The farcical debate in NSW over the O'Farrell government's decision to allow hunting in national parks knows no bounds. In a state notorious for political cant and hypocrisy, nobody seems interested in the facts, including the media.
It is difficult to understand why anyone with a genuine interest in the environment would oppose the idea of people voluntarily, at their own expense, shooting the feral cats, foxes, wild dogs and pigs that devastate native fauna. For some small marsupials, feral-proof fenced enclosures are all that is saving them from extinction.
Notwithstanding its current opposition, Labor favoured the idea in 1998 when Environment Minister Pam Allan and Premier Bob Carr agreed to enlist volunteer hunters. It was not such a radical idea; more than 100 additional national parks were created during Carr's reign, many previously under the control of Forests NSW and open to local hunting arrangements.
When legislation was introduced in 2002, it allowed hunting in state forests and other Crown land but not national parks, a result of resistance from the environment bureaucracy and concern at the prospect of losing green votes. It was nonetheless understood that national parks would be included once the benefits became apparent.
In 2009 the Labor government of Nathan Rees was in turmoil over electricity privatisation. Needing Shooters and Fishers Party support in the Legislative Council, an offer was made to allow hunting in about 60 remote national parks of the state's total of 800. (O'Farrell has now agreed to 79). The Shooters and Fishers Party (SFP) MLCs hesitated, hoping for a better offer, and in the delay Rees was replaced and the offer repudiated.
Premier Barry O'Farrell's protestation that his hand was forced by similarly needing SFP votes in the Legislative Council is also a change. The Liberal and National parties supported the 2002 legislation while complaining that it did not include national parks. They even unsuccessfully moved an amendment to allow a two-year trial of hunting in three national parks.
Consistently opposed to volunteer hunting of any kind, in any location, are the Greens and their supporters including the lobby group Getup. Their solution to the problem of feral animals is poisoning and the use of professional hunters, including shooting from helicopters.
This fondness for professionals causes much amusement in hunting circles. Apparently there is something about shooting pest animals for money that makes it acceptable, while shooting them for recreation (or "pleasure" as they describe it) is not. They also assume professional hunters are inherently more competent.
In fact, most professional hunters are part timers. With the exception of a few kangaroo shooters, the majority are amateurs who are occasionally paid to undertake a specific task. Moreover, it is invariably amateurs who win target shooting championships, challenging assumptions about relative expertise.
As for aerial hunting, the dreadful wounding of feral horses in Guy Fawkes national park in 2000 by professional shooters firing from helicopters left an indelible stain on that idea. In any case, the high cost of aerial control makes it impractical as a general measure.
The main poison used to control feral animals is sodium fluoracetate, also known as 1080. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service apparently used around 500,000 baits over the last 12 months. In some areas salt-lick blocks laced with strychnine or cyanide have also been used.
The problem with both these is that they are not target specific. Kangaroos, wallabies, dingoes, wombats and other small marsupials will consume them, along with feral horses, foxes, deer and feral pigs. Moreover, there is a significant animal welfare problem arising from the consumption of sub-lethal doses. The belief that this is preferable to shooting is difficult to sustain.
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