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Duck hunting season opens with tougher laws aimed at protesters
By Oliver Milman theguardian.com, Tuesday 18 March 2014 14.47 AEST
Camouflaged men and women brandishing guns, animal lovers in fluoro bibs and army-issue goggles, dead ducks scattered on the steps of parliament – the start of Victoria’s duck hunting season has always involved a degree of theatre.
At Lake Elizabeth, near the town of Kerang, the main actors in this annual stand-off, along with a small battalion of police, spent a great deal of time loitering by the water’s edge, waiting for their lines.
The problem, as always, was ducks. Only this time there weren’t many of them. About 3,000 were on the lake the night before, only to be scared away by the 6am arrival of the duck rescuers, the hunters grumbled. Rescuers said the numbers were down partly as a result of the dry conditions.
Once the birds arrived, guns were shouldered and some direct hits were taken. A duck rescuer, who had waded into the water, brought a wounded duck to a triage tent set up to tend to the animals, only for it to expire.
This year’s season (you can shoot ducks in Victoria for another 12 weeks, if you have a licence) comes with a significant new context – Victoria’s controversial anti-protest laws.
Police are now able to remove protesters from a site for up to 12 months, while specific penalties around duck hunting have been stiffened. Going within 25 metres of the water’s edge without a licence can carry a fine of $8,661, where previously it was $1,450. The fine for “harassing, hindering or obstructing” a hunter has been doubled from $2,890.
“It was a test case today,” said Laurie Levy, a veteran of anti-duck hunting activity since 1986, when he first waded onto the wetlands to rescue the fowl. Levy symbolically entered the lake only to be politely escorted out by police. He ended up with a $360 fine and a banning order.
Levy and his group, the Coalition Against Duck Hunting, claim the hunters and the government are in cahoots. Instead of banning duck hunting, which they say is cruel, the government is pandering to the hunting lobby and curtailing the rights of protesters, the Coalition says.
Protesters at Lake Elizabeth in Victoria, Australia Photograph: Tim Mummery for the Guardian
“They can bring in the laws, it won’t stop us fighting it because we are here for the waterbirds,” Levy told Guardian Australia, at the boundary of the park from which he’d just been expelled.
“When we started in 1986 there were 100,000 duck shooters and just 15 rescuers. The shooters and the government couldn’t understand it because those birds had only ever been victims, collateral damage.”
NSW, Queensland and Western Australia have all banned duck hunting, reinforcing Victoria’s position as the activity’s heartland state. Levy says the tide is turning in his group’s favour, that duck hunting will soon be seen in the same light as harpooning whales.
“The Victorian government has been slow to respond but duck hunting is no longer acceptable to the Victorian public and should be banned immediately,” he said.
“Shotguns are imprecise instruments. When triggers pull the shot spreads, one or two pellets out of 200 may hit a bird. It can be lodged next to a wing, or next to a nerve.
“This brutality is all so hunters can get their kicks from blowing these creatures out of the sky. When duck shooters hit a bird and it topples out of the sky, you hear this roar go up, this cheering, laughter, where they have no empathy for the suffering of that bird.
“Rescuers feel that empathy, they feel the pain those birds are going through, which is why they risk lives every year.”
That risk is tangible. In 2011, a duck rescuer was accidentally shot in the face by a 14-year-old (in Victoria, people can hunt from the age of 12). She narrowly avoided losing her sight. Game Victoria, the government body that oversees hunting, said she was in a prohibited area at a prohibited time.
Back at Lake Elizabeth there is little sign of human-on-human violence. Hunters and rescuers sit side-by-side in their respective camps, eating sandwiches and studiously ignoring each other in an almost genteel antipathy.
Simon Toop, the director of Game Victoria, stressed to Guardian Australia that while the state offers good opportunities for game hunters, the practice is tightly regulated.
Shooters have to pass a wildfowl identification test to ensure they don’t kill a threatened species. They can fill their bags with a maximum of 10 birds each and are not allowed to fire onto the water unless it’s to put a bird out of its misery. But the protest laws have been toughened.
“The existing laws weren’t having a deterrent effect,” Toop said. “People were putting themselves at risk, hunters at risk and our wildlife officers at risk.”
Rescuers aim to scoop up birds that have been shot and take them to be rehabilitated. This strategy causes consternation among hunters.
“I shot a bird, it landed on the ground and the bloke grabbed the wounded duck and ran off with him before we could humanely kill it,” said hunter Joe Murrone.
“The greenies make things unsafe, they make things cruel. The fines need to be heavier. Put them in jail for all I care, teach them a lesson.”
The large police presence and rescuer angst over the shot ducks – as well as the annual ritual of placing dead, protected birds onto the steps of state parliament – raises interesting questions about why we value some animals more highly than others.
For whatever reason, ducks have hit a nerve, and the protests against their killing require significant resources for policing and regulation.
“Our society has got into a terrible contradiction and doesn’t realise it,” said Collin Wood, of the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia. “If you took pictures of what happens in abattoirs and showed people, they’d be horrified and they’d go off meat. We look at a cow and just think it’s a steak, whereas ducks are wild, free animals.
“Our society hides its head in the sand. If you’re there eating a chicken or steak, don’t criticise me because I kill my own meat. Don’t preach morals to me, because you don’t have any.”
At Lake Elizabeth, the hunters discuss how they will be adding duck to their favourite pasta dish later. But the commercial sale of duck is banned, something Wood feels is wrong.
“This could be a clean, green food source,” he said. “But we haven’t taken that opportunity.”
Wood said the vast majority of hunters were responsible people who provided valuable income for rural communities. But there are aberrations.
Last year a massacre at a private wetland near Boort resulted in almost 800 ducks shot and left in the water. This total included 155 non-game birds, including 40 rare freckled ducks and several black swans. No prosecutions have been made for this slaughter and the government has refused to reveal information on the case.
“We abhor that behaviour,” Wood said. “How that happened, we’re not quite sure.”
For the rescuers, the failure, so far, to prosecute and the new protest laws seem likely to have a galvanising effect.
“We’re not going to stop fighting this,” Levy said. “Duck shooting is legalised government cruelty.”