Darren Linton says on opening weekend every Duck Season there is a battle played out, but it isn't the one you are probably thinking of.
Sure, hunters and protesters mingle in the water with the former trying to legally hunt and the latter doing whatever they can to cause disruption, but this isn't the main game.
The real battle is for hearts and minds and, as you will see, money.
This year, the Coalition Against Duck Shooting (CADS) became the minor player on the wetlands as Laurie Levy sat out the weekend courtesy of a court-imposed ban. Animals Australia, a much more nimble and savvy organisation, took the lead, partnered by the RSPCA.
These organisations have enormous reach, which is important given that media interest in the wetland wars seems to be waning. Fewer media, particularly commercial television, were present at Lake Burrumbeet near Ballarat which, with the sudden closure of Lake Elizabeth the evening before, became the focus for protesters and so called “rescuers”.
The absence of a large media presence created a vacuum that was quickly filled by Animals Australia, which engaged its own film crew. Social media also played a big role and provided a platform for opponents of duck hunting to post without restraint.
I've worked in journalism for more than 30 years and it is evident that 2016 marked a low point for the media industry.
Material put forward by Animals Australia made it to news pages, websites and television screens, unfettered and unchallenged. The role of the media is always to present both sides of the story without bias, yet the managed to run a story that contained two images of hunters but no comment from Field & Game Australia or any other organisation to challenge the accepted commentary of Animals Australia and CADS. Across mainstream media this was a familiar pattern but equally disturbing was the general acceptance of claims made about “injured” or “rescued” wildlife and “abandoned” game birds. Diminishing reach and revenue for legacy media has resulted in significant >>
>> redundancies across the industry and the consequence is that fewer resources are available and journalists have become time poor. Media organisations are more inclined than ever to take in “free” or sponsored content to fill the void.
Often there is little time in the frantic 24/7 news cycle to cast a skeptical, questioning eye over footage or to test the claims that are made.
Activists make the claim they rescued injured or stressed wildlife from hunting areas: cue vision of protesters carrying a swan from the water.
The case of the swan recovered from Lake Burrumbeet by CADS is one worth looking at more closely.
Swans are not a game bird and a hunter would have to be near blind to make the mistake of pulling the trigger, yet here is a swan being paraded as a casualty of hunting.
This is where it gets tricky because it is the absence of a claim rather than the presence of one that causes consternation.
Here's what RSPCA said about the swan on Facebook: “Last weekend, we visited Lake Burrumbeet near Ballarat where the 2016 duck shooting season commenced. “We set up a mobile vet clinic to help treat the waterbirds that were injured. “Not only were we treating ducks who (sic) had been shot, but not killed, just left there in pain to suffer with broken wings, broken legs, chest wounds, abdominal wounds, head wounds, and more, we were treating birds that were supposed to be protected. Birds that were supposed to be safe.
“Even if a bird is not directly shot, it can still fall victim to duck shooting season. Did you know that swans are highly susceptible to dying of shock? The constant sound of gunfire and stress on the water battlefield is not a safe environment to a swan's health and wellbeing.
They may not be shot, but they will still suffer. Not all will survive.”
Was the swan shot? No; something RSPCA cleared up in a later comment.
RSPCA Victoria: “We never said this swan was shot. Not once since we've been posting and tweeting since it was found have we said that.”
True, but they never said it wasn't either, especially after detailing the “broken wings, broken legs, chest wounds, abdominal wounds, head wounds, and more” they were seeing at their mobile vet clinic. It's worth going back to the birth of the “swan story” and the photo posted by CADS, which was labelled clearly, “black swan falls victim to duck shooting cruelty”. The accompanying CADS post read: “Just hours into the duck shooting season, a swan was taken into the mobile vet clinic. Sadly, they did not survive. And shooters say they can be trusted not to injure protected species. What a joke.”
That statement was either deliberately deceptive or CADS wrongly believed the swan had been shot. Either way, in the real battle for hearts and minds, it was a powerful image that suited the ultimate aim stated in bold capitals below.
TAKE ACTION / DONATE / SIGN UP This is an important point best illustrated by the slick and misleading video produced by Animals Australia.
It opens with a warning that “this investigation footage contains some distressing images” and is titled “Vic Labor's 2016 duck slaughter — opening weekend”.
There is no investigation; it is an attempt to shame politicians by associating them with “distressing images”. The music is sad and heavy, the images are presented as disturbing but the most “shocking” it gets is showing hunters retrieving and dispatching wounded birds, which continued to twitch after death.
The opponents of duck hunting can't have it both ways. They can't on the one hand accuse hunters of failing to collect shot game birds while at the same time misrepresenting evidence of them doing so as further evidence of cruelty.
While we're on the subject of animal welfare, it is worth reflecting on some of the many videos posted by protest groups.
The RSPCA published a number of videos that were distressing, particularly to hunters, of rescued wounded game birds on the operating table in the mobile veterinary clinic set up a long way from the shores of Lake Burrumbeet.
An ethical hunter aims for a clean kill but will recover and quickly, and humanely, dispatch any wounded bird.
A “rescuer” will pluck a wounded bird from the water and wade to shore cradling their catch, posing for photos and thinking of ways to describe the creature as “terrified” or “brave”. The bird is suffering through this process and the long walk to the vet clinic where it becomes the subject of more “disturbing” photos and video to be fed out to social media.
The most distressing video has the accompanying words from RSPCA Victoria: “This poor duck was brought in from the lake with a broken leg and several shrapnel wounds around her head, wings and pelvis. She is in pain and the severity of her wounds means that the most humane thing to do is end her suffering and put her to sleep.”
The fact that didn't occur in the water by the “trained rescuer” is shameful. RSPCA is an animal welfare organisation yet it has allowed its obligation for ethical and humane treatment of animals to play second fiddle to its political agenda and thirst for publicity.
The duck writhing on the table in obvious distress is one of the worst images to emerge from the opening weekend. If a hunter had reached the duck first, its suffering would have ended and it would have been paid the respect of being utilised as food for the table.
Because a rescuer found the duck first its suffering was prolonged as it became a poster child for a political campaign and its carcass probably ended up being dumped on the steps of the Victorian Parliament in an attempt to shame a Government that supports legitimate, ethical and sustainable hunting.
All this occurred while starving horses, reported to authorities by concerned residents, continued to die on a property on the outskirts of Melbourne.
It's not the politicians or the hunters who should be ashamed.
Screen grabs from RSPCA videos posted to social media on opening weekend