Hunters belong on the Barwon Estuary
The Barwon Estuary Project is producing a publication to record the community’s connection to these important wetlands near Geelong, Victoria’s second largest city. No record would be complete without acknowledging hunters, and the following article has b
Hunting weaves its way through the historical narrative of the Barwon Estuary, generating controversy and public debate in equal measure throughout the years.
Often ignored, or alternately, wilfully neglected in this narrative is the positive contribution made by dedicated waterfowl hunters to these valuable wetland environments.
Long gone are the days of large-scale commercial harvesting for the game meat market, and the virtually unregulated duck seasons where hunters operated according to abundance of waterfowl.
Duck hunting in the modern age is limited in duration and highly regulated to be both ethical and sustainable. It is not, as many would think, at odds with conservation principles, essentially because of the high value hunters place on the small number of ducks they harvest.
Because they value the natural resource, hunters are motivated to protect it, which is why they are Australia’s most surprising conservationists.
Geelong Field & Game formed in 1964 and for its members (most of whom are duck hunters), the Barwon Estuary is home.
During duck season, they take from it, ethically and sustainably harvesting wild food for the family table, but that is a fraction of their annual interaction with these important wetlands.
For many of the 10 000 people who now live near the Barwon Estuary it is a beauty to behold, a vista to enjoy from the verandah or a place to walk or play.
Hunters are different. They are outdoors people, with an innate curiosity that draws them to explore the natural world around them. Whether hunting or not, they are keen observers of weather, environmental conditions, water, plant life and, especially, bird life.
They will spend time observing and studying; for them, the Estuary is a lifelong classroom you keep attending to build knowledge and understanding.
In 1964, Ron Green owned a sports store and gun shop in central Geelong and he put a notice in his window to spark interest in forming a Field & Game branch. “There was a branch in Colac; I had been to a target shoot with them, and I thought, why don’t we have a branch in Geelong?” he said.
Post World War II rifle shooters were well organised, partly because the government of the day encouraged participation and familiarity with long arms, a safety net for the defence of the nation.
Ron said shotguns were different, and these hunters were often poorly trained in safety and hunting practice. “We used to run all the pre-duck season target shoots and saw a need to better train people and make them safe,” he said. “The early aims were to coordinate hunters and improve safety and conserve our wetlands. One of our first projects was putting up duck nest boxes and observing how they were used and which birds used them; we did a lot of research work on Lake Connewarre.”
Field & Game emerged in 1958 amid concerns about the decline of the Pacific black duck.
More broadly, there was a view that Victoria’s rapid growth was occurring at the expense of nature, a point made by leading conservative politician Arthur Rylah in 1959.
“Without the increased wildlife-carrying capacity … the rapid development of the State will leave little living space for game birds and other wildlife,” he said.
The keen hunters who formed and guided Field & Game had a clear vision for the future. They recognised that the biggest influence on duck populations was habitat, not hunting.
They encouraged the Victorian government to impose a licence fee on duck hunters. The funds were used to set up network of State Game Reserves, protecting vital habitat.
Victoria has more than 200 SGRS covering 75 000 hectares, including Reedy Lake, Lake Connewarre, Hospital Swamp, Salt Swamp and Murtnaghurt Swamp.
For 60 years, Field & Game members have continued to contribute to the health of these wetlands through environmental works, nest boxes to support breeding, water and pest animal management, revegetation, weed control and rubbish removal.
John Long was an early president of Geelong Field & Game after joining in 1966. Now 85, he’s still an active hunter of foxes, which do untold damage to native species. “We hunt ducks for 12 weeks a year but we spend the rest of the time on conservation projects; I spend six months of the year hunting foxes,” he said. “The place was in a terrible mess at
various times: there were car bodies and rubbish dumped there, we planted trees by the thousands and put in nest boxes. “We have maintained it to be a pretty pristine waterway.”
One of the earliest environmental projects undertaken by hunters was building structures to return water to Hospital Swamp. “I think there was an effort to make grazing land out of it and they had stopped the water getting into it,” John said.
At the time, John said they were accused of self-interest: creating a habitat just so they had more ducks to hunt. “They couldn’t see we were trying to save a wetland that benefits all sorts of waterbirds and creatures,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for hunters it would be a wilderness and rubbish dump or drained for grazing; in those days the broader community just didn’t care about wetlands.”
