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Are duck hunting seasons set to resume in New South Wales?

Australian-wood-duck-200Although duck hunting seasons have been banned in NSW for over two decades, hard won protections of waterbirds in the state are being eroded via deregulation. This is at a time when waterbird numbers in Eastern Australia are at their second lowest level on record. Could the chipping away of protections create fertile ground for the reintroduction of duck hunting seasons in NSW? And if so, what challenges might campaigners face in their efforts to protect native waterbirds? Susannah Waters investigates. 

31 March 2016

While the sound of gunfire rings out across Victorian wetlands, signalling the start of a 12-week duck hunting season, waterbirds in New South Wales are not entirely safe from the brand of carnage being inflicted over the border.

Although animal activists breathed a sigh of relief in 1995 when NSW duck hunting seasons were banned following a lengthy campaign, the battle wasn’t entirely over.

Those who believed the door had been closed shut on the slaughter of ducks in NSW would be mistaken: the Carr Labor Government had left that door ajar, allowing for protections of native birds to be weakened over the ensuing years.

Native waterbirds have been at the mercy of political posturing, concessions to lobby groups, and the growth of gun ownership in the state. The Shooters and Fishers Party and the Sporting Shooters Association are among the groups of vested interests organising to water down duck hunting restrictions. 

In the same year as duck hunting was ostensibly banned, a Game Bird Management Program was enacted in NSW. This program, which has seen thousands of native ducks slaughtered, was imposed for the supposed reason of protecting rice crops from the birds.

Last September, the NSW Baird Government further deregulated duck hunting in NSW when it introduced a provision to permit night time duck hunting. Permission arrangements for shooting were also loosened, allowing licensed hunters to kill native birds on the land of license holders with mere verbal permission, rather than in writing.                                                                                                               

The sanctioning of night time shooting and the relaxing of permission arrangements in NSW, plus the commencement of a full 2016 VIC duck hunting season, all come at a time when waterbird numbers across Eastern Australia are in perilous decline.

Under the radar

Bede Carmody recalls the moment he received the news that duck hunting was banned in NSW. He said he was struck with “absolute delight”. At the time, he was on the board of Animal Liberation NSW, which had been agitating for the ban.

But Carmody knows the nature of activism all too well. Weary campaigners are never really able to rest on their laurels; hard won protections are in constant jeopardy, requiring a state of round-the-clock vigilance. He concedes that “in the animal rights movement you need to savour all the victories, as they are often so hard to come by”.

Fifteen years ago, Carmody founded sanctuary A Poultry Place, set on five acres in southern NSW. Over this period, 399 ducks have been offered a permanent home at his sanctuary. A Poultry Place provides a safe haven not only to ducks, but also chickens, roosters, turkeys and geese.

Carmody views duck hunting as a form of exploitation. “I don’t see how anyone can view it as sport, and I have to wonder about the personality of people who think shooting a living being out of the air is entertaining”, he says.

Sharing that view is David Shoebridge, Greens Member of the NSW Parliament.

Shoebridge, who has been campaigning to prohibit duck hunting since 2010, says that he is “personally sickened by the thought that people enjoy killing our native animals for so-called sport”. He is backed by a party with a policy platform which comprehensively bans duck shooting on private and public land.

“I firmly believe that no government should be providing comfort for a ‘sport’ like duck hunting, that is inherently based on animal cruelty”, he tells The Scavenger.

Last October, the Greens moved a Disallowance Motion in the NSW Parliament in response to the newly introduced duck hunting regulations. The motion cited the particularly cruel and risky nature of night time hunting, the increased potential for misidentification of bird species (heightening the likelihood of protected or endangered birds being injured or killed), and concerns over a stipulation that removes the requirement for hunters to provide permission to authorities - effectively removing the capacity to regulate hunting on licensed land.

The Animal Justice Party also supported the Disallowance Motion, but Labor ultimately voted with the Coalition and Shooters Party to support the new regulations. 

Shoebridge has also called into question the legitimacy of the Game Bird Management Program, contending that figures quoted by the CSIRO and the Department of Primary Industries “show that less than 5% of the rice crop is at risk from ducks”.

Furthermore, he points out that many of the ducks listed as target species under the program never actually graze on rice, and he laments the lack of investment into non-lethal control methods to protect the crops.

Duck hunting in NSW is now subject to minimal public scrutiny and thus largely flies “under the radar”, claims Shoebridge.

Sanctioning the slaughter

Could it be that the weakening of protections of waterbirds in NSW is an attempt to create an environment conducive to a reintroduction of duck hunting seasons?

Shoebridge believes so. “The long term goal of the hunting lobby and their supporters in Parliament is to reintroduce duck hunting”, he says. “They have a history of adopting what is called a salami style approach to remove regulation, and increase hunting slice by slice through legislative change”.

