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The recreational shooting of ducks in Australia causes suffering to countless numbers of native waterbirds.
Three states in Australia have so far banned recreational duck shooting on cruelty grounds. But some species of duck are still permitted to be shot each year during an open season in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and in private rice fields in NSW. Animal welfare and conservation groups oppose the killing.
The Victorian government shocked scientists and caring community members in 2016 by announcing a full duck shooting season with only token restrictions, despite wetlands and waterbird numbers being at record lows. The recent drought means environmental conditions are worse now in Victoria than in 2007 and 2008, when both Victoria and South Australia cancelled their recreational duck shooting seasons due to the low numbers of ducks in Eastern Australia.
Professor Richard Kingsford of the University of New South Wales undertakes an annual aerial surevy of waterbird numbers. He described the results of the 2015 aerial waterbird survey as "sobering" because, overall, it reinforced a trend of long-term decline. Scientists found that 60% of wetlands studied in eastern Australia were dry. The number of breeding waterbirds observed in late 2015 was the lowest on record.
"When you're down at the bottom of the trough, which is where ducks are ... if you have a duck shooting season you are really only going to be shooting adults, which will reduce the capacity of the population to bounce back" — Professor Richard Kingsford, December 2015
In 2009 Professor Kingsford stated in The Age that Victoria's duck numbers had declined more than 70 per cent in the past 25 years, but the drop had been an astonishing 60 per cent between 2007 and 2008.1
Despite long-term drought, low waterbird numbers and against the advice of the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment and scientists, the Victorian Government also allowed a duck season in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania all allowed a duck hunting season, with Victoria even extending their season for a further 12 weeks.
In 2010 and 2011 flooding broke 13 years of drought, leading to expanded wetland habitats and the first substantial breeding seasons in over a decade. Yet there was little reprieve for waterbirds, with numbers of birds killed and taken home by hunters increasing from 270,000 in 2010 to over 600,000 in 2011.
"Professor Kingsford said the low waterbird numbers recorded in this year's survey was due to drought conditions, which meant birds were dying or failing to breed. However he said breeding rates had been down since 2011-2012, meaning that the existing population wasn't as resilient so any 'bounce back' sparked by improved conditions would take time." — The Age, 27 Dec 2015
Birds suffer pain and stress when they are wounded by shotgun pellets. Computer simulation estimates and the observations of ‘rescuers’ on the wetlands indicate that duck shooters leave at least as many birds wounded and uncaptured as they kill and capture. Even shooting groups acknowledge that at least one in every four birds targeted will be wounded—amounting to many thousands of ducks left to languish and potentially die from untreated injuries.
The physical action of a shotgun involves a spray of pellets, and a flying bird can be wounded by even a single pellet. Other birds flying with the target bird can also be wounded. Depending on the distance between gun and bird it may take a number of pellets to kill a bird outright. Those downed birds who are not recovered may suffer over a long period before recovery or death from their wounds or through predation by foxes.
Computer Simulation of Possible Wounding
A computer model of the action of a shotgun and the flying bird concluded that most competent shooters will average one bird wounded for each bird bagged (taken home), and the ‘best’ that can be hoped for is one bird for every two bagged. As there are inexperienced or unpractised shooters, particularly on the opening weekend of a duck shooting season, this model suggests that there are at least as many birds wounded as stowed into hunters' bags.2
X-Ray Evidence of Wounding
More direct evidence of the wounding rate can be found in a 15 year study conducted by the Victorian Department of Conservation which fluoroscoped (a type of x-ray) 45,210 "game" species and found that 9.2 per cent had been wounded and survived.3
Similarly, a further study undertaken at Bool Lagoon in South Australia showed that of birds captured for the study (they are later released) 8 per cent of the small Grey Teal, 12 per cent of the medium-sized Black Duck and 17 per cent of the larger Mountain Duck (Shelduck) had lead shot pellets embedded in their bodies.4
It can be assumed that these figures underestimate the numbers of birds wounded. Some wounded birds will be retrieved by hunters and have their necks wrung or be shot a second time, others will escape but will have died from their wounds or be taken by predators, due to their weakened state. It is also possible X-rays will not show lead pellets in some previously wounded birds because the shots have passed through their bodies.
Dr Roger Meischke, an experienced veterinarian, attended a veterinary rescue unit at the opening of the NSW duck shooting season for several years (in the early 1990s) and gathered information on the cause of death or the type of wounds suffered by retrieved waterbirds. In 1991 and 1992, some 40 per cent of dead retrieved birds were inhumanely killed (i.e. their injuries indicated they would have suffered prior to death) and in 1993, the figure was 34 per cent.5
Dr Meischke's study is supported by the experience of other veterinarians who staff rescue caravans in South Australia and Victoria. As with x-ray evidence, the number of wounded birds taken to veterinarians will be only a proportion of the birds actually wounded.
Birds who ingest spent lead shot may endure prolonged suffering before death. Waterbirds, often bottom-feeding species, can develop lead poisoning after ingesting just one lead shot, usually left after duck shooting. The ingested lead shot is trapped in the gizzard then passes through the gastro-intestinal tract. The lead from the eroded shot is absorbed and deposited in the tissues. The use of lead shot has now been banned in each State, but the ban is not well policed. Despite the bans, tonnes of lead still remain in the environment from past shooting as lead does not break down.
