The facts about crippling and wounding rates in waterfowl in Australia

By Tony Sharley, chairman of the Conservation and Hunting Alliance of South Australia (CHASA)

Animal welfare and animal rights groups across Australia regularly make outrageous claims about wounding and crippling rates during duck hunting. In 2011, they have quoted that wounding rates are as high as 50% and that crippling rates are as high as 66%. Such nonsense is rarely checked by media and therefore, the public can be easily misled.

The main source of these claims is a discredited computer wounding model developed by an animal rights activist. Models by their very nature are a substitute for real field data; they are based on assumptions and when the assumptions are biased by an advocate for the worst-case scenario, the output will be a nonsense figure.

The alleged wounding and crippling rates also do not apply to duck hunting in Australia. There has been no Australian study of wounding and crippling rates in waterfowl that has found rates anywhere near these levels. The major reason for these high estimates is the determination and single-mindedness of the animal rights activist, who developed the wounding model as propaganda to seek to have duck hunting banned. The computer wounding model was developed, engineered and promoted to produce a desired result - to show high wounding and crippling.

The model has never been accepted by peer-reviewed scientific journals, indicating it has many flaws. These flaws include (and are not limited to) that it has not been field tested and that it selectively uses Northern hemisphere studies to exaggerate wounding and crippling rates in Australia. The wounding model has been subjected to strident criticism from eminent wildlife scientists within and outside the hunting community, including former IUCN-SSC Australia New Zealand Sustainable Use Specialist Group chairman Dr Grahame Webb and Birds SA president Dr Jeremy Robertson.

Animal welfare groups often confuse the terms ‘wounding’ and ‘crippling’, which can further mislead the public. ‘Crippling’ is a term that applies to wild ducks that are downed and not retrieved. ‘Wounding’ is a term that applies to birds that survive after being hit by shotgun pellets and the pellets remain embedded in a non-vital part of the body.

Hunting organisations have practical experience and knowledge that modern hunting carried out in accordance with a responsible code of conduct, as outlined in the Animal Welfare Code of Practice, ensures a crippling rate of less than 5% and a wounding rate of less than 5% within a local population of birds. These figures take into consideration the vast improvements in hunting technique and hunting regulations since published Australian studies in the 1970s and ’80s that reported crippling and wounding rates of less than 20% (Norman 1976, Norman & Powell 1981 & Briggs et al. 1985).

The above published studies reported wounding rates and crippling rates in locally hunted wetland areas in Victoria and New South Wales and therefore, the results apply only to the birds in a population within that vicinity. The results cannot be extrapolated to the population of birds within a larger geographical area such as a region or state, just as Northern hemisphere studies and rates cannot be applied to Australia. Let us not forget that only a minor fraction (less than 1%) of the waterfowl across the Australian continent is subject to hunting pressure and only for a few months in every year, making the exaggerated wounding and crippling claims by animal rights activists a nonsensical statistic when they are not geographically referenced.

As responsible hunters, we are obliged to continue to adopt hunting practices that further reduce crippling rates (ie, using retriever dogs) and wounding rates (ie, knowing the performance of your gun, using decoys to bring birds into close range, placing your decoys to set a maximum firing distance of around 30m, etc). Further reduction in local wounding and crippling rates can be achieved through hunter education programs that reinforce the Animal Welfare Code of Practice, where methods to minimise wounding and crippling rates are reinforced.

Background information

In raising their claims, animal welfare and rights groups choose to ignore the facts on crippling and wounding rates in wild ducks exposed to modern hunting practices in order to drive an animal rights agenda. Hunting organisations can scientifically demonstrate that the call by animal welfare and rights groups for a ban on duck hunting has no credible foundation. Published scientific research in Australia confirms that wounding rates in waterfowl in heavily hunted areas between 1957 and ’85 ranged from 6 to 19% in the most common game species (Norman 1976) and crippling rates ranged from 9.9% (Briggs et al. 1985) to 20% (Norman & Powell 1981).

