For the first time Ruth and I found ourselves at a wetland at dawn yesterday, hoping we wouldn’t see any birds. We had decided to participate in the Coalition Against Duck Shooting’s protest against the Victorian Government’s decision to allow a duck hunting season in 2009. I do not normally consider myself an activist, and nor do I particularly consider myself a “greenie” (whatever that means) – but as a lover of birds and wildlife, and someone that spends as much time as possible outdoors in our National Parks and reserves, I was so appalled by the government’s decision that I decided that I needed to act.
The story starts some years ago when Ruth and I first had contact with Laurie Levy, Director of the Coalition Against Duck Shooting, and the “face” of the anti-duck shooting campaign since about 1986. Ruth had to do an assignment for her university course, and chose to write about the Blue-billed Duck. In the course of doing her research she contacted Laurie to ask him about the impact of duck hunting on this particular species. A more passionate man would be hard to imagine! Laurie has worked tirelessly over the years to have duck hunting around Australia, and particularly in Victoria, banned – and is willing to talk to anyone and everyone on the subject, and does!
More recently we met up with Laurie through our involvement with the Victoria branch of Birds Australia, and we have had many opportunities to talk with him about duck hunting. Up until 4 February this year, we all thought that there would be no duck hunting season this year. Unfortunately that was not to be the case – the government announced a “limited” duck hunting season of 49 days duration. As soon as we saw Laurie again after that, Ruth and I said that we would participate in the duck rescue effort and protest on the opening weekend.
On Thursday last week, we attended our orientation meeting – where we were trained in what to do and how to behave at the protest. We were also told that this year we would be going to Sale – which has long been regarded as the heart of the duck hunting community. In the weeks leading up to the season, the Coalition Against Duck Hunting had surveyed the game reserves around the state and decided that the Gippsland wetlands were the only ones with enough water – as a result, that’s where we we were going. The briefing covered how to behave towards the shooters, the police and wildlife officers, what to do with injured waterfowl, what to do with dead waterfowl and so on.
At 4:45am on Saturday morning, in quite thick fog, we found ourselves at one of the campgrounds in Sale with a number of other protesters. We checked in to say that we had arrived, and were assigned our teams, but we had no idea at this stage of where we were going, or even how many people would be there. After the organisers had a brief, huddled conversation, the word spread, “It’s Dowd’s…” – meaning that we’d be heading for Dowd’s Morass, about 12km from Sale. In the next half hour, we had a cup of coffee, prepared ourselves in whatever ways were necessary and got ready to leave. It is interesting to note that at least one newspaper photographer was also with us, documenting the preparations.
By 5:15am, we were in a queue of cars and other vehicles and slowly heading out of the campground. We first headed towards the town, and as we were heading in that direction a long queue of vehicles were heading in the opposite – direction. It took me a moment or two to realise, that we were being passed by the head of our own queue, as we were heading to a roundabout to turn around – it was considered safer to do this than have a hundred or so vehicles turning right from the campground. As we rounded the roundabout, I could see other vehicles joining us – protesters that had stayed in motels or other accommodation rather than the campground. We passed the police station and saw that all the officers were standing out the front looking at the convoy in a rather bemused manner.
During the drive to Dowd’s Morass there were fog-free areas and we got to see an impressive sight – a queue of vehicles kilometres long, all with one thought in mind – to protest against, and hopefully to stop duck hunting. Ultimately we turned into a dirt road and headed along that for a while before being directed to an area on the side of the road to park. Directly in front of us, was a camp of some sort, with a number of 4WD vehicles, and tents. After a moment or two, it clicked – these were the hunters – the “enemy”! There were about eight vehicles, a number of tents and a larger, open tent set up as a cooking area. The hunter’s camp was separated from the area where we parked by wire fence (although both areas were public land).
Once we got out of the car, we prepared ourselves for entering the water. For Ruth and I that meant changing our shoes for wetsuit booties, rolling our trouser legs up and donning orange reflective vests. We walked up the track to where the main body of protesters were gathering – it seemed like we we walking for ages, but in actual fact it was only a hundred metres or so. Someone was yelling out, “Whistles! Come here if you need a whistle!” So we collected our whistles. Someone else was handing out pillowslips, so we collected a couple of those. Reality set in then – the pillow slips are for covering the wounded birds that we would find – covering them has a calming affect – however it is important to not get your pillowslip wet, because the bird may suffocate.
Team leaders were calling out, “Team 3 here!”, “Team 7 here!” and so on. Ruth and I had been assigned to Dave Evans – in Team 1. Dave is the coordinator – he is Laurie’s eyes and ears on the ground, and decides which teams go where and what they should do. There were at least 12 teams with upto about 15 members in each team. Our team briefing was short – stay with your team leader and do what they say. Team leaders wear a patch front and back with the team number in BIG red digits. We’ll be entering the water before first light (at 7:10am). The law says that the hunters are allowed to commence shooting at 7:10am, and the protestors are not allowed in the water until 10am. We will be ignoring that law – if we get caught, it is a $100 fine. If anyone isn’t comfortable with breaking that law, they should leave the team now (no-one left). Remember to stay 10m from the hunters. Do not flush birds that are on the water. Do not flush birds from the reeds. If you see birds flying overhead, use your whistles to scare the birds AWAY from the guns – not TOWARDS.
