In the marsh at Lake Connewarre near Geelong, Dean Rundell classes himself as a responsible duck hunter. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Dean Rundell crouches in the marsh grass, clad in three different kinds of camouflage.
Cast skyward, his pale eyes seem drawn from the same palette as the environment.
An ammo belt filled with gleaming shotgun cartridges encircles the 28-year-old’s waist.
From his neck dangle two bird callers and a device known as a ‘finisher’, with a sharp prong for dealing with wounded ducks.
It’s garb that would draw strong disapproval, on sight, from a large portion of the populace.
It’s impossible to be a duck hunter and be unaware of the almost universally negative media coverage of your kind.
“Some people just think we are bogans with guns,” Rundell says.
“Some think we aren’t compassionate or sympathetic people.
“Others think we are just feral and shoot anything we see.”
But to spend time with Rundell is to realise he doesn’t fit the negative stereotypes.
Hunter Dean Rundell eyes a passing mob of birds to work out whether they’re ducks or another protected species. At 28, he represents a new generation of hunters who’ve come to the sport as adults, having to learn its ethics for themselves. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Legal shooting time is half an hour before sunrise but the self-employed builder has been in the swamp much longer.
Tramping through the shallows, he’s unfurled painted decoys designed to lure mobs in.
Made from moulded plastic and weighted to sit a certain way on the water, they do a startlingly realistic impression of a live duck.
Get Rundell talking and the conversation can eddy for minutes around the nuances of decoy patterns.
They can be arranged in a J or a V, designed to funnel birds into a kill zone, giving the hunter a clear shot.
Rundell scouted the area the previous day, setting up here to be under the flight path of birds shifting from one swamp to another.
The boat is dragged between the reeds in an attempt to evade the ducks’ keen eyesight.
But the wind is up and the mobs are moving fast.
Most are out of range.
For long stretches, the hunt devolves into bird watching.
Large mobs of pelicans lope past. Black swans with necks outstretched. Cormorants.
Tethered to the boat, the gun dog shivers half from the cold and half from anticipation. A Brittany, this is what he was bred for.
You get the feeling Rundell doesn’t really mind the lull.
The .22 calibre shotgun rests between his knees, hands clasped around the barrel.
Now would be the perfect time to gnaw on some duck jerky. But it’s early in the season and he hasn’t made any yet.
Against an expanse of sky, a mob of birds flies between two swamps at Lake Connewarre. Hunters position themselves to be under the birds’ flight path. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Duck hunter and Sporting Shooters’ Association Hunting Development Manager David Laird crouches in an attempt to camouflage himself from the ducks’ sharp eyesight. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Coming home with a feed is only part of the point.
Being outdoors is as much the pleasure.
When Rundell isn’t here he is fishing, four wheel driving.
In between hunting seasons he builds nesting boxes to help regenerate waterbird populations.
This is what people miss, he says.
“Hunters are true conservationists.
“If this wasn’t a game reserve there’d probably be a housing development down to the water.”
We’re on Lake Connewarre near Geelong, one of 200 state game reserves across Victoria, encompassing 75,000 hectares.
The first were purchased in the late 50s using licence fees collected from duck hunters who’d identified the draining of wetlands as a serious threat to waterbird populations.
As well as game reserves, ducks can also be shot on private land and in state forests, forest parks and other unoccupied Crown land.
Made from moulded plastic, and painted and weighted to make them realistic, decoys are used to attract ducks towards hunters. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
The recreational shooting of ducks, which are native, has already been outlawed in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.
What effect the bans have had on waterbird populations is difficult to say, according to Professor Richard Kingsford, who directs the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales.
He’s been conducting yearly surveys of waterbird abundance across eastern Australia for three decades.
Professor Kingsford says there has been no detectable spring back in populations as a result of bans on recreational hunting, but rather a continuing long term decline.
“The evidence shows a small negative impact from hunting,” says the ecologist.
“Most of the decline is due to habitat loss and not hunting.”
Recreational hunting remains legal in Victoria — if vocally opposed.
The official average annual harvest is about 390,000 birds.
Opponents cite surveys showing an overwhelming number of Victorians want it banned.
12-gauge shotguns that allow two shots to be fired before reloading are the standard weapon of choice for most duck hunters. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
In Victoria, the Government does a yearly count of waterbird numbers and distribution prior to opening the season.
The 2017 count showed a 207 per cent increase on the previous year of the eight game species.
This year, the Game Management Authority (GMA) introduced new rules mandating what the body says is already standard practice for responsible hunters: the retrieval of all ducks shot, and the salvaging of at least the breast meat.
However an independent review of the authority leaked to the ABC in March uncovered “commonplace and widespread noncompliance with hunting laws” and found the GMA’s own staff felt unable to ensure compliance or sanction wrongdoing.
David Laird, the Sporting Shooters’ Association’s hunting development manager, says ethical hunters hold the majority of the 26,000 duck hunting licences issued annually in Victoria, and they are as concerned as anyone that those who flout the rules be stopped.
“Like the rest of society, there are some who do the wrong thing. It’s a minority and we need to hold those individuals to account.
“Unfortunately when it comes to hunting, instead of realising that, people seem to think it’s a free kick and fair game to have a go at all hunters and try to label us all in the same way, which is rather unfair.”
Part of Laird’s work involves educating hunters to know their gun’s range, their accuracy as a shooter and when to wait for the next duck instead of risking a long shot.
A spread wing displays the characteristic plumage of a Pacific Black Duck. Hunters are allowed to take 10 ducks each per day. One feathered wing is to be left intact, to prove what kind of bird has been shot. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
‘As organic and free-range as it gets’
Dean Rundell knows his sport has an image problem.