Duck-display-300He thinks that a fully-fledged reintroduction of duck hunting is being conducted in a piecemeal fashion, since both the government and Labor acknowledge that it would be an immensely unpopular move.

But it seems that public opinion counts for little in this debate.

In Victoria, where a full-length duck hunting season for 2016 was announced against a backdrop of controversy, 87% of people support a ban on duck hunting.

Labor Premier Daniel Andrews faced backlash from members of his own party upon the 2016 announcement, and animal advocates were incensed.

Helen Round has been part of the Coalition Against Duck Shooting rescue team in VIC since 2009. As a duck rescuer, her job is to search for the injured and dead birds left behind by shooters.

She also monitors shooters’ activities on the wetlands, and collects thousands of shotgun pellets plus the general rubbish dumped regularly by hunters.       

“I watch the birds who ‘stutter’ with each gunshot and try and rescue them, as I know they have copped a pellet or two and are injured and in need of help”, Round says.

She pinpoints “a lack of leadership, corruption and pandering to the gun lobby” as the culprits behind the decision to grant a 2016 season.

Round is staggered that a full season was endorsed at a time when scientists have recorded worryingly low numbers and breeding rates of waterbirds across Eastern Australia. 

The most recent Aerial Survey of Wetland Birds in Eastern Australia report states that waterbird abundance was the second lowest on record - as part of a long term trend of decline - and well below the long term average. The total breeding index was the lowest on record.

Richard Kingsford, Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Australia (the University of New South Wales), is one of the authors of this annual report. He reveals that the data primarily indicates that habitat loss and degradation have had the most impact on bird numbers.

However, Professor Kingsford concedes that “hunting is a further impact on mortality”, presenting “real dangers that you will be affecting the breeding population much more than usual, because there has been little to no recruitment”.

An unfair burden

One thing is certain: if duck hunting seasons were reinstated in NSW, the killing, the injuries, and the violence would become a burden to bear for the many compassionate people who would fight to defend the safety of native waterbirds.

Round is acquainted more than most with the personal toll that duck rescue wreaks on rescuers. Although she had been warned that many aspects of the work would be distressing, she admits that “in all honesty, nothing can prepare you for duck rescue”.

Round lists just some of the daily challenges: the anguish of witnessing shot birds fall, the aggressive harassment – including misogynistic abuse - from hunters, the destruction of the wetlands, the time off work, the early starts and long hours, the regular encounters with dead and wounded birds, and to add insult to injury, observing the pleasure hunters experience while inflicting pain on the ducks.

“On one hand, it feels great to be part of the greater good and to be able to rescue birds; and on the other, it is emotionally devastating”, Round divulges, granting some insight into the personal price animal advocates in NSW would pay if duck hunting seasons were again underwritten by the state government.

But duck hunting is not inevitable, Shoebridge insists. He says that the Greens are poised to continue opposing all forms of duck hunting; and to that end will keep working with, and maintain support for, groups such as the Coalition Against Duck Shooting, WIRES, Voiceless, Animals Australia, RSPCA, Animal Liberation, and the Humane Society.

Last October, the Greens brought six native wood ducklings into NSW Parliament to highlight the dangers of night time duck hunting. Their visit also provided an up-close look at the creatures whose safety is at the mercy of political decisions often far removed not just from public sentiment, but from solid scientific parameters.

Having ducklings visiting Parliament was not simply a media stunt, but an attempt to demonstrate that native waterbirds are creatures deserving of respect, who possess a capacity for pain and suffering.

Unfortunately, ducks are often reduced to one-dimensional, insentient creatures by the vernacular used to describe them: referred to as “game”, and their killing dubbed “harvesting”. It isn’t an accident that they are portrayed this way. Euphemistic terms aim to distance us from empathy and attempt to make us accept the unacceptable.

Carmody, who has welcomed hundreds of ducks into his sanctuary, speaks fondly of the much-maligned creatures. They are social animals who desire the company of their own kind, he points out. His knowledge of their ways and their qualities is unique.

Carmody reflects on some of his past and present flock members. He mentions Duckie, the very first duck the sanctuary took in.

Duckie had previously been inherited by a Sydney woman when her neighbour died. Over the years, each time his former Sydney carer visited, Duckie remembered her and would seek out her attention, and then vigorously defend her against others.

It would seem that the same protective spirit that Duckie exhibited is one that NSW animal advocates will be called upon to display in the preservation of the state’s native waterbirds into the future.

Susannah Waters is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia.

Images: Top: Australian wood duck; middle: Ducks killed by hunters in Victoria, courtesy of Andrew Wallis

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