Dogs, feral pigs and a dedicated hunter

Henri Lach

Hayley Crichlow epitomises the Australian rural country woman. She’s a wife, a mother of two and a part-time certified personal care assistant, looking after aged individuals.

What distinguishes her among her contemporaries is her pastime pursuit. With her two dogs, she hunts feral pigs. This definitely is more than just a hobby. Haley loves her dogs and she has a passionate hatred for those wild porkers.

“When I see the amount of work Todd (her husband) puts into planting chickpeas and then have the pigs root them up and destroy them overnight, I get very angry,” said Hayley.

So she’s mounted a personal campaign to hit the ferals where they hurt, with encouragement from her husband.

Now, let’s establish where we are, geographically: Hayley, her property manager husband Todd and their children Thomas, 8, and Emile, 6, live on a 7000-hectare property in the Yetman district of far northern NSW. Yetman is a hamlet in the New England region. The area is located on the Macintyre River only about 30 kilometres south of the Queensland border and 700 kilometres north of Sydney. It’s a sparsely populated region. Feral pigs outnumber people 10 to one, according to some estimates.

This is a part of NSW with widely mixed farming interests. Sheep and cattle abound, while cash crops like cotton, wheat, sorghum and chickpeas dot the landscape during their growing season.

Grain is what attracts feral pigs. They’ll also snack on immature cotton balls, would you believe. Then there’s the occasional treat of a weak newly-born lamb. Feral pigs are savage omnivores. So overall, wild porky’s character doesn’t endear him to local landholders.

The war on feral pigs in this area has been going on for uncountable decades, as it has in most other rural areas of Australia where porky’s forbearers escaped from the domestic pens of the early settlers. But with many thousands of hectares of pasture and hidden waterways in which to roam and breed, porky continues to thumb his trotter at his human adversary. And he’s currently on safer grounds in NSW than he would be in Queensland, where there’s a bounty on his mates. Calls on the State Government for a similar bounty in NSW are in the pipeline. It’s a case of watch this space.

Meanwhile, Hayley Crichlow has no illusions about winning the battle against this menace, but she’s determined to make as considerable a contribution as she can towards its control, bounty or no bounty. She’s a licensed firearms owner in NSW. Her favourite rifle is a Marlin .17. It doesn’t play an active role in Hayley’s hunts, but it can be a handy back-up for the occasional despatch of a particularly aggressive porker. 

Her current tools against her quarry are cross stag hounds Johnny Cash and Mac along with a 20cm-bladed hot pink coloured handled sheath knife.

Between them they’ve accounted for more than 40 ferals during the past 12 months. She hopes to increase this tally in 2019, bearing in mind that this is the Year of the Pig in the Chinese calendar. Hayley is quick to point out that the pink colour on her despatching tool’s hilt is not a fashion statement or a gender message.

“The colour makes it easier to spot if I accidentally drop it in the stubble,” she explained.

As to her dogs, her affection for them manifests itself when she recalls a former hunting companion.

“My old dog Django was a Dane wolfhound cross and when he died [of old age] he took a piece of my heart,” said Hayley.

In recent years she has taken her respect for hunting dogs to an almost evangelical level. In fact, she’s become their public image advocate.

“There’s a lot of negativity around hunting dogs and their relation to kids, but my kids and dogs respect each other. When the dogs are at home they are just like normal pets. They play with the kids. The kids love them and they love the kids. They are part of the family,” she said.

That obviously extends to the field, where and when Thomas and Emile join Johnny Cash and Mac in celebrating a successful hunt.

Hayley believes there are no set rules, or a formula, for training hunting pig dogs. Nor do any particular breeds stand out.

“I consider a good dog a solid one which is loyal, smart and full of heart. Johnny Cash has a calm and a bit of a serious nature whereas Mac is just all heart ‑ they both give their all and they are dedicated,” she said.

Does Hayley have her own training regime? Her attitude is simple. “Teach them the ‘normal’ expectations early. Take them everywhere and have them around the action when older dogs are working. Expose them to all sorts of stock. That’ll sort them out. They either love it or they don’t. You pick the ones who do. Respect is a two-way street between my dogs and myself. We learn from each other.”

There’s no doubt that Hayley’s standing in her small rural community is that of a feral pig buster.

“I often get calls from neighbours who are having a pig problem and Johnny Cash, Mac and I are all too happy to help out,” she said.

A call to arms against the forces of porky also can become a social outing. “Yes, I’ve invited some of my girlfriends out hunting a few times. I think they’ve enjoyed it as much as I do,” said Hayley.

This sort of enterprise is not without its perils. A well-nurtured 60 kilo-plus feral pig used to roaming free on a benevolent range undoubtedly objects to having a dog hanging on each ear as a hunter descends on the scene with a massive despatching blade. The bigger porkers have large and sharp tusks. Some injuries are inevitable.

“My dogs have had a few skin tears, nothing major though. Other than the odd sprained ankle I’ve been lucky so far,” she said.

Brucellosis has been identified as an ever-present danger in this area, so none of the despatched pork is fed to the victorious dogs, as it was once.

Today, the pigs become carrion that’s soon cleaned up by the numerous and ever-present hawks, crows, foxes and other ferals.

Landholders in this part of NSW, like those in many other regions, subscribe to the adage that the only good feral pig is a dead one and Hayley often collects the accolades she deserves from her neighbours for her contribution to that view.

However, at the end of the day there are two especially big winners here. Whether they fully appreciate it or not at this stage in their lives, I believe Thomas and Emile are privileged to be enjoying a childhood filled with real-life country experiences.

Thanks to their mother, they’ve been exposed to the realities of life, like many of us once were. The necessary death of feral pigs is just one aspect of their realistic practical education. When a sheep is butchered for the family’s personal use Hayley makes sure Thomas and Emile are there to witness the event.

“The kids learn anatomy, what the lungs, heart and other organs are for,” she explained.

They can then all go to the dinner table with full knowledge of the source of what they’re about to consume.

At my local supermarket in south-east Queensland, lamb chops come in polystyrene packages. The packaging used to be white a few decades ago but the packaging is now black.

The perception is that this doesn’t show up the blood so much and upset the sensitivities of some. Recent surveys have shown that more than 60 per cent of supermarket shoppers have kids up to 12 years of age who have no idea where the meat in the package just whisked through the checkout comes from. And adults can be reluctant to come forth with an explanation.

To me, Hayley Crichlow, with her attitude towards her children, and towards her environment, is a very special person indeed in this day and age.

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