Havoc in the rice paddocks

by Sam Garro

It’s bad enough when pigs get into the rice stubble and root up the ground, but when they invade the maturing rice a few weeks before harvesting that really hurts the property owner. And it’s made all the more galling considering his concerted and tireless efforts in warding off marauding ducks a few months earlier at the time of planting, and the important two to three weeks thereafter.

As hard as he may try to keep away the pigs with gas-operated cannons centered in the areas of most damage, and conducting regular vehicle patrols around the numerous still partly-flooded levied bays, shooting at the ones he crosses along the way, they keep on coming.

After a while the intermittent blasting machines are no deterrent, as the pigs filter into the rice crop at various times of the day and night, and from different directions, making it near impossible for him to manage the situation.

Through regular contact with the owner we knew he genuinely needed help to thin out the pigs. He was short-handed and it was the busiest time of the year. Other paddocks on his expansive property required flooding to promote new feed for his sheep that were fast approaching lambing, another reason to reduce pig numbers.

As always and time allowing, we were happy to oblige. Amazingly enough, controlling pig numbers in past years was never a problem, as they were few and widely spread, but the good rains during the past two to three years and abundant crops have attracted them from neighbouring properties and further out.

Normally we would take our time after setting up camp and plan where and which areas to hunt during our stay, but on this occasion the property manager told us the best time to hit them was just before dark, at a particular corner of a rice paddock where they filter into the crop from the obscuring scrub to the south and west.

Heading out that evening with the property manager was crucial, as every day that passed more havoc in the rice was wreaked by the pigs, ever-widening the mowed patches where they foraged.

The time came soon enough, as my mate Alex and I joined the manager who drove us to the location. With less than an hour of daylight remaining, we neared the large expanse of yellow-green growing rice crop, pulling up short of the spot to ready ourselves. Driving forward over the bumpy dirt track to make as much noise as possible to alert the pigs of our approach, we quickly reached the corner section.

True to the manager’s word, within seconds pandemonium broke loose, as no less than eight to 10 pigs of varying sizes broke from the cover of the thigh-high crop. My Schultz & Larsen 6mm Remington and Alex’s Geoff Wilkins .243 Winchester, both with variable scopes set on low power for close-in action and tracking the fast-moving pigs, rang out. We quickly but safely cycled the rounds, aimed and fired to fell as many as possible.

We dropped them in close and across a bordering ploughed paddock. With our focus on the pigs ahead of us and to the side, a large mud encrusted solid boar burst out from the rice to our rear, sprinted over a levy bank and headed straight for the fence line only metres away, which gave way to densely scrubbed bush.

Swinging the rifle around, I picked up the fast-moving black mass in the scope as it darted behind and between tall clumps of saltbush. Just as it was about to disappear from sight in the dim light and with the crosshair slightly in front of its nose, I touched the hairline trigger of the 6mm. With the jolt of the rifle, I lost sight of the boar but the solid whack was audible, resulting in an expired pig.

By now, except for the distant orange-red glow of the fast-retreating sun, darkness was upon us. The spotlight came out as did a myriad of compact swarms of tiny midge-like insects. As the ute moved forward, they peppered our faces like stinging grains of sand whipped up by a strong wind. A little further up the track and travelling parallel to the levy bank, another small group appeared from the rice. They met a similar fate, much to the farmer’s satisfaction.

We kept circling the rice fields but after the initial action all went quiet. The scattered carcasses were left where they lay to be consumed by the crows, foxes, hawks and eagles that predate on them. Within a week or so there is little left except for a few scattered bones.

Close on midnight we headed to a separate part of the property from where the pigs crossed over to the rice, and entered a previously harvested wheat paddock now overgrown with what was described as hip-high ‘rubbish grass’. The scattered pig diggings attested to their presence in good numbers. We had only travelled a couple of hundred metres when a group of four, alerted by the sound of the ute, trotted across the dirt track. Two dropped, with the other two scrambling under the nearby fence into unfarmed scrub country.

Turning the vehicle around to cut through the centre of the paddock, we disturbed a larger group of at least eight, comprised mainly of medium-sized pigs. Headed by a large brown and white splashed colored sow, they made a beeline for the nearby fence. The shots rang out with solid whacks heard as the spotlight kept up with their fading shapes in and out of the tall, pale grass. A 100gn Sierra Game King from my rifle hit the sow hard for the count. Alex was smacking them also with his .243 Winchester. When the remainder of the group reached the fence line, we managed to drop a further three or four.

Overall, several were dropped including a couple of mature boars. However, they only sported small pegs so were not taken. After that the action abated and, as it was now early morning, we head back to camp. Everyone was more than pleased with the combined effort.

On his own the manager could never have achieved the result and similarly without his guidance, we could never have found them in their numbers, hence the importance of local knowledge. The next morning we returned for a better look and to take some photos.

We knew the next day would be hot and humid, so prepared for an early start along a recently dried-up creek, bordered by gum trees and scrub in the hope of encountering a tusky boar. Initially, we trekked the dry ground, winding our way through sparse scrub and lignum and along the snaking creek bed without result.

Here, the sides and length of the creek banks in the direction we were headed were extensively uprooted and, while not recent, it was a promising sign. After stalking for a couple of kilometres, pig droppings became more frequent, some larger and fresher than others.

Up ahead, a dense section of vegetation consisting of tall straw-like grass, thick prickly bushes and shading gums in the middle with extended overhanging branches seemed a likely pig nesting or resting place. Before entering I signalled Alex to be ready just in case.

Slowly and desperately trying to move forward as quietly as possible through the tangle of scrub, I noticed large dark entrance holes under the wiry lignum. Taking the next step, the ground rumbled and the tops of the bushes to my left swayed rapidly. I yelled “pigs” not knowing from where they would exit. Two medium-sized ones sprinted out to my left, enabling Alex to take a quick off-hand shot and a sizeable sow and young one to my right. We both completely missed the quick exiting pigs but that’s how it sometimes goes.

It seemed we had an effect on the pigs, as the following nights when we did the rounds only once did we cross a mob of four medium-sized ones down a levy bank between the rice, fatally hitting one just as the light was failing. The others disappeared down the other end of the rice paddock. Overall, we must have culled 20 or more pigs and hopefully deterred others for a while.

During the day we trekked on foot and at night we covered extensive areas of rice fields and previously harvested crop paddocks in an effort to reduce the pig numbers. Coupled with our reasonably accurate shooting and the farmer’s experience, knowledge of pig behaviour and their whereabouts, we did an effective job and hopefully enough to allow the owner to harvest the rice with reduced or minimal crop damage.

This was a great example of when you have the trust of the farmer or property owner, how a combined effort can result in the desired outcome and a win-win situation.

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