The SSAA Queensland Conservation and Wildlife Management (CWM) Group – Project Moonie

Peter Assfalg

Project Moonie began in 2012, is located near the town of Moonie, which is west of Brisbane and is conducted on a bimonthly basis. It comprises of 12 adjoining properties and a national park covering over 100,000 acres. More properties seem to come on board regularly as the good work and reputation of SSAA’s CWM group grows in the area.

The private properties graze cattle and grow various grain crops throughout the year. The central feature of this project is an area of remnant brigalow-belah forest, of which few examples of this vegetation type remain on the Western Downs. The scrubby forest is a refuge for wildlife and hosts more than 92 species of birds. A geological feature of the area are the depressions in the ground known as gilgais (locals call them melon holes) which are scattered throughout these properties. Thick clusters of lime bushes in the area of the melon holes often make for surprise encounters, as feral pigs burst from cover after holding their ground for what seems like a painfully long time (both actually and figuratively speaking) as the likely sites are methodically searched and investigated in thorny conditions.

Stakeholders in the project include: Nature Refuges Queensland, Queensland Government and private property owners. Conservation outcomes of the project include: preservation and enhancement of plant biodiversity and native wildlife corridors; preservation and enhancement of populations of native ground-dwelling mammal and native bird species; and the control of feral predators including feral pigs, feral goats, European red foxes, feral cats, wild dogs, European hares, European carp and Indian myna birds. Native animal species of conservation significance include: Northern banjo frog, wonga pigeon, koala and glossy black cockatoo.

Recent participation in Project Moonie gave me the opportunity to try out some new items of equipment in the field. I was keen to test my new Ruger American Ranch Rifle in 7.62x39mm, fitted with a Leupold VX-1 4-12x40mm scope with Leupold quick release detachable mounts for daytime use and the Pulsar Trail XQ38 thermal imaging riflescope for night-time ‘thermalising’. I had previously used a CWM supplied Pulsar thermal monocular and a Pulsar thermal riflescope fitted to my mate Ian’s night-time rig, but the joy of having and using your own toys never fades. After many years of night-time spotlight hunting and a brief dalliance with infrared imaging optical accessories, I am now a dedicated and enthusiastic thermal imaging advocate.

Heat, snakes and ticks represented a challenge to all those involved in Project Moonie, but that didn’t stop the teams eagerly heading out as soon as the briefing was completed. That first afternoon walk among the melon holes offered me the chance to confirm the Ruger was well sighted-in and maintained its zero after several scope removals and replacements and equally was up to the task of accounting for my first feral sow of the trip. The Hornady steel cased 123gr SST Ballistic Tip ammunition had lived up to expectations and the Ruger/Safari Sling package handled well and comfortably during several hours on foot in the field. On the trip back to the old shearers’ quarters, just on sunset, a careless boar presented enough of a target for the Ