By Benjamin Preiss
Age journalist Benjamin Preiss rabbit hunting with mobile butcher and slaughterer Russell Barnes. Credit:Jason South
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Graphic content: This story contains descriptions of hunting and photographs of dead animals that may distress some readers.
In the last glow of dusk, two eyes glint at the foot of the hill, caught in the spotlight’s powerful green beam. I crouch, then lie down on dry brambly grass that prickles through my T-shirt as I track the twin glimmering specks through the rifle scope.
Eventually, those eyes pause long enough for my finger to settle on the trigger – the rifle’s smooth wooden butt pressed against my cheek. Between breaths, I pull back on the trigger in one decisive motion.
The crack of gunfire sends other rabbits scurrying, but I try to hold steady and focus on the target, long after the bullet has cleared the barrel.
Mobile butcher Russell Barnes and Age journalist Benjamin Preiss hunting rabbits.Credit:Jason South
Rabbit colonies have savaged this undulating landscape, leaving it pockmarked and scarred. Bald patches spread across the slopes where rabbits have chewed the grass back to dry earth.
I have come to this farm to hunt rabbits with butcher and “mobile slaughterer” Russell Barnes, who has stalked introduced species since he was a teenager. Hunting deer and rabbits remains a regular part of his lifestyle, providing him with a plentiful source of meat.
Damage and devastation
But this is my first hunt. Before this balmy autumn evening, I had never fired a gun outside the controlled conditions of a rifle range.
As I prepare to take my first shot, I ask Barnes where to aim for a quick kill.
“Aim for the chest,” he said. “You’ll most likely kill it straight away.”
More than a century after Europeans introduced wild game for hunting in Australia, animals once considered harmless are devastating the natural landscape. They have inflicted billions of dollars in damage to the agriculture sector, caused car accidents and even charged into suburban houses.
Wild deer populations have exploded and now roam freely over much of Victoria. Rabbits continue their indiscriminate feeding and breeding, threatening native flora and competing with indigenous animals for food.
The problem is dire and requires a complex response.
But what if we shifted our attitudes to wild rabbits and deer and considered them a sustainable source of protein?
Could we eat our way out of this catastrophe by harvesting and simultaneously removing invasive species from the Victorian landscape?
Russell Barnes with a freshly shot rabbit.Credit:Jason South
Or would this further entrench these introduced animals in the environment by creating an industry with a financial interest in keeping them there?
Biodiversity Council lead councillor and RMIT professor Sarah Bekessy says Victoria’s ecosystem is in crisis due to introduced species. Research backs this assertion.
A 2021 report from the CSIRO described European rabbits as the “single biggest menace to threatened native species” in Australia and cost, on average, $216 million a year in lost farm productivity. The report said rabbits had infested two-thirds of Australia.
Meanwhile, wild deer numbers have exceeded a million in Victoria alone, according to the Invasive Species Council, covering more than 40 per cent of the state.
“It’s deer and rabbits that have been responsible for the demise of so many threatened plants,” Bekessy says. “It’s not right to let them roam.”
But she believes hunting has so far has delivered limited benefit. The latest figures from Victoria’s Game Management Authority show the total deer harvest from game licence holders reached 118,900 in 2021 – a 49 per cent increase on the 79,700 average since 2009.
Ethical way to eat meat
However, Bekessy argues eating introduced animals when killed humanely has other benefits.
“It’s not having an impact on feral animal numbers, but it’s a far more ethical way of eating meat than factory farming.”
Chef, author and game meat advocate Ross O’Meara wants more people to consider eating hunted meat.
Preiss and Barnes with their catch. Credit:Jason South
He hunts deer, rabbits and ducks in the land surrounding his Mansfield home in the foothills of the Victorian Alps, and says removing introduced species is good for the environment and eases the pressure on farmers trying to keep them away from their crops.
For O’Meara, game meat has become a household staple: “You’re accessing grass fed, free-range, non-chemical meat at its purest.”
Despite introduced species’ unwelcome presence, O’Meara insists he respects those he kills.
“The most important thing is that it’s ethical – a very easy, quick dispatching.”
For years, I have wondered whether I have the grit to hunt for my dinner. In my late teens I became vegetarian after growing increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of factory-scale meat production where animals make long and stressful trips to abattoirs.
Although I returned to meat about five years later, I have brooded over the welfare of the animals I’m eating, how they lived and died.
Last year, I decided to try hunting to learn whether I could give an animal the kind of death my conscience would reconcile.
Hunting for dinner
I applied for a firearms licence. It was a rigorous process that took months, requiring my medical history and background checks.
The compulsory training included an online theoretical course covering firearm parts and how to operate rifles and shotguns safely. It took me more than four hours to complete.
A shot rabbit tied to the fence before being prepared for cooking.Credit:Jason South
Then there was in-person training at a firing range where instructors showed about a dozen of us how to shoot from a range of positions.
Before this moment, I had not even handled an unloaded gun, let alone shot one with live ammunition.
When the order came to begin shooting, I was taken aback by the burst of gunfire and retreated to readjust my earplugs as others began firing at the targets.
The rifle felt heavier than I expected as I lifted it from the rack for my turn at target practice. I loaded the bullets into the magazine with trembling fingers and shoved the bolt in place.
At first, I was happy just to hit any spot on the paper target from a 50-metre distance. But over months of successive practice sessions, my aim and accuracy improved until I was confident I could pick off a stationary rabbit in the open.
‘Helping the environment, getting a feed’
Russell Barnes is keen to point out hunting can be a humane way to source food.
That’s why he takes me to this farm in northern Victoria, 90 minutes drive from Melbourne, where he’s been given permission to hunt on the sprawling property – away from other people or livestock.