“People see the duck that I’m plucking and they’re like, ‘You just killed the duck that I like feeding down at the park’.”
He is keen to counter negative stereotypes of duck hunters and present the ethical face of the pastime he loves.
Rundell first shouldered a gun at the age of 24.
While his father and grandfather were both duck hunters, they had stopped by the time he got interested. So he is largely self-taught.
But hunting still has the thread of family running through it.
His mother always used to talk about the men in the family going hunting and camping in Kerang each duck season.
When Rundell inherited his grandfather’s ute, he opened the glove box and one of the old man’s bird callers tumbled out.
“I was like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ and just started playing around with it.”
Now he can mimic the calls of four different species.
From the honk of a Mountain Duck to the woop of a Teal and the woot woot of a Black Duck.
It’s become a passion.
Two or three times a week during the three-month season you will find him in the marsh.
Rundell also hunts quail, rabbits, foxes and deer.
He estimates roughly 10 to 15 per cent of the meat he consumes he has caught himself from the wild.
During hunting season he eats a duck dish once a week and makes stock from the carcasses.
Schnitzel. Risotto. Stir fry. Smoked duck. Duck steak with gravy. Sausages.
Like or loathe hunting, in a city-based society where the average Australian is disconnected from the food chain that supplies his or her diet, Rundell is getting his hands dirty.
“People these days are looking for organic, free-range food. Wild ducks are as organic and free-range as it gets.”
Feathers litter the marsh as Dean Rundell plucks a bird. He estimates 10 to 15 per cent of the meat in his diet he has caught himself. “Wild ducks are as organic and free range as it gets,” he says. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
A new generation
Dean Rundell has a bunch of friends who shoot ducks — most of them under 35.
In some ways, they represent a demographic change that the Sporting Shooters’ Association is noticing.
“I was introduced to hunting — and most of the guys in my generation were — by a father or an uncle or a good friend of the family,” says the organisation’s David Laird.
“You basically did an apprenticeship and they took you under their wing, took you out and you were instructed in the ethics of the whole thing, etiquette, regulations and safety.
“If you were a young bloke and you did the wrong thing you literally got a clip under the ear or a foot up the backside.
“You didn’t carry the shotgun for the next month until you had worked it out.
“Whereas now that’s not happening so much. People are deciding to get into hunting or shooting more generally and they haven’t got that background. So we’re keen to make sure they get the skills and knowledge they need to use firearms safely and hunt ethically and sustainably.”
A Pacific Black Duck dangles by Dean Rundell’s ammo belt, the wound showing a clean shot to the head. A major objection to the sport is that shotgun spray inevitably wounds birds other than the one killed, leaving them to fly off and suffer. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
A clean kill
On Lake Connewarre there is no sunrise to speak of, just a colourless fading in of the day.
The crimped hair of the dog echoes the ripples on the surface of the lake.
Occasionally there is the crack of another hunter’s shot from across the water.
Rundell holds fire.
The birds that are close enough to hit are the wrong species, ducks distinguished from other protected birds by their bearing in the air, their body shape, whether they beat their wings or glide.
Now and then Rundell squeezes the trigger, but misses.
Hitting a moving bird at 30 metres evidently takes some skill.
The gun dog Astro shifts in the boat restlessly between shots. A Brittany, he was bred for this. The chance to work him was the main reason Rundell got into hunting. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Man and dog head into the swamp across Lake Connewarre, in an area that’s set aside as a game reserve. A side effect of hunting has been the preservation of such natural environments, the first purchased in the fifties with money collected from duck hunting licenses. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
While duck shooters must pass a waterfowl identification test, there is no shotgun accuracy test.
Shotguns spray shot, usually steel in Victoria, over an area.
It’s one of the major criticisms levelled at the sport — that even the most responsible and careful hunter can’t avoid injuring birds other than the ones killed, birds that fly off and suffer.
The RSPCA opposes duck hunting on these grounds.
“It’s something that hunters do grapple with,” Laird says.
“I know people who have given up hunting because they haven’t been able to resolve it within themselves.
“But it is absolute rubbish to claim that every time a hunter fires a shot that multiple birds are hit.”
There is a risk associated with everything humans do on a daily basis.
In a risk-averse society, he says, the presence of risk is used to argue duck hunting should be banned.
“Hunters understand better than most that nature is unpredictable and can’t be controlled. In all things we take steps to mitigate risk as much as possible and we do the same in hunting.
“Do we argue that we shouldn’t drive cars because people are killed and maimed on the roads? Do we argue that football should be banned because players are injured?”
Hunting is not for everyone, Laird acknowledges, but it’s an age-old activity.
“It allows those of us who hunt to maintain a real and tangible link with the natural world and to be self-sufficient in some small way.
“Some people can’t deal with an animal being killed, or wounded. That’s fine, but a lot of those people are still happy to eat their meat when it comes on a plastic tray.”
Moonlight glints on the marsh. Dean Rundell expects to catch between 100 and 150 ducks during the three-month hunting season. (ABC News: Jane Cowan)
Over several hours in the marsh, and with four years’ experience, only one bird is downed.
The green plumage denotes it’s a Pacific Black Duck. This one’s in prime condition.
“Obviously no shortage of feed,” remarks Rundell, spreading its wing.
It’s a clean kill, a spot of blood on the head.
Rundell stands in the marsh plucking the bird, downy breast feathers catching in the grass at his feet.
The dog’s coat is dry.
“That’s how you know it’s been too long since your last duck,” he chuckles.
But one is enough for today.
Over the season Rundell expects to shoot more than 100 birds.
He’s already picturing a full freezer, and duck on the table until October.