Thursday, May 13, 2010

the great deer hunt.

I am writing this post as a sort of therapy. Generally I write here for fun. Today, however, I am writing because a recent experience -that I undertook as research- has done the inevitable and wriggled it's way under my skin.
The odd part is not so much that it effected me, but how and why- getting at me in ways that I never expected.
In the process of writing
an article for the brilliant SBS Food pages (found here), I took myself on a hunting trip in order to really look my food in the eye.
The idea was to find out what actually happens should you wish to procure your own meat from the wild. A simple look at what to do if you find yourself faced with shooting some game meat.

I was prepared to be grossed out.
I was prepared to be traumatised.
I was prepared to be shocked and possibly to come home a renewed vegetarian (it's something I have dabbled with on extended occasions).

What I did not expect was empathy- for the hunters and the lifestyle.
What I was not prepared for was to find how organic the experience was.
Much less was I expecting to want to examine the whole process in great detail.

'Surprised' doesn't even begin to cover it- the experience, or my responses.

It must be said that I am not a huge meat eater at the best of times. Patience and I have a largely vegetarian diet. I'm not one who hankers after a huge steak or a meat pie- but I do enjoy a good BBQ as much as the next man when I think the meat has fared well in life.
But even this is not without exception.
It's a hard thing to always eat ethical meat in this pre-packaged world.

I find the mass production and death of animals for food abhorrent and inherently selfish when they live in misery and pain only to feed our insatiable burger lust.
Even more so when I think about what those mass productions are doing to our planet.
But I am not all for the completely vegetarian existence either.
Having noted that I have no stomach for the abattoir, I anticipated finding hunting a horrible experience as well. But I went with an open mind and had my expectations and assumptions turned upside down.

To begin with, the generous people who invited me into their hunting circle took it on good faith that I wouldn't turn out to be a 'sleeper'- an animal rights activist blithely feigning interest to gain access and a story (we writers can be so sneaky you see). So I am grateful to the lovely Greg Benton and the NEDSA (North Eastern Deer Stalkers Association) for allowing me to tag along with my ungainly city feet and making all kinds of annoying noise and clicking pictures on the hunt.

The experience went a little something like this:

Saturday- leave at 4.30am for the peacef
ul and picturesque drive to Wangaratta... inexplicably excited- by turns nauseous and curious. Avoid Maccas on the way, in spite of my desire for a shitty T/A coffee. The sun rises and magpies jeer at me as I speed past in my little white Getz.
Arrive at Greg's place at 8am to find him standing by his 4WD in full camouflage gear and with a shirt for me. Apparently my pinkish/red t-shirt is not hunting attire. How often do you see large patches of fuchsia wafting through the trees? I'd be a dead giveaway.
We abandon my little city car and load up the 4WD heading out to his mate's property where the deer have been spotted grazing.
On the way out we talk:
Greg has been interested in hunting for a long time, but has only recently been able to incorporate it into his lifestyle. He's president of NEDSA and is happy to share his hunting expertise with anyone who has a genuine interest. The NEDSA stalk deer in rural Victoria and organise group hunts for like minded people.
They don't use dogs, or any technology beyond a regulation riffle and a GPS to find their way in and out of the hunting areas.
I'm sure he thinks it's hilarious that an unprepared city girl has come to see what she can learn. I've only ever seen a gun used once. Target tin-can shooting on a friends property ten years ago. I might have even had a go, but I can't quite remember. Perhaps I've blocked the loud noise and trauma from my mind. No, I won't be shooting today, I don't have a gun licence.
And unless there is suddenly a run on marshal law in Melbourne, I think it unlikely that I will ever try to get one.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Greg might be expecting me to cry.
I'm expecting me to cry.
In fact, thanks to my soft city upbringing, I'm expecting to lament the loss of Bambi and go on a desperate search to rescue the now bereft Thumper... really.
When we originally spoke on the phone and Greg ascertained that I knew nothing about hunting, he asked me if I was going to be 'ok'.
I said 'yes'.
He said 'no'.
For the rest of the drive we pretend that I am tough. We talk about the fact that I used to practice target archery. Yep, I'm feeling tougher by the second.
Greg tells me that he learned his hunting skills (dispatch and butchery) on rabbits and that all game (regardless of size) is pretty much the same when it comes to field dressing. You break it down into manageable bits to get as much of it out as possible.
He tells me about his recent family trip to the NT, hunting with the traditional land owners and all the amazing things that he and his wife and kids learned.
I wish that I knew more.
I feel that I know less than even I had thought.
I hope that I am prepared.
By the time we get to the property I've run out of things to say and I am sitting quietly contemplating what we are about to do.
And I look ridiculous in an over sized cammo shirt- it just doesn't go with the embroidery on the pockets of my jeans.

