The management of invasive species has always interested me, particularly since I worked as an auditor on farm properties in Western NSW. Late last year I was lucky enough to have a chat to a local in Cobar and ex contract shooter, to get his take on invasive species management.
Do you have a farm property? I’m just wondering how exactly you come into contact with invasive species.
I’ll give you a bit of my history – I was a professional contract shooter, I still have my licence to eradicate invasive species. I’ve done that since I was a teenager, since I was 18. It was a part time job as well.
What kind of animals?
I was primarily shooting rabbits, pigs, foxes for their skins, cats for their skins, wild dogs, hares.
Why for their skins?
There’s two sides for it – the land-holders obviously didn’t want the grass-feeding animals competing with their livestock, so primarily I was shooting kangaroos for a living, for the commercial market – and that was for both skins and for their meat, which was used for either pet food or human consumption. The pigs we used for primarily human consumption – they went to the European market, primarily to Germany. Rabbits we used for their fur, skin and meat. The fur was used to make akubra hats – a lot of butcher shops for human consumption and pet food. Foxes – skins etc for European fur markets that still existed for some time. That was sort of knocked on the head with activists in regards to animals… not seeing the other side of the picnic picture. Everyone’s got their own point of view. Everything had a purpose. Goats were taken off life – there was a market for dead goats as well in the late 90s. They were used primarily for their meat as well. Nothing was ever wasted. I worked for private property owners – I don’t personally own any land – I have a lot of family who own a lot of the country in the Cobar area and beyond.
When were hunting was this usually at night or during the day?
Most times it was night-time. For anything to do with meat you obviously can’t maintain a good carcass from an animal in the heat of the day – more so in the cool of the night some of them were nocturnal animals as well… some would be during the day but most around night time.
And this would be mostly in the Cobar area?
Yes I shot around Cobar, Alkanya, out near Louth, Bourke…
And in terms of the amount of species that you see these days compared to a few years ago when you first started hunting, do you feel like it’s a similar amount?
No. No where near. There’s less – heaps less. Of everything. It’s funny I had this conversation with a few friends.. I was talking to a mate of mine his father, he’s in his late 70s. grazier..mudgeeria.. . and I was talking to a few people in Green Collar in regards to plant etc… no one could answer it. They said there was more stock (as in domestic stock – sheep cattle etc) that has been run into the western from back in the 70s/80s/90s, they could run a lot more stock and there was always maybe 10 times – 20 times the animals that you would see today competing for that – rabbits, goats etc. Kangaroos are still breeding well but there’s a lot of pest management solutions put in place to eradicate the rabbits and the foxes and the pigs, and the goats become a proposition for land owners as well to be farmed and get rid of them… but the competition for animals on the ground was so much more intense 30 years ago compared to what it is today. But today we have more invasive scrub – less invasive animals and can’t run as much domestic stock.
That’s interesting – do you think that’s because some of those animals like the rabbits were eating the seeds that were turning into scrub and now that there’s less of them, there’s more scrub?
My grandfather said that – he would stop – he had land all his life – on condo in Queensland and he’d stop (if we were in a drought like now) everyone from shooting the rabbits because they used to ring-bark the invasive species and eat it, which would kill the woody weed, and in turn them – their digestive system couldn’t handle it. So it was a win-win, you’d find dead rabbits in trees.
Okay, so in terms of all the damage that these animals cause, what kind of damage do they cause and what kind of frustrations exactly? Is it just the grass?
It was a combination of everything I guess – the grass, the water, the rabbits themselves the burrows… non-productive piece of land. The kangaroos were the same for water and feed – but if there was a paddock well stocked with sheep you’d never get a lot of roos in there.
So they were more cautious animals?
Yes – they seemed to stay away…
And now that there are less invasive animals or I suppose better methods of controlling them do you think that farmers are having an easier time these days or are yielding more productive results?
I don’t there are more productive results … you can definitely see the effort that has gone into eradicating foxes, cats, rabbits primarily – wild dogs… that has definitely worked. They introduced the Kilesy island that was accidentally released in Solomon Island in South Australia somewhere…. It got to the main island and the numbers of rabbits declined over 2 years. The industry was really alive and kicking where people could make money… the people introduced that could see that and that was during the depression, a lot of people wouldn’t have survived the depression without a good food source, a good money source... there were only so many different ways that people could make money. The demise of that industry happened very quickly after the virus was reduced. The flow on effect initially – a lot of land-owners did see an increase in - they could carry a bit more stock through different times but as the dry times came and went through those dry times the invasive species - the scrub became thicker, there was less food on the ground for stock so they had to decrease their stock numbers.
Do you think that anything could be done differently to what has been happening for years?
I suppose yeah – there could have been from a government perspective more effort to manage them as a resource rather than a pest.
Right, how would that look?
Well, it’s a utilisation of… we’re pretty resourceful, us humans – instead of eradicating an animal for one purpose it could have been utilised or controlled – semi controlled … we could have controlled their numbers instead of eradicating them all together.
Yes, that’s right. And it seems interesting that so many of these animals were exported to Europe rather than using it here.
