Government misfires on park hunting laws

OPINION

One of my earliest memories is of a family picnic on the Otaki River in New Zealand's North Island.

A hunter came marching out of the forest with a rifle slung over one shoulder and a dead deer over the other - tongue hanging out and blood dripping from its mouth.

I must have been about four years old (my family moved to Australia when I was five) so it is more than half a century ago, but I can still vividly remember the horror for all the children at our gathering as the hunter tromped off with his prize.

POLL: Do you support recreational hunting in national parks?

Bambi would never be the same again.

Well get ready folks, because the NSW government has passed legislation to allow this kind of scene to become commonplace in NSW national parks and reserves.

From March the government will allow hunting trials in 79 of the state's national parks as part of a plan to allow hunting in 40 per cent of the state's parks - an area encompassing 3 million hectares.

The government says hunting will help control feral pests like deer, goats, pigs and foxes. However, the decision has more to do with keeping the Shooters and Fishers Party happy after it backed Premier Barry O'Farrell's $3 billion privatisation of the state's electricity generators.

Not surprisingly, National Parks and Wildlife Service staff are deeply concerned about the implications for the safety of park staff and visitors once hunters start entering the bush with their guns, bows and arrows.

Last week Fairfax Media reported that a leaked draft risk assessment had warned that a fatality or serious injury was a "serious risk" once legalised hunting starts in March.

The report listed park staff, contractors and volunteers as most at risk from bullets from shooters and arrows from bowhunters.

Public Service Association head Steve Turner says park rangers are unhappy and scared. He describes it as "like watching a head-on crash unfold in slow motion".

The rangers are considering a number of measures to make the public aware of their concerns, including walking off the job or refusing to collect park entrance fees.

And you can hardly blame them.

It was reported in October that Italian hunting enthusiasts had killed 13 people and wounded 33 in shooting accidents since the Italian hunting season opened in September.

Italian law allows hunters to roam on private land and discharge firearms within 150 metres of homes, so I'm not suggesting for one moment that NSW faces a risk on this kind of level.

But in New Zealand, which also allows hunting in national parks, eight people have been killed in hunting accidents in the last decade.

That shows there are major risks involved with this law when it becomes operational in NSW.

As the world reels from the recent US gun massacres in Newtown and Webster, Australians like to congratulate ourselves that we live in a largely firearm-free society.

But Premier O'Farrell and his Environment Minister Robyn Parker are taking us down a very dark road with this ill-considered trial.

They could make a powerful (and popular) statement by changing their minds before it is too late.

Nick Hartgerink is a former Mercury editor who now runs his own media consultancy

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