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.
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.”