SA quail hunting back from the brink

Matt Godson, Wildlife Biologist, SSAA National

For the past two years South Australia has not had a quail season, the reason being the Environment Minister didn’t want to make a declaration with no abundance data. Hunters have been pulling their hair out at the fact the Minister wouldn’t declare a season for a species known to be highly abundant and with low hunting pressure (across SA stubble quail have roughly 70 million hectares of habitat they can call home).

After discussions with the Environment Department throughout early and mid-2021 on the need to gather data for the Minister to reboot quail hunting in SA, it became clear to those involved that the Department was dragging its feet. It was as if the Minister’s own department didn’t feel extra data was needed and they were happy to rely on their own surrogate information based purely on climate conditions.

By October a group of representatives from various hunting organisations (Conservation and Hunting Alliance of South Australia) had come to the conclusion that if we depended on the Department to collate data, we’d be screwed over yet again and, for the third year running, be denied a quail season. This became a ‘line in the sand moment’ as we decided to get out there and gather the data ourselves.

I set about doing some research into different survey methods to estimate quail abundance and, after a few ‘virtual’ online meetings, we agreed on a couple of methods. With those methods established I quickly put together survey instructions and data sheets ready to be distributed, and then followed a concerted team effort by the group to make contact with as many landholders as we could to identify willing participants to conduct surveys.

‘Drive counts’ were mainly conducted by volunteers, with or without gundogs, walking paddocks and taking note of the area (ha) covered to allow for density calculations. Harvest counts were conducted when paddocks were being stripped and harvester operators would count flushing quail. This particular method provided an exhaustive census of a known area of habitat/paddock.

With the SA duck and quail season-setting meetings fast approaching, I scrambled to enter the incoming data into spreadsheets ready for analysis. With harvest season held up due to weather conditions it was clear I’d only have time to prepare a preliminary report for the meeting then complete a final report early in the new year.

With limited lead-up time the group was able to collate quail abundance data from more than 100 private properties, a truly commendable effort from all involved. While I was awaiting that data to flow through, I set about writing as much as I could for a report before any results were available and included a review of the current status of stubble quail and their diet and habitat use. I obtained recent information about habitat and climatic conditions then prepared sections on quail presence and abundance in SA (what we found), and estimating quail populations and hunting risk.

When I finally decided to pause data entry, we had survey returns from 108 private properties covering 8333 hectares. A total of 16,024 birds were counted which provided an average statewide density of 1.35 quail per hectare. This allowed us to estimate the stubble quail population to be between 6-17 million (x̄=12,002,606, 95%CI) in South Australia’s agricultural areas alone. With an annual average recreational harvest of around 5000 quail in SA, this represents only about 0.04 per cent of the population. Internationally accepted sustainable harvest rates range from 10-20 per cent of the population and if that’s not sustainable hunting then I’m not sure what is!

But all this work paid off and we’ve dragged quail hunting in South Australia back from the brink, hunters now able to enjoy a return to quail hunting with a 20-bird bag thanks to the hard work of a determined few who drew that line in the sand.

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