We observe all the correct etiquette- letting the owner know that we're heading out now, so if he's planning on going shooting, please, don't shoot us.
We begin a circuit of the fields and surrounding scrub and bush on foot and I slowly get my game eyes on. It's a beautiful day. Cows moan and bellow at one another. Birds screech and scream. Greg raises his binoculars every now and then to 'glass' the surrounding area. I tip-toe behind and try not to make too much clumsy city noise. I freeze whenever he comes to a stop and hold my breath every time he peers into the middle distance.
We're looking for deer -yes, but considering their excellent camouflage ability, Greg tells me to keep an eye out for horizontal lines instead. Apparently there are not many of these that naturally occur in the bush- so if you see one, it's likely to be the line of a deer's back.
I spot one. It moves. But it turns out to be a wallaby.
Am I disappointed- or relieved...?

Two hours later (I think, it could have been less), we've rounded the whole property and are back where we started.
Nothing.
That's right, we have found diddly squat. And I'm trembling.
Again, disappointment or relief? I still can't work the emotion out, so I decide it's probably thirst... and maybe tension from trying to be so quiet for so long.
I'm not very good at quiet. Maybe that's why there were no deer.
Was I subconsciously trying to sabotage the hunt? We'll just never know.

On our way back Greg is disappointed. He really was hoping to show me how field dressing worked. I explain that I've learned as much from not shooting a deer as I would have from getting one. After all, not getting a deer is just as much part of the experience. Hunting for your meat is not a guaranteed dinner. Some days you win, today it was deer 1, hunters nil.

Internally I decide that I'm disappointed too, and that says something about me. I hope that I am disappointed because I spent so much energy working myself up for nothing. But a little part of me knows that I'm disappointed because we didn't get a kill. Is this a first taste of blood lust?
I'm disgusted with myself.
We have a cup of tea with the owner and share some venison cabana. It tastes really good.

I drive back to Melbourne. All the way home I wonder if I'll be able to cope with doing this again the following week- to go on an organised NEDSA hunt. Apparently with a group on the prowl we are more guaranteed to get a result.
I'm exhausted.

I fret all week.
I refuse to clean my hiking boots. Quietly I'm hoping that if I pretend I wont be using them again that somehow, I won't have to.
My wish comes true.

Sunday the following week- I set out at 4.30am in the Getz, I get 20minutes down the road and realise that I've forgotten them: my hiking boots.
My one appropriate piece of kit are sitting in the dark by the front door. Right where I discarded them last week. At least they will be spared this experience.
In the meantime, I'll look even more ridiculous. In a line-up guess who the newbie is...? It couldn't be the fuchsia shirt in the pretty pale-blue ballet sneakers could
it?
Darn! What was the give away?

I arrive at the Edi Cutting campsite at 7.20am- the campers wave at the Getz from their spot by the river. The team has camped overnight in order to get the full experience. City girl (reminder, that's me) has just dropped in for the action.
It's idyllic. The camp-fire still smolders and the kids peer blearily from sleeping bags while adults organise tea and coffee.
Most of the club hunters are already out. They left at 6.30am to make the most of the pre-dawn cool. Greg hands me the cammo top and raises his eyebrows at my sneakers. We climb into the 4WD and head into the bush. Greg was planning to leave the 4WD at a particular ridge and start our trek working our way along the high points.
Apparently the deer are everywhere here.
So are the club hunters. And in the back of my mind I'm mildly worried that in my cammo shirt I might make an accidental target. Mental note, stand up straight- present no horizontal lines and you'll be fine. Occasionally we hear a shot. But before we get to our spot, there's a buzz on the radio. One of the group has got a young buck, does Greg want to bring the 'journo' down to have a look at the field dressing? Yes, he does.

