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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Duck hunting, sustainability and feeding the planet

Updated: Oct 10, 2023


Talking to politicians in South Australia

I gave evidence recently to the South Australian Select Committee on Hunting Native Birds. My evidence was restricted to explaining the technicalities of shooting ducks with shotguns, which is the major activity under scrutiny. Once you understand the process, it’s ever so obvious why cruelty is unavoidable. There will be many wounded ducks impossible to retrieve in addition to the ducks with catastrophic injuries who, nevertheless, escape to die slowly.


Back in 1994, I had a peer-reviewed scientific paper, “Shotgun Wounding Characteristics” published on this issue. It’s reasonably hardcore mathematics, but if convolutions of probability functions are your thing, then by all means have a look at it. In hindsight, using maths on a problem like this is like using a sledgehammer on a nut. All you really need to see to understand the process and its intrinsic cruelty is a single image. But I’ll keep that for later in the post!


Why wait? Because one member of the committee, Dr Sarah Game, a veterinarian and representative of ‘Pauline Hansen’s One Nation political party, raised an interesting question. She suggested that the cruelty to chickens in chicken meat production is worse than the cruelty to ducks during hunting and shooting.


As a long time vegan, I’m well aware of the cruelty of the chicken industry, so the claim is definitely worth answering in some detail.


This post expands on my response, given off-the-cuff to the committee, and quantifies some things that I could only talk about qualitatively at the hearing.


There are two possible consequences of Dr Game’s views that need to be considered.

  1. Assuming duck shooting remains legal, some chicken eaters could be persuaded by her views and switch to shooting ducks.

  2. If duck shooting is banned, many duck shooters would shift to chicken. I don’t actually believe there are many shooters driven to the activity by a horror of cruelty to chickens. So, at a guess, I’d think most already eat chicken, as well as ducks. After all, you can only shoot ducks for a relatively brief period each year, with few shooters going out all that often anyway.

In the absence of solid polling data, we can only guess about these consequences, but there is enough evidence to examine the relative cruelty of the activities, per kilogram of meat; which I think is the best basis of comparison. In my view, that examination will clearly show that Dr Game is simply wrong; raising chickens is cruel, but per kilogram of meat, is far less cruel than shooting ducks. She’s wrong because she has uncritically accepted the claims of duck shooters.


As I’ll show below, X-ray studies of ducks indicate that the number of ducks hit by shooters but not bagged, is somewhere in the vicinity of 1 for 1. Which means that there is substantial cruelty not only to the duck you shoot, retrieve and kill, but also to another duck you didn’t retrieve; most of these wounded ducks are flying and can’t be retrieved.


But “hunting” (shooting) and “hunters” (shooters) often tap people’s feelings that killing animals in the wild is somehow okay because it’s been happening for eons, and perhaps Dr Game buys into that in her support for duck shooting. So I’m going to look at all the issues surrounding this form of “hunting”.


Is eating wildlife sustainable?

Suppose you were a chicken eater who became convinced that ducks suffered less from “hunting” than chickens during their brief production life, then what should you do?


Switch to shooting ducks?


Switch to some plant-based alternative?


Given that the flesh from shot ducks and produced chickens both involve serious cruelty, then anybody concerned about cruelty at all would probably avoid both.


But what if your compassion was stretched a little thin and you decided to pick the first option – to switch to shooting ducks?


It’s easy to show that shooting ducks is only sustainable if hardly anybody does it. So you’d better hope that others don’t follow your example and take up duck shooting.


Sustainability, as a claim, always needs to be calculated on a per-kilogram basis. Just saying this or that activity is sustainable is vacuous without giving a level. The environmental impact of anything can’t be determined without knowing how much of it is going on.


Suppose, for example, that one kind of meat production used 3 million hectares of land and produced 125,000 kilograms of meat, whereas another used 3 million hectares of land but produced 340,000 tonnes of meat. You can see that the second method is more efficient than the first and attempts to expand the first could pose serious environmental problems.


So let’s think about the sustainability of duck shooting. I’ll quantify the situation in Victoria, because that’s the state with the best data on duck populations.