Many non-game birds have been retrieved from the wetlands during duck season, including legally protected species such as the rare and endangered Freckled Duck.
Although Waterfowl Identification Test (WIT) has been introduced in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and South Australia, it is a once-only test, and some shooters fire before they have identified the species they are aiming at. Although not easily mistaken for game birds, 'protected' species such as swan, ibis, spoonbill, cormorant and long-billed corella, are sometimes shot.
Some of the birds brought in by rescuers show neurogenic shock alone. This observation is supported by the reports of exhausted birds (both ‘game birds’ and protected species) each season confused and trying to avoid the gunfire. For example: "Of particular interest were the Black Swans which are at Cullens Lake and Lake Buloke (NW Victoria) in large numbers. The swans took flight at the first shots and remained flying around the area during the next few hours. By mid-morning many were seen to be exhausted and having great difficulty maintaining height. One was seen to crash into a tent at Lake Buloke. Others landed heavily on water."-R.C. Hunter, RSPCA Victoria.6
A primary problem which leads to further suffering of birds is that some shooters do not retrieve downed birds immediately. Injured birds are also often difficult to find in reedy waterways and may suffer from their injuries for a considerable time before death or recovery.
Since the commencement of the campaigns against duck shooting in the 1980s, the number of shooters has been dramatically reduced – it is no longer supported by the majority of Australians. For example, in Victoria, where by far the greatest number of duck shooters reside, duck shooter numbers decreased drastically from about 95,000 in 1986 to around 20,000 in 2010/11. This is due to a number of factors, including the ban on semi-automatic weapons, and the negative image of recreational shooting, which has been influenced greatly by the media. Rescuers have used planes to buzz over the wetlands encouraging birds away from danger shooting zones and also had mobile vets on hand to give immediate assistance to injured birds.
In August 1996, The Coalition Against Duck Shooting challenged the High Court on the validity of the Governments "human safety" regulations introduced in 1993, which banned both rescuers and the media from the public wetlands until 10am, some four hours after the shooting starts on the opening two days of the duck season.
"The graphic words and pictures of wounded birds and illegally shot protected species, including the rare and threatened Freckled Duck, are a political liability for shooters and an embarrassment for the government. ...The regulations were designed to keep both rescuers and the media away from the front line, at precisely those times when the killing and wounding of native birds is at its peak. ...Journalists and camera crews travel to war-torn countries like Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia in an endeavour to seek the truth, yet the Kennett Government deems it too risky for the media to cover the opening of recreational duck shooting." Laurie Levy
The High Court challenge was subsequently lost.
Arguments put forward by shooting organisations in defence of duck shooting include the financial boost hunters provide for some rural towns, particularly on opening weekend, the income for the gun and ammunition industry, and the 'satisfaction' of hunters who like to hunt and kill ducks for eating. Shooting groups also point to the conservation work they have participated in on some wetlands.
Animal welfare and conservation groups counter with the arguments that "eco-tourism" (visitors to the wetlands for birdwatching and other non-violent recreation) could easily replace the (arguable) financial loss for rural communities; and that the lead shot problem and the killing of 'protected' species cancel out any benefit provided by shooting organisations' work. Towns such as Kerang, Boort and Donald in northern Victoria could make the same millions of dollars through eco-tourism as does Phillip Island with the penguins, and Warrnambool with the Southern Right Whales. North Western Victoria could rival, and be as popular a tourist attraction as, Kakadu National Park.
It varies from state to state - they are all native waterbirds
1990 Western Australia banned recreational duck shooting.
1993 South Australia banned lead shot. Shooter numbers in that state fell to about 2,000.
1995 The NSW Government banned recreational duck shooting. Legislation was successfully passed through both houses of the NSW parliament.
1996 PM John Howard and State Premiers banned semi-automatic weapons, including semi- automatic and pump-action shotguns, having a great impact by reducing numbers of shooters.
2001 Lead shot phase out commenced in Victoria
2005 The Queensland Government banned recreational duck shooting.
"Hunters have demonstrated time and again that collectively they cannot be relied on to correctly identify threatened waterfowl, despite the best efforts of CNR (Victoria) to educate them. Therefore waters containing threatened waterfowl such as Freckled Duck and Blue-billed Ducks must be closed to shooting."
—Dr David Baker-Gabb
Director, Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU):
Media release, 16 March 1994.
"There is widespread opposition throughout the community to the cruelty and environmental damage caused by shooters... Evidence from previous [WA] 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."
—Dr Carmen Lawrence
Former Premier of Western Australia
Media statement, 3 September 1990
announcing a ban on recreational duckshooting in WA
...blatant, indiscriminate slaughter, which has no place in a civilised society."
The Age, 4 February 1994
"It is hard to convince anyone ... that this ugly spectacle has anything to do with sport. The violent killing and maiming of native birds and animals can no longer be regarded as a legitimate recreational pursuit."
The Age, 22 April 1995
Coalition Against Duck Shooting, Melbourne