Protecting our native waterbirds

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With Victoria increasing the hunting season to 12 weeks, the Coalition against Duck Shooting is looking to prosecute hunters for animal cruelty. Campaign director Laurie Levy explains.

Duck protestor Julia Symons shot in the face on the first day of the duck hunting season in Victoria.
Duck protestor Julia Symons shot in the face on the first day of the duck hunting season in Victoria.

IT'S BEEN a long, hard-fought, battle to protect Australia’s native waterbirds.

However, there have been major changes since our campaign to ban the recreational shooting of native waterbirds started in 1986. Three states have now banned recreational duck shooting (WA, NSW and Queensland). In Victoria, the numbers of licensed duck shooters have decreased from over 95,000 in 1986, to somewhere between 20,000 and 24,000 today, depending on who you talk to in government.

Even if the figure is 24,000, as the Minister for Agriculture Peter Walsh says, the state’s dwindling numbers of duck shooters only represent around 0.4 per cent of Victoria’s population. It also means that at least 70,000 recreational duck shooters have given up this activity since the campaign began, while those who remain active on the wetlands have all but disappeared.

The change in public opinion is the main reason for this decline, with duck shooting widely regarded as cruel and unacceptable. In the last two years, rescuers have sighted fewer duck shooters on Victoria’s wetlands than at any time over the last 27 years. Yet the Baillieu government continues to spin rubbery figures in an effort to keep this violent recreational activity going.

In 2009 and 2010, the duck shooting season was held against scientific advice at the height of Victoria’s 13-year drought, following two years when there was no duck season because most wetlands were dry and there were very few waterbirds.

In 2011, after the drought had broken, there were only about 400 duck shooters at Lake Buloke, near the central Victorian town of Donald, on the opening morning of the duck shooting season and many of these shooters had come from interstate. This compares to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the lake attracted some 10,000 to 15,000 duck shooters on the opening morning.

There was a late breeding season in 2011 and Lake Buloke was serving as a large waterbird nursery. However, the Baillieu government disregarded calls for the duck shooting season to be cancelled from groups including the RSPCA, Birds Australia and Bird Observation & Conservation Australia (BOCA) (now merged as BirdLife Australia). As a result, the 2011 toll of over 630 dead game and protected species found by rescuers included many nesting birds and fledglings, as well as abandoned eggs.

In 2012, less than 500 duck shooters turned out on Lake Buloke on the opening morning. Right through the 2012 season, rescuers monitoring at Buloke only counted small numbers of shooters, ranging from two on the weekend after the opening to 25 at Easter, whereas 20 years ago, there were some 8,000 duck shooters during the Easter break.

The very low turnout of duck shooters in the last two years was despite the best efforts of the Baillieu government and the shooters’ groups to attract shooters to the wetlands. In 2011, Field and Game Australia (FGA) through its Magazine Feathers & Fur, failed to entice duck shooters out to the wetlands, despite its promotion — ‘Celebrate the Hunt Festival’, with competitions for prizes worth tens of thousands of dollars. (This included a ‘Grand Slam’ event for shooters to try to kill one of each of the eight game species during the 12-week season.)

Leading up to the 2011 season, Victorian Police Minister and Deputy Premier Peter Ryan stated in the media there were “thousands upon thousands” of birds flying over Victoria — again to promote the duck shooting season (nothing like a good piece of political spin).

In 2012, even the day before the season opening, the Minister for Agriculture, National Party Deputy Leader Peter Walsh, was talking up the season in an attempt to get shooters out to the wetlands, when he must have known there were very few birds in Victoria at that point of time.

A day later, on the opening morning at Lake Buloke, duck shooters only averaged two birds each, and around Victoria, duck shooters only shot an average one bird each.

Changing public opinion over the years has been responsible for duck shooters dropping out. It’s just not acceptable in the eyes of the public to shoot native waterbirds — and duck shooters know it. Duck shooting is a dying activity.

A Roy Morgan Poll commissioned in 2007 showed that a minimum of 75 per cent, or three out of four Victorians, support a ban on recreational duck shooting.

Duck shooting is all about inflicting pain and suffering on Australia’s beautiful native waterbirds. In 1986, we ventured out to the wetlands with the first rescuers and the first mobile veterinary clinic to rescue and treat wounded birds. Up until then, nobody had ever thought of helping these innocent victims.

