Duck Shooting in Victoria: politics, lies and legalised animal abuse

Duck shooting is legalised recreational animal abuse on a large scale. The question is why do both major Victorian political parties continue to support this outdated recreational animal abuse, when other Labor state premiers banned recreational duck shooting decades ago because of the unacceptable cruelty? Laurie Levy, Coalition Against Duck Shooting

At least one in four birds targeted by duck shooters are not killed outright but fall out of the sky wounded, or fly away wounded to die slowly and agonizingly

At 8am this morning, Victoria’s annual horror show, featuring men in khaki running around shooting defenceless ducks while volunteer vets and animal rescuers frantically try to save the wounded from slow painful deaths, began. The cruelty and suffering involved, the damage to the environment, the death, wounding and disturbance of other wildlife, has all been extensively documented over many years. But for decades Victoria’s political leaders have stubbornly refused to listen.

Volunteer vet Dr Natasha Bassett last year described the start of the season as “a shock — you’re in this really beautiful wetland in the early morning and the ducks are peacefully doing their thing and then there’s just this crack of shots ringing out.”

Kerrie Allen from Regional Victorians Opposed to Duck Shooting said in an interview last year that the overwhelming feedback her group received when surveying people in areas where duck shooting takes place was about “fears for safety, pellets landing on people’s roofs which collect their water supply, horses going through fences, children were traumatised”. Duck shooting, she said, is happening less than 30 metres from some back doors. “It’s not on. It’s unacceptable,” she said.

The shortened 2021 season will run until Monday 14 June with a bag limit of five duck per day, increased from two announced earlier this year in a decision Animal Justice Party MP Andy Meddick describes as shameful, unscientific, and one that “flies in the face of what the majority of Victorians actually want — a ban on duck shooting.” Meddick says the Andrews government is once again bowing the shooting lobby and has challenged the Minister for Agriculture to join duck rescue teams “to see the chaos and carnage that recreational duck shooting inflicts on native wildlife.”

Targeted duck species this year will include the Pacific Black Duck, Mountain Duck, Chestnut Teal, Grey Teal, Pink-eared Duck, Wood Duck and Hardhead.

photos from Birdlife Australia, see website for more information on the target species

Shooters this year are prohibited from targeting the Blue-winged Shoveler and are told to be alert to the potential presence of threatened Freckled Ducks that in flight “can appear similar to Black Duck and Hardhead”. But hunters are not always alert, they often miss their targets and they cannot always distinguish between species, especially at a distance. No one can doubt that the death and maiming of threatened species will inevitably occur this year as it has done every other year.

As former Queensland premier Peter Beattie noted in 2005 when announcing the future ban of recreational duck and quail shooting in Queensland: “few modern hunters viewing a bird in flight are able to distinguish a species which can be shot from one which is protected.”

see GMA website for longer list of information about wetlands where rare and threatened species have been regularly sighted and potential risks to the species from duck hunting

In 2018, long time duck campaigner Laurie Levy called the previous 2017 season a “bloody massacre” and noted that of the 1,500 birds rescuers brought out, 296 were protected species. Also recovered were 183 illegally shot rare Freckled Ducks and Blue-billed Ducks, both classified as ‘endangered’ in Victoria.

In the aftermath of the 2017 season opening week, activists also discovered two pits containing almost 200 ducks, evidence that shooters were killing many more than the allowed daily limit.

Hunter antagonises protestors with the body of a slain duck, Victoria 2017. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals

A subsequent review into the regulatory body tasked to ensure responsible duck hunting found “non-compliance with hunting laws is commonplace and widespread,” the Age reported, and that “the GMA is widely perceived by its stakeholders and its own staff as either unable to ensure compliance… or to effectively sanction offenders when those laws are breached.”

The fight to protect Victoria’s ducks has been long and frustrating, blocked over and over by short sighted political leaders unable to move past self-serving politics and power agendas. In 1986, Animal Liberation Victoria was part of a small group of rescuers who took part in the first duck rescue, working with Laurie Levy and the Coalition Against Duck Shooting.

We also had a mobile veterinary clinic — nobody had ever thought, up until then, of a rescue team going out to help wounded birds, and to bring in illegally shot protected species, and threatened species. Laurie Levy

At the time of the first rescue, there were 100,000 duck shooters in Victoria alone and when Levy and other rescuers went down to Lake Buloke in 1989 and 1990, 10,000 to 15,000 duck shooters would arrive on the opening morning of the season “all using, or probably 75 per cent of them using semi-automatic weapons”

It was frightening out there. Birds falling out of the sky everywhere. Our mobile veterinary clinics were overworked, and it was a tough time. But all that changed over the years, and it was the media. I can honestly say that the biggest weapon that we have had in reducing the numbers of duck shooters has been due to the media changing public awareness.

Laurie Levy

On just that weekend, volunteers “collected the bodies of 117 fully-protected animals including swans, turtles, ibis and endangered freckled ducks.”

