Duck Shooting

Last updated 23 February 2021

The serenity of the Australian wetlands at dawn; a gentle breeze stirs the eucalypt leaves; the rising sunlight filters through the reeds, casting shadows into the dense earth; frog song and insect chatter set the picturesque scene as native birdlife glides overhead.

Suddenly, the serenity is shattered by blistering gunfire; bodies drop to the ground, lives in their prime, taken down. This is the reality of duck shooting in Australia.

This distressing scenario occurs for an annual season across many Australian states. While one could be forgiven for assuming that hunting of wildlife may avoid many of the inhumane practices associated with animal farming, the capacity for suffering of these native species is extremely high, and shows a blatant disregard for protection of our environment and natural resources.

Thankfully, hunter numbers are declining, and increased public pressure and concern for our native species mean the days of duck slaughter are numbered. Given the welfare concerns, duck hunting has already been prohibited in the ACT, Western Australia, NSW and Queensland.1 

Animal Exploitation

Using Victoria as a case example, and utilising statistics from the official Game Management Authority (GMA) document Considerations for the 2020 duck season, there are an estimated 25,000 registered duck hunters in the state.2 Victoria’s population was estimated to be 6.28 million in 2019,3 indicating the practice is in place to cater to only 0.4% of the population. Of this, only 55% of registered hunters participated in the season (0.2% of the population).2 This tiny proportion of the population causes a massive amount of carnage and disarray over the three month annual duck season. The GMA estimate of the number of ducks hunted in 2019 came to over 238,000.2

Of course, this is only the official number. Duck shooting is shrouded in scandal. Hunters are set a ‘bag limit’ - the number of birds they are permitted to kill on any given day - for the hunting season, but there have been numerous, large-scale incidents of shooters not wanting to let bag limits stand in the way of their bloodlust. The opening of the 2017 season showered the Koorangie Marshes in dead birds, with authorities witnessing more than 1,000 left uncollected by shooters,4 and Coalition Against Duck Shooting volunteers later discovering pits concealing more discarded, uneaten birds.5 A similar incident occurred near Boort in 2013; the aptly dubbed ‘Box Flat Massacre’.6 These principles go against the Game Management Authority’s own “ethical hunting” principles,7 displaying the permeated disrespect for birds in hunter culture, and disregard for the environmental and welfare impacts of killing in excess of that allowed by authorities. The Pegasus report, a 2017 inquiry into the adequacy of the GMA’s ability to enforce compliance following on from the Koorangie incident, stated “…non-compliance with the game hunting laws is commonplace and widespread, and the GMA is widely perceived by its external stakeholders and its own staff as unable either to ensure compliance with the game hunting laws, or to effectively sanction offenders when those laws are breached.”.8

A worse fate than outright death, these figures do not take into account the wounding rate of hunted birds. Shotguns, which are used to hunt ducks, operate by projecting a ‘cloud’ of pellets spread over a larger area. A natural consequence of this is that in addition to shooting at the target animal, there may be some inevitable ‘collateral damage’ to surrounding birds. Alternatively, if the shot is taken improperly, it may not be fatal to even the target animal. While the number of birds which are injured but not killed is very hard to accurately calculate, estimates place this number at 25% of birds shot, or 1 in 4.9 This is compounded by the fact that there is no compulsory accuracy test prior to being awarded a game licence.

Contrary to what the public widely assumes, there are no government accommodations in place for dealing with injured wildlife as a result of the season they endorse. Many more birds would suffer unduly if it were not for the effort of volunteer rescuers and veterinary triage teams attending the wetlands. This is a completely self-funded, voluntary effort with no financial input nor support from authorities. Sadly, rescue efforts are frequently hampered by the thick reeds in which injured birds attempt to hide from humans, only to go through more protracted suffering.

Even for the birds who are able to completely escape injury, there is no consideration of the behavioural stressors to wild animals of having their environment invaded by the sound of guns, the disruption to their homes by hunters and their dogs, and the potential loss of their bonded mates, with some game species mating for life.

Ecological Concerns

While already unjustifiable on welfare grounds, the environmental impacts of duck shooting are also appalling, especially with our wildlife already experiencing the stressors of bushfires and climate change. Contrary to popular belief, even among the shooting community, all the ‘game’ species approved to be hunted during duck season are native birds, and are protected at all other times of year.10

Examining the GMA’s own Considerations 2020 document, the dire environmental conditions Australia is facing are terrifying. Drought is prevalent, wetland availability as habitat for birds is the lowest it has been for the past 37 years (largely due to the dry conditions), preventing appropriate bird geographic spread.2 Waterbird abundance is significantly below average, and all trends relating to its growth are in decline.2, 11 Astoundingly, the Considerations document is used to justify the subsequent duck shooting season, exhibiting the blatant disregard of hunting authorities and hunters themselves to environmental concerns. The 2020 season proceeded despite these damning and alarming figures.