After all, that's why I'm here... the shooting was a secondary aspect to the actual process of getting at the meat.
We drive in and intercept the successful hunter where he's radioed us from his truck and then abandon our vehicles for the gruelling climb into the bush and up a steep rocky hillside to where the prize lies, bleeding out and attended by an army of blowflies.
Jeremy Johnson, local butcher and keen venison hunter, is the lucky shot. He's marked his trophy with GPS co-ordinates and so we head for a target that blends in so well that without the GPS we might never have found it again.
My short legs struggle to keep up, but we finally get there. It was a relatively clean shot. Through the upper forequarter. The buck ran for about 20meters and then dropped. Very little suffering.
Plenty of blood though.
I'm taken aback by how little this effects me. Again, exhaustion from the climb? Perhaps it's got more to do with the fact that lying amongst the leaf litter, the blood just blends on in.
I drop my pack and fish out my camera. But a zoom lens is probably not the best idea for the grim work ahead. It's quite graphic enough.
Field dressing is surprisingly simple. It looks even simpler again when it's the local butcher whose cleaning the carcass up. Jeremy is thorough, deft and works as clean as you can considering we're in the middle of the bush.

I'll keep the details here as limited as possible whilst still explaining what happens.
But if you're squeamish, I suggest you skip the next few paragraphs...

After bleeding the carcass out through a hefty throat slit, the animal is split along the belly and gutted. I'm fascinated by the way the internal organs instantly 'spill' out. I'd heard this kind of description b
efore, but didn't realise how accurate it might be. It's almost like everything inside can't wait to get away- I'm surprised by how tightly it's all packed in there.
Whilst there is a lot of blood, it's less than I expected, and as it drains away down the hillside and mingles with the dust to a less horrific grey colour, I'm relieved to find that gutting is not quite the bloodbath I was preparing myself for.
In fact, it looks positively organic with the surrounding trees, rocks and sunshine. The only really unnerving thing is the way the carcass steams into the morning air. You c
an't say it's not fresh.
The other slightly disturbing surprise is the way the carcass initially grunts when Greg and Jeremy roll it over- they assure me this is just trapped gas and air escaping. I feel silly for asking the question.
Once gutted and drained, breaking the carcass down is relatively simple if you know what joints, lines of cartilage and muscle to work along. If you don't, it's a case of feeling your way through it. And in Greg's words this 'can be a bit of a hack job' depending on whose in charge.
Today though, we have local butcher Jeremy making it look so easy with his years of practice and skill.
The hoofs and tail are removed. The 'back passage' is taken out so that it's doesn't get nicked and taint the meat. Then the back legs and haunches are removed with the skin still on. Apparently the skin stops the meat drying out while it is hung and aged.
The legs are quickly packed into canvas bags to keep them away from dust and flies- and Greg tells me that most of the NEDSA have these canvas bags because one of the club members knocked them up specially.
Plastic is always avoided because the causes the still warm meat to sweat- not a nice thing.
After Bambi loses his hind legs, the midsection of the carcass is skinned and other prime cuts like back-strap are removed and packed carefully away.
I'm still fascinated by the seeming lack of blood. I guess draining the kill saves a lot of mess.
Having said that, Greg and Jeremy are still smeared with it and in their cammo gear could look a little less than savoury if you stumbled upon them whilst out for a morning bush walk...
Skinning was another aspect of the hunt that I wasn't really looking forward to. Turns out I have a much more bloody imagination than the reality. Again it's surprisingly clean and simple.
From here on in, it all just looks a bit like a trip to the butchers, there's a fillet here, a tenderloin there. You get the idea.
Unfortunately we can't do a great deal with the forequarters on this occasion, as that's where the shot connected and as a result the meat is bruised and unusable.
Anything we leave behind will be cleaned up by wildlife pretty quickly.

