If you think of feral animals in the ACT, rabbits probably come to mind, but they’re not the only problem.
Since early May, several nature parks and reserves around the ACT, including Namadgi National Park and the Lower Cotter Catchment, have been closed to visitors as ACT Parks and Conservation rangers work on culling pests.
“Across our parks and reserves, vertebrate pest species such as pigs and deer endanger threatened plant and animal species through grazing, antler rubbing, trampling, trail creation, ground disturbance and wallowing,” ACT Conservator of Flora and Fauna Bren Burkevics said.
The menaces are shot mainly from helicopters as part of a regular vertebrate pest control program designed to “remove pest species from our conservation areas and minimise their negative impacts on environmental, cultural, social and economic assets”.
One man would be happy to help if only the government would let him.
Rod Hart was born in Wagga Wagga but moved to Canberra with his family at the age of eight. He picked up his first gun shortly afterwards and learned to shoot a range of pest species across privately owned properties in the ACT, as well as rural NSW and Victoria.
“I’ve helped a lot of farmers control deer numbers, mainly in NSW, as I’m a professional shooter and conduct testing of R-Licences for the Department of Primary Industry, which allows people to hunt on a restricted game licence in designated NSW state forests,” he says.
“I’ve also helped Landcare Victoria film an ethical hunting program.”
Rod is also the man responsible for the taxidermied deer head hanging on the brick wall in Caribou, the Canadian-inspired pub at the Kingston Shops.
“That’s a red deer,” he says, pointing to it over a pint of Caribou Lager.
“It’s only been here for about six months, but I shot it more than 25 years ago out in the Tinderry Mountains in NSW. It’s a sort of donation for them to display, being called ‘Caribou’. And the owner wants another.”
Clad in camouflage, the professional shooter is also a hobby hunter that sneaks up on unsuspecting members of our two local deer species – mainly Fallow and the larger Sambar – and always aims for the heart with his 30-06 rifle. He says understanding the anatomy of these animals is vital for a clean kill.
“If the shot is not a clear one, then it is not on.”
His biggest kill, a 10-year-old Sambar male, weighed about 350 kg. But don’t think it goes to waste.
“I don’t buy red meat,” Rod says.
His Kingston apartment might not have the storage space for much venison, but he also distributes cuts to his friends and neighbours, complete with careful instructions on how to cook each one and extract the best flavours. They’re not left disappointed.
“I guarantee you’ll never find another schnitzel as good,” he says.
It’s so good, even a vegan friend dared to eat it.
“She was sitting across from me and said, ‘That smells good’. So I just pushed it over, under her nose. She looked down at it and looked back at me, and I said, ‘It’s not a native Australian animal. Try it’. So she did. She loved it, and every time I go hunting, she wants some venison.”
Rod has noticed a “helluva” jump in deer numbers since the bushfires in 2019 and puts it down to three years of lush conditions.
“They’re flourishing in our conditions because we’ve had some really wet seasons, and they’ve bred really well. The numbers are going up like you wouldn’t believe.”
They’re getting close to suburbia too.
“If you got up high on a building in the Tuggeranong Town Centre early morning or late afternoon and looked out across the Murrumbidgee River with a pair of binoculars, there would be deer,” he says.
Rod has seen the damage to flora and fauna first-hand – trampled grasses, muddied water, ringbarked trees – and says more deer have to go.
“We need to be managing them better.”
He has been asked to participate in rabbit culls around Parliament House, but his preference for larger pests is limited by the ACT Government to only those on private properties. He says he’d like to see this change and more hobby hunters given access to the nature reserves.
“I’d love to have some involvement in the program, especially in the space of trying to manage deer numbers and bringing them down.”
Whatever happens, Rod says, it needs to be done by people who know what they’re doing.
“There’s a lot of wild people out there with a lack of understanding of ethical hunting and shot placement,” he says.
“They’ll just shoot, but you have to take notice of what’s behind the deer. A shell from my gun could penetrate through a sandbar and come out the other side. So you have to take notice of livestock, dwellings and other infrastructure around you.”