Duck shooting is legalised cruelty, sanctioned over the years by consecutive Victorian Governments. It is widely acknowledged that at least one in four birds shot will be wounded, yet to our knowledge, there has never been a single prosecution for cruelty under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (POCTA) Act.  Why?

If Victorians write letters to the government, angered at the shocking cruelty that takes place on the state’s wetlands, they will receive a letter from the Premier telling them that:
The Victorian Government will not tolerate acts of animal cruelty. In Victoria, under the POCTA Act 1986, a person who commits an act of animal cruelty can face penalties of approximately $14,500 or one year imprisonment; and an act of cruelty resulting in the death or serious injury of an animal can carry fines of approximately $27,000 and two years’ imprisonment.  
So if Premier Baillieu can be believed, considering that duck shooting is all about cruelty and deliberately causing pain, suffering and injury to native waterbirds — why hasn’t there ever been a single prosecution for cruelty taken to court?  Surely the Premier means what he says. He wouldn’t just be spinning a line to the public, would he?

The Coalition Against Duck Shooting believes that cruelty offences must be prosecuted.

We have raised $10,000 to encourage and assist the RSPCA, the Department of Primary Industries, or Victoria Police, to start prosecuting duck shooters for cruelty offences. These are the only three law enforcement agencies with the power to prosecute, so the funding has been offered to help field undercover inspectors and compliance officers on the wetlands. Our legal advice says it can be done.

Once recreational duck shooting is banned, a thriving sustainable wetlands tourism industry could be established throughout regional Victoria. This would create country jobs while attracting overseas birdwatchers and other tourists to our wetlands and regional towns.

The penguins at Phillip Island earn Victoria approximately $200 million tourist dollars each year. The penguin parade was the brainchild of the Cain Labor Government in the early 1980s. It’s a shame that Premier Ted Baillieu doesn’t have a similar vision for Victoria’s wetlands, including our internationally recognised Ramsar listed wetlands, and our beautiful native waterbirds.

I will finish with a copy of our recent media release, dated January 18, 2013:

$10,000 to prosecute duck shooters for cruelty

The Coalition Against Duck Shooting has raised $10,000 with the aim of assisting the RSPCA, the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) or Victoria Police to prosecute recreational duck shooters for cruelty offences during the 2013 duck shooting season.

Campaign Director Laurie Levy said today: “Undercover inspectors and officers are needed on the wetlands to apprehend and prosecute recreational duck shooters for acts of cruelty to native waterbirds. For example, the vast majority of birds shot are still alive when they hit the water. Shooters who make no effort to retrieve wounded birds have committed an offence and must be prosecuted.  

“Outside the duck shooting season, anyone who harms native waterbirds will be prosecuted.  Shooting native birds with scatterguns is unavoidably cruel, with many birds injured by the spray of pellets. Duck shooters can be prosecuted for failing to retrieve wounded birds under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, as stated in the Code of Practice for Animal Welfare in Hunting.  However, with the millions of native waterbirds shot over the years, to our knowledge, there has never been a single prosecution for cruelty. The cruelty issue has been completely ignored over the years by those with the power to prosecute. 

“Yet duck shooters can be prosecuted under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, if they fail to adhere to the Code of Practice for hunters.

“While the DPI has the power to prosecute, it also promotes duck shooting seasons and has a serious conflict of interest.  This is made worse by the fact that most officers in the DPI’s Game Victoria, which overseas duck shooting seasons, are themselves duck shooters and members of hunting clubs. They are the gamekeepers who are employed to assist duck shooters.  There are no government departments overseeing and protecting the interests of native waterbirds or providing veterinary care for the wounded.

“We know the Police are short staffed, so it will fall to the RSPCA to prosecute duck shooters for cruelty.  The Coalition Against Duck Shooting is prepared to invest $10,000 so that cruelty is finally dealt with in the courts.  To achieve this, the RSPCA would need undercover inspectors on the wetlands during the duck shooting season. 

“Since 1993, the Victorian Government’s own Animal Welfare Advisory Committee has continually called for recreational duck shooting to be banned on cruelty grounds.  However, both the Liberal/National and Labor governments in Victoria have refused to act on this advice, despite being aware that a minimum of 25 per cent of shot birds are wounded. 

“Rescuers will return to the wetlands in 2013 to provide urgent veterinary care and expect undercover inspectors to be policing duck shooters.  It needs to be remembered that only 0.4 per cent of Victoria’s population are duck shooters,” Levy concluded.

For further information, contact:  Laurie Levy, Campaign Director - 0418 392 826
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