The farcical debate in NSW over the O'Farrell government's decision to allow hunting in national parks knows no bounds. In a state notorious for political cant and hypocrisy, nobody seems interested in the facts, including the media.
It is difficult to understand why anyone with a genuine interest in the environment would oppose the idea of people voluntarily, at their own expense, shooting the feral cats, foxes, wild dogs and pigs that devastate native fauna. For some small marsupials, feral-proof fenced enclosures are all that is saving them from extinction.
Notwithstanding its current opposition, Labor favoured the idea in 1998 when Environment Minister Pam Allan and Premier Bob Carr agreed to enlist volunteer hunters. It was not such a radical idea; more than 100 additional national parks were created during Carr's reign, many previously under the control of Forests NSW and open to local hunting arrangements.
When legislation was introduced in 2002, it allowed hunting in state forests and other Crown land but not national parks, a result of resistance from the environment bureaucracy and concern at the prospect of losing green votes. It was nonetheless understood that national parks would be included once the benefits became apparent.
In 2009 the Labor government of Nathan Rees was in turmoil over electricity privatisation. Needing Shooters and Fishers Party support in the Legislative Council, an offer was made to allow hunting in about 60 remote national parks of the state's total of 800. (O'Farrell has now agreed to 79). The Shooters and Fishers Party (SFP) MLCs hesitated, hoping for a better offer, and in the delay Rees was replaced and the offer repudiated.
Premier Barry O'Farrell's protestation that his hand was forced by similarly needing SFP votes in the Legislative Council is also a change. The Liberal and National parties supported the 2002 legislation while complaining that it did not include national parks. They even unsuccessfully moved an amendment to allow a two-year trial of hunting in three national parks.
Consistently opposed to volunteer hunting of any kind, in any location, are the Greens and their supporters including the lobby group Getup. Their solution to the problem of feral animals is poisoning and the use of professional hunters, including shooting from helicopters.
This fondness for professionals causes much amusement in hunting circles. Apparently there is something about shooting pest animals for money that makes it acceptable, while shooting them for recreation (or "pleasure" as they describe it) is not. They also assume professional hunters are inherently more competent.
In fact, most professional hunters are part timers. With the exception of a few kangaroo shooters, the majority are amateurs who are occasionally paid to undertake a specific task. Moreover, it is invariably amateurs who win target shooting championships, challenging assumptions about relative expertise.
As for aerial hunting, the dreadful wounding of feral horses in Guy Fawkes national park in 2000 by professional shooters firing from helicopters left an indelible stain on that idea. In any case, the high cost of aerial control makes it impractical as a general measure.
The main poison used to control feral animals is sodium fluoracetate, also known as 1080. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service apparently used around 500,000 baits over the last 12 months. In some areas salt-lick blocks laced with strychnine or cyanide have also been used.
The problem with both these is that they are not target specific. Kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, wombats and other small marsupials will consume them, along with feral horses, foxes, deer and feral pigs. Moreover, there is a significant animal welfare problem arising from the consumption of sub-lethal doses. The belief that this is preferable to shooting is difficult to sustain.
In any case, the implication that hunting by volunteers somehow excludes baiting and the use of professional shooters is false; experts in feral animal control acknowledge that an integrated strategy involving multiple methodologies achieves the best results. But with so many national parks in which feral animals are a problem, intensive campaigns favoured by those who oppose volunteer hunting are simply not affordable.
Much of the opposition to hunting in national parks is based either on aversion to firearms or an assumption that their presence represents a danger to others in the park. Legal academic Desmond Manderson wrote recently, "I have a five year old child and I find the idea of guns in her vicinity grossly offensive".
While this implies a fear of firearms, it confirms a fondness for authority. There are 15,000 police officers in NSW who each carry a 40 calibre Glock handgun, plus an even greater number of armed private security guards, yet nobody suggests they are an accident waiting to happen. Perhaps if hunters were to wear uniforms, such concerns would evaporate.
Some critics describe volunteer hunters in disparaging terms, such as "gun-toting amateurs wanting to go on yippee-shoots" and "red-necks", and suggest hunters will inevitably mistake someone for a feral animal.
This shows ignorance of the reality of hunting and hunters. While nobody can totally rule out the possibility of accidents, hunters are no more likely to mistake a fox or pig for a human being than a police officer is to mistakenly shoot a bystander for a bank robber. Almost all hunting is undertaken with rifles equipped with telescopic sights, and shots rarely extend beyond a couple of hundred metres, meaning the target is clearly identified. Moreover, hunting is by no means a cheap activity. Those so-called red-necks are predominantly prosperous tradesmen and women or professionals.