Public debates about hunting on the Barwon Estuary have flared over the years and increasing urbanisation in the region guarantees that will continue.
If you delve into the Geelong Advertiser from 1871–3, you discover a threecornered contest over Lake Connewarre.
The landholder, a Mr Rutherford of Lake Connewarre, took aim at the “big guns” in the pages of October 19, 1871. “On Sundays particularly, the lakes are haunted by sportsmen, who keep up a regular fire from morning till night. The friends of Sabbath observance will do well to turn their attention to this matter.”
The “big guns” were swivel guns, used to fire into flocks for commercial harvest and they publicly defended their right in several articles and letters. One, on October 25, 1871 referred to Mr Rutherford’s claims as a “multiplicity of exaggerations”. “His sole object for many years has been, if possible, to poison the public mind against the use of big guns on the lake. He forgets to mention that the wildfowlers are owners of land with ten times the lake frontage his has got, and that he is the only landowner who is against shooting on the lake with any kind of gun,” James Woolley wrote.
Under another attack, this time from ‘Sportsman’ or recreational hunters, who were concerned the big guns were decimating wild duck populations, Mr Woolley said his 18th season on Lake Connewarre had produced double the take of any season since 1853. “The whole matter is selfishness from beginning to end on the part of those who raise a cry against the big guns,” he wrote.
In August 1872, following a public meeting and gathering of a petition, a Geelong delegation of game purveyors and fishers (concerned about netting restrictions) went to the Victorian Parliament and successfully argued for the withdrawal of the bill.
It was only a reprieve: eventually the swivel or punt guns were banned, and ultimately, as farmed food became more plentiful, commercial harvesting also ended.
What survives is recreational duck hunting: not a sport but a tradition that keeps its practitioners connected
>> to nature and the self-reliance of harvesting your own food for the table.
Paramount in decisions to conduct hunting seasons is sustainability. Seasons are routinely abandoned or restricted based on duck numbers, observed breeding, water and environmental conditions.
This is not at odds with the ethos of the hunter.
Don White was a game officer in 1959 and at the same time managed the Fisheries & Wildlife research station at Serendip.
Don said he worked closely with Geelong Field & Game volunteers on many conservation projects. “They were just about the only ones who were interested in wetland conservation at the time,” he said.
Projects were funded with money raised through game licence fees, so hunters were effectively paying for the conservation projects and then volunteering their labour to help. “People think it was always there and always managed; they don’t know the amount of work put in, especially by Field & Game,” Don said.
Artificial drainage kept water out and grazing leases threatened the viability of the wetlands. That environmentally unfriendly regime changed with the designation of State Game Reserves. “Part of my work was also negotiating to buy key pieces of private land that would make the wetlands viable. There had to be a fair bit of restoration done: Reedy Lake had a big tip on it where rubbish had been dumped, and while they were designated Crown Land, little effort as made to support waterbird habitat,” Don said.
Geelong Field & Game now meets at the Connewarre Wetlands Education Centre, established on 36 hectares of land bordering Hospital Swamp.
The Centre is a partnership with Field & Game Australia’s charitable trust, the Wetlands Environmental Taskforce, and is used as base for community education in wetland environments and their conservation.
The Centre has hosted the popular Bug Blitz program, an arts-based approach to engaging students with the environment.
It has also become a base for research into avian influenza.
Working with Professor Marcel Klaassen from Deakin University, Geelong members conduct a trap and release program to collect scientific samples from wild ducks.
The research involves capturing and studying the virus from the wild to understand how it evolves and how to protect against outbreaks in the human population.
Hunters are not just a part of the Barwon Estuary’s cultural history, they are part of its future.
Hunters value these important wetland environments and as they have demonstrated repeatedly, they are prepared to work hard to preserve them for all creatures and all users.
Ray Agg, whose conservation efforts with Geelong Field & Game span 50 years, is still as keen as ever to contribute to the heath of the Barwon Estuary. “People want to live near those wetlands now, and we’ve stopped hunting the north side of Lake Connewarre because of that; we have made concessions but hunting can coexist,” he said. “I love the place, I really love it. “I just love getting out there; if I get a duck for the table, terrific, but I just like being out there in the wetland environment, I always have. “It is hard to explain to people the love you have for the wetland; it is just a fantastic place and it is always a great experience.”
Images recording the significant efforts of hunters to conservation and environmental works in the Barwon Estuary