The current relatively small number of duck shooters in Victoria kill close to the estimated sustainable limit already; about 10%-15% of the population annually. Chris Purnell of Birdlife Australia presented survey evidence to the Committee that duck numbers haven’t yet rebounded from the hit they took during the last El Niño, despite three wet years, so maybe the estimated sustainable number is wrong under our somewhat changed climate, coupled with habitat loss.


However that may be, Dr Game has to hope that very few chicken eaters read and agree with her opinion; and switch to shooting ducks.


And, even worse, what if everybody agreed with Dr Game?


At about 50 kg of chicken per person and given the population of ducks in Victoria (about 2.4 million) per year, and assuming a carcase meat fraction of about 40% for a wild duck, then 6.8 million Victorians, assuming they switched from chickens to ducks, would consume the entire Victorian duck population in about 2.2 days. During the process they’d also entirely trash a considerable portion of Victoria’s wetlands by driving around in SUVs. It follows that if only 1% of Victoria’s chicken eaters switched to shooting ducks to get the same quantity of meat, then they’d wipe out the duck population in the first year.


That scenario is, of course, ridiculous. Very few people could afford the fuel and the time required to get 50 kg of duck meat. Even fewer are interested.


But the calculation does highlight the incredibly unproductive nature of wildlife compared to domesticated animals and the extraordinary waste of resources required, per kilogram of meat, when that meat comes from “hunting”.


But wait, I’ve made a mistake.


I’ve assumed that you only have to shoot one duck to eat one duck.


But that’s not true when you use a shotgun, as will become obvious when I get to it at the end of this post. If you use a shotgun, you’ll have to shoot about two ducks to eat one duck. So the Victorian duck population would be effectively gone in about half of that 2.2 days, with half eaten and the other half wounded.


In short, shooting ducks is easily the least sustainable and most inefficient method of getting meat on the planet. It’s the transportation equivalent of choosing to fly a private jet. Flying private jets is, of course, sustainable if almost nobody does it; just like duck shooting. It should be obvious that all hunting has the same sustainability problem, but I’ll give another example below,


The calculation makes it clear why hunter-gatherers have almost entirely disappeared from the planet. Their lifestyles are incredibly resource-hungry on a per person basis. The resources they use are few, consisting mainly of land, but they need vast areas to support even the smallest of populations.


All this is obvious to any biologist.


If you live as a wild animal hunting in a biological production system, then you will be obeying well-studied biological laws. For example, if you have a tonne of “prey” animals (e.g. ducks, rabbits, whatever) in a square kilometre of land, then that can support about 14 kilograms of carnivorous predator. Roughly scaling up to a 70 kg human, living on a square km of land, and eating a 50% meat diet, where that meat is obtained by hunting, then you need about 5 tonnes of wildlife (assuming a 50% carcase ratio) on that square kilometre of land. More realistically, a band of hunter-gatherers would be small but have a very large home range. Spread the population of Victoria over the entire state and have them live by hunting, then you’d have about 23 people per square kilometre and you’d need about 100 tonnes of game on each square kilometre. That’s an impossible density.


What if we allow (as we do) Aboriginal Australians in Victoria to live by hunting? Assuming the proportion of the Victorian population who are Aboriginal matches the national figure of about 3%, then that would give a density of a little under one person per square kilometre; again impossible to sustain with a non-agricultural lifestyle. Everybody has to hope that Aboriginal Australians will never try, en masse, to choose a traditional lifestyle.


Now you can understand how a pride of lions might have a territory of 50 to 1,000 square kilometres.


Comparing suffering

Now let’s go back and look more carefully at Dr Game’s argument without worrying about the sustainability issues of increases in the “hunting” population.


Chickens have a dismal life, with almost all being in chronic pain from lameness during the final week or so of their life. They have been bred to grow so fast that their skeletal systems can’t match their musculature.

Then they are caught, packed (often thrown) into crates, trucked to slaughter and killed.


Their suffering in the first week or so of life is perhaps low level, but it gets worse as time goes on. The shed becomes more crowded as the birds grow and their lameness develops as their muscle growth exceeds the capacity of their skeletons to support their weight.


