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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Parliamentary inquiry into duck shooting; couldn't hit the side of a barn


It has an air of judicial majesty; a “Parliamentary Inquiry”. Say it slowly with a sonorous voice. A chosen group of our elected representatives, reading submissions, holding hearings, grilling witnesses, carefully submitting evidence to the finest of sieves with all the perspicacity and deductive brilliance of a Sherlock Holmes. Having representatives from various parties guarantees a collection of skills and wisdom that make for a veritable shield-wall to blunt the force of dodgy arguments from anywhere on the ideological spectrum. 


So much for the theory.


I don’t pretend to be an expert on Parliamentary Inquiries, but I did present evidence recently to the South Australian Select Committee on Hunting Native Birds. It has just released its report; hereafter called “the Report”. I can only hope this Report is an outlier.


Here are a couple of observations on the Report; noting that there are two dissenting statements by Ian Hunter and Tammy Franks that are more compassionate and expert than the rest of the document. It is also highly recommended to compare the quality of the Report with the recent Greyhound Racing Inquiry Report which, in stark contrast, saw right through the rhetoric and propaganda of the Greyhound Industry.


Polling and public opinion


The Committee was presented with various “evidence” on public opinion about duck and quail shooting.


Conservation and Hunting Alliance of South Australia (CHASA), pointed to a survey where 90% of respondents were opposed to a ban on duck and quail hunting. In contrast, Birds SA, presented polling data done by uComms a professional independent polling company and member of the Australian Polling Council. Full disclosure, I was a member of the coalition of groups, including Conservation Council of South Australia (CCSA), Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) and South Aussies for Animals (SAFA) which designed the questions and funded that poll.


Now, of all the skills you might reasonably expect a politician of any persuasion to have, you’d have to expect “understanding polling processes” would be somewhere near the top of the list. This is precisely why the organisations mentioned in the previous paragraph stumped up the money to do the poll properly. Polling companies have a Code of Practice which specifically prohibits them from posing biassed questions.


We could have just polled metropolitan seats and been confident of a good result, but we had confidence that the shooters aren’t just out of step with urban dwellers, but with their communities. So we spent most of our money polling Regional South Australia, and what we called the shooter Heartlands; the state electorates of MacKillop, Chaffey, and Mt Gambier; covering the Riverland and the South East of the state. Our initial question (other than those required by uComms on demographics and the voting intention question, required to be first when asked) was simple:


Do you think that the recreational shooting of native ducks and quail in South Australia should be banned?

The results are in the following table for both the Regional Poll and the Heartland Poll:




The Committee received the results as they came directly from uComms, which included full methodology details including the sample sizes of 1,035 and 1,011 people respectively and the margin for error, plus or minus 3.05% and 3.08% respectively. We also polled another five metropolitan marginal seats with smaller samples of about 400 each.


Not surprisingly there was more support for shooting in the shooter Heartlands with 45% of people opposing a ban.


How could anybody anywhere do a survey and find 90% of people oppose a ban? That’s easy. All manner of people run surveys of biased samples of people to find whatever they want. TV channels survey their audience after a rage-inducing exposé, Newspapers survey their readers similarly; the list is endless. Such polls may even be representative of some target audience, but they are not representative of anything more general. You can’t claim to understand statewide opinions based on such things; most are nothing more than clickbait to sell the next story. 


Is it conceivable that uComms got it so wrong on all seven polls involving, in total, over 4,000 people?


And what did our presumably politically astute, poll-savvy committee find (p.16)?


Finding 3: “There is conflicting evidence on whether the broader SA community support or is against native bird hunting, with surveys showing different results

This is simply false. There was no conflicting evidence presented to the Committee, since the CHASA survey was not a professionally designed survey to measure the beliefs of the “broader SA community”.


It’s impossible to believe the committee is uniformly ignorant of polling theory and practice. The most compelling theory that explains the clearly false “Finding 3” isn’t ignorance, but a deliberate falsehood. They just lied.


