Ducking progress: Victoria’s duck hunting season
- Published: 12 March 2011
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A three-month duck hunting season, authorised by the Baillieu Liberal Government, is due to begin in the Australian state of Victoria. But declining public support and shrinking waterbird numbers illustrate that duck hunting is on increasingly tenuous ground, writes Susannah Waters.
13 March 2011
Although dependent on water for their very existence, recent rainfall in a state long plagued by drought will see Victoria’s waterbirds caught in a dangerous quagmire. A 2011 duck hunting season has been sanctioned by the newly installed Baillieu Liberal Government, on the rationale of the recent rains to hit the state.
In January, Victoria’s Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) announced a season to commence on 19 March. Spanning 12 weeks – the longest season since 2006 – hunters will be permitted to bag up to 10 ducks a day.
Waning public support, child shooters, low waterbird numbers and cruelty concerns are the central points of controversy surrounding the hunt.
Executive Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services at the DSE, Kylie White, has defended this year’s season. White said that substantial rainfall has “increased habitat for waterfowl including game bird populations. This in turn has triggered extensive breeding and wide dispersal of waterfowl across Eastern Australia’s wetlands. As a result, Victoria can sustain a return to normal seasonal arrangements in 2011”.
However, research indicates that waterbird numbers are far from healthy. Aerial waterbird surveys led by Professor Richard Kingsford of the University of New South Wales have revealed that waterbird numbers have long been in significant decline. The surveys, conducted across eastern Australia, show a decrease in bird numbers of up to 82% since the early 1980s.
Dwindling wild populations are due to a combination of factors such as long drought periods, water being diverted from rivers for irrigation, and climate change. Consequently, many waterbird species have been thrust into threatened status.
Laurie Levy, Campaign Director of the Coalition Against Duck Shooting (CADS), was not surprised by this year’s announcement of a season. “We expected it”, he says. Levy believes that duck hunting serves to compound the threat to bird numbers. He argues that the decision for a 2011 season was not based on scientific data, but was instead politically motivated.
“This season is a political season. DSE hasn’t done the studies – they haven’t carried out the scientific research”, Levy tells The Scavenger. “Their reasons are based on the fact there is more water due to rainfall, therefore they just assume there are more birds”. He suggests that in good climatic conditions, recovery for waterbird populations could take many years.
With potentially thousands of shooters joining this year’s three-month hunt, and considering the large daily kill limit, the impact on the recovering native waterbird population has the potential to be devastating.
Among those shooters will be children. Victorian law stipulates that juniors – those from 12 to 17 years old – can legally hunt ducks if they hold a Game Licence.
A spokesman from the Victorian Sporting Shooters’ Association of Australia (SSAA) believes that it is “not particularly untoward” for 12-year-old children to participate in the hunt. He said last year that there are roughly 500 shooters of that age. If young people have a firearms permit, have completed the relevant training and are under adult supervision, then the SSAA believes that children’s participation does not pose any special safety issues.
Many disagree. Levy believes that the wetlands during duck season are “a dangerous place to be”. Having campaigned against the recreational shooting of waterbirds since 1986, he has often witnessed children on the wetlands accompanying their parents.
“What skills do 12-year-olds have when shooting birds? None. That's another reason why many birds are wounded”, Levy says.
Clementine Round is the 16-year-old founder of the Duck Army, a group she says is “filled with the young and young at heart who care about our declining waterbird populations”. Standing onshore as part of the duck rescue, Round has also seen children present on the wetlands.
“Allowing children on to the water to witness this slaughter, not to mention encouraging them to hurt and kill small animals, is disgusting and detrimental to their learning and empathetic development”, Round tells The Scavenger.
Evidence shows that ignoring animal cruelty inflicted by children is at our own peril. A wealth of research reveals a strong correlation between violence perpetrated by children against animals and the likelihood of them committing violent acts against people in later life.
The tide of public opinion has been steadily turning against the hunt. A Roy Morgan poll conducted three years ago determined that 87% of Victorians desire an end to duck shooting. However recreational duck shooters are a loud minority backed by powerful interests and vindicated by successive Victorian governments.
Levy argues that there are very strong connections between politicians and shooters. “The only reason that it’s continuing is that it is seen as a political issue. Many politicians say behind the scenes that it isn’t about native waterbirds – it’s about them trading off their interests”.
Recreational duck shooting has long enjoyed support from the Labor, Liberal and National parties in Victoria. However it was banned in NSW in 1995, WA in 1990, and QLD in 2005. The practice has never been legal in the ACT.
During last year’s duck hunting season, Round said that despite public opposition she could not “foresee a ban on duck shooting in Victoria happening in the near future. Our government is too busy pandering to the wishes of shooter lobby groups rather than listening to the 87% of Victorians who want duck shooting to stop”.
Round was referring to the then Brumby Labor government. A year on, she describes the Baillieu Liberal government’s endorsement of a 2011 duck season as “short-sighted” and “infuriatingly disappointing”.
Under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – which is enshrined in Federal Government legislation – the DSE is required to undertake scientific studies before the Victorian government can approve a duck season. CADS doesn’t believe this has ever been done.
In fact, Levy claims that the DSE is tasked with providing justifications for government-sanctioned duck seasons. “DSE staff have often said in private that if the government allows a duck shooting season, then it's DSE's job to supply arguments to justify the season. If, for example, the government doesn't want a season to go ahead then DSE would give you arguments supporting a moratorium or a ban”, Levy says.
