Comment: 'Hunting permits me to connect with our natural environment'

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David McNabb is one of many who take part in Victoria's annual duck hunting season. Here he explains the draw and meaning of the hunt. To hear from both sides on the issue, tune in to The Feed tonight at 7.30pm on SBS2.

We can’t ignore that hunting is entwined in our history. Each of us is here today because we had successful hunters in our family lineage. At some point in our past hunting wasn’t optional: it was mandatory.

On one level, it’s fairly simple - time spent in the Australian bush continuing the cycle of gathering seasonal wild food for my family.

Yet the more I hunt the more I understand that hunting permits me to connect with our natural environment, and value the habitat and wildlife in a way no other activity can achieve. I’ve developed a deep appreciation that today’s landscape is highly modified and we are compelled to actively manage our environment. The desire by some to “lock up and leave” our natural resources ignores this important fact.

On yet another level, hunting draws out the complex relationship between hunter and game, where choices are made to take life, or to pass up that action. This takes any discussion on hunting beyond a link to the sustainable harvest of a surplus natural resource, something akin to agriculture.

It takes us instead into a dynamic and complex system, one that includes ethics, animal welfare, sustainability, the widening rural/urban divide, and the place hunting has in the human ecology. It also demands evidence and data backed with good science to inform the inevitable debate in today’s society. A society where the majority of people spend more time travelling than ever before and yet spends less time in the Australian bush. A society where we can order our food online and have it delivered to our doorstep. Where we regularly consume produce grown outside historical growing seasons. Today it’s all at our fingertips.

What does hunting mean for me?

I don’t come from generations of dedicated hunters, at least not in recent history. Rather, my connection is through exposure to the outdoors from family links to farming. I grew up with the knowledge that all our food comes from somewhere. I grew up knowing meat came from the lamb, pig or cow that was reared for that reason. Chickens provided eggs, and then ended up in the freezer. Vegetables came from the gardens around the water tank near the farmhouse and in our back yard. Milk came from the Jersey cow milked by relatives.

The onset of autumn hunting seasons generates great excitement and a sense of promise for hunters, me included. It’s when hunters get to see the results of climate and rainfall, conservation work, game management and farming practices.

Discussing seasons leads me to contemplate duck hunting in the context of time. Time spent scouting, spent preparing gear and decoys, assessing wind and weather, the best site to locate the hide. Time spent wading a kilometre in the dark through a wetland by the light of my head lamp to the selected spot. Waiting for the sun to gradually unveil the wetland in glorious colour. My dog shivering at my side in the chilly dawn or in anticipation, most likely both. It’s interesting to briefly digress and consider how simple hunting is for our gun dogs. They simply act on the genetic makeup developed through generations of breeding.

Duck hunting is that fleeting moment of time when my hard work and preparation comes together and birds flare into the decoys, feet down and wings cupped, ready to join the familiar shapes of the decoys carefully set out. Choices are made in moments: can I identify the ducks, do I shoot or not, which bird do I select from the flock, which bird should my dog retrieve first.

Then more time, packing up and wading out of the wetland after the hunt, carefully and respectfully preparing the wild food ready to cook or take home, checking over my dog for any nicks or cuts.

This all takes a small part of the day and I’m enjoying a leisurely coffee by 9 or 10am, sharing the sights and sounds of the morning with other hunters. The rest of the day is all about the camp and time with friends and family, enjoying the Australian bush. It asks the question, again: what is hunting all about? Is it the act of hunting that’s important? Or is hunting one small part of the collective set of activities extending throughout the entire year that leads to time spent in the wonderful Australia bush?

Whether it’s duck, quail or deer, hunting gives me the choice of taking up the privilege of providing wild food for my family. Hunting connects me with our natural environment, allowing me to appreciate the complex relationship between the components - habitat, climate, wildlife, management, and society. Hunting also delivers surprises. People are surprised that I hunt and I use the wild food. There’s surprise that hunters have the greatest respect for our wildlife and value our natural resources highly. There’s surprise that hunting delivers $439 million in economic benefit to Victoria in 2013. Hunters are the most surprising conservationists. Yet when you think about this, there’s no greater interest in the sustainability of a species than from those who actively seek to use this natural resource, and ensure the viability of the population for future generations.

To watch The Feed's feature on duck hunting, tune in tonight at 7.30pm on SBS2.

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