Ducks, on the other hand, live with the usual pleasures, and pains, of any wild animal, including being killed by all manner of predators. The natural mortality of young ducks is high, and if you survive, what is your reward? A shotgun blast.


Dr Game put it this way: “these ducks at least are living a free life, then obviously their life comes to an end. I understand that you are saying that’s not a perfect end but would you agree that it is a less cruel way [than chickens]?”.


“Comes to an end” … that makes it sound so humane, natural and benign! I’ll discuss this below.


As far as the killing of chickens is concerned, there are methods of killing chickens painlessly. It’s called “Controlled Atmospheric Stunning” (CAS), but it can and should be used to kill, not just stun prior to killing. Compassion in World Farming is a well-respected animal welfare organisation, and has guidelines for doing the process properly. CAS isn’t used in all Australian slaughterhouses, but its use is growing. This best practice killing process involves being gassed before being taken out of the travelling crate; which removes the horrid process of being shackled; a major improvement. The chicken industry can’t be made humane, but regulation can at least make painless killing mandatory; something that is impossible when shooting ducks with a shotgun.


I’d say it’s obvious that the agony of being shot and wounded; and then taking hours, days or weeks to die (or recover) is worse than any suffering to a chicken raised intensively and killed by CAS. What’s not so obvious is how often this happens during shooting. I’ll show in this post that it is pretty common.


It sounds so clinical … “comes to an end”

When Dr Game said that a duck’s life “comes to an end”, what exactly did she mean?


Firstly, most ducks are not killed by the shotgun, but by the shooter when retrieved; if they bother.


The SA Committee has been shown footage of shooters simply not bothering to kill ducks they picked up; but Dr Game wasn’t at that presentation; so perhaps she didn’t bother to watch it. Frank Pangallo, another member of the SA Committee did see that footage and it appeared to me, seated in the gallery about four metres away, that he was visibly shaken; along with everybody else in the room.


Watching a shooter carry a clearly alive and struggling duck around by the neck is pretty unpleasant. So maybe Dr Game preferred to talk to shooters and take their word for their compassionate behaviour rather than actually watch them.


Game’s claim: “I have heard that they [shooters] are quite vigilant, they have retriever dogs and the duck wouldn’t be left for very long. I’m just wondering, what is your response to that because it is so different from what I have heard?” Part of why myself and others spent time videoing shooters in action is precisely to counter claims of “being vigilant”. We did it because we know that duck shooters lie quite persuasively.


Some shooters are vigilant, but many aren’t. Did we perhaps video 100 shooters and pick out the worst four to show the committee? Not at all. One of our team had never seen shooters in action before. She put it quite succinctly: “I expected to see the occasional shooter behaving badly, but they all behaved badly.


There was only one shooter observed by one of our team on that opening weekend of the 2023 season at Lake George who was doing “the right thing”, meaning they made solid (and successful) efforts to retrieve and immediately kill ducks they brought down. As we shall see, plenty of birds will be hit but not brought down; these are the flying wounded.


But evidence is only useful when people take the time to look at it.


Fact checking duck shooters

Dr Suzanne Pope presented evidence to the Committee Chair Reggie Martin about a decades-long duck shooter lie during her presentation earlier in the year. Duck shooters are a little like Donald Trump; it doesn’t matter how often his lie is pointed out, documented, explained, he just keeps on telling it; trusting that many people, like Dr Game, won’t bother checking.


Duck shooters have been claiming for decades that more ducks are shot over rice in NSW now than when there was an open season. Their preferred number is 100,000 and they’ve repeated that number in recent weeks in an unreferenced critique of the Conservation Council of SA’s position on duck shooting. Again, like the former US President, duck shooters aren’t bothered by such conventions as citing evidence. The leaflet is published by peak duck “hunting” organisation, CHASA, and is called “The Truth About Duck and Quail Hunting in SA”. I could do a point by point demolition of this leaflet, but this post is already long enough.


