, a spinal injury caused by a fall from a bridge at St Georges Lake a decade earlier inevitably caught up with Ron. In his thirties, Ron faced premature retirement. Fortunately things worked out less direly and Ron returned, albeit with increasing pain, to lecturing at Creswick, which became part of the University of Melbourne in 1980. However, his injury deteriorated further and was chronic over the last decade or so. Happily, Clunes proved a very caring community, which Ron loved unconditionally, with its friendships, book festival, bocce games, coffee shops, nearby bush and wetlands, squatting history, volunteer medical support and proximity to Creswick campus and its library and faculty. His prized sports car took him on afternoon rural drives.

A gifted communicator, winner of two university awards for teaching excellence, Ron’s trade would always be lecturing. A short conversation sufficed to demonstrate his knowledge, enthusiasm and ability to get his message across on any subject. His approach was to stimulate and motivate students, to generate a desire to learn rather than merely convey information. He always respected their views, thereby winning great affection and respect. Over thirty years he trained hundreds of students now working throughout Australian forestry and other arenas, and overseas, who often attest that Ron was the initial inspiration in their careers. Ron gained great pleasure from the many who stayed in touch.

Community environmental groups often approached Ron for advice. His great generosity in this regard earned him a joint Victorian Community and Local History Award in 1999, the latter for his work in developing Creswick’s La Gerche Walking Track, commemorating a pioneer forester of the late 1800s.

Ron sought to better understand the complexities of interacting ecological factors over time, along the way developing high-quality teaching material and aids, as well as his own ideas about the influences of natural events and human activity on our forests. Much of Ron’s work was very advanced and should have been made more broadly available. Ironically, whilst Ron was a generous judge of others, and especially his students, he was a most severe critic of his own work. He would decline publication or wider offerings of his work because of his unfounded view that it was not of deserving standard. His doctoral thesis in the 1970s went the same way.

Fortunately in 2010, The Victorian Bush emerged, possibly his greatest professional highlight. A mountain of work underpinned the book, but how would it be published? In this Ron was indebted to the late Alf Leslie who provided years of intellectual rigour, and to Rob Youl, a forestry colleague who privately published the book. At the same time, Ron, Rob, and Ron’s great friend and fellow-lecturer, Brian Fry, were working on a history of forestry education in Victoria, published last year, the centenary of the VSF, as Circumspice.

The Victorian Bush represents Ron’s views on the factors affecting our landscapes before European settlement: drought, fire, wind, snow, ice, hail, frost and Aboriginal practices, with additional less widely recognised factors since then. Whilst the book is non-technical and reader-friendly, it also challenges conventional wisdom. Of course, in Ron’s fashion, these challenges are based on scientific evidence and painstaking searches through the logs, journals, reports and diaries of early navigators, travellers, settlers and miners. In the months after the book appeared, and the long drought broke, Creswick Creek flooded Clunes with a vengeance, more than once. Ron realised that he had overlooked occasional major flooding and its effect on riparian vegetation, streambed profiles and the northern plains in general, and had started on a second edition.

Ron leaves behind three children, Andrew, Rebecca and James, and a younger sister Rhonda and her family. Margaret Hateley sadly passed away in 2002.

Original publication

  • Forester , vol 54, no 4 , December 2011 , pp 24-25

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Rob Youl and David Williams, 'Hateley, Ronald Francis (Ron) (1948–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

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