Duck shooting is also responsible for the deaths of protected and threatened species each year. Given the issues identified with the enforcement abilities of the Game Management Authority, and the inherent logistical difficulty with policing gunfire, shooting of non-game species invariably occurs. At least 260 protected species were killed during the 2017 opening season at Koorangie 4,12 and many more injured, including Freckled Ducks, Australia’s rarest waterfowl, endangered in Victoria,13 and species which are not ducks at all. The Freckled Duck appears exceedingly similar to other game species in silhouette form,14 and disturbingly, hunting is routinely permitted in the poor visibility conditions before sunrise and after sunset,15 contributing to the risk of accidental shooting and demise of the species. Hunters are required to sit the Waterfowl Identification Test prior to being granted their duck shooting licence in Victoria, though this multiple choice test is only required to be passed once for a hunter to be active indefinitely, and is not reflective of real world conditions.16 This being said, regardless of whether a species is protected or not, the suffering experienced by game species is no more justifiable than if they were protected.

More direct environmental damage occurs secondary to the presence of hunters on the wetlands. Every year, the voluntary effort cleans up a multitude of spent shotgun cartridges, rubbish, environmental damage and other debris left behind by hunters. Thankfully, the use of lead shot, which has severe ecological consequences as lead leeches into the environment, was outlawed in Victoria in 2001.1 

Environmental damage can also occur in more covert ways. In 2009, Field and Game Australia pleaded guilty to diverting water away from the Latrobe River into their private shooting property prior to the start of the hunting season of that year.17 

Traumatising and Unpopular

In the wake of the deadly 2019-2020 bushfires experienced by Australia, communities banded together to support one another and our native wildlife. The last thing many wanted to happen was further desecration of native species. Sadly, all Australian states with an annual duck hunting season proceeded to declare 2020 shooting could go ahead.15,18-20 These distressing decisions cater to the minute proportion of the population that are shooters, while ignoring the mental strain and will of the remainder of the population. A Morgan Poll conducted in 2007 found an overwhelming majority of Victorians think duck shooting should be banned,21 and subsequent polls have shown results similar to this, showing how meaningful native birdlife is to the majority of Victorians. Grimly, this does not seem to factor into government decisions at all, choosing to pander to the hobby of a few while ignoring many.

While the mental strain of knowing recreational slaughter of native animals is occurring is stressful enough, these concerns are even more tangible for the dedicated volunteers committed to being present during the season. Volunteers from the Coalition Against Duck Shooting and other animal protection organisations attempt to warn ducks away from shooters’ guns, rescue wounded birds and bring them to shore for triage by veterinary volunteers, and importantly, provide additional monitoring of shooter behaviour and draw it to the attention of authorities. Physically watching the carnage that occurs on the wetlands and striving to save lives, with exposure to traumatic injuries and stressed animals, leads to mental anguish and compassion fatigue. The cost of rescue supplies, medication, and transport of injured birds after triage for the lucky few who don’t require immediate euthanasia are all worn by the volunteer rescue effort. While the mental health benefits of shooting to those involved is often touted,22 the converse poor mental health of those left picking up the pieces is perpetually ignored.

It is often overlooked that hunting licences can be granted to children as young as 12 years of age in Victoria.23 This is before the age at which a lot of children can grasp the implications of what they are doing. An example that exemplifies this was the shooting of a rescuer in the face as a result of inappropriate gun use by a 14 year old boy in 2011.24

Economically and Biologically Unjustifiable

Duck hunting also carries with it a variety of negative health consequences, both physical and economical. An investigation in 2013 placed the value of duck hunting in Victoria (in terms of Direct Gross State Profit) at $43 million.25 The total financial impact across all types of hunting in the state came to $439 million, making game hunting worth only 0.13% of the Victorian economy.25 Furthermore, this document was reviewed by an independent behavioural economist in 2016, which pointed out numerous flaws with the original report and debunked many of its findings.26 This makes the economic benefit of hunting, the main reason governments claim it is beneficial, highly questionable, especially when weighed against its negatives.

Ecotourism is a rapidly growing industry worldwide, with birdwatching particularly popular. The Australian industry is estimated to be worth $1.6 billion in annual revenue.27 Tourists hoping to share in the splendour of the Australian wetlands are understandably deterred when active hunting is taking place. This deprives rural communities of the tourism revenue and goodwill associated with birdwatching and ecotourism. Regional Victorians Opposed to Duck Shooting Inc. advocates in this area, drawing attention to this injustice, and the unfairness of the slaughter happening in their backyard, to their local birds.28

Despite hunted ducks purportedly being taken for consumption (despite the previously outlined evidence that this is definitely not always the case), there is a range of significant disease risks to human health associated with this practice. Further pressure to call off the 2020 season in Victoria was related to contamination of birds with the industrial chemical PFAS, which could potentially cause toxicity in humans eating affected birds.29 Ongoing disease risks include botulism (rare),30 blue-green algae poisoning,31 and the theoretical risk of avian influenza.32

Duck hunting is not justifiable, on animal welfare, environmental or economic grounds. Ending duck shooting in Victoria is listed as the first animal welfare advocacy goal for 2020–2021 by RSPCA Victoria.33

But it takes an army to make change! Taking the power into your own hands with an advocacy campaign is an excellent way to take action for native wildlife; politely inform friends and colleagues about the injustices of the practice; write to or meet with your local Member of Parliament and relevant Ministers demanding action for the birds; consider donating, supporting or volunteering your time with groups dedicated to saving ducks. Working together, this barbaric practice will be banned Australia wide!