For twenty years of my life I’ve called a small country town in north-west Victoria home. Chances are you’ve probably heard of it, but not necessarily for the right reasons.
Sure, it has a few claims to fame, so to speak – it’s the home of Kooka’s Country Cookies, we have a tree with a growth shaped like a bullock’s head, and radio presenter and TV personality Myf Warhurst spent six years of her childhood here – but most likely you’ve heard of my home town for the wrong reasons.
If you ask Wikipedia, it’s where seven people died in a car accident in 2006. If you paid close attention to the news mid-January, it’s where a supposedly non-existent river flooded streets, businesses and houses for the third time in four months. And if you glanced at the Herald Sun last weekend, it’s where the ‘Blood sport fury’ happened.
I’m from Donald. ‘Duck country’.
After more than a decade of drought, last weekend marked the return of duck hunting to Donald and for the first time since 1996, the town’s wetland, Lake Buloke, was open for duck season.
The Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) estimates around 2,000 hunters and 150 protesters converged on Lake Buloke over the opening two days and despite the controversy surrounding the weekend, locals are already starting to see the benefits.
‘It’s great — it’s good for the town,’ says local supermarket owner Andrew Weir. ‘Looking at the service station early Sunday morning there were just cars queued back to get into the BP, to see that, it was unbelievable.’
The first two weeks of the twelve-week season are estimated to bring in $10 million for regional Victoria, and Mr Weir says weekend sales were up by 22 per cent at the supermarket. Given the recent floods, which caused extensive damage to three of the town’s major businesses, he says it’s a great time for Donald’s economy to receive a boost.
‘It’s just a shame both the motels weren’t up and running because they would have had a good lift out of it too.’
Nearby café, 51 Central, received a boost of a different kind.
‘It was more the locals coming to town to experience the busyness, what was expected of the town, and just to sit back and watch the duck shooters and the cars and boats and the buzzing of the town,’ says owner Matt Rogers-Brigden. ‘The locals are loving it.’
Donald is a town well-known for its ducks. Robin Letts, editor of the local newspaper, the Buloke Times, says that during the height of duck hunting – back in the ’70s and ’80s – people spoke of as many as one million ducks on the lake, and 16,000 hunters and their families camped alongside.
‘A shooter that had been coming up here for years described it as the MCG of duck hunting — as far as they’re concerned you can’t get any higher praise than that,’ he says. ‘Around then it became obvious that there may not have been any better place on earth as far as duck hunters were concerned.’
For those my age, it’s hard to remember what a duck opening was actually like. We’ve heard the stories but it’s another thing to believe the town’s pubs would ever be so full that they would turn people away.
‘It used to be when there were five hotels here, they were always packed to the doors; if you got in you couldn’t get out and vice versa,’ Mr Letts says. ‘People would drink out on the footpath because they couldn’t get in.’
While today’s numbers are nothing in comparison, the editor says it’s still something.
‘It is truly a boost for the town after what’s just happened,’ he says. ‘The people — just to have people back into the town. It’s a financial boost, there’s no two ways about that.’
At the lake, DSE put the protester numbers at around 150 this year – not the most for Donald – but Laurie Levy, the campaign director of the Coalition Against Duck Shooting, says duck hunting is a dying activity in Victoria.
‘Duck shooting is one activity that belongs in the 1950s, not in the 21st Century or a modern day society. It’s destroying a wonderful asset of native birds,’ he says.
Today only three states allow recreational duck shooting — Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. In Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia, the activity is banned but ducks are still shot for pest mitigation.
For towns like Donald, Mr Levy says the future lies in bird watching.
‘Bird watching is a multi-million dollar industry overseas and Victoria could be a part of it,’ he says, ‘It could rival Kakadu with all of its wetlands of national importance.’
If duck shooting is banned, Mr Levy says the Coalition is prepared to work for five years with no pay establishing nature-based wetlands tourism in Victoria.
‘If we stop duck shooting and bring in the tourists, I can see Donald becoming a thriving town with more motels, more restaurants and more facilities.’
In comparison, the CEO of Field and Game Australia, Rod Drew, says that while it’s a nice idea, you couldn’t build an industry around a lake that is dry for up to fifteen years at a time.
‘There’s no doubt when Donald’s got the water there really are a lot of things for people to come and do, and quail and duck hunting are just another part of that,’ he says. ‘We certainly don’t claim that hunting’s going to save Donald but we do know it can make a good contribution.’
Mr Drew still says a large part of the Field and Game association’s role is wetland conservation and looking after places like Lake Buloke.
