The years pass too fast and the clock can’t be stopped. However, age can deliver experience that teaches essential lessons about hunting. For me, it also allowed the acquisition of valuable qualities such as patience and divergent thinking. These qualities came in handy while caretaking a property in western Queensland for a month with two mates.
The word ‘drought’ is often shunned by landowners because of its negative connotations. During the time we were there, the word was being used openly in the media. In the absence of follow-up rain, any benefit from the flooding rains of the previous spring had been lost under the intense summer heat. While the land was in drought, the channels and river had pools of water spread across the property. These were the leftovers from the spring rains and another fall only the week before.
In fact, just after we arrived, a storm 200km to the north produced a surge of water flowing down the river and its various branches. It was heralded by a rolling, subtle roar reminiscent of the wings of a flock of galahs sweeping across the land. Instead of galahs, it was stormwater raging through these outback channels. It was another complication for the hunting, especially if Steve had been caught on the wrong side of a channel. That would have tested his determination to make it back to a good meal and a warm bed.
The pigs needed to be controlled but they had taken the opportunity to scatter across the land, making use of the water and cool temperatures to expand their home ranges. The feral pig is a marvellous survivor, able to adapt to a wide range of environments and cope with rapid changes in conditions. When we hunt, we don’t use dogs or a spotlight. We like to pit our skills and knowledge against the well-developed senses of game animals.
On this trip, the conditions were challenging. While a declared drought, water was available everywhere to any animal able to make use of it. Initial exploration on foot revealed patches of heavy sign with a lot of empty ground in between. Perseverance paid off with some pigs taken but a greater impact on their numbers was needed. How many were about? It was hard to tell.
Pigs have a superb sense of smell and love carrion. They also have an ability to travel long distances in search of food. These strengths can be used against them. We don’t hunt kangaroos, especially as the professional roo shooter depends on them to earn a living. However, a little-known public road runs through the property and there is enough traffic on it to generate some roadkill so some fresh samples were gathered and deposited in three locations. Trail cameras were installed and the sit-and-wait technique employed between day hunts on foot. The lessons were instructive, even for hunters with more than 100 years’ experience between them.
Day-hunting the channels and river produced incidental results but meant covering a lot of ground on foot. The trail cameras showed that the baits drew the pigs in after a few days. In a landscape ravaged by drought, a dozen pigs turned up one night to savour the bait on one site. They either travelled a long way or we were walking past pigs that stayed nestled in the shadows of straggly coolabah trees or hunkered down in the woody scrub away from the river and channels. The woody scrub is hard to hunt. It’s low but thick and any attempt to squeeze between branches produces a scraping noise that signals a warning to any pig hiding in its cover. They can sneak away at leisure with no sign of their presence.
The baits did more than draw them in; over time, they influenced pig behaviour. The animals became more confident, arriving earlier each time generally from the same direction. If free-hunting was desired, stalking downwind of their direction of approach produced results. Each site differed in attraction. The best was close to cover, allowing pigs a sheltered approach along a channel or through the remaining ground shield. This site also ensured easy escape if they were disturbed. The other sites all attracted pigs but not in the same numbers. On one site there seemed to be a reluctance to cross open country or approach an area lacking a simple getaway. The quantity of carrion may also have made a difference. The single sample placed on the third site produced an equally small response.
On the best site pigs were taken regularly. Quick eradication with a minimum of shots didn’t seem to disturb things too much. The camera revealed a very large pig dropping in, usually late at night at variable times. Eventually, the boar made a mistake when he turned up before the sun had set but taught this hunter another lesson.
I was sitting with my back nestled against the curved trunk of a coolabah. The Winchester XTR Featherweight .270 was leaning against the trunk a stretch away. Pigs regularly came out of the channels to the north-east. I expected them to approach from the same direction, hence my position. But the boar broke the pattern as he came down the channel from the west out of the woody scrub country behind me. With the angling breeze, I was just downwind. As he emerged from the channel, he stopped, tilted his head and studied my tree intently. He reminded me of horses returning to a paddock after something has taken place and noticing some slight change to their environment. He recognised that the outline of the tree was altered. I also think he used the same approach on the other occasions he visited the site and this time observed the difference in the shape of the tree.