Joan Kirner, Minister for Conservation at the time, responded to citizens who wrote to her about duck shooting by saying she saw no justification for ending duck hunting while it was supported by the community and that hunting of wild ducks was “an activity which has been carried out since white settlement.”

In 1990, the Western Australian government took a different approach to the obvious cruelty on display and announced a ban on recreational duck shooting. Premier Carmen Lawrence said:

There is widespread opposition throughout the community to the cruelty and environmental damage caused by shooters. Evidence from previous seasons shows that injured ducks have been left to die, protected species have been shot and fragile wetlands have been polluted by lead and cartridges. Our community has reached a stage of enlightenment where it can no longer accept the institutionalised killing of native birds for recreation.

In 1992, the Supreme Court in Perth dismissed a challenge from recreational shooters and Western Australia became the first State to ban duck shooting. WA Environment Minister Bob Pearce said in a statement, “the State Government is opposed in principle to duck shooting as a sport and public opinion was fully behind the move to ban it. WA’s native wildlife should be protected, admired and respected, not shot for pleasure.”

In Victoria in 1991, in spite of a Labor Party policy resolution to ban duck hunting and most party members describing it as “cruel, barbaric and environmentally dangerous”, the Victorian Minister for Conservation and Environment, Steve Crabb, ruled out an end to duck shooting. In the Victorian parliament, Liberal party MP Tom Austin suggested, ”the hunting fraternity has been able to hold the line” against “Laurie Levy and his band of animal liberationists” because of “the clout it has at the ballot box.”

In 1994, Liberal Premier Kennett followed Labor before him and also refused to ban duck shooting. The Age newspaper wrote, “the best solution to this whole sordid mess would be to follow Western Australia’s lead and ban duck shooting. But Victoria, given its curious stance on the matter, seems unlikely to follow suit.”

In 1992, The Age newspaper in Melbourne had begun to speak out against duck shooting and in 1993 said:

Duck shooting is not a sport, it is an obscenity. There is no possible justification for this annual killing spree. Regrettably, the Kennett Government does not see it this way. Instead, its new regulations are designed to help the shooters while deterring both the bird rescuers and the media… Those men who need guns to reassure themselves about their masculinity should be forced to look elsewhere for reassurance.

In 1995, NSW premier Bob Carr was the next state leader to put an end to the recreational cruelty. In a 2019 letter to Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, Carr urged Andrews to also ban duck shooting, writing that duck shooting was “not a sport and the slaying of water fowl is not a measure of human skill” and that after his ban on duck shooting in NSW there had been “no negative response”.

In 2002, the Labor Bracks government’s key animal welfare advisory committee met to review recent scientific studies on duck shooting and agreed to recommend that it be phased out. But still it continued.

In 2003, parliamentary secretary for agriculture Geoff Howard wrote to Environment Minister John Thwaites requesting he consider a ban on duck shooting. “I believe that we should recognise that we are fortunate to have so many native birds . . . they should be able to be enjoyed peacefully rather than being shot for sport and I believe that the majority of the community would be of that view,” he wrote. But still it continued.

In 2005, the Age under the headline Victoria’s Cruel Slaughter Resumes wrote “one duck is wounded but manages to fly off for every one retrieved. Many take days or weeks to die. Studies of tens of thousands of waterfowl found up to one in six had shot lodged in their bodies.” The editorial finished by saying, “one day we will look back and wonder how our Government permitted such cruel slaughter to go on for so long.”

2005 was also the year Queensland premier Peter Beattie announced his state would be the next to put an end to the cruelty: “it is time to ban this recreational shooting of ducks and quail. This is not an appropriate activity in contemporary life in the Smart State,” he said. Queensland Environment Minister Desley Boyle told Parliament that of the concerns raised with him, “overwhelmingly most people have concentrated on the cruelty, describing duck and quail shooting as ‘this unnecessary, barbaric pastime enjoyed by a small number of people who essentially shoot for fun’.”

In November 2007, research conducted by Roy Morgan reported a large majority of Victorians (75%) believed the shooting of native water birds for recreational purposes should be banned. The number increased to 87% when those surveyed were informed that:

due to drought and climate change, the numbers of native water birds across eastern Australia have dropped by over 80%, that at least one in four native water birds shot at are wounded, and that duck shooting has been banned in WA, NSW and Queensland.

The following month, Labor’s Victorian Environment Minister Gavin Jennings announced the cancellation of the 2008 season for the second year in a row, based on drought and low duck numbers (previous cancellations had been in 1995 and 2003). But then in 2009, Jennings rejected his department’s recommendation to cancel the following season because of low bird numbers and instead relied on advice from the government’s Hunting Advisory Committee. “Hunting groups dominate the committee,” said an Age editorial, noting the committee was chaired by Bill McGrath, a veteran of the National Party “which has made an issue of duck hunting in seats where Labor is vulnerable”. The Age again expressed its support for a ban and said, “the science is against Mr Jenning’s decision, which should be reversed.”

A source from the Department of Sustainability and Environment told the Sydney Morning Herald the Brumby government’s justifications for allowing the 2009 season to go ahead were “illogical” and “we’ve got a season purely for political reasons contrary to any conservation reasons.”