After the carcass has been successfully divided up, it's hike back to the 4WD's and head back to the campsite for breakfast. The whole breakdown took about half an hour with a 20min walk each way. And the resulting booty of haunch and fillets isn't half bad for a mornings work.
On the way back to camp, Greg and I split off to try our luck on a high ridge.
But 40minutes later and there's no sign.
By now I'm getting pretty adept at spotting wallows (dust baths), rutting marks and rub patches on the trees that the males use to mark their territory. Greg is discouraged though as most of it looks pretty old and he doesn't think we've picked the right spot.
We give up and head back to the truck.
And this is when it happens. My first war wound.
We're about 10 meters from the track that'll take us back to the truck when a ledge I am standing on just comes out from under me. There's a sharp shot of pain right up the back of my leg and suddenly I'm on my arse in the middle of a patch of very prickly wild thistles. Fun.
I can feel the blood drain from my face. I'm frightened to move my leg. Greg rushes over and tries to help me up, but my injured leg just gives way underneath me.
'Ouch', is the only squeak that will come out.
Luckily Greg is not only an accomplished hunter, but an emergency room nurse by trade. So I'm in good hands as we work out that I've 'done my knee'. He assures me that I haven't broken anything, maybe just traumatised a ligament. Apparently I'll be fine.
I don't feel fine.
I'm confused about the whole experience- from shooting to eating (why didn't I get more upset?)- and now I'm the city girl sitting on her arse in a patch of thistles. Damn sneakers. Damn hiking boots by the front door. Let's call it Bambi's revenge.
Greg left me there in my thistle thrown and brought the truck in to get me. I blushed all the way back and tried to be tough.

Back at the campsite it's bacon and eggs on the grill as we wait for the rest of the hunters to trickle back. Aside from Jeremy's haul, there hasn't been too much success. But like the week before, that's the luck of the game.

After breakfast, I hobble around and help break camp while the hunters share their stories of injury with me- I'm not the first and I won't be the last to 'do' my knee. I tell myself it's badge of honour and try not to limp too much.

It's a month before I can walk properly again. Somehow I think I did better than the deer that morning. Besides, I end up with back-strap marinaded in Greg's special honey and garlic sauce and several sticks of cabana in my fridge.

What surprised me most was how peaceful the whole affair was. I had expected it to be all loud noises and blood lust. But hunting, if you go with people who respect the animals that feed them, can be a relatively calm activity. It certainly beats what I know about the abattoir.
I expected to come home a vegetarian, and whilst I'm not sure that I am dead keen to race out on another hunt just yet, I'm certainly curiously at peace with being a carnivore, as long as I know where my dinner has come from. And I certainly have a new understanding of the lifestyle that surrounds those who have the knowledge and skills to bring home their meat from the bush.

Note: Deer hunting in parts of Australia is also seen as a method of pest control as the animals are very destructive to both farmlands and native flora.
It's important to be well trained and to hold a gun licence for the use of any firearm. For hunting purposes you should check with local authorities for rules, regulations and permits and obviously the cleaner the shot, the better for the game animal.
Please note that I do not personally endorse hunting, but I do understand the lifestyle and see value in it's safe and humane practice.

I am very grateful to Greg and his family for taking me along on this trip and for being so patient with me while I worked it all out. It was certainly one of the most educational trips I have made.

2 comments:

gregbenton said...

Hey Jane

It was a pleasure to take you out and share the Australian bush with you. Your thoughts and feelings were surprisingly well concealed, I hadn't detected the degree of conflict you describe here.

Its unfortunate that the often portrayed media image of hunters is some sort of barbarians that gleefully blaze away at animals with reckless abandon, the reality is most hunters are just normal everyday folks who take pride in their ability to resource their own food, and its presentation on the table.

You did pretty well for a city chick :) I would love to take you into some of the "big country" and give you a taste of the remote areas we visit in pursuit of the elusive Sambar deer.......its more like armed bushwalking really, for me the hunt is often secondary to the time in the bush enjoying my surroundings and purging the debris of life from my head :)

Cheers

Greg

Julie said...

Very interesting article. I am glad to hear that you were willing to approach the experience with an open mind willing to find out about it.