Betty Learmouth has organized many a letter writing campaign and stared down developers before. Now there’s talk of a truck route running through nearby protected areas. Hmm…
by Bruce Gillespie
Betty Learmouth has traipsed into the woods before dawn, cassette player cranked to full blast, trying to lure screech owls out into the open to be counted. She has taken part in a number of inventories – of hawks, butterflies, rare plants. She has also helped found organizations such as the Canada South Land Trust, which works with woodlot owners to turn their properties into conservation areas to be enjoyed for generations to come. And she has written countless newsletters in the past 20 years in the name of helping to protect natural areas. For all this work, she received the 2002 Ontario Nature Achievement Award.
Originally from Halifax, Learmouth is a tall, fit 64-yearold retired teacher-librarian, with a soft, measured tone of voice. She fondly remembers a childhood spent exploring the fields and ponds near her home on the city’s outskirts, Peterson field guide in hand.“We had grasshoppers in the backyard because we didn’t have pesticides like we do now, and I remember there were salamanders in the hedge, under the leaves. Our cities are so sanitized now, but back then, nature was right there,” she says.
When she moved to Windsor for work in 1970, she was surprised at how few natural areas there were, as much of the land along the nearby Lake St. Clair shoreline had been turned into summer home estates. Learmouth became accustomed to city living after a time, but that changed when a colleague invited her to go warbler watching at Point Pelee. “That rekindled my interest [in nature] and it became a major hobby,” says Learmouth. “You go to these places and they refresh you and make you open your eyes. You can listen to birdsong in the morning and you can take your dog and get away from things for an hour, so they’re pretty special. But we can lose them so quickly. And basically, with development, we’re losing here every day.”
In 1984, Learmouth and a group of fellow volunteers founded the Essex County Field Naturalists’ Club to help preserve natural habitats for birds and other creatures. She joined the executive a few years later and took over the production of Egret, the club’s quarterly newsletter, which she continues to publish today. Her first taste of activism came a few years later when she heard of plans to turn part of Ruscom Shores Conservation Area – 60 acres of mostly cattail marsh along Lake St. Clair, where Learmouth had spent four years collecting information for a breeding bird atlas – into a golf course. “I went out there to the sedge meadow and here were all these toads, come to breed and lay their eggs. And I thought . . . this is where a golf course is going? This is where these animals live.”
After calling Ontario Nature for advice, she started organizing people to stop the golf course through letter writing campaigns and phone calls. Learmouth spoke at meetings and even held a demonstration at the wetland. After a few months of bad press and an amateur archaeologist’s discovery of Native artifacts that indicated the presence of a burial site, the developer backed down.