Story: Welch, Elwyn Owen Arnold

Page 1 - Biography

Welch, Elwyn Owen Arnold

1925–1961

Farmer, ornithologist, conservationist, missionary

This biography was written by Gareth Winter and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

Elwyn Owen Arnold Welch was born in Masterton on 13 January 1925, the son of Ethel Falkner and her husband, Owen Welch, a farmer. Ethel’s family was from nearby Kaiparoro, where her father had built the first sawmill in the district. The Welch family farmed Kelvin Grove on the northern flanks of Mt Bruce. Elwyn was educated at Kaiparoro and Mikimiki schools, and for a time as a correspondence student. He then boarded at Wairarapa College, Masterton, where he took the agricultural course and passed matriculation before returning to the family farm. After his marriage to Shirley Noeline Elizabeth Burridge, in Wellington on 7 February 1948, he took over Kelvin Grove, his parents shifting to an adjoining property they had recently purchased.

From early infancy Elwyn Welch had an intense interest in the natural world. As a child he frequently brought home wild kittens and young birds; as a teenager he roamed the Tararua Range near his farm, tramping and shooting goats. Birds became his passion, in particular the species he was familiar with from tramping, and he became one of New Zealand’s paramount amateur ornithologists. He commenced his practical conservation work by hand-raising grey teal chicks, and by the mid 1950s, when the work he had carried out on his farm became better known, he was regarded as an expert in raising endangered species.

When the government decided to attempt to artificially breed the recently rediscovered takahe in 1957, the Wildlife Division contacted Welch. An elaborate plan was devised to bring young chicks out of the Murchison Mountains. Welch trained a team of bantam hens to raise pukeko chicks, then conditioned them for a trip into the wild by carrying them around his farm in specially constructed pens. In 1958 the hens were taken to Takahe Valley in Fiordland, and the takahe chicks brought to the North Island under the wings of the foster-mother bantams.

The project was undertaken in absolute secrecy. Welch and his two assistants, Gordon Williams from the Wildlife Division and Peter Morrison from the National Film Unit, travelled under assumed names, and even when the chicks were safely back at Mt Bruce their exact location was kept secret. When the takahe were first displayed to the public in 1960, over 13,000 people visited Kelvin Grove in three weeks. The Wildlife Division was keen to initiate a further breeding programme with kakapo. In early 1961 a number of birds were captured in Fiordland and taken to Kelvin Grove, where the division hoped to learn something of the habits of this largely unknown bird.

At the height of his success as an ornithologist, however, Elwyn Welch felt the call to follow another of his passions. He and Shirley decided to take their children to Nigeria to work for the Sudan Interior Mission. A member of the Open Brethren congregation since his teens, Welch had preached to a number of different denominations in Wairarapa, and studied by correspondence with the New Zealand Bible Training Institute. The government, which had been searching for a base to establish a breeding programme for native birds, purchased Kelvin Grove, and in April 1961 the Welches left for Nigeria. There, they ran a guest house for missionaries based in the interior of the country, as well as undertaking preaching duties.

In early December Welch started suffering terrible night fevers. He had contracted bulbar poliomyelitis, and on 10 December 1961, just seven months after leaving Wairarapa, he died at Jos, Nigeria, aged 36. He was survived by Shirley, two daughters and a son.

Elwyn Welch’s contribution to conservation is celebrated in Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, now on a reserve a kilometre from Kelvin Grove. He is remembered not only for his passion for New Zealand’s avifauna but also for his firm Christian faith, and for his willingness to give of himself in following both his callings.