Next was Laurie’s briefing to the group. Thanking everyone for attending, reminding us of why we’re here – to rescue wounded waterfowl and to prevent the hunters from actually killing and wounding the birds by scaring the birds, or by distracting the hunters. Please avoid any confrontations, abide by the 10m law. Laurie then introduced the representatives from Wildlife Victoria – they would be waiting on the shore to collect wounded birds – a mobile veterinary clinc would be established to treat any wounded birds brought in. Next the legal representative briefed us – please see him if there were any legal issues – overbearing police or wildlife officers, and so on – but above all, RESPECT the police. Finally a time-check – we’ll be entering the water in about 25 minutes.
Next the police and wildlife officers met with Laurie and the legal representative. The police representative, a sergeant, reminded Laurie of the law – to which Laurie said that we would be entering the water before 10am. The police didn’t seem too concerned by that, and expressed a desire for a confrontation-free day. The wildlife officers, on the other hand, seemed to take it as a personal attack that the protesters were there, and that we would dare interfere with their nicely run opening weekend. I was rather surprised by this – I genuinely thought that DSE officers would be anti-hunting and sympathetic to the protesters cause – but clearly not.
A quick word on the protesters. I wasn’t sure what to expect – I imagined that the majority would be “greenies”, “hippies”, “tree-huggers” – the people you see chained to trees to stop logging. Sure, there were definitely people that fitted that mould. Plenty of beards and dreadlocks. But there were many others – I’m a business owner, there were clearly other people like me. There were shopkeepers, students, bird watchers, office workers, retired people, nature lovers – ordinary people. The one thing we had in common was a disgust that people would kill living creatures for sport. More than that, though, was that a 21st century government would actually ALLOW that behaviour.
Around 6:30am the sky lightened somewhat and Dave yelled out, “To your teams”. Everyone moved towards their team leaders and we headed to the water. Someone had placed carpet over the barbed wire fence (whilst the property was public, cattle are allowed to graze there), so we easily clambered over the fence and headed towards the water – about 170 people. As we stepped into the water, a wildlife officer screamed at us, “5m from the water! 5m from the water!” Dave yelled, “COME ON!” So with that, we broke the law and entered the water.
The water wasn’t cold, but the mud was deep, thick and incredibly sticky. Within 10m or so from shore, we were knee-deep in water and mud. Every so often, though, we would take a step and sink to thigh-depth. Walking was incredibly hard-going. Even though the sky was lightening, the fog was still thick – adding an eerie, atmospheric mood to the morning. We walked out parallel to an old fence in the water. As we walked out I could see ducks in the water – Dave saw that I had noticed and said, “They’re decoys.” As we approached a large island in the middle of the morass, I could just make out a figure on the shore in the gloom – a hunter (or “shooter” to use the protester’s terminology). I pointed the shooter out to the others. Once again, reality bit.
Once we came within 10m or so of the island, we decided to turn right. It was just about 7am and still very foggy. At that moment the guns started – at least 10 minutes before the official start of the season. What they were shooting at is anyone’s guess, because we saw nothing. We followed the island around to the right and as we passed one shooter, a team member from another team was there tying the shooter into his nook with police tape and streamers! Apparently this shooter, Steve, was known to the protesters from previous years. He seemed to take it quite good naturedly! We kept moving, passing more decoys in the water and passing other shooters. Certainly none of the shooters we passed were shooting at anything, but all we could hear above our squelching was gunfire. After about 20 minutes, we were satisfied that all shooters were covered further around to the right, but more than that, there were simply no ducks to be seen!
We turned around and started heading back the way we came. The morning was becoming lighter, although it was still foggy. We passed the streamer-bound shooter. He hadn’t touched the streamers or tape that were surrounding him. He gave us a wave as we passed by. We crossed the mostly submerged fence and started to head to the left hand side of the island. As we walked along we passed through a collection of decoys. “Oy! Get away from my decoys!”, the hunter shouted. “I’m supposed to cooperate with you lot!” As we walked on, the hunter’s wife (one of two female shooters we heard of on that day) yelled at us, “You guys are a joke! What the hell do you think you’re doing here? Piss off, the lot of you!” This provoked one of the protesters in our team to start yelling insults back again. In the end, nothing worse happened – just a few insults traded. On the other side of the hunter’s patch was a camoflaged boat, and the other hunters’ son, who was also a hunter. Dave commented that this was one of the best set ups he had ever seen.
