Drought and ducks

Field and Game - - ACROSS THE DITCH -

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.

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