Animal welfare groups’ claims are arrant nonsense and their exaggerated wounding and crippling rates are not applicable anywhere in Australia because:

  • There is no Australian scientific research on wounding or crippling in waterfowl that produces a wounding rate and crippling rate as high as 50 and 66% respectively.
  • The proponent of these exaggerated rates (Mr Geoff Russell) has developed his own empirical wounding model that has never been cited, submitted or accepted by the peer-reviewed scientific literature in Australia.
  • The proponent of the wounding model created it to serve his own agenda, which is to ban hunting and promote animal rights.
  • In South Australia, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources does not use such a figure when administering the NPWS Act 1972 and any animal welfare considerations.

Australian research

From the 1950s to ’70s, a major Australian study was conducted on wounding rates in wild ducks near Geelong in Victoria (Norman 1976). The study used a fluoroscope to detect lead shot in the bodies of live birds that were caught in traps, analysed and released. In many cases, the birds were banded before release. The results of this research are very conclusive due to the long period of research (1957 to 1973), large sample size exceeding 45,000 birds and analysis of six of the major game species.

The research found wounding rates as follows: Pacific black duck 13.7%, grey teal 9.0%, chestnut teal 6.2%, wood duck 13.6%, hardhead 11.1% and mountain duck 19%. The research also found no significant difference between distances travelled by wounded and non-wounded birds, and no significant difference between the age and life expectancy of wounded and non-wounded birds.

Dr Sue Briggs and her team found a crippling rate of 9.9% in grey teal across New South Wales (Briggs et al. 1985) and Norman and Powell (1981) reported crippling rates of 20% in Victoria between 1953 and ’77. Dr Briggs has stated that the use of retriever dogs to retrieve downed birds is the best method to reduce crippling rates (Briggs personal communication).

Relevance of earlier research

Dr Frank Norman’s 1976 research provides an indicative baseline for wounding rates within a heavily hunted local wetland region in Victoria between the 1950s and early ’70s, as does the work of Dr Briggs for crippling rates. Norman’s and Briggs’ research was carried out when the number of hunters in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia was much higher than it is today. Therefore, the total numbers of birds wounded and crippled can be expected to be significantly less today, simply because there are fewer hunters.

During the research period (1957 to ’85), there was a maximum of 41,000 hunters per year in Victoria, a maximum 24,000 hunters per year in South Australia and a recorded 12,500 hunters per year in New South Wales (Briggs et al. 1985, Norman 1976, Stokes 1990). Today, that number is around 22,000 per year in Victoria and 1500 per year in South Australia. Open seasons ceased in New South Wales in 1995, and hunting pressure in all three states has been significantly reduced, although duck hunting for crop protection purposes continues in New South Wales.

During the research period, there was no Animal Welfare Code of Practice in force and there were fewer hunter education programs to ensure hunters were aware of all of the factors that reduce wounding and crippling. Today, it is now common practice for hunters to know their own effective shotgun range when hunting. Hunters use decoys and duck callers to ensure birds are within their effective shotgun range to minimise wounding rates. Many hunters also use retriever dogs to maximise the retrieval of downed birds and thus reduce crippling rates.

Duck hunting today is carried out by ethical hunters who willingly comply with more stringent regulations than in the past, and who can afford the expense to obtain a licence. Lead was the main shot used during the research period, but lead shot has since been banned throughout Australia for shooting waterfowl. Today, the use of non-toxic shot is compulsory. Recent changes in firearm laws prevent the use of five-shot self-loading and pump-action shotguns, which were once commonly used for duck hunting. Today, a maximum of two shots provides incentive to ensure birds are within effective range before shooting commences and that individual birds are targeted, instead of firing into a flock, thus minimising the risk of wounding and crippling.

Furthermore, the personal observations of experienced hunters and hunting organisations indicate that less than 5% of birds are crippled or wounded around frequently hunted local wetlands. For example, in 1996, South Australian hunting organisation members conducted an exit survey at all the exits from Bool Lagoon on the opening day of the duck hunting season and found just more than 500 hunters took 2718 ducks. After a sweep of the lagoon, by not only Animal Liberation but also the Sporting Shooters Retriever Dog Club, 38 wounded birds were collected - demonstrating that had they not been retrieved the crippling rate would have been less than 2%.

These observations are consistent with the conclusion that there is less hunting pressure on local duck populations than there was between the 1950s and ’80s. Recent changes in permitted shot, firearms legislation and adherence to an Animal Welfare Code of Practice ensures that crippling rates and wounding rates are significantly less than in the 1950s to ’80s.

