Pheasant shoot tradition

HUNTERS returned to King Island at the weekend for Australia’s only wild pheasant shoot. The shoot is held once a year over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend in June.

Some hunters have been returning to the island over many years. A few bring their hounds and have been visiting the same property for decades. This year 118 hunting licences were sold by NRE for the pheasant season. This is fewer than 2019 but similar to 2021.

There were 78 licences sold in 2020 during Covid travel restrictions, which most likely reflects Tasmanian and local shooter numbers. The number travelling to the island has steadily decreased over the years. The decline is most likely because the traditional hunters have now aged; values have changed; farms are getting bigger and property access is harder. In past decades airlines offered special travel packages and promoted the weekend.

The event also attracted some international interest. The pheasant birds are native to Asia but were introduced by the English and used all around the world for hunting. The brightly coloured males are normally bred in captivity and released for the hunt, but on King Island they live in the wild.

The birds were introduced to the island about 1910 when the Bird and Game Protection Society was formed. By 1912, the initial release of a dozen birds imported by Dr Cunningham had multiplied, but not to the extent that anyone could shoot them, but the King Island News reported, that “they were to be found across the island.”

During 1912, the society members contributed to a fund for the purpose of importing a number of pheasants from Victoria. The early island’s settlers were interested in “developing the island as an attractive resort for sportsmen” and they, as with today’s farmers, found the pheasants to be efficient insectivores, particularly with corby grubs and grasshoppers.

Around 1917, the society called for their protection and lobbied the government for a pheasant season as they were regarded as ‘useful birds’ . The local fine for shooting a pheasant illegally was £10 for every bird killed by them or found in their possession and a reward of £5 was offered to anyone supplying information (anonymity was accepted) leading to a conviction.

The appeal for hunters is outwitting very wily, hardy, incredibly athletic birds that are a challenge to hunt. Over the decades when it was thought that the populations were in decline, King Islanders incubated eggs and started breeding programs and liberated birds into the wild.

There appears to be no shortage of birds, they do not appear to impact native flora and fauna and are welcomed by farmers as they have a liking for grubs and pests, although the early farmers were concerned about them eating grass seed, bandicooting potatoes, and eating pea crops.

Visitors are amazed when they see the colourful plumage and pheasants scurrying across the road. Coming to King Island to shoot pheasant is tinged with nostalgia and a bygone era. For some it’s the challenge, a very different experience a weekend friendship that has been a tradition for half a century or more. It’s a family tradition for some islanders.

For others, particularly younger generations, there is a change in values and attitudes, and they choose not to be involved and they do not have the enthusiasm of their parents, grandparents or great grandparents. But for now, the annual Pheasant Weekend on King Island remains a unique experience and is an iconic event on the tourism calendar.

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