Ever elu­sive quail

It has been a slow start to Quail Sea­son in South Aus­tralia and Vic­to­ria, with re­ports of qual­ity habi­tat but few birds. Bob Whin­nen is a re­lent­less hunter of quail but here he re­flects on why in re­cent sea­sons he has been the con­stant bearer of bad news.

Field and Game - - Elusive quail -

Fel­low co­horts of the quail lovers' brother­hood, I wish I could re­port to you in florid su­perla­tives the num­bers of quail to be found and the many places to find them. Alas, my re­port is one of con­tin­u­ing gloom and frus­tra­tion; I am like many of you, be­gin­ning to won­der if we will ever see an­other fall of quail in our old, favourite hunt­ing coverts.

As well as not find­ing a sin­gle stub­ble quail in habi­tat that would ap­pear to be most at­trac­tive, I have been hear­ing the same from so many of you out there. The only quail my dogs have man­aged to find are painted but­ton quail that have ven­tured out of the scrub in the early morn­ing, and the few res­i­dent brown quail that hang on around the mar­gins of Lake Alexan­d­rina.

Con­ver­sa­tions with farm­ers across a num­ber of dis­tricts also have raised the ques­tion: what has hap­pened to the stub­ble quail? At a re­cent Con­ser­va­tion & Hunt­ing Al­liance of South Aus­tralia (CHASA) lun­cheon at Langhorne Creek, a fundraiser for the Tolderol Game Re­serve, the ques­tion was raised by three farm­ers, all from third- and fourth-gen­er­a­tion broad­land mixed farms.

Prior to the great tax-min­imis­ing schemes that cre­ated a glut of wine grapes, the dis­trict was a pre­mium lucerne-grow­ing area, with a mix of dry-land crop­ping and flood-ir­ri­gated vine­yards that re­lied on floods from the Bre­mer River. Stub­ble quail were ubiq­ui­tous in the lucerne crops, au­tumn stub­bles and weedy edges, and fal­low ground. Chris Ek­ert, a farmer from a long line of farm­ing wildlife ob­servers, ex­pressed his view that broad acre spraying of pre-emer­gent weed sprays and in­sec­ti­cides was a ma­jor cul­prit, hav­ing erad­i­cated the weedy mar­gins and in­sects that quail need for breed­ing habi­tat and food.

I know many of us share this opin­ion, but what can we do? Un­less you own the land, there is re­ally noth­ing. If you do own the land and you have to make a liv­ing off it, you will come un­der all the pres­sures our strug­gling farmer hosts face and be forced to use ev­ery means avail­able to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity, de­spite not want­ing to.

There is an ex­cel­lent book that il­lus­trates this dilemma:

by Sir Joseph Nick­er­son, who was knighted for his out­stand­ing work in Bri­tish agri­cul­ture, in par­tic­u­lar, food pro­duc­tion for the na­tion dur­ing and post­world War II.

Never was there any­one who loved the na­tive grey par­tridge more, as well as the flora, fauna and coun­try­side of pre-war ru­ral Bri­tain. His farms were fa­mous for the num­bers of wild grey par­tridge pro­duced and Dicker­son him­self was fa­mous for how many he shot with his trio of Purdey 28-gauge over-and-un­ders.

Eco­nomics and the need to feed a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion forced Sir Joe to grub out hedgerows, cre­ate vast mono­cul­tures of grain crops and elim­i­nate weeds and in­sects. In his last years of shoot­ing, he had to be con­tent with ar­ti­fi­cially raised and re­leased red leg par­tridges and pheas­ants; by his own words. noth­ing to com­pare with the wild grey par­tridge and the sea­sonal heartbeat of his beloved ru­ral Eng­land. The same hap­pened un­der the Com­mu­nists with their col­lec­tives­tate fac­tory farms that cre­ated vast mono­cul­ture crop­ping across the Hun­gar­ian plain.

I be­lieve we could be see­ing the same hap­pen­ing in our agri­cul­tural lands. How­ever, the vast­ness of mar­ginal coun­try too un­re­li­able for so-called im­prove­ment, to­gether with their no­madic na­ture and fe­cun­dity given rain events may hope­fully save our stub­ble quail. The Amer­i­can bob­white, al­though not a true quail, had the same in­crease in range and pop­u­la­tion fol­low­ing sub­sis­tence cul­ti­va­tion west­ward, now cor­po­rate agribusi­ness has de­stroyed habi­tat and num­bers have plum­meted. Only the range­lands of Texas and Oklahoma when sum­mer rains oc­cur pro­duce har­vestable num­bers of wild bob­white quail.

It is too late now for the rains that pro­duced the boomer sea­son of 2011 but who knows what those heavy rains in the in­te­rior have pro­duced? Let's all hope for ad­e­quate au­tumn rains in the south to lure rea­son­able num­bers of our enig­matic phan­tom of the grass­lands down for us to en­joy days afield with our canine com­pan­ions and that spe­cial mate you en­joy hunt­ing with.

Foot­note; Rus­sell Thomas, an­other keen quail hunter from Gipp­s­land in Vic­to­ria re­ports a lit­tle more suc­cess, putting up 30–40 late one Satur­day af­ter­noon. “There are birds there but of­ten there is a lot of ground be­tween them,” he re­ported af­ter sev­eral out­ings in late April. “A hand­ful here and a hand­ful there.”

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