Dressing a rabbit shot in the field. Credit:Jason South
“We’re enjoying the outdoors. We’re helping the environment, and we’re getting a feed for our family,” he says. “I don’t think we’re hurting anybody.”
Barnes knows what he’s doing. Settling between rocks, Barnes eyes a rabbit – one of the first to emerge into the late afternoon sun. He cocks the rifle and fires a single shot, then dashes off to retrieve the dead animal.
Barnes cuts a series of deft nicks into the carcass, and runs his hand over the rabbit’s stomach in one swift motion, squeezing out the guts and organs to cool it down.
Soon, it’s my turn. No turning back now.
My heart thumps as I line up those glinting eyes and fire. I see the rabbit struggle momentarily – the briefest flurry in the failing light – before falling still amid the dry grass and burrows and bald earth.
I breathe, while Barnes runs down the hill. He returns holding the creature by its hind paws and hands it over, pointing to my shot, right through the upper body.
The animal’s weight feels substantial in my hands, and the fur is much smoother than the stringy texture I imagined. In the strange intimacy of this moment I remember my pet rabbit, Peter, that I had kept as a little boy. We throw the rabbits into the tray of Barnes’ ute and drive away.
A feral deer in Sherbrooke Forrest.Credit:Alex Maisey
Labels may cloud morals
RSPCA senior scientific officer Di Evans insists introduced species deserve a painless death when killed by humans, preferably by a single shot to the head.
She says only skilled shooters should be able to hunt animals as part of government-controlled programs.
Evans worries recreational hunting may result in high rates of animal wounds that inflict severe pain and prolonged deaths.
“I hate to think about how often that happens,” she says.
Evans believes even the language used to describe introduced species contributes to their treatment – people may not take sufficient care to prevent pain and suffering with animals regarded as pests.
“When you start to label animals as vermin, pests or feral you tend to have a different view of moral considerations,” she says. “People forget we’re the cause of the problem.”
“People forget we’re the cause of the problem.”
Hunting should be monitored more closely to ensure community expectations on animal welfare are met, Evans says, but she concedes this can be difficult in remote areas.
However, Invasive Species Council deer project officer Peter Jacobs says the Victorian government should designate deer as pests, alongside foxes, rabbits and wild pigs.
He explains the Australian landscape evolved without the presence of hard-hoofed animals and deer are now trampling and destroying sensitive environments – particularly in Victoria’s High Country.
Deer can be hunted in Victoria, but they are classed as game, which means other methods of control, such as poisons, cannot be used.
“They’re clearly a pest. What are we actually protecting any more?” Jacobs says. “The community is quite confused by that.”
The council wants urgent action to control deer numbers, arguing the cost of doing nothing could reach $2.2 billion dollars to agriculture, forestry and road accidents in the next 30 years.
The large deer smashed through the front window of a suburban Melbourne home and became trapped inside.Credit:Alexander Hill
Deer are now pushing further into suburbia. One had to be euthanised after it was found running through the streets of Fitzroy in 2021. In April, a buck smashed its way into an Alphington home.
Hunting deer might help individual landholders to keep the animals off their property. But Jacobs doubts whether creating an industry for wild venison can solve the broader environmental catastrophe.
Instead, he says, it risks creating a “perverse outcome” where there are incentives for harbouring deer in the wild for commercial benefit.
“We’re not going to eat our way through the deer problem in Victoria.”
Significantly expanding professional shooting programs, Jacobs says, is the only realistic option currently available for curbing deer numbers.
Legal changes by the Victorian government in the past five years have allowed expanded access to wild deer for commercial harvesters.
Yet, the government has given no firm indication of plans to designate deer as pests.
“The status of deer as game does not prevent their control when they are causing damage to the environment or property,” a government spokesman said.
The government pointed to more than $27 million in funding to manage deer and rabbits in Victoria, but conceded eradicating them altogether is unrealistic.
Benjamin Preiss preparing the rabbit he shot for stew.Credit:Eddie Jim
Brian Cooke, patron of Rabbit Free Australia and University of Canberra adjunct associate professor, says there was a viable commercial market for wild rabbits in the 1940s, but it did nothing to reduce their plague numbers.
“It simply didn’t work,” he says.
Cooke says introduced diseases, including myxomatosis and calicivirus, have had the greatest impact on curbing rabbit populations, although some animal lovers say they inflict cruel deaths.
Fumigating and covering burrows are now common methods for culling rabbits.
But research into genetic manipulation that minimises breeding provides a humane and promising way forward, Cooke says.
From field to plate
In his open outdoor shed, Russell Barnes arranges the gutted rabbits on a white plastic table and hands me a pair of black plastic gloves.
Starting at the bottom of the rabbit, he shows me how to yank back the fur from the animal’s hindquarters and rip up towards its head, while inspecting the flesh for cysts, ensuring it is free of disease.
Handling the warm rabbit, I somehow feel closer to this animal that I shot an hour earlier.
Rabbit stew prepared with vegetables and white wine.Credit:Benjamin Preiss
Using a heavy clever, we break carcasses down into pieces. Then with a boning knife we skirt around the hindquarter bones, so I can use the meat for schnitzel.
The next day I stew the rabbit slowly with carrots, celery and white wine until the meat slides off the bones. The flavour is a rich umami with mild gaminess.
I crumb the remaining fillets and hindquarters then shallow fry them in olive oil. The meat is firm but not chewy and tastes much like chicken schnitzel.
I serve it to my family, and we eat it with gusto.
Perhaps this meal is less part of an environmental solution than I hoped. But I am proud to have confronted the grisly realities of eating meat. And I have given this animal the most respectful death I could imagine.
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