July 2015


The culling season

By Sam Vincent
The culling season

Kangaroos in the suburb of Russell, Canberra, with the former ASIO headquarters in the background, July 2004. © John Feder / Newspix

Too many kangaroos loose in Canberra

The eastern grey kangaroo has a top speed of 60 kilometres per hour. By the end of its life, my ute could do 80. The comparison is not academic: driving home from parties in my early 20s, my muffler farting through Canberra’s northern fringe, mobs of 10, 20, 30 roos would slip out of the dawn and chaperone me across the NSW border. I’d slow down; they’d slow down. I’d speed up; they’d match the acceleration of a 1995 Mazda Bravo with 400,000 clicks on the dash. And then, more times than I care to remember, one would be transformed into a writhing mass of pain glowing red in the reflection of my brake lights. When future Howard government minister Wilson Tuckey was a publican in Carnarvon in the 1960s, he earnt the nickname “Ironbar” for the length of steel cable he kept behind his bar. Mine lived under the passenger seat.

The national capital has a fraught relationship with the national animal. Canberrans love to take their foreign visitors over the back fence to see the kangaroos, but are less enthusiastic about taking their cars to see the panel beater.

The kangaroo population in urban areas of the Australian Capital Territory is, roughly, 30,000. Since 2009 the ACT government has conducted an annual wintertime cull of around 2000 eastern greys, officially to alleviate the impact of overpopulation on biodiversity.

The ensuing debate is so polarised as to be laughable. Eastern grey kangaroos, former CSIRO researcher David Freudenberger tells me, love grazing well-watered grasslands and so have proliferated with the clearing of the Canberra region; as a woodland species, conservation biologist Daniel Ramp from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) tells me, eastern greys have been decimated with the clearing of the Canberra region. Since the dingo disappeared from the area, says ACT Parks and Conservation director Daniel Iglesias, unchecked kangaroos are now damaging the habitat of small birds and lizards; at a meeting of Animal Liberation ACT, activist Carolyn Drew says kangaroos “aren’t suicidal” and so they move on to new pastures once food is getting scarce. As for the birds and lizards, “nature always sorts itself out”. A 2013 animal welfare compliance audit undertaken by an independent veterinarian found “all kangaroo carcasses inspected had been killed with a single shot”; Drew shows me photos of bloodied roo carcasses that she claims prove otherwise.

For most Canberrans the argument has been settled, with polls suggesting community support for population management “to assist in the conservation of native grasslands”. But perhaps more interesting than the ecological and ethical merits of culling kangaroos is what the policy says about the nature – and the limits – of the “bush capital” ideal.

In Walter and Marion Griffin’s 1911 plan for Canberra, the new capital would be built on the Molonglo River floodplain, with the wooded hills at its sides left undeveloped.

The Griffins’ urban plan soon morphed into a suburban one. As the population grew after World War Two, medium-density housing was added and millions of deciduous trees were planted in between, according to the “garden city” school of landscape design. Freeways through bushland linked the centre to the “Nappy Valley” of Tuggeranong and to the new development of Belconnen, immersing commuters in nature between home and work. Of course, as soon as you put a freeway through nature you’ve denaturalised it, and as soon as you declare a patch of bush exempt from development you’re managing it. Canberra Nature Park, a series of 33 bushland reserves abutting the city, is where the cull now takes place.

That old saw that Canberra is a waste of a good sheep station was always a furphy: “This landscape – prior to the national capital being built here – was a deeply degraded, damaged, overgrazed, rabbit-infested landscape,” says Nicholas Brown, a historian at the Australian National University with a particular interest in how a Canberran sensibility of nature has evolved over time. “Canberra was selected as a site with very little protest from local landowners.”

Who those landowners were, and who they are now, has shaped the cull debate. Farmers who once shot large numbers of kangaroos for pet food and pest management have been usurped by urban and rural-residential professionals seeking to “get back to nature” on their weekends. This is a common trope I encounter: Don Fletcher, the ACT government’s chief kangaroo ecologist, tells me the introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s was particularly important because rabbiters whose job also encompassed shooting roos were soon unemployed; the long-term neighbour of the farm where I grew up says seeing a kangaroo at his place in the 1960s was so rare “you’d talk about it at dinner”. My dad, the president of his local Landcare group, also cites the “hoon factor” in keeping roo numbers down. But recreational shooters no longer abound in the pinko-leftie wonderland of contemporary Canberra.