Hunting in national parks is well established in Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and NT, as well as New Zealand and other countries, with accidents few and far between despite far less regulation than in NSW. None of the predicted effects on tourism or other calamities has been observed either.
While the NSW government intends to segregate hunters from other park users, this does not generally occur elsewhere and is really not necessary. Most national parks are huge and there is plenty of room for everyone.
Objectively, the only complaint with validity is that firearms are noisy and might disturb the activities of bushwalkers, picnickers and bird watchers in the general area. That could be rectified with the use of silencers, as used in many countries (including New Zealand) where they are viewed as a sign of consideration for others. Unfortunately, silencers are strictly prohibited in all Australian states.
Some argue that recreational hunting has minimal overall impact on feral animal populations, even spreading ferals more broadly and worsening their impact. It is even claimed that hunters deliberately release animals in order to increase hunting opportunities.
In fact there are plenty of examples of volunteer hunters making a significant contribution to feral animal control. One of the most well-known is Operation Bounceback, in South Australia's Flinders Ranges, which has seen the restoration of many degraded ecosystems with one of the program's most important achievements being to stabilise populations of the endangered Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby after the shooting of foxes, feral cats and feral goats.
It was disclosed in parliament last year that a total of 457 wild dogs had been shot by volunteer hunters in State forests during the period of March 2006 to September 2012, during which no contractors were hired by Forests NSW to remove wild dogs. Forests NSW also estimated that if commercial rates were applied to the removal of the 18,485 feral and game animals from its estate that were killed by volunteer hunters in 2011, the cost would have amounted to a total of $2.4 million.
Victoria's sheep producers are in no doubt that the State's policy of paying a bounty on foxes contributes to lamb survival. The only problem with the scheme is that NSW does not have one, resulting in some foxes crossing the border after they have been shot.
As for claims of spreading ferals, no matter how many times they are repeated there is still zero evidence to support them. Like the red-neck and similar labels, their only purpose is to denigrate volunteer hunters.
At a more philosophical level, it has been suggested that hunting is incompatible with the values of national parks. This ignores the fact that those values are being significantly degraded by feral animals, and that they are not the pristine wilderness some imagine them to be.
Having said all that, there are aspects of the proposal to open national parks to hunters that can be criticised, in particular the role of the NSW Game Council.
There is nothing equivalent to the Game Council in other states or countries. The assumption that intensive regulation of hunting contributes to a safer outcome or better environmental results is unique to NSW and does not withstand scrutiny.
Victoria allows hunting of pest animals at any time, without a specific licence and with only minimal regulation, in most of its state forests and other public land. However, it also issues game licences for hunters to take deer, ducks and quail in national parks and other public land subject to passing a waterfowl identification test (to distinguish ducks from other waterbirds), proof of identity and payment of a fee.
The purpose of the game licence is to enforce seasonal limitations and bag limits. Both deer and ducks are subject to hunting seasons, while all ducks are subject to bag limits to protect native duck populations from over hunting.
The underlying purpose of the NSW Game Council is to regulate the hunting of deer. From the beginning the primary motivation of most of the hunter representatives on the Game Council was deer hunting, not the control of feral pest animals. The legislation creating the Game Council even makes it an offence for anyone other than the property owner to hunt deer on private land unless they hold a game licence.
I know this from first hand experience; I was an inaugural member of the Game Council and a member of its Committee of Management before being sacked by the now infamous Minister for Primary Industries, Ian McDonald, for criticising then Chairman of the Game Council and now Shooters and Fishers Party MLC, Robert Borsak. My complaints about the focus on deer, and predictions that it would cost public support, were dismissed out of hand.
There are compelling reasons for encouraging the use of volunteer hunters to control feral animals in national parks and other public land, just as those who volunteer to fight bushfires and provide assistance after natural disasters are encouraged. They contribute to the care of our natural environment and promote civil society.
The problem is excessive regulatory control. The Game Council's licensing system, controls over access to land and coercive powers deter volunteer hunting. It's easier to negotiate access to private land than deal with them. And despite expectations that it would be self-funding through licence fees, the system has become a permanent cost to taxpayers.
If those opposed to hunting in national parks held genuine concerns for the environment they would want to make it easier for volunteers to shoot feral animals, wherever they occur. And they would support abolition of the Game Council.