Just before dawn on Saturday 19 March, two opposing groups will wade into a muddy wetland somewhere in country Victoria to await the official start of duck-shooting season. When the first shot rings out, this peaceful site will transform into a warzone: dead and maimed native waterbirds dropping from the sky, rescuers ferrying injured ducks to the on-site vets, hunters whooping as their helpless targets flap away in panic.
It’s an ugly scene, and one I’ve witnessed up close – first as a freelance journalist, then, horrified by what I’d seen, as a rescuer out on the water. It’s hard to grasp exactly how this brutality qualifies as recreation. Instead of making a clean kill, shotguns blast out a wide scatter of pellets, meaning wounding rates are high. Of every four birds shot, at least one is wounded. Every year thousands of injured birds drown, or vanish into the reeds to die slow, agonising deaths from infection or starvation.
The damage is not confined to ducks shot legally. I’ve seen terrified ducklings paddling in frantic circles as hunters stuff their mothers’ bodies into sacks. Every year, rare and protected species – including coots, grebes, swans, ravens and the threatened freckled duck – have been illegally shot by careless or bloodthirsty shooters. On-site vets treat other native birdlife suffering neurogenic shock and exhaustion from the constant barrage of gunfire. Shooters leave dead birds floating in the water, and wetlands littered with spent shell casings and beer cans.
Victoria’s 2007 and 2008 duck-shooting seasons were cancelled due to low bird numbers. This year environmental conditions are even worse: drought, arid wetlands, near-record low bird numbers. Yet despite the scientific evidence – and ignoring strong opposition from within the Labor party’s own ranks – the Victorian government has green-lighted a full 12-week duck-shooting season. Daily bag numbers are reduced, but the carnage will go ahead.
Why? Is the Andrews government in such thrall to the shooting lobby that it’s afraid to lose their votes? Western Australia banned duck-shooting in 1990, New South Wales followed suit in 1995, and Queensland ditched the brutal ‘sport’ in 2005. Labor’s own environmental policy committee recommends a permanent ban. Duck shooters make up less than half of one per cent of Victoria’s population, and 87 per cent of Victorians think their destructive hobby should be banned.
Yet the slaughter continues. And unless you’re a shooter, it’s now illegal to enter the wetlands when it’s occurring. In 2012, new state regulations set out a 25-metre exclusion zone, effectively banning rescuers, protestors and media from being in or near the wetlands from sunset to 10am during duck-shooting season. The cited rationale was public safely. But if duck shooting is so dangerous, why are we allowing children to do it? Incredibly, when the exclusion zone was implemented, new laws were also passed granting children as young as 12 licenses to shoot native birds on our wetlands – and without having to pass a waterfowl identification test.
Despite the risk of steep fines and prosecution, rescuers and protestors continue their work to protect native birdlife and keep hunters accountable. For activists, mixing with the duck-shooting fraternity can be an eye-opener. Some shooters seem pleasant enough, and are willing to engage in civil conversations, but others exhibit an undercurrent of callousness and aggression that reflects the brutality of their hobby.
I was present at Lake Buloke in 2011 when a female rescuer was shot in the face by a teenage duck shooter. As she was led from the water, her blood-streaked face pale with shock, a nearby hunter laughed and called out, ‘Nice tomato sauce, love.’
Sitting with this woman as the doctor dug shotgun pellets out of her face and hands, I was struck by her bravery and calm dignity. Not once, then or later, did she express hatred or anger. Yet in the following weeks and months, she was harassed and vilified online by members of the shooting community. The trolling was horrific, and provided a disturbing glimpse into the gun-toting fraternity’s darker side.
The Andrews government should not let itself be cowed or courted by shooter groups. Shooters argue that their hobby provides a financial boost to rural towns, but that argument holds scant water: developing eco-tourism ventures in these regions would provide a more sustainable income. A 2012 survey by the Australia Institute found that duck shooting does not contribute significantly to the Victorian economy, and that more than half of respondents would be less likely to holiday in an area where duck shooting was occurring.
Until the Victorian government has the courage to ban this cruel, cowardly and destructive form of ‘recreation’, it will be up to environmental and animal protection groups to keep up the pressure – to protest the cruelty, inform the public, bear witness, and enter wetlands to retrieve injured birds.