Pro' Feral Shooting
Editor Marcus O'Dean spends a long night out with a very professional feral pest shooter, learning a lot in the process.
I had known Steve for ages. Our first contact was nearly 10 years ago, when he submitted a terrific entry to the then Highland Hunter's Gallery competition and duly he won a Howa rifle in .223. He was so chuffed because life had pitched him a nasty curve ball at the time, through no fault of his own, and he really appreciated the win. Then a few years back, we met by chance at a coffee shop north of Wollongong when he saw a fox-hunting bumper sticker on my vehicle and his was a fully kitted out ute for night shooting with the Australian Feral Management Services (AFM) logo down the side of his vehicle. AFM has been trading for over 20 years and Steve has been contracting to AFM for well over 10 years, and has had a personal relationship with the company owner Steve Cope for some 40 years.
Through the mists of time, we recognised each other and struck up a conversation. I said I'd love to go out with him one night if he could manage and we kept in touch. Then he called me one morning and asked if I could come out that night. “Sure thing,” I replied and he duly picked me up at 9.30 pm to go onto a suburban coastal golf course to mop up the last of the rabbits and foxes he'd been regularly and systematically shooting for some months.
Steve’s instruction on what to wear & bring that night was clear… ‘No camo, no flanno & bring your own snacks, because you won’t be eating mine!’, he said with a laugh.
Steve often works in a team of two, Steve being shooter and the other operating the vehicle, spotlight & animal retrieval. Steve definitely has the better job, until it’s raining, 2-degrees, there’s no going home when the going gets tuff, he needs to push on. Animals managed range from rabbits, foxes, feral cats, deer, kangaroos, and a variety of bird species. The main method of control is byculling ongolf courses and other large facilities, primarily State & Local Government sites.) On this evening he had come from a pigeon job in Bexley, where he had dispatched 30 from the environs of a factory building. The owner thought there were only a few, but when Steve gave him his thermal monocular to check, he “nearly fell off his chair”.
Basically, anything requiring shooting in the Sydney/Illawarra/Newcastle area is his bailiwick and it is a full-time job. Incidentally, I did a stint as a bird shooter for Rentokil many years ago in closed-up, derelict warehouses in Ultimo netting a few hundred per warehouse. I carried them out in multiple garbage bags and “it was one of the worst jobs I ever had”. (cue Derek and Clive – Google it).
Once we reached the golf links, I was given a thorough AFM induction on safety procedures with firearms, cleanliness of hands after handling animals and routine use of gloves, signage and other measures. Prior to shooting, Steve was required to report to the local police station and inform them of his proposed shooting activities; they were familiar with the process and immediately logged it in as a job. On completion he also advised them of closure for the night.
On firearms, Steve was happy for me to ride up top however hands off the firearms at all times was the request given to me – the primary rule was, while mobile, rifle is unloaded without a magazine in place and we had a few simple verbal messages to convey…. weapon clearance after shooting, moving on, if the driver needed to leave the cabin of the vehicle, magazine removed, bolt open, firearm is clear and safe and this was repeated by the driver; very simple and effective drills ensure 100% safety every time. It was a pleasure to report on such a professional organisation such as AFM and Steve appreciated my safety orientation from years of service rifle shooting.
Firearms we used were an Anschutz .22 Hornet scoped with a thermal imaging riflescope, which zoomed in very tight, and a Sako .223 with a conventional Leupold variable with standard plex crosshair. They were both suppressed. To say the ferals were skittish that night would be accurate. Being shot at regularly meant we went around trying to get the drop on the same animals, but we eventually cleaned up most of the few remaining. The rabbits were dispatched out to about 80 metres with the Hornet and Steve belted the one fox with his trusty SAKO 85 Varmint .223 at about 120 metres through the head with the .223 under a red filtered spotlight, which was the primary acquisition tool when driving around.
Once in the vicinity of a previously spot-lit animal, he would swing a thermal monocular around to identify a heat signature, align the barrel of the rifle up in the bottom of the field of the monocular and then acquire the animal through the night-vision scope on the rifle. There was no rushing about and every kill took a little time to achieve. At times we were within 200 metres of inhabited buildings, it is all urban & peri-urban shooting, but our direction of shooting and the suppressed rifle signature allowed us to carry on the business without interruption. If people did contact the police, they would screen the calls and soon put the caller at ease.
This was my first use of thermal imaging and it was “illuminating”, to coin a phrase. Steve handloads for his rifles, except for a .22 LR and air rifle he uses and he takes the largest rusa with only head shots from his .223 with deliberate, close-in, unhurried shooting. I asked if he'd entertain me taking a rabbit or two for the pot and he cautioned to ”Just put them in the bag for disposal” because they are vermin and often carry disease and a BBQ chicken is only $10.00 and a whole lot better in my opinion.” Fine by me. The foxes, incidentally, are retained to be given to a local university who are conducting a vulpine genetic scientific study.
Steve explained that he really enjoyed the challenge of urban foxes. As difficult and cunning as the illusive fox may be in an urban setting, he says it’s the most satisfying to him environmentally.
As he puts it, ‘If each fox conservatively takes between 3-5k native animals a year, (including frogs, lizards, furry critters etc), then he only needs to take 300 foxes annually to save a massive 1million natives every single year!’ Staggering figures indeed!
At this point I will quote my esteemed Technical Editor, Nick Harvey, who spent many of his early years as a pro roo shooter, as it has some relevance to the modern pest shooter still. “Few jobs are more exacting than that of a pro roo shooter: working all night and sleeping all day, eyes forever red-rimmed for lack of sleep. It is a dirty, dusty, bloody pursuit and so far as I am concerned it is money hard earned. Weekends are spent reloading empty cartridge cases and not whooping it up in the nearest town as so many people imagine.”
All in all, this was a great learning experience and I will occasionally go out with Steve again if he's happy. The environments AFM work in involve a completely different style altogether to bush hunting, Steve’s needs to be 100% focused, he faces a changing environment at all times from rough sleepers to couples in parked cars to people conducting illegal activities, the thermal really comes into its own to identify these and many other potential risks. And,…... Would I like to be a contract night shooter? Even if I was 30 years younger, I don't think so…. high insurance premiums, limited & restrictive firearm conditions, constant upgrading of certification & training, arduous WH&S requirements, a diminishing market, antisocial hours, night after night, year after year require a special, disciplined frame of mind and concentration on healthy habits and lifestyle to support a body that is disrupting normal circadian rhythm. Steve, despite the solitary nature of his job, is a very engaging conversationalist and was proud and eager to show me what his demanding job entailed. He is obviously a special type of person whose continuing efforts keep us being overrun by ferals in our peri-urban environments.