There are many egregious mistakes in the Committee’s report but I’ll stick to two. I’ve just dealt with the issue of public opinion, but the biggest issue, in my opinion, was that of their appalling dismissal (other than in the dissenting statements) of animal welfare and the inevitable cruelty associated with shooting ducks with shotguns.


Animal Welfare


On the 21st of June, the Committee was shown a few minutes of footage of what actually happens during a duck shoot, and it made a very clear impression. As an observer, I watched the room go quiet; I watched formerly cocky supporters of shooting shuffle papers and look sheepish. Does that sound like you, Committee member Frank Pangallo? The obvious distress that most of us, including the Committee, feel when looking at cruelty to animals was clearly forgotten during the following months that the Inquiry took to report.


Ironically, the Committee’s stunning unprofessionalism with regard to polling and surveys also features in its understanding of what is pretty clearly, the biggest issue for animal welfare organisations and more than likely, with the public, in relation to duck shooting: the unavoidable cruelty of leaving animals wounded or killed badly (worse than usual).


What have surveys got to do with wounding rates? Finding 9 of the Report was that:

Although efforts have been made by hunters to reduce wounding, it is not known how many birds are wounded and how many die of shotgun wounds but are not retrieved by hunters. It is also not known whether the SA public is supportive of some level of wounding of native birds or whether there is zero tolerance of shotgun wounding during open season.

There are two big mistakes in this “Finding”. First let’s deal with the simple but glaring factual error.


The Polling mentioned above also asked people how important it was that animals killed for food be killed quickly and humanely. Here is what the polling showed. Keeping in mind that the samples we used in the Regional and Shooter Heartland were higher than for the five metropolitan electorates:




The result, as you can see, is a very clear endorsement for South Australia’s Animal Welfare Act, which is very bloody clear about how killing has to be done. If any slaughterhouse had even a 10% chance of animals escaping after being injured during the killing process, then I’m extremely sure it would be closed or prosecuted – probably both. The wounding rate during duck shooting is much higher.


How are we to explain the difference between the overwhelming support for quick and humane killing, even in the Shooter Heartland and the 45% of people opposing a ban on duck shooting in that Heartland? Most people have no idea of the level of cruelty involved. When we added a question explaining that duck shooters use shotguns that inevitably wound, support for a ban, even in the Heartland, rose significantly; as shown in the next figure. That isn’t a surprise given that support for quick and humane killing is similar in all parts of the state. 




Note carefully, that had we used this question first in the poll, it would, rightly, be regarded as a biased question. But we only used it after we had a baseline measure and with the approval of the Polling Company. 


Committee gives the SA public a slap in the face

Finding 9. then, is a slap in the face for the SA public. They clearly do care about the way animals killed for food are killed, and the Committee knew it. Again, they just lied.


Moving on to the wounding rates.


Acting Chair Ben Hood, at the hearing in Mt Gambier – the last before the writing of the Report – deviated from the Report’s position in Finding 9. He claimed:


Wounding rates are around 10 per cent is the evidence we have been given

Where did that “evidence” come from? And was it the entirety of the information supplied to the committee?


The 10 per cent figure came from a US Professor Brian Hiller in spoken “evidence” on the 10th of May. He actually said 11 per cent, but let’s not quibble (Transcript p.5).


Which is it? The actual (single) paper Hiller relies upon is in Wildlife Biology and it says 15 per cent. Hiller's written submission cites the right figure, but Hood clearly hadn't read it or missed the mistake.


The Hiller/Hood "wounding" rate isn't a wounding rate!

But numbers are useless if you don’t know how they were estimated and the definitions used during those estimations. And this is where even the Committee showed an amazing inability to deal with critical details; even the otherwise excellent dissenting statement of Ian Hunter got this slightly wrong.


The Hiller figure isn't a wounding rate. Let me say that again. It isn't a wounding rate! It is a “cripple” rate. You can drive a B-double through the gap between these two concepts.