Ruth and I decided to stay and shadow these hunters while the rest of our team found a gap through the middle of the island to the other side (where we could continuously hear gunfire). We also thought that it was best if we stood guard over these hunters, since they had engaged in trading insults with our team – I was worried that if others stayed, the situation may escalate. Fortunately a photographer from The Age had arrived, and was busy taking photos – mostly of the hunters, but also of protesters in the background, with the hunters in the foreground. Ruth and I stood guard, in the area between the hunters and their decoys. On a couple of occasions, we saw Black Ducks flying overhead. Mostly they were too high – shotguns only have a range of 50-80m, but sometimes we saw the ducks heading in our direction at less than this height. We blew our whistles as loudly as we could, and amazingly they turned around and flew out of the range of the guns!
Once the photographer left, on several occasions, the female hunter fired shot over our heads – not shooting at anything, just trying to intimidate us. To be honest, she was by far the most aggressive of all the hunters we encountered. Other hunters on the shore side of the morass also fired at us – generally they fired almost straight up so the shot would come raining down on us. As the shot comes down, it sounds like hail falling. It doesn’t hurt, provided that you’re not looking up. Every time the shot came raining down on us, the hunter and his wife would laugh. Every time ducks flew over, well out of range, we’d hear the gunfire from all around us. For some reason “our” hunters didn’t fire at the ducks – I guess they realised that they were too far away. The female hunter yelled out to us a few times, “I hope you’re enjoying ruining our day”, “What is it like getting paid $100 to stand there?” I couldn’t resist – I had to respond to that one… “I don’t get paid, where did you hear that?” To which she replied, “We’ve been told that you lot get paid $100 each to protest.” I laughed and told her that that was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.
We noticed some police and wildlife officers had walked out and were talking to a nearby hunter. When they finished talking with that hunter, they started to head towards our hunters. We decided that the best course of action was to walk away – not because we were afraid to be fined, but rather, if we were fined we’d have to leave the wetland for the remainder of the day. As we were walking away, Dave and the rest of our team appeared and were heading towards us. As quickly as I could I moved up to him and told him the police and wildlife officers were there. Dave got on the radio and asked if anyone at base knew if the police were fining people, or kicking them off the water. So far no-one knew, which presumably meant that no-one had been kicked off, but we couldn’t be certain. It was decided that the team, and a second team that joined up with ours, would keep moving ahead of the police, and two members of the other team would act as “sacrificial lambs”, and walk towards them and then back to shore. The police paid no attention to the protesters, so we figured that we’d probably be safe. Nonetheless, we felt that the police and wildlife officers were keeping our hunters busy, and we could probably be better used elsewhere.
We spent another hour walking to the left of the morass, passing flocks of “decoys”. We encountered another team of protesters who told us that all the shooters on the left side of the morass had given up for the day. The season started at 7:10am and these hunters had given up before 9am. Quite a satisfying start, I thought.
Rumours abounded that there were 100 vehicles on the other side of the morass (presumably hunters vehicles). We could still hear gunfire from the other side of the island, so there were definitely shooters still there. We discussed tactics for a minute or two – there were basically two options, head to shore (and risk getting booked by the police) or attempt to cross the island to the other side. We chose the shore approach because we thought that may be faster, despite the obvious risk that if two teams, amounting to about 30 protesters, were caught, we’d be out of action for the remainder of the day. As we walked towards the shore, we called in to base for transport, and a minivan miraculously appeared. Unfortunately, as we reached the edge of the water, we realised that the land was private property, so we couldn’t cross it – so we decided on plan B.
We started heading back across the water towards the island. A number of the protesters decided to go back to base to rest (we’d been wading through water and mud for about three hours). Once we reached the island, we waded through thick mud to the path through to the other side. The water reached thigh depth and more. One of the protesters, Sarah, who was the leader of the other team that joined us, was probably the best dressed protester of all! I think she would not have looked out of place in Chapel Street, with her long black hair, wearing fashionable jeans, and a long red woollen jacket.
I was keeping up with Dave as we reached the path through the island. I could hear squelching behind me and had assumed that it was Ruth – but when I turned around, she wasn’t there. I walked back through the channel and Sarah told me that Ruth was resting a bit further back. I came across her on the edge of the island, resting against a branch – she looked exhausted. I asked if she wanted to go back and she nodded, “Yes.” It was now well past 10am so we were safe to exit the water.
We walked back and came out of the water. Most other teams were already out. Back at base we saw Laurie being interviewed by a TV reporter. Only a couple of police officers were left and they were chatting with protesters over cups of coffee. We walked up to the veterinary tent – and found that they had had NO business at all that day. We walked over to the catering tent and had a couple of cups of soup, and a vegan sausage on bread – definitely a new experience for me! Laurie’s interview finished up and he came to the catering tent. We asked him how the day had gone – he told us that it had been very quiet – almost no birds, and to that point no casualties at all. Apparently two hunters had been booked by the police, one for having no licence. Also two protesters were booked, both for violating the 10m rule. No one had been booked for entering the water before 10am. As we were talking to him, a team member came up to Laurie and gave him a dead duck in a pillow slip. The one and only casualty of the day.
I am only left with one question. Why, John Brumby, why do we need this ridiculous “sport”?