Pigs are supposed to have poor eyesight. Every living creature sees the world in a unique way, sometimes far removed from the way we see it. Pigs will see things in a different way to us. Their eyes contain rods and cones to produce a visual image of the world. Rods do not detect color. They perceive images as black, white and various shades of grey. More than a thousand times as sensitive, cones detect color. Each cone contains one of three pigments sensitive to red, green or blue. Humans have three cones and horses two, so horses see green and blue in a washed-out way compared to us. They don’t really see red but instead, probably replace it with a washed-out grey tone.
I was wearing a camouflage jacket and cap but something was catching the boar’s attention. He moved forward and stopped again. He was a thumper of a pig torn between the attraction of carrion and the possible threat of something different in his environment. In this, he was not unlike indigenous hunters familiar with their environment and able to pick up a shadow, color, shape, line or curve that wasn’t there the last time they stalked the country. We can do the same; if we hunt the same country often enough, we notice anything that is modified, no matter how minor.
I didn’t move while he studied my tree. As he edged slowly forward, I reached for the rifle every time he focused on the bait. After finally grasping the rifle, I took a rest on a knee and fired one shot just behind the shoulder, which dropped him on the spot. The shot was taken sooner than preferred because he was wary. His ears were up and rotating. Study any pig in the wild and they usually travel with their ears facing towards the ground with snouts exploring the scents they are moving over. That one shot didn’t disturb things too much and within half an hour, two more feral pigs turned up.
I have written before about the eyesight of feral pigs. I have learned that their eyesight isn’t necessarily poor but tuned to their needs, such as identifying movement or subtle changes to their environment. We shouldn’t judge the abilities of game by our own standards. I have decided that whatever the ability of their eyes, pigs, like horses and no doubt other animals, have a sharp appreciation of their environment. I’m calling this ‘environmental sensitivity’. Now I’ll pay even more attention to observing game animals in the wild to study their habits, abilities and reactions.
Pigs have panoramic scanning vision using one or both eyes of around 330 degrees, excluding a blind spot behind of about 30 degrees. Their binocular vision (using both eyes together) scans an arc of about 50 degrees in whichever direction they turn their head. Compared to humans, pigs prioritise their sideways monocular vision. This increases their panoramic vision to allow greater ability to detect possible danger, food or other pigs but decreases their bifocal vision. This leads to difficulty in judging distance but may account for their ability to detect movement while supposedly having ‘poor eyesight’. The ‘poor vision’ reputation may have arisen because a slow stalk into the monocular area of vision may reduce detection as the pig is not readily able to judge distance. It is critical to ‘freeze’ if the pig looks up and turns its head towards the hunter. The pig will be using binocular vision and be able to estimate distance better.
When humans detect a threat, we look around to locate the source of a problem. For us, eyes are the prime source of information. Pigs in the same situation will drop their snout to the ground to search for scent to help in analysing the problem. For the pig, eyes are a secondary source of information to complement scent.
Pigs also have a pressure point that influences movement after detecting a threat. They tend to move in the opposite direction to a threat. This may lead to unpredictable turning movements when approached from certain angles. To set up a predictable reaction to in case a second shot is necessary or influence others in a herd, a 4 to 5 o’clock approach from behind the direction they are facing (wind allowing) will generally produce a forward movement. This produces a relatively easy running shot to enhance the probability of a clean cull.
Perhaps it is the combination of senses that delivers the environmental sensitivity of the feral pig. They can often be fairly easy to cull and are a relatively straightforward introduction for those new to hunting. The biggest and smartest of them can be a different matter. They become big initially because instinct and luck delivered lessons about survival. Luck and instinct soon turns into finely-tuned survival skills that will test the ability of any hunter prepared to stalk them on an equal footing. The rifle is the only thing we have to counter those finely-tuned senses and often it’s not enough. When we manage to move into a position for a shot, the firearm gives us little excuse not to make a clean kill. As an old-timer once told me: “Pig shooting is easy. Pig hunting is a lot harder.”
Divergent thinking encouraged the use of carrion in the right places to draw in pigs under the camera to determine how many were about. Numbers were higher than anticipated from initial observation of the country. Perseverance was also important and it took a few nights under the camera before evidence of their presence became available. Temperature, cover, ease of access and escape, time, age and type of carrion must be considered in estimating population density. The evidence showed there were more pigs out there than we had thought possible.
Good numbers were culled within the parameters of ethical hunting by using appropriate calibres, placing effective shots and appreciating the strengths and weakness of the game being hunted. Even the feral pig deserves nothing less.
Meanwhile, the drought has dragged on. It will be interesting to see if the lessons learned apply to the next trip.