Field & Game Australia has launched a campaign to tell the true story of Australia’s most surprising conservationists and we have set up a fighting fund to help spread the message. Meet the first two ambassadors, Deb Meester and Ben Richards.
Sale Field & Game
Deb was introduced to hunting about 20 years ago by her former partner and the attraction remains the same is it was back then: good company, good wild food and quality time spent in the great outdoors.
"He taught me how to shoot and I loved it, I got involved in the clay target competitions as well.
Hunting is about being out in the environment which I love and at least I'm putting food on the table rather than choosing it from the supermarket, it Is wild meat and I know where it comes from."
Deb's opening weekend camp spans the ages, the youngest is 12 and the oldest is 80.
Her day job is working as a nurse in an operating theatre and she admits having to explain her hunting passion to colleagues.
"Some ducks from last year I had made into cabana. I took it into work for morning tea and everyone was surprised how well it tasted.
Some people say why do you do that, go out and hunt, but I'm just getting my food from the wild."
While a passionate and regular hunter in season, Deb also spends a lot of time and energy on conservation projects.
"I've worked with Field & Game doing nesting boxes on Lake Wellington, it is a social event, we all pile into boats and pull out the old straw and broken eggs and replace it with new straw ready for the next breeding season.
I go on fox drives with FGA where we control vermin and I have done a lot of revegetation at the Heart Morass, we have planted many trees there. It is all about being in the environment for me.
Sometimes you just sit there and watch the birds in their natural environment, you see how they interact and listen to them calling."
Deb said she relishes the opportunity to challenge the perception of hunters.
"The biggest one is that hunters are rednecks who want to go and shoot things, nearly everyone I know has been involved in conservation work because we want to protect what we have and preserve it for future generations.
I go out hunting as often as I can, we eat a lot of it and put the rest in the freezer to get through the remainder of the year, there are so many ways to cook it.
My hope is that people get a better understanding of what it means to go and get your own dinner. It is a long time since that was a necessity and I think particularly people in the city miss that opportunity and don't understand it.
Our story needs to be put out there, we are legal firearm owners doing the right thing."
Port Phillip Field & Game
For Ben, involvement with Field & Game Australia started when he was 12 years old and his trajectory in the organisation is a familiar one.
"Dad has been a member since the 1980s and for me early on it was about supporting an association that supports duck hunting, we never shot clay targets or got heavily involved," he said.
"We always went to the duck fever nights, they are a big thing for the duck hunting side of the branches."
Ben Richards had always made the connection between conservation and hunting but like many members, he had watched the slow but steady decline of State Game Reserves.
"The State Game Reserve system was set up by Government in partnership with hunters and our fees funded the establishment and conservation of wetlands, but over the years the licence
fees have been absorbed into general revenue and the wetlands have been neglected," he said.
The decision by FGA to purchase a degraded but significant site in Gippsland through the WET Trust gave Ben a glimpse of a brighter future.
"When the Heart Morass project came up I got more heavily involved and more recently I've been more involved at branch level with Port Phillip where I became conservation officer.
Heart Morass was the opportunity to have a private system controlled by Field & Game that we knew would get the attention it deserved. It is a premier conservation project in our name and
under our control."
Interestingly, Ben never intended to hunt on Heart Morass, he was more interested in the opportunity to help turn degraded farmland into a wetland paradise.
"It was always purely about conservation values for me," he said.
"It is astounding to look at what is there now, I feel very satisfied to have been a part of its creation, and that also encourages me to be a part of future projects.
I'm often talking to people about how hunters play an important part in conservation around the world; hunters are the biggest drivers of conservation, it comes back to giving wildlife and wetlands a value and nobody values a swamp or wetland like hunters do."
What is the value? Ben sums that up by reflecting on some of his best experiences in wetland
environments — none of which involve actual hunting.
"This is the difference between hunting and shooting, we are denigrated as shooters but for most hunters that is a very small proportion of the time we spend out in the environment.
"My best memories are about standing 20 metres from my father watching a pair of platypus between us playing in our decoys.
I have had heron land on the decoy spread I've been sitting in, so many sunrises and sunsets and storms. This year we were down the Gippsland Lakes and had dolphins swimming around us."
It was always father and son adventures but lately Ben's mum has been joining in and this year his daughter went hunting for the first time.
"Time spent quietly in the bush is something money can’t buy," he said.
"I'm pleased to see FGA getting the message out there about conservation — we are a conservation and hunting organisation. I find it very difficult to give any credit to the anti-hunting people who do zero to conserve wetlands or support the creatures in that habitat
The work we do is driven by ducks but all species benefit, the whole environment benefits from the work we do."