Moratoriums were in fact called in 2007 and 2008, with the DSE pinpointing the enduring drought.
Interestingly, duck shooters have often claimed to be environmental conservationists. This argument is prominent on hunting websites and other online forums, and the SSAA spokesman asserts that his organisation “actively campaigns” for wetland protection. According to him, SSAA are among the “only ones lobbying and applying pressure” to the government over wetland and water management issues.
But do these claims of environmental credentials have any merit?
Duck rescuers have long complained about rubbish, including empty shotgun cartridges, being left behind on the wetlands by shooters. It is also apparent that the loud presence of large numbers of people and so-called “hunting dogs” is disruptive to the wetland surrounds and ecology.
A build-up of lead shot – the use of which is now forbidden – remains in many wetlands from past use, threatening waterbirds and other species. The DSE concedes that waterbirds may be poisoned by an accumulation of lead in many wetlands. Despite being banned in Victoria for 10 years, there is evidence that lead shot is still sometimes used by shooters. On last year’s duck hunting opening weekend, 11 shooters were fined for using this toxic shot.
Levy strongly rejects the suggestion that duck shooters promote wetland conservation. “Duck shooters have always lobbied governments to have wetlands filled to attract birds as targets. The artificial filling killed off many of Victoria's wetlands due to the salt rising to the surface and many Red Gums and Black Box Gums died from drowning. Wetlands need a cycle of wet and dry years to remain healthy,” he says.
It is also worth noting that charges were brought against Gary Howard, a spokesman for hunting organisation Field and Game Australia (FGA), for his actions in the lead-up to the 2009 season. An investigation found that he had illegally released water from the Latrobe River into a FGA owned wetland area in the week before that season commenced. The diversion attracted up to 1000 more birds to the wetland, which was to be used for private shooting.
In NSW and QLD the recreational shooting of native waterbirds was banned after recommendations by their governments’ respective Animal Welfare Advisory Committees (AWAC), combined with public pressure. The Victorian AWAC has consistently made the same recommendations to the Victorian Government, citing cruelty concerns.
The RSPCA opposes duck hunting due to what it deems “high level” and “senseless” cruelty. The organisation refers to a study which indicates that up to 6.6 ducks are crippled per 10 killed outright and bagged.
Particularly problematic is the use of shotguns, which spray pellets in an often irregular fashion. The imprecision of this weapon often results in high wounding rates, and consequently many ducks suffer long and painful deaths.
Many threatened species are also at risk of being killed by hunters. During last year’s season duck rescue teams discovered four dead Grey-headed Flying Foxes. They are not only a threatened species, but were found to have been killed with the prohibited lead shot.
Levy claims that in the past, hunters have illegally shot threatened and protected species such as Swans, Pelicans, Ibis, Freckled Ducks and Blue-billed Ducks.
With shooters required to sit a waterfowl identification test just once, and only a handful of wildlife officers for the entire state of Victoria, the risk to threatened wildlife during duck hunting season is immense.
But are duck shooters themselves an imperilled species? In a sign that duck hunting is becoming increasingly unpopular, FGA are attempting to entice prospective hunters to join in this year by offering over $25,000 worth of prizes. Their 2011 slogan, “Reignite the Passion”, is also being utilised in an effort to whip up participant turnout.
This throws into question claims by FGA that “interest from new duck hunters is already building strongly and license numbers are expected to increase by up to 15%”. While there are presently around 20,000 licensed waterfowl hunters in Victoria, duck season participant numbers have been steadily declining for years.
According to the SSAA’s spokesman, a strong “camaraderie” between hunters is the drawcard for many to take part. But what they may not have counted on is the solidarity between duck advocates and their unwavering determination to see duck shooting end.
Despite the obstacles, Round firmly believes that the day will come when duck hunting will be outlawed in Victoria. While acknowledging that it won’t be this season, she believes it is not unachievable in the long term. “We will continue to inform the general public of this ‘fowl’ practice and have vowed to lobby as hard as ever”, she says. “The general public is on our side”.
Round will be onshore assisting the duck rescue this year, her third in a row. “I am only 16 and have to wait until I am 18 to enter the water myself, but if duck shooting isn’t banned before then, I am looking forward to that day.”
According to Levy, many new people are joining the duck rescue this year. Although he has campaigned on this issue for a quarter of a century, the prospect of facing another season has not demoralised him and his group. Rather, “it strengthens our resolve”.
He says that rescuers will be back on the wetlands this year, “doing what we usually do”, and when the hunters arrive, “We’ll be there waiting for them.”
Visit the Coalition Against Duck Shooting (CADS) website for more information and to find out how you can support the campaign to stop duck hunting.
Susannah Waters holds a Master’s degree in journalism and communication from the University of New South Wales. She is a former veterinary nurse who has worked with both domestic animals and wildlife. She has a strong interest in wildlife conservation.
Images: Opening morning of the 2005 duck shooting season at McDonald Swamp in north western Victoria. A quick thinking rescuer took a photo of a shooter illegally pointing his weapon at him. The protected swan had been illegally shot. The grey teal shot through the bill (top) highlights some of the horrific injuries the birds endure. Photos courtesy of Coalition Against Duck Shooting