‘I mean, we hunt ducks, we enjoy eating ducks, we like duck on the table but we can’t do that if there are no ducks to hunt — we’ve got to have an involvement in the management of ducks,’ the CEO says.
When it comes to the argument about shooting ducks for food, rather than purely for recreation, Mr Levy says it’s the method that is the problem.
‘Amateurs are blasting away at native birds and wounding many more,’ the campaign director says, noting that the RSPCA and the State government’s Animal Welfare Advisory Committee have been calling for it to be banned.
On the other side, Mr Drew says there is something special about being able to harvest your own meat.
‘A lot of people say that the hunter who goes out and hunts his own meat is actually taking the moral responsibility for the killing of that animal,’ he says, ‘whereas the person who gets it from a supermarket someone has done that for them, they’ve removed that responsibility to someone else.’
Whatever the side of the fence locals are on when it comes to duck shooting, it’s hard work trying to find someone who thinks it’s bad for Donald.
Kerry Duncan, chairperson of Donald 2000 – a community progressive group – says that while she sympathises with the ducks, she’d hate for Donald to lose it.
‘I’m a duck lover and I’ve got two ducks but I still see the benefits of this,’ she says. ‘For fifteen years we did lose it and you saw what it did to the town — no water; no money, that’s pretty much it.’
During the opening weekend, over $3,500 was raised for the local flood appeal. Donald 2000 worked tirelessly, staffing a barbecue and selling raffle tickets and merchandise; $500 came from the pockets of seventy-odd Australian Cypriot Sport Shooters camped at the lake; and $1,800 was donated by the local Field and Game Association who took a collection from shooters camped on members’ properties.
‘People were just handing out money, it was fantastic,’ says Ms Duncan, who is also an active member of the town’s Chamber of Commerce and the Donald Tourism Association. ‘I’m not supportive of duck hunting at all but in economic terms I think it’s great for our community.
‘From a general consensus I think everyone was very happy with it. There were certainly a lot of shooters in town and they weren’t scared about spending their money. It is just a shame that such a great economic boost does kill poor little bloody ducks.’
The local football club was another to benefit from the weekend, supplying breakfast for the 14 police officers patrolling Lake Buloke and Department of Sustainability and Environment officers. Former president Kevin Anderson says it was a help to the club, not only in the aftermath of the floods but also as the club’s function rooms caught fire in February, causing around $200,000 in damages.
‘Even though there were 2,000 shooters out at Buloke, there are ducks everywhere; they’re getting run over on the road that’s how many there are,’ the Mayor says. ‘When the lake’s full we get all the benefits — it’s a sign of good times.’
Cr Tellefson says the opening weekend went reasonably well and that while the extra income is a bonus for Donald, it’s not something they rely on to keep the town going.
‘The town of Donald has one of the strongest economies in the shire,’ he says. ‘We’ve had three major businesses flooded in the town, but in general we’re still a very strong economy due to the fact that we’ve got the industrial estate. But when the lake’s full, the economy will get stronger.’
As for the town’s iconic slogan, ‘Welcome to Donald – duck country’, yes, the famous Disney character of the same name did come into play.
Thirty-odd years ago, during the height of duck shooting, the town tried unsuccessfully to sell Donald as the country’s headquarters for Donald Duck. They wrote to the Disney Corporation but all they got was an original drawing of Donald Duck.
‘We didn’t do too well out of that one so we started to think, “What can we do to stop people in their tracks?”,’ Mr Letts says. ‘When the first sign was painted it immediately made The Age and the Sun and so we thought we were on the right track — endless people want to be photographed with it.’
With Lake Buloke dry for the past thirteen years, the town’s slogan almost lost its meaning. But with water in the lake once more things are looking promising again.
‘Lake Buloke now, where we had no water of any type in the proverbial five minutes ago, it’s just an embarrassment of riches as far as duck hunters are concerned,’ Mr Letts says. ‘For a while we thought we were going to have off-roading for the rest of our lives.’
In the absence of ducks and water, the dry lake bed hosted an annual off-road racing event for the past couple of years. With the lake now flooded and full to overflowing, the Donald 400 was cancelled this year.
‘Off-road racing has been great for Donald but for quick fire income, duck shooting is totally on its own,’ says Mr Letts. ‘It is huge and next year it could easily be an all-time record.
‘Whatever happens, if we get back to a drought or semi-drought it’s still going to be ideal for duck hunting. There will be roads open, there will be the right amount of water for everything they want to do and the protesters all know that as well.’
Ashley Fritsch is a journalism honours student at La Trobe University and is the co-ordinating editor of upstart. She is currently writing a thesis on the history of the Buloke Times and the role of country newspapers.