Ground-breaking quail study validates SA hunting season

Rachael Oxborrow

A SSAA National-led wildlife survey involving more than 17,000 documented quail sightings from across South Australia has effectively proven quail hunting poses no risk to the future of the species. The grassroots effort to prove widespread and abundant quail population – the first time the game bird has been monitored in this way since the 1980s – projected a quail population of between 6.2 and 17.7 million birds with the study’s release prompting authorities to declare a quail hunting season in South Australia for the first time since 2019.

SSAA National Wildlife Programs Leader Matthew Godson said a lack of scientific interest in quail, a species which doesn’t fit the endangered or pest narrative that typically attracts attention and funding, had left it virtually ignored for decades. “The SA Minister for Environment blamed lack of data on quail populations for why he didn’t declare 2020-21 quail seasons and from here it became clear we’d need to produce this information if we were ever to have a quail season again,” Godson said.

“Within the hunting community there’s an appetite to collect data to show hunting is no risk to statewide stubble quail populations and that hunters can continue to sustainably harvest quail within a regulated environment. Any ban or closure of the regulated hunting season has the potential to drive the activity underground where there would be no conservation benefits.”


Quail presence and abundance

Through a partnership between a federation of likeminded hunters and conservationist groups known as the Conservation and Hunting Alliance of South Australia (CHASA) and SSAA National, a network of volunteers was created to inform the study. Using two methods to count quail the network was able to collect data on their numbers across a portion of SA’s 70 million hectares of available quail habitat. Surveys were conducted on 124 properties on the Eyre Peninsula, Mid North, Kangaroo Island, Yorke Peninsula, Murraylands, Coorong and Mallee with 16,024 birds counted in an area of 11,828 hectares which included canola, lentil, barley, wheat and hay crops. Data was collected by farmers harvesting crops and on drive counts with walking observers and trained dogs during November and December 2021.

“During data collection and through ongoing conversations with landholders we were able to gather significant population counts and also include observations of habitat, movements and sightings of quail breeding,” Godson said, adding this type of data hadn’t been widely researched previously, whereas stubble quail diet had historically been covered extensively. “We know from quail diet research the birds mainly eat seeds and green leaf material that can include pasture plants and weeds,” he said.

“Meanwhile insect and larvae are more important for hatchlings and are more of a secondary source of food for adults. This type of information complements our data surveys to help us deduce quail move across the landscape to source food and a substantial population is living across South Australia’s 70 million hectares of potential habitat.”

Observations of the data indicate areas with more rainfall and in higher cropping production zones correlate with higher density quail populations. For example, Godson estimates around 600,000 quail to have been present across the Yorke Peninsula region on cropping land in densities ranging from 0.03 to 3.33 birds per hectare, while observations in the upper Murraylands region where the South Australian, Victorian and New South Wales borders meet showed lower population densities of around 0.02 birds per hectare. To compare rainfall for these two regions there’s a mean annual figure of 251.7 millimetres at Renmark and 370.2mm at Moonta. Crop estimates for the Upper Murraylands for 2021 were 0.8 tonnes per hectare compared to 3.3 t/ha on Yorke Peninsula.


Population and hunting risk

Godson said traditionally hunters preferred higher rainfall areas of the state for hunting as this often correlates with more chance of bird sightings and take. “With a historical average statewide harvest of 5091 individual quail per year and an estimated 2087 bagged from the Yorke Peninsula region alone, it’s clear quail hunting has an insignificant impact on populations found and poses no risk to their existence,” he said. “Internationally accepted harvest rates sit at 10-20 per cent of a quail population and we come in at around 0.04 per cent. For the Yorke Peninsula region, the area traditionally most visited by quail hunters, data indicates a harvest rate of around 0.23 per cent.”


Hunting sustainably and research

Godson said the sheer level of volunteer involvement in this survey illustrated a community willing to protect quail populations while allowing for sustainable hunting seasons. He said the work across the surveyed areas of SA’s landscape showed significant numbers of quail in varying densities. “For those who doubt the sustainability of hunting, this is another example that Australia’s oldest land use is sustainable and through regulation and seasons there are opportunities to learn more about this species,” he said.

“The numbers speak for themselves. There are literally millions of stubble quail in farmers’ paddocks and those wanting to enjoy the hunt with family and friends to bring home a prized game meat for a unique meal can do so without having a negative impact on quail populations.”

SSAA National began quail research in 2011, initially analysing head and wing samples sent in by hunters to inform the age and sex of harvested birds. This work was conducted over several years to provide insight into the structure of quail populations, breeding timing, preferred habitats and movements. The 2021 study has the potential to continue providing opportunities to map quail population changes over time while also supporting the case for an ongoing hunting season. Godson said this was a valuable research path for both the hunting community and wildlife managers across the country.

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