This shift in values is reflected in Canberra Nature Park. Stray from the paved path on Mt Ainslie and you’ll find rusted skeins of fencing wire, relics of a time when kangaroos weren’t the principal herbivores on its western slope. At Mulligans Flat, on the outskirts of Gungahlin, a 1.8-metre-high electric fence has been erected to keep foxes and cats from a reintroduced colony of eastern bettongs, part of an attempt, along with internal sections fenced off from kangaroos, to re-create the box-gum grassy woodland that existed there before Europeans arrived.

“What is it that we’re seeking to get back to,” Brown asks, “[or] preserve? Are we seeking to preserve a bush capital notion, which is the city sitting in open grasslands, without asking the question: Well, how did those grasslands come to look like that in the first place? Is it the Mulligans Flat model that we should be getting back to – a pre-European sense of balanced ecology – or is it the kind of arboretum model, which is very self-consciously saying, ‘We’re going to re-create that garden city ideal of highly ordered, beautiful and very picturesque plantings of specific trees’? I think we’ve got a lot of strands that aren’t talking to each other. In terms of a land management issue, I’m not quite sure where we’re going.”

James Boyce, historian and author of Van Diemen’s Land, tells us that early Tasmania was a “kangaroo economy”: all that stood between an escaped convict and a plentiful supply of meat and Davy Crockett dress-ups was a decent hunting dog. In The Bush, author Don Watson argues that the kangaroo thus gave birth to the earliest bushmen and bushrangers – seminal figures in the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. But somewhere along the line we stopped, in the vernacular of the time, “going native”.

In a now largely forgotten part of his 2008 climate-change review, Professor Ross Garnaut advocated a massive expansion of kangaroo harvesting to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions. Garnaut’s suggestion seemingly warranted consideration: kangaroo is lean, cheap, and less methane-emitting and water-intensive; it is also less harmful to Australian soils than cloven-hoofed sheep and cattle, and – if you believe the scientific reasoning behind the ACT kangaroo cull – eminently sustainable.

But as social anthropologist Adrian Peace discussed in Australian Humanities Review, not only was the policy summarily rejected, but it was done so equally on nationalistic as environmental or pragmatic grounds. Perversely, many commentators portrayed eating kangaroo as an affront to “our unique way of life”, with (real) red meat like beef and lamb having made Australia “what it is today”.

The majority of the produce from the kangaroo meat industry – worth more than $250 million a year – is exported. (When I ask a Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia spokesman how much stays onshore he brags that Australians now eat more kangaroo than they do turkey, which doesn’t seem very brag-worthy to me.)

A 2014 study by the University of Wollongong’s Gordon Waitt and Bryce Appleby involved “plating up” roast kangaroo with 30 local households. Eating kangaroo, they found, disgusted many of their subjects because it threatened their understanding of both “the collective ‘we’ of Australia and what is edible”. What the authors stop short of concluding is a racialised judgement of the kangaroo as fit for an Aboriginal campfire but not a suburban barbecue. My sister, Eve Vincent, teaches an anthropology of food course at Macquarie University. She has no such hesitation. “Aboriginal hunting, gathering and food collecting has long been associated with images of the dismal existence of ‘the primitive’,” she writes in an email. “Research suggests that kangaroo meat marks the boundary between domesticated or ‘civilised’ foodstuffs and the ‘wild’, and this is part of non-indigenous people’s ambivalence about eating it. I suspect non-Aboriginal Australians are anxious to maintain this boundary.”

It strikes me that the relationship between Canberra – the symbolic example of urban Australia – and the kangaroo – the symbolic denizen of the Australian bush – betrays a greater ambivalence in the way we conceptualise our surrounds.

We like the kangaroo on our coat of arms but aren’t so pleased with it on our roads. (In the ACT alone, 5000 traffic accidents annually involve kangaroos.) It is a celebrated part of the landscape in designated reserves and in controlled numbers, but a pest outside of those contexts. It was Australia’s favourite meat for 60,000 years, but to add it to the shopping trolley now is to question our settler identity. Our society encourages us to eat local, but not native.

In what my family refers to as the “back paddock”, two indomitable Gauls I’ll call Asterix and Obelix are taking me hunting.

Kangaroos damage fences and compete with stock for pasture on my family’s cattle farm, so we occasionally seek permission from the NSW government to shoot them. This winter my dad and a family friend originally from France (Obelix) have been allocated a licence to kill 50 eastern greys. Asterix, Obelix’s friend and countryman, has come along for the thrill of the chasse.