The NSW DPI keeps records of the ducks shot under pest control legislation and these records show how egregious this long standing lie is. But the shooters just keep repeating it. Instead of the 100,000 ducks that CHASA claim are shot every year over rice and pasture, here are the numbers for the past 8 years:


Year

2014-15

2015-16

2016-17

2017-18

2018-19

2019-20

2020-21

2021-22

Total

22,278

6,511

49,750

11,511​

1,554

712

6,405

8,530

N.B. That NSW website used to have data on eight years (which is where I got the data!), but as of September 2023, only has four years, 2018/9 to 2021/2.


Regardless of the reliability of trusting what shooters tell you, I’m told that The Honourable Ms Game was sincere in her question; meaning she doesn’t eat chicken. That’s praiseworthy and puts her moral and environmental standing well ahead of many self-labelled environmentalists.


The idea that “hunting” is a sustainable form of meat production has considerable public support; even if it is easily shown to be false. I’ve dealt with ducks above, but it’s interesting to fact check the sustainability of that other kind of “hunting” (shooting) – kangaroos.


More on sustainability; kangaroos

Pretty obviously, if you actually care about reducing your footprint on the planet, then you won’t eat animals at all, and you definitely won’t hunt them. All you need to do to see this, is to consider a few basic stats about the amount of land used to produce meat directly, as pasture, or indirectly as land to produce feed. In Australia, for example, consult any “State of the Environment” report and you’ll see that we’ve cleared about 100 million hectares of land for animals since white arrival. Our cities and towns occupy less than 3 million. Farmed animals also consume about 5-6 times more cereals than people do.


But what about eating kangaroos? Is that any different?


The environmental implications of switching to kangaroos would be even more devastating than eating ducks. Ducks breed well and grow quickly. They are fully grown in 6-8 weeks, depending on species. Kangaroos take much longer to generate appreciable live-weight. There are many more of them in Australia because they aren’t so specialised in their habitat requirements.


Those promoting kangaroos as food have tried all kinds of arguments to get people to eat them; most recently by talking about kangaroos as over-abundant and causing environmental damage; so we need to eat them to prevent them trashing the place.

This argument supplements, and contradicts, the more traditional argument that these soft footed natural critters would do less damage than hard footed sheep and cattle.


The bottom line is the biological imperatives I’ve sketched above. If we were able, by some miracle, to breed enough kangaroos to produce beef and chicken quantities of meat, then they really would trash the country. But nobody has any idea how to do this.


As it is, we produce tiny amounts of kangaroo meat but still can’t dispose of it, despite having 26 million mouths to feed and a bunch of cats and dogs to take the off-cuts and yucky bits. I’ve tried to find recent figures on the tonnage of kangaroo meat, without success. It used to be about 4,000 tonnes.


So we export our kangaroo meat to anywhere on the planet with a naive population which hasn’t tried it yet.


Hardly anybody likes kangaroo meat, so the industry is in constant need of new markets, naive customers, and preferably both. Currently we export the small amount produced to over 60 countries. The industry has a marketing strategy of selling the meat at an exorbitant price to fool people into thinking it’s special. This typically fools rich, pretentious and gullible people; but even the rich are hard to fool more than once.


We have to be glad nobody likes it, because producing kangaroo meat at scale would be even worse environmentally than sheep and cattle. This is because they are mostly small animals with very little flesh suitable for human consumption. Instead, we should admire kangaroos as the remarkable animals they are and stop the cruel and stupid practice of pretending they are resources.


Wounding ducks for fun and food

Note, references to various claims in this section are contained in my written submission to the enquiry. A copy is available here.


Now let’s finish up with the image I promised. Ms Game was absent from the room when I showed this image during my presentation.




The image, minus the white boxes, is from a Victorian Game Management Authority (GMA) Youtube clip on how to understand shotgun patterns.


The dots on this image are shotgun pellets.


The word “pellet” doesn’t accurately describe a little sphere of metal with a diameter close to that of a roofing nail. Imagine just such a nail driven into any part of your body, as with a nail gun, and you’ll have a better feel for what these things can do to flesh.