The unreferenced claims by animal welfare and rights groups of 50% wounding and 66% crippling in ducks today is highly alarming because it ignores the research that demonstrates that it was never this high in Australia and it ignores the reforms that ensure it affects less than 5% of a locally hunted population of birds.

Relevant research undertaken in the US demonstrated the significant reduction in wounding and crippling rates at distances less than 40m (Cochrane 1976). The Animal Welfare Code of Practice for duck hunting in South Australia for example recommends a maximum shooting distance of 35m and an optimum shooting distance of 30m. Modern hunting techniques allow that distance to be reduced further to ensure crippling and wounding rates remain well below 5%.

Summary

Animal welfare and rights groups in Australia have assumed and exaggerated the wounding and crippling rates for duck hunting in Australia by listening to an animal rights activist who developed an uncited and non-published wounding model to suit his own agenda. In doing so, they have ignored a sufficient body of Australian scientific research and practical field experience. They appear ignorant of the reforms that ensure wounding rates and crippling rates are less than 5% of birds in a local population and less than 1% of birds in a regional population.

Several factors have changed in the 21st century that indicate significant reduction from the wounding rates and crippling reported in Australia in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The factors that combine to reduce wounding and crippling rates to less than an estimated 5% of birds in a locally hunted population are:

  • All hunters must now satisfactorily complete an accredited firearms safety course, which includes basic practical proficiency testing with shotguns before being able to apply for and purchase a firearms licence.
  • There are endorsed codes of practice for the welfare of animals in hunting.
  • There is a proliferation of simulated field shooting ranges to improve shooting skills.
  • All waterfowl hunters must pass the Waterfowl Identification Test before being able to purchase a waterfowl hunting licence.
  • There are national restrictions on the use of self-loading and pump-action shotguns.
  • There is a national ban on the use of lead shot and an introduction of non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting.
  • The common use of decoys and duck callers bring birds into close range in accordance with the Animal Welfare Code of Practice.
  • There is a reduction in hunting pressure in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia.

There is no justification for banning the hunting of waterfowl with shotguns under the current modern and responsible hunting practices in Australia. Previous scientific reviews into waterfowl hunting in Victoria (Loyn 1989) and South Australia (Stokes 1990) have factored in wounding and crippling rates and both reviews have supported the continuance of hunting. Hunting as a method of obtaining wild food produces no greater risk to the mortality and conservation status of wild ducks than the farming methods used in all forms of animal (poultry, livestock and fish) production systems.

The constructive way forward

Animal welfare groups in Australia continue to call for a complete ban on duck hunting. They have shown no desire to include the hunting community in any constructive discussion about duck hunting. This is short-sighted and counterproductive to improved animal welfare outcomes, which is the concern of animal welfare groups and hunting organisations.

The development of further education materials in hunting would be constructive in advancing the interests of both groups. This strategy has been successful overseas in conclusively reducing wounding rates and is being implemented in Victoria and New South Wales.

Hunting organisations should continue to advocate an adaptive and scientific approach to minimise crippling and wounding rates in waterfowl. Such a professional approach is in the interests of animal welfare groups and the hunting community. Collaboration between stakeholder groups and government departments will help develop and promote hunter education in Australia.

References
Briggs, SV, Maher, MT & Davey, CC 1985, ‘Hunter activity and waterfowl harvests in New South Wales, 1977-82’, Australian Wildlife Research, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 515-522.
Cochrane, RL 1976, ‘Crippling ef fects of lead, steel, and copper shot on experimental mallards’, Wildlife Monographs, no. 51, November 1976.
Loyn, RH 1989, The management of duck hunting in Victoria: a review, Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research, Technical report series no. 70.
Norman, FI 1976, ‘The incidence of lead shotgun pellets in waterfowl (Anatidae and Rallidae) examined in South-Eastern Australia between 1957 and 1973’, Australian Wildlife Research, vol. 3, no. 1, pp. 61-71.
Norman, FI and Powell, DGM 1981, ‘Rates of recovery of bands, harvest patterns and estimates for black duck, chestnut teal, grey teal and mountain duck shot during Victorian open seasons, 1953-77’, Australian Wildlife Research, vol. 8, no. 3, pp 659-664.
Stokes, KJ 1990, Review of Duck Hunting in South Australia, South Australian Department for the Environment, Adelaide.

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