Yeah yeah that was it – a lot of it was used here but the primary target markets were overseas because Australia was renowned for having such strict rules and regulations in regards to the handling of meat and stuff like that. We’re very disease free as a country and well regulated in regards to that stuff too, so what we produce was always viewed on the ‘world scale’ as a good product, whether it was a feral or domestic animal.
I remember when I was working out there someone was talking about an abattoir being developed in the area for goats? Did that go ahead?
Yes in Bourke – you can probably google ‘export goat industry’ – early 2000s – 2004. The Cobar shire had the biggest number of goats for the export market. Yes they did build a goat abattoir in Bourke, on the proviso that the numbers were getting up there – a lot of land owners were doing it as a secondary income… the goats seemed to thrive in the dyer weather and it was minimal effort I suppose. The lack of water and everything slowed it right down as well.
It seems a shame that goats aren’t more popular amongst Australian consumers.
I spoke to a bloke who had an abattoir last year, he said primarily the goats exported from Australia go to America, believe it or not. Americans export them to the Middle East.
On another tack, do you feel like other hunters or you yourself – do you perceive kangaroos differently to invasive species?
I do yes – kangaroos are amazing animals if you really get to know it and follow it from a different point of view. They are very resourceful creatures. They have one of the strongest leathers in the world, the meat has more protein than most other meats – it’s lean meat, very good meat for your health... it’s plentiful as a resource and an industry that was governed by the government - you needed a licence and everything had to be accredited, so many boxes you had to tick before you were able to go out and harvest kangaroos and that industry in itself was marketed very well at certain stages but it was cut down by a minority who didn’t see it that way – they thought it was cruel, disrespectful – the national emblem, coat of arms and all of that sort of stuff. But it’s a resource out there running. And not only that, kangaroos follow the natural water courses of the country … the pastures we have put in as humans - more dams, more infrastructure, that help the population grow, and it was sustainable to keep it, the numbers that were shot and were harvested were closely monitored according to government requirements. It was treated differently … the other thing is that they are unique – there’s no other country that has them. It could have been handled so well – it’s not as if any other country could come and take it away from us, or start doing what we do, it was never looked at that angle I don’t think – as unique as it is, it’s our animal we could have utilised it so much better. It’s fallen over too to what it used to be.
So you would still consider the kangaroo as a pest? Even though you say the numbers are less, are they still rampant out there?
They can be, yeah! The industry itself – there was minimal suffering for kangaroos – in our drought situation the kangaroos just die – and they’re dying a cruel death through lack of feed, whereas if the industry was still the way it was, the market would be controlled and you wouldn’t have the numbers breeding to where they eat themselves out their own existence.
I remember when I was working out there coming across so many kangaroo corpses, and starving kangaroos… it was very sad…
The flow on effect with regards to that – when we were culling kangaroos – they were taken away/utilised … there weren’t so many carcases then. You have scavengers – the wedge tail eagle, cats, dogs, foxes… the flow on effect of not utilising the carcass is worse off than utilising it. There are so many more problems when you have a carcass rotting in a paddock when you could have that carcass feeding people.
I just have a couple more questions – about the culture out there, do you feel that there is a strong hunting culture/sense of community surrounding pest management?
There is a culture as such. The difference between hunting and pest management – I wouldn’t kill an animal for the sake of it… there’s a big difference between someone doing it professionally and as a hobby… the outcome is the same – the animal is dead but the animal is utilised commercially, it’s a win-win for the land owner and the person doing the shooting. With a hunter, it’s shot and left – laid in the paddock to feed the dogs or whatever the case may be. So the difference between hunting and a professional contract shooter is miles apart.
Would you say there are many that do it as a hobby ?
Yes hunting is definitely a big hobby and a big industry and it is very well regulated too in that regard…you need a licence, you have to go through a fairly vigorous process to be able to do that. It’s definitely a big industry. It can be utilised a bit better as well I think. You can see it’s going that way as well – for that reason, to hunt in national parks to be able to get rid of invasive species and stuff like that which was never seen or heard of in years gone by. National parks are managed in so many different ways prior to that.
Just looking at the whole issue of invasive animals in Australia, how they are competing with native animals etc – how do think it’s going to go in the next few years - do you think that we will ever reach a point where we can solve this issue? What do you think is going to happen and what would you suggest people should do?
I think that really it is seasonal… I don’t think that we’ll ever see the rabbit come back like they were, goats, pigs, foxes, feral cats, dogs – yes. When things are good there’s a lot of land out there to get everything but when things are hard and water is scarce it’s different, so I reckon it’s seasonal – that’s how I see it. 2016 was a really good year and we saw a lot of animals come back ten fold. Then three years later the numbers decreased dramatically. But along with that the government put out baiting programs for foxes, pigs, aerial shooting for pigs, wild dogs… the government today is more proactive in that for the landowners and the fencing that has been put up over the years doesn’t stop everything but it holds a lot of it back.
So you think it’s good to have a combination of different management techniques?
Yes – it definitely works, if you combine it all together. What’s working with getting rid of the animals - you open another can of worms - invasive native woody weed to the detriment of running stock or having productive land.