And so it continued.

In 2013, the Age reported on the “despicable, wanton carnage in at least one wetland” where whistling kites and black swans “were among the 800 bird carcasses left at a small wetland near Boort on day one of the shooting season” along with 147 endangered freckled ducks. “Victoria, under the Baillieu and now the Napthine government, allows duck shooters into every corner of this state,” said the editorial, and duck shooting “serves no real purpose other than to stir the adrenalin of gumbooted shooter.”

So here we are in 2021, with a Labor Andrews government continuing to support shooters over the protection of wildlife and reports of “senior Labor sources” saying “one of the biggest obstacles to change is Mr Andrews, who continues to back duck shooting.”

The Animal Justice Party’s Andy Meddick — described by Laurie Levy as “the best asset native waterbirds have had over the years in parliament” — now leads the political fight in Victoria along with the Victorian Greens. “We need to end duck shooting once and for all, and recognise it for what it is: glorified animal cruelty.” says leader of the Victorian Greens, Samantha Ratnam. And while leaders from both major parties have stubbornly refused to ban the recreational cruelty, many politicians from both sides remain uncomfortable with the continuation of animal abuse disguised as “sport”.

In 2018, opposition Liberal MP James Newbury used his Maiden Speech to criticise duck hunting. “Victoria’s natural environment and wildlife are a unique part of this state’s identity and a modern Liberal Party must speak out on behalf of the promotion and preservation of them,” he said. Earlier this year, Newbury told the ABC: “My community thinks duck hunting is barbaric and I’d say modern Victoria thinks the same. It’s absolutely time to understand that modern Victoria expects something different.’’

In the same report, the ABC also pointed to “a number of Labor MPs, including senior Cabinet Ministers” who privately want duck shooting banned.

In 2019, at the Labor state conference, Victorian MPs Lizzie Blandthorn and Steve McGhie co-sponsored a successful motion calling on the Andrews Government to review the hunting of waterbirds. The review is yet to happen and in a subsequent facebook post Blandthorn recorded her disappointment that the 2020 season would go ahead:

Science tells us that animals are sentient — they feel and fear pain and experience comfort and pleasure. Indeed the governments own research tells us that our community expects that the welfare of animals in our society is a high priority…I was very disappointed in today’s announcement of a duck hunting season.

Former MP Robert Clark, now president of the Victorian Liberals, reportedly wrote in 2017 to a constituent opposed to duck shooting saying: “I share your concern about the welfare of animals and birds, and am vegetarian myself for that reason”.

But still the cruelty continues.

A mother comforts her daughter as they bear witness to Victoria’s duck hunt, Victoria 2017. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

Today the battle returns to the front lines. As the shots are fired, duck rescuers will be joined by Wildlife Victoria with its mobile veterinary clinic and volunteer veterinarians treating wounded waterbirds left to die from “shocking internal and nerve injuries as well as shattered and broken bones and smashed legs, wings and bills.”

For the past 35 years volunteer members of the public “have risked their lives to assist the suffering victims in duck shooting war zones,” says Levy. And while Victorian governments allocate millions of taxpayer dollars “to prop up a dying activity for a dwindling number of duck shooters who make up only 0.2 per cent of all Victorians”, they spend nothing at all on rescue and veterinary care for the tens of thousands of wounded victims the shooters leave behind.

We know many birds will be slaughtered for fun in the coming days and many others will suffer painful wounds. But what we don’t know is when a Victorian leader will have the courage to stand up and end the cruelty and discover the worst thing they will face is the gratitude of Victorians who want to protect not shoot this continent’s precious wildlife.

To be continued, sadly…

Activist retrieves a duck shot out of the sky, Victoria 2017. Image: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

News reports without online links

Duck hunt goes on despite Labor policy, June 17, 1991, The Age

Duck shooting should be outlawed, Mar. 24, 1993, The Age

Sitting ducks, 4 Feb. 1994, The Age

Call for duck shooting ban splits country ALP, Nov. 4, 2003, The Age

Ducks pay high price for the coming election season, 12 Feb. 2009, The Age

Failure on so many levels, 14 May 2013, The Age

Related:

Coalition Against Duck Shooting

Enough is enough, Victoria’s duck slaughter has to stop: HSI

‘Coked-up shooter’: Police seize guns, drugs on day one of duck season

Camper’s terrifying night at Lake Burrumbeet on the eve of duck shooting season

Despite the strong evidence of the extreme suffering involved, and the community’s lack of support, four states in Australia still allow recreational duck hunting: RSPCA

Photo: “The conservationist” senator norm sanders depicts the other interested party on the lake this morning he holds together shot ducks

Animal Liberation Victoria duck rescue timeline (1986 — )

Animals Australia

Regional Victorians Opposed to Duck Shooting

Animal Justice Party

writer (The Pacific Solution 2010, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC, Guardian, Metro magazine, and many other media and online outlets). Twitter @susanamet