In a typically confused response to the duality of the kangaroo in this context (vermin and native), we must attach special tags to each culled roo, but we cannot use the carcasses “for a secondary purpose”. If my permaculture-minded parents want to eat kangaroo legally, their best option is to drive 20 minutes to their nearest supermarket and buy a steak from an animal shot perhaps thousands of kilometres away, packaged in Adelaide and sent to Canberra.

It’s forecast to reach -5°C tonight and the beginnings of a heavy frost sparkle in the grass. The moon is full and the sky clear, but while Asterix steers his ute with his left hand, he shines a spotlight out the window with his right. Obelix, dressed as if he’s just come from the Donetsk front with his camo jacket, unkempt beard and skinhead boots, rides shotgun. His .305 sticks out the window like a shower rod that won’t fit in the car on the drive home from Bunnings.

Our first set of eyes belongs to a fox; Obelix blows open its head from 80 metres. My ears ring. The cabin smells like cracker night. Past the dam where my nephew was inspired to give a show-and-tell presentation about a cow that was stuck in the mud, Obelix shoots the first kangaroo, a doe that needs two shots to stop moving; the smaller one beside it, possibly a large joey, is killed with one shot.

Tag three goes to a young buck whose long, reptilian claws prompt Asterix to tell me to kick it in the head to make sure it is dead. The fourth kill, a male that must weigh as much as me, steams from its neck wound. It’s propped up on its elbows in a pool of blood. It looks like it’s been finger painting.

Obelix kills 17 kangaroos in three hours. We see many more moving either side of the spotlight. Perhaps 60 all up.

I’m surprised by how alarmed I am each time the spotlight picks up the eyes of cattle – don’t shoot Dad’s income! – but also by the perfunctory way in which I can alight from the ute after each kill and attach the tags (at first with string around a paw or tail but when that runs out I just tuck them in an armpit). Am I just as ambivalent about the animals of this landscape?

Over the phone Daniel Ramp, a member of the UTS-based Think Tank for Kangaroos (THINKK), tells me to challenge the premise that kangaroos are pests. “The word ‘impact’ is a loaded one when you think about it,” he says, referring to the effects of kangaroos on the land.

Ramp tells me he welcomes an ACT trial to replace lethal culling with dart-administered fertilisation control, but that he questions the need for management at all. THINKK rejects both the notion that kangaroos compete with cattle on farms and that they harm Canberra Nature Park’s biodiversity. (THINKK rejects just about every orthodox scientific view on kangaroos. It pays to note they have strong links to animal advocacy groups Voiceless and Animal Liberation.)

The laissez-faire view of “co-existence” Ramp espouses (“we don’t call them feral”, he says of cats) is all very well if you have no skin in the game. But if you’re a farmer who subscribes to the orthodoxy that one kangaroo eats half as much as one sheep, co-existence clashes with your bottom line. And in the city, by definition a human construct, is some degree of tension with nature inevitable? The coroner’s report into the 2003 Canberra bushfires warned against leaving land unmanaged to accrue fuel. But the fire started in the distant Brindabella Ranges, not in someone’s backyard.

It all gets back to the philosophical question of our role in nature. Ramp says evolution doesn’t play favourites and neither should we; ACT Minister for Territory and Municipal Services Shane Rattenbury tells me he authorises the cull because he has a “moral responsibility” to alleviate an imbalance caused by 200 years of mismanagement.

Perhaps we compartmentalise what the kangaroo represents because ultimately we are unsettled by it. During a night where we trespassed on Canberra Nature Park in an unsuccessful bid to see the cull, an activist I’ll call Belinda tells me the policy is consistent on one level with the “anal” mentality of Canberra, but on another it is typical of a national trait: “People are afraid of the bush, so they have to control it. It’s always been like that since Europeans arrived.”

Belinda, I think, is right, but we mustn’t fall into the trap of imagining a virgin landscape prior to 1788. As historian Bill Gammage writes, humans have shaped this landscape ever since they have walked it: such was the degree of Aboriginal firestick farming to manage populations of game (including kangaroo), the first settlers continually remarked that what we now think of as wild bush looked like an orderly English estate.

The crucial point here is that while the First Australians made a life within their surrounds, today’s inhabitants – citizens of the most urbanised society on earth – have chosen to live beside it, physically and spiritually. For Gammage, “if we are to survive, let alone feel at home, we must begin to understand our country. If we succeed, one day we might become Australian.”

Sam Vincent

Sam Vincent is a writer, farmer and the author of Blood and Guts: Dispatches from the Whale Wars and My Father and Other Animals.


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