Forty-one per cent of game-bird hunting injuries occur during the opening weekend of duck hunting season, and 64 per cent occur during May. Ahead of the season’s opening on May 6, Ged Cann looks at how easily the carnival atmosphere can turn tragic.
It’s a day to chase and hopefully nab some birds. To spend some time with your mates, have some laughs, maybe bring home some tucker …
An innocent day out was what teenager James Johnston was looking forward to when he and two friends headed out on a cool May morning in 2015 to hunt ducks in eastern Bay of Plenty.
When his firearm accidentally discharged, James became one of five people since 2006 to die while game bird hunting. Four of those deaths resulted from firearms incidents.
The 15-year-old was an experienced hunter, his mother Ginny Bellamy says, but this was the first time he had been allowed out hunting unsupervised by a family member.
If she could get any message out to other duck hunters it is – don’t be complacent around firearms.
“We let Jamie go out with friends, and he wasn’t supervised. Supervising adults have to supervise every move, every minute, every time.”
The cost of loss
The loss of their son had broken the family, Bellamy says. It still felt like James’ death had just happened.
“Jamie touched every minute of our lives. He was still at home.”
“My husband said that we don’t have to ever get over losing Jamie, we just have to get used to how things are now, so that’s what we focus on.”
Ever since James could walk, he had gone out hunting with his father, Colin.
“We just had the coroner’s report out and the wording from the report is talking about active supervision of young people,” Bellamy says.
“People told us anecdotes of other near misses and how sometimes very experienced people could still have near misses. It’s just a momentary lapse of concentration.”
Bellamy says for her family the excitement had been in preparing for the new season, the buildup, the traditions. There was never any raucous behaviour.
She wasn’t sure if drinking was still an issue on other hunts. “It’s hard for me to say. We don’t go duck shooting any more.”
As well as the five deaths, a Mountain Safety Council (MSC) investigation estimates just over a third of injuries sustained during game-bird hunting involve a firearm.
“The opening weekend is quite a fun, carnival kind of atmosphere,” says MSC spokesman Nick Kingstone. “By the time they are out there their feet are tapping, they’re ready to get going.”
Chief executive Mike Daisley says the figures don’t take into account the near misses that aren’t reported.
“You are dealing with a shotgun in a small confined space, and if it went off that close to your head, you lost your hearing instantly, but if the barrel was a couple of degrees it would have taken half their face off,” he says.
The stats justify these concerns.
Drawing on data from ACC, police, and Coronial Services, MSC estimates game-bird hunters are eight times more likely than other types of hunters to be shot accidentally, and eight times more likely to suffer serious hearing loss when a firearm was discharged too close to their head.
They are also 15 times more likely to suffer powder burns from being too close to a fired weapon, and six times more likely to injure themselves while discharging a firearm.
How many hunters head out for opening weekend?
Fish & Game spokesman Don Rood says roughly 38,000 licences for game-bird hunting are issued every year.
However, the total number of hunters probably exceeded that as landowners were allowed to shoot on their own property without a licence.
This privilege also extends to the landowner’s partner and one son or daughter – that makes three hunters on one property, none of whom need a licence.
“Most game-bird hunters are passionate enthusiasts, and they take it very seriously, and the drinking and carnival atmosphere doesn’t exist for them,” Rood says.
He admitted the social aspect of opening morning was “a bit of an issue” in some regions “because a lot of the people participating may never have been duck hunting before”.
The sense of expectation on that first morning was palpable.
“It’s like Christmas, it only comes around once a year. It’s being out there at dawn, the soft light. You arrive at the maimai in the dark, the smell of manuka and damp wood. It may have been there for years or decades even, it has all the scars of past use and memorable days,” Rood says.
“As the light slowly improves and the sound of the dawn chorus, you can hear the birds moving around, then you have to wait for legal light, usually around 6.30am, so you can clearly identify what you’re shooting at.”
While the excitement of nabbing that first bird of the day would endure, drinking while hunting had become less acceptable to the public.
“It’s like driving any long distance – you don’t have a beer in your hand while you’re doing it, you don’t have a few beers before you leave. It’s just not sensible good practice.”
What’s being done to make duck hunting safer?
Rood says rangers will be out and about on opening weekend in all 12 regions, checking licences and monitoring compliance. For most of the country, the season continues until July 30.
Kingstone says the information on duck-hunting incidents will lead to the development of educational programmes.
“That could be messaging on ammunition packets, it could hand leaflets out, it could be a video series,” he says.
“There are very few issues as clearcut as game birds.”
How to stay safe
* Avoid alcohol and drugs when hunting
* Treat every firearm as if it were loaded
* Always point firearms in a safe direction
* Load firearms only when you are ready to fire
* Check your firing zone
* Identify the target beyond all doubt
* Store firearms and ammunition safely
* Source: Fish & Game spokesman Don Rood