During my presentation I explained the difference at length. I even had pictures! Committee member Sarah Game spent so much time on her phone during the presentation that she may have missed it, but a “cripple” has long been defined in the duck shooting research as a duck which has been observed to fall after being shot, but subsequently escapes. You can do research where you simply stand and watch shooters and count the cripples. But that’s not the kind of research Hiller relied upon; despite it being done many times and giving figures of between 20 and 30 per cent, as Ian Hunter noted in his dissenting statement.


“Wounding”, however, is a larger category and also includes the ducks which fly on with one or more injuries. You might suspect, based on some subtle movement in flight, that a bird who keeps flying may have been hit, but mostly neither shooter nor observer will have any idea.  Such uncertainty is eliminated by the definition of cripple; a bird which is downed but escapes. Hiller shows his total ignorance of the basic terminology when he later referred to x-ray studies of ducks who have recovered but contain embedded pellets as being “wounded”. Yes, they were, but they weren’t in the “downed but escaped” (cripple) group. They are in addition to that group. The full wounding cohort includes 4 separate categories: 1) the cripples, 2) the birds who were hit but recovered and are found with pellets in their bodies, 3) those who were hit, but not downed but nevertheless died of their wounds and 4) those who were hit and recovered but never had an embedded pellet, meaning that the pellet(s) passed straight through; which could be a small or a large injury. Hiller’s confusion was total. Clearly, whatever field of expertise he has as a Professor, it isn’t duck shooting wounding. 


So Hiller’s figure, beloved of Committee member Ben Hood, was the wrong figure, it was just 1 of the 4 categories. Certainly a relevant figure, but not the full picture. And, most importantly, how was it measured?


How was the Hiller/Hood "wounding" rate estimated? They just asked shooters.

Hiller’s figure came from a paper which estimated cripple rates by asking hunters. It’s a common “research” methodology … distribute a questionnaire asking: “How many ducks did you bring down but escaped?”. Is this reliable? Are hunters honest? Are their memories accurate? 


One hunter, who was also a NPWS officer, explained one of the many problems with this survey method many years ago.  Some hunters who return to camp with very few ducks will (in their eyes) embellish their skill by claiming that a few got away. As times changed and wounding became an issue, this kind of exaggeration declined, high rates of escaping ducks wasn’t viewed as a sign of shooting skill any more. This will cause an apparent fall in cripple rates. Whether you buy that explanation doesn’t really matter, what matters is that there are many things that are hard to measure by asking people, and this is one of them. That’s why many researchers, all ignored by Hiller, turned to real research to measure cripple rates. Meaning they went and actually watched shooters. You will find various references in my written submission to the Committee.


As it happens, there is one piece of research which did both. It was a very large study of 2,297 shooters in Canada in the 1980s (Nieman, see below). It not only asked shooters how many ducks got away, but also watched their activities from hidden observation points. What did they find? Shooters gave estimates of less than half the crippling observed by the research team.


So apart from being the wrong kind of number, a crippling rate rather than a wounding rate, the single study selected by Hiller was badly estimated. Hood, like the rest of the non-dissenters in the committee, was simply gullible and ready to believe what he wanted to believe. And was 10 per cent the "information we have been given"? No. I and others referenced various studies of cripple rates as well as x-ray surveys. Why Hood fixated on a figure he wanted to believe as the only figure given is something he needs to work on.


Total wounding rate, considering all components, is about one wounded for each duck retrieved

My submission to the committee considered all the components of wounding; not just crippling and attempts to estimate the total of them all, and the figure is around one duck wounded for each duck downed and retrieved.


Conclusion


One hopes that our State government gives the Report the attention it deserves. One can also hope that the non-dissenting members would be sent on some kind of Remedial-Polling-Theory-for-Dummies course. It wouldn’t take more than about 10 minutes to teach them more than they already (appear to) know. Our native wildlife deserve better; much better. 


Unlinked references:

Nieman, D., Hochbaum, G., Caswell, F. & Turner, B. (1987). Monitoring hunter performance in prairie Canada. Transactions of the 52nd North American Wildlife & Natural Resources Conference, 52 233-245

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