I know you said that the rabbits can eat the shrubs which destroys the shrub and them at the same time. Do you think that there is any room in Australia for the invasive species and it would actually be good to step back the management techniques?
Yes – I think they have their place. I don’t know what caused invasive scrub to take off like it has, it’s pretty new to this country (big picture) but I think the rabbits could be part of holding that at bay. Yes I think they should have been managed better as a resource rather than a pest.
Is that just the rabbits or you feel like other species-
-Other species but not the fox or cat that are hard on native bird life and dogs or even young foxes.. young stock, lambs… It was an industry, it did serve on that side of things and on the same token the fox would also keep kangaroo numbers down in that regard like the joeys and all of that sort of stuff – I don’t know.
It’s very complex.
It is, it is.
I feel like when one species is targeted then another species can over-populate or you get things happening with the flora so it’s complex.
Another side of it too, Becky, is when I was talking about the foxes – when the fox baiting and shooting program went on we used to shoot a lot of them for nothing, for no return for land owners. At night you used to able to shoot up to 20 or 30 foxes or something like that – they’d follow you around – they’d see you vehicle as a hamburger truck. But once you started with the fox’s you’d see a lot of cats (so the foxes would keep the cat numbers down) and once you’d see a lot of cats you’d see a lot of dead birds, you know what I mean – and you could never bate cats – cats kill rather than taking any hand fed things… cats would kill for the chase, the thrill… you’d be driving around the paddock and see tufts, feathers in a tree which would mean your cat numbers were right up there.
And when you get rid of lots of cats you’d see lots of rabbits.
Yeah! And so on, it’s a sort of cycle that would hold its own. When things were good in the 90s people would be buying up to 10000 (rabbits) a week.
I remember a staff member talking about some research a guy at UNSW had done about dingoes – he had a theory that if you let dingoes back into NSW that could improve things because they would manage the cats etc.
I had a meeting at the West hotel with a gentlemen brought out from Sydney – we had that conversation, he had a theory in regards to that dingoes or wild dogs is what they would call them; and no way in the world does that work – I can prove it. I have a mate who is a professional bull catcher. The land owners way out west thought they had no dog problems – that was 2017 when we went over there in… April? There’s a lot that goes into catching a dog – they’re a very smart animal, and they’re not scavengers either. He had trapped 97 dogs for the year (that was only in April) and he’s now contracted by the land owners out there, covering a huge area, killing wild dogs – whereas in the 90s if you’d seen the odd dog or dingo they’d be pushed out with the flood when the rivers used to flood in QLD, but we’ve seen a lot more now that have come down or moved in, and nothing has blocked them – they’ve made their way further east to the point now that if something’s not done they will become a problem, and a big problem.
There was one land owner who was a volunteer – husband and wife – they’re land was up 120-130%, they had a really intense … and less than 1% lambing, all wild pigs, dogs, cats – you’d never seen them on the land he had, it was pretty much a reserve – you
when you’re coming up from the south you can see a lot of deer, they’re going to be an issue themselves in 10-15 years if they’re not looked after better.
That’s another mix to add – some are introduced, some are native….
Do you find it hard to hunt these animals? When you first started did you find it quite challenging and then you got used to it?
It was a generational thing I suppose – to me it never seemed odd, it seemed normal. It is a skill that is passed on – I put the challenge to anyone to do the same thing, it’s not an easy thing to do, you can make it look easy…
Do you ever use dogs to help you?
I did use dogs for a period of time, more so as bailing; to muster goats for the live animal trade but no- not to the extent like when you see pig catchers with dogs or whatever else you see. They can be beneficial. It’s all about efficiencies.
Thank you – I really appreciate you taking the time to do this.
There’s lots of information out there regarding invasive species – regarding what they cost, the loss of production etc. The information that you won’t find is what was made out of invasive species because it was primarily a cash industry – the only thing that was really regulated as such were goats and kangaroos, which was monitored by authorities; so anything that was shot with regards to kangaroos, pigs, goats – it wasn’t cash – you paid tax and it was documented. But before that, the rabbits industry was cash. The fox industry was cash – it’s where Australia was, a lot of things were still cash. You won’t find the actual true dollar value of what they were worth to people.
Even during really bad, dry times – we didn’t use the kangaroo, for instance, as a resource whereas land-holders - when they didn’t have stock, but they had an abundance of kangaroos that they wanted to get rid of, they could go and shoot kangaroos for either their meat or their skin and still make a dollar as such for the resources on their land. That industry, because it’s pretty much been shut down through red tape and minority; that’s why when you were out here you saw many carcasses laying all about the place because they die either on the paddock due to their own accord or land-holders shoot them to do the most humane thing you can for the animal, and to get rid of the animal on the place as well so there is a chance of feed coming back whereas prior to the mid 90s – ’95, ’96, they were all around that area when things were really dry, a lot of land holders were making some of the income through the kangaroos, rabbits, pigs, goats as a resource rather than pest. A bit left field but thought I’d just mention it.
Great, thank you! I have a lot to think about and lots to think about.
No worries, I’d love to get some feedback and other opinions on this.