There are about 200 of these pellets in the cluster pictured, typically called a “pattern” by shotgunners. Every time you fire a shotgun, the pattern is a little different, but with the same mathematical form. The circle in the image has a 30 inch diameter (most shotgun attributes are measured in imperial units). The Sporting Shooters representative who produced this pattern by firing at a piece of paper from about 30 metres away, called it a “good pattern”, which it is. What’s a bad pattern? You need to understand the white boxes I superimposed to get that.


So what are the white boxes?


To knock a duck out of the sky, you need to hit its vital organs (including the wing bones) with one or more pellets. The white boxes are about 50% bigger than the vital organs of a Pacific Black duck. Winchester, the arms and ammunition maker, estimated many years ago that putting four pellets in an area the size of these white boxes will cause a sufficiently catastrophic injury to knock the duck out of the sky.


It isn’t enough to put a few pellets into just anywhere in the duck. You need the pellets to hit those vital organs: the heart, lungs, wingbones, spinal column. Otherwise it will keep flying.


The boxes on the pattern demonstrate that even if the shooter does extremely well at targeting the duck with the blast, they may fail to knock the duck from the sky because of pure chance.


You can’t aim the pellets – only the pattern.


The duck can be close to or in the centre of the blast and not get a single pellet in any vital organ.


It takes skill and practice to get your pellet cluster close to the duck, but it is purely a matter of luck whether the vital organs of the duck are hit.


Things will become clearer if you think about clay target shooting.


Even C grade clay shooters can have a shots-per-broken-clay ratio of close to 1. At a Championship in Adelaide last year the C grade winner downed (broke) 88 of 100 clay targets. The AA people are even better!


In contrast, the number of shots that ducks shooters take to bag a duck has been found in many studies to be between about 4 and 9.


Why the difference?


Many duck shooters shoot clays and have those same low shots per clay ratios; so it isn’t that clay shooters are always more skilled than duck shooters.


There are two critical factors. First, when they shoot clay targets, there are double the number of pellets in the shot; each being much smaller. Second, it only takes a single pellet to break a clay target.


So when even a C grade clay target shooter shoots ducks they almost always get close enough to hit the duck, but luck determines the rest. A clay target is roughly similar in size to the vital region of a duck, but as I said, it only takes a single pellet to break it.


You should now understand why good duck shooters wound more than bad ones. They pretty well never miss. The duck is either downed or flies off with pellets in it; but just not in the vital organs.


Now we can revisit Dr Game’s question. Ducks who are shot at can be subjected to this terror of being for five months or so of the year, and also to the long slow death caused by a pellet in the guts, or elsewhere. Possibly because of the damage to an internal organ, or from an infection.


Most studies of wounding during duck shooting over the past 70 years have focused on what is easy to see – ducks who are downed but escape. This percentage has been found in studies to be between 20 and 40 percent.


The flying wounded can’t be observed in the field, and are over and above this number.


How do we know the flying wounded exist if they can’t be directly observed? Easy.


The escaped ducks have, by definition, been downed; knocked out of the sky by a catastrophic injury. They will almost certainly die. It might be an hour after their escape, or a fortnight. Nobody really has a precise picture of the extent of this suffering. How do we I this? From studies where ducks are released with radio collars after having a wing broken or crimped.


So now, catch a sample of ducks in any shooting area and X-ray them. You will find many with pellets embedded in their body. They can’t have escapees who were downed, there are far too many. They are the flying wounded. But they can’t be all of the flying wounded; some of these will have died and others will have had the pellets go right through their body, and you won’t see that on an X-ray.


In my submission to the South Australia Inquiry I used Victorian data to estimate the total wounding rate given various scenarios. Most of these scenarios will have a total wounding rate of close to 1 for 1. One duck wounded for each duck bagged.


Duck woundings can be trivial, or not. That, like so much else, is a matter of luck. Our slaughterhouses, regardless of their failings, do not toss dice to determine what kind of injury to inflict on an animal and again to decide if it may escape or not. But this is precisely what is happening with duck shooting and some of these injuries are far worse than even the worst thing that happens to a chicken. So there are many reasons to refrain from both activities; pretending that you have to choose one or the other is a false dichotomy. Duck shooters all have to hope that their sport remains unpopular. That makes them rather unique.


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