Opinion piece: Hobby hunters the real feral beasts in WA bush
The West Australian
Most West Australians don’t have to travel far to enjoy our wonderful forests and, on the way, they will pass through some of the most productive farmland you can find anywhere in Australia.
That co-existence of farming and the natural environment is a credit to both conservation and the farming community. On the surface it is a peaceful relationship, but underneath that serenity lies a hidden underworld involving illegal activity, shocking animal cruelty and intimidation of anyone who speaks out against it.
Farmers and small landholders continually have to defend their properties from damage caused by introduced animals that have reached such numbers in the wild that they can be deemed pests. This includes feral pigs, cats, dogs and rabbits, to name just a few.
Feral pig numbers are out of control from Geraldton in the north, down through the Perth Hills, Collie, Donnybrook, Manjimup and Albany. Pigs are causing major environmental damage to public lands and farmland, but official efforts to deal with the problem through organised management programs run by the Department of Parks and Wildlife (DPaW) are being frustrated by the illegal activities of hobby hunters. These amateurs, dubbed “weekend cowboys” by farming groups, are contributing to the growing problem.
In many outer urban areas, the four wheel drive ute with dogs in cages on the back is a common sight. The occupants of these vehicles breed pigs in their backyards and transport them to public land to release them, so they can hunt them in the future with their dogs, firearms and knives. ‘Pig dumping’ is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2002 - it is illegal to release any animal anywhere for the purpose of hunting it. The offence carries a possible fine of $50,000 and five years in prison, but no weekend cowboy has ever (to my knowledge) been prosecuted for pig dumping.
It is difficult to obtain evidence. Farmers across the south west of the state have told RSPCA WA of confrontations with hobby hunters, leading to threats to burn their farms, shoot their livestock and poison their dogs. One farmer told us his neighbour, who confronted an amateur hunter about a damaged fence and gate and unauthorised hunting on his land, was threatened with a handgun.
Another farmer told an RSPCA WA Inspector: “I don’t want to come home to find my place on fire, so I say nothing.”
Then there is the unspeakable cruelty. RSPCA WA has photographic evidence - farmers have shot and killed pigs that, on closer inspection, are without their ears and tails and pigs have been seen with fencing wire (the ends sharpened) twisted through their ears. These animals have been caught by pig hunters who have used sharp knives to cut off their ears and tails before releasing them back into the wild. The idea is to make it harder for their dogs to hold and pull the pig to the ground next time the pig is bailed up. The sharpened fencing wire is designed to give the dogs a good stab in the mouth when they try to drag the pig to the ground, making a more even contest between pig and dog for the hobby hunters to enjoy. Many dogs are badly injured in the fights and RSPCA WA has images of pigs with ears torn to shreds from dog attacks.
There are other reports of hobby hunters catching feral pigs and bashing their bottom teeth out before releasing them. This leads to excessive growth of the pig’s tusks, making for a potentially very bloody fight between the pig and dogs in the future.
A Murdoch University study entitled “Illegal Translocation and Genetic Structure of Feral Pigs in Western Australia” found that pig dumping (most likely by amateur hunters) was contributing to the growth of the feral pig population in WA. These activities also serve to make feral pigs extremely wary of human contact, making the task of professional hunters working with DPaW and local conservation/farming groups even more difficult.
RSPCA WA wants to see the State Government invest more resources into targeted, well-managed feral pest eradication programs, using professionals to remove pests humanely. Hunters who are members of recognised recreational shooting organisations already have the opportunity to work with DPaW alongside professional shooters and trappers on such coordinated programs. This is permitted under current legislation and DPaW policies.
We also want to see more resources put into catching and prosecuting hobby hunters who are acting illegally. Fines imposed should be more of a deterrent - in January, a successful prosecution by DPaW against a local man hunting pigs without authority in the Benger Swamp Nature Reserve resulted in a paltry $300 fine.
Amateur hunting (outside authorised pest eradication programs) in national parks, conservation parks and nature reserves is illegal. RSPCA WA does not want to see these activities made legal, but that is just what our State Government is looking at right now. A Parliamentary Committee is conducting an inquiry into whether recreational hunting could contribute to environmental management and be allowed on WA public land. All of the evidence shows that recreational hunting is damaging the environment, frustrating proper pest management programs and intimidating local landholders. The situation with feral pigs in particular is out of control, with hobby hunters contributing to increased numbers of feral pigs and inflicting deliberate cruelty on pigs and dogs.
RSPCA WA stands with local farming and conservation groups in calling for the State Government to develop a comprehensive and properly resourced feral pest management strategy and is willing to assist in the development of this, ensuring animal welfare is a priority.
Amateur shooters working alongside professional pest managers as part of an organised control strategy already have an opportunity to hunt pest animals, so why are we even considering the outrageous concept of a free-for-all on our public lands?
The parliamentary inquiry is due to report to State Parliament on 10 March. I urge anyone with a concern about this issue to contact your local Member of Parliament, write to The West Australian in response to this piece or you might also consider ringing talkback radio to voice your concerns.