Drought and ducks
Paddy Maguire has been a keen observer of nature for longer than most members have been alive. He’s seen droughts, floods and everything in between, and with many areas of the country currently desperate for rain, the importance of our 60-year hunter conservation effort is brought to the fore.
We are now, in many parts of the country, experiencing a drought, but our ducks will cope, as they always have.
These days we help them to cope with the tough Australian climate but even so, many opinions are bandied about, often by people with scant knowledge and loud voices.
Before white settlement, the indigenous population used controlled burning to avoid bushfires: this encourages natural grasses to grow and provides grazing for kangaroos and other animals.
Many patches of trees and scrubland were left as shade for the animals, and more wild food to gather. Creeks and swamps were cared for: they also provided tucker.
Wood ducks are geese (grazers) and were not so common, but Pacific black duck, Teal and all the other water feeding birds were prevalent.
The early settlers had little understanding of our continent and its climate. They cut down abundant trees for buildings, fences, cooking, heating, shoring up mines, building carts and boats.
Swampland lacked lots of nutrients for crops or grazing grass but they were ideal places to site local tips. Roads were mostly only rough earth tracks, boggy after rain, so a short trip with horse and cart to dump rubbish saved a lot of time and energy.
Many waterways were closed and dams dug: ideal habitat for Woodies but not so for true ducks. Windmills supplied water from underground. Natural vegetation was cleared and instead, grass was sown for grazing. Rabbits and foxes were imported from Europe. Pet dogs and cats arrived and many became feral.
Close to Melbourne, Carrum Wetlands and Lake Connewarre were home to punt guns: huge guns with huge shot loads that downed hundreds of all types of waterbirds with one shot.
Birds were sold as food, especially to the many ships.
Sale was where most supplies were brought to Gippsland. With few roads, rivers gave good access to the vast countryside.
In the 1940s, Carrum Wetlands was largely drained to provide land for housing. Sewage and rubbish was left buried in swampland or drained into rivers. Even in the 1970s, raw sewage from Ferntree Gully fed into Port Phillip Bay via the Mordialloc Creek. Edithvale Wetlands and Werribee were the same.
Factories were always situated along rivers and waste went straight into the water. When I was a little bloke, Dad drove us to see Dudley Flats, a dreadful area, where the Yarra River spilled its rubbish and sewage into a natural depression.
Probably in years long gone, it had been a good swamp.
Many poor people lived there in humpies made from old cardboard, wood, old iron, canvas, or any rubbish. The Great Depression was just finishing, and so many people were poor and hungry.
In Australia, every few years, along comes a drought.
Swamps, creeks and rivers dry up and our ducks gather in huge numbers on all suitable water. They eat what is available, they also defecate into the stale water. This sometimes poisons the stagnant water, and life in the water dies.
The younger ducks move on in search of water and food while the older resident birds often stay behind. The dead water often develops botulism.
Ducks and other birds and animals searching for life-preserving water get sick and die, adding to the deadly cycle.
One year, a researcher told me, he estimated that maybe 2 million wild ducks died, plus all the other birds.
Survival of the fittest prevails as birds search thousands of kilometres for suitable habitat.
Breeding is sparse and duck populations shrink, the inevitable consequence of which is a cancelled or restricted hunting season.
Those still hunting get very low numbers, so many just go to catch up with their mates and enjoy a camping weekend with friends. Eventually the drought breaks, breeding explodes and natures balance is restored.
Hunting has only a minimal impact on duck numbers and since 1958, Field & Game Australia and its members have preserved and restored a huge number of wetlands.
Sixty years’ hard work supporting wetlands by restoring watercourses, bringing back natural vegetation, supporting breeding and suppressing predators produces its best results in times of drought. Nomadic wild ducks have more of a chance to find refuge than they would if hunters hadn’t intervened.
We have come a long way in righting the wrongs of 200 years of European settlement. Our forebears were not evil, they just had no understanding of this new vast land of “drought and flooding rains”.
Maybe as climate change takes place, our wildlife will change and adapt, but you can be certain Field & Game will continue to help.
The runs are on the board. Our record stands us proud.