Photo by Elle Richards
Natalie Kopas is no stranger to early autumn mornings on Lake Connewarre – she’s been rescuing shot ducks on these waters for what seems far too long.
Ms Kopas and her Geelong Duck Rescue Team are out every weekend at 5am at one of the 221 wetlands that are open for duck shooting in Victoria this year.
She is one of many animal activists still fighting for a statewide ban on duck shooting.
While the practice has been banned in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia, it continues in Victoria, with the annual hunting season starting in March and ending in June.
Ms Kopas said 271,000 ducks were hunted and killed last duck shooting season in Victoria, and she expected the toll would climb even higher this year.
When hunters realised they had shot a protected species of duck, they often threw it away to prevent being fined, she said.
This meant the true death toll every duck hunting season was actually far higher than official numbers showed.
“No matter how long you’ve been rescuing ducks, it stays heart-breaking,” Ms Kopas said. “It’s like watching men playing a video game, they are shooting away and cheering each other on.”
The most traumatic situation she experienced in the wetlands was when a duck was shot and wounded just metres above her head, she said.
“It was valiantly trying to get away. My heart was in my mouth thinking please don’t fly towards the hunters, but it did, and they just banged away until it fell into the water,” Ms Kopas said.
“It just made me feel sick. Seeing that bird bleeding in the water and knowing how hard it had tried to get away.”
Duck shooting enthusiast, Alex Helmers, said most duck hunters did the right thing but were unfairly tainted by a small number of shooters who disobeyed game laws.
“The majority of hunters will eat what they shoot and that’s their primary purpose for the sport. It is just the minority that discard ducks and shoot protected species who ruin it for everyone,” he said.
“Hunting animals, including ducks, has always been a tradition in my family. It’s a hobby like fishing or camping.
“If there is an over-population of ducks in the environment, action needs to be taken and duck hunting – when done correctly – is a successful method to counter this problem.”
A spokeswoman for the Surf Coast Wildlife Shelters Group, Tina Lawrence, said she could not see how putting an innocent animal to its death could be considered be a hobby.
“Saying ‘we are following tradition, we’ve always done it,’ is not a reason. And pleasurable, are you kidding me? Taking the life of a defenceless bird. I don’t know about the pleasure in that,” she said.
“Many hunters talk of feeding their family but if you can’t get in your car and get down to Coles to buy vegetables for dinner in this day and age then something is wrong,” Ms Lawrence said.
It was devastating at the opening of the hunting season to see ducks she had previously cared for at her wildlife shelter and released, returned injured or dead, she said.
“We take in dozens of orphaned ducklings in the spring. We raise them and release them, and then we find that six months later the very same birds have been shot,” she said.
It was distressing to see so many protected species of duck shot, killed and then simply discarded, Ms Lawrence said.
“They are just killing everything off now and it’s traumatic for rescuers. It’s such a confronting sight to see; grown men just sitting there shooting birds out of the sky,” she said.
“If you want to shoot the wildlife, take a camera, not a gun.”
Ms Kopas said she was frequently subjected to verbal abuse when she was in the wetlands rescuing injured waterfowl.
Others members of the Duck Rescue Team said they were wary of showing their faces and being identified in newspaper photographs and on social media.
Ms Kopas said that activists would not stop pressuring the state government to ban duck hunting on Victorian wetlands.
“Our ultimate goal is an outright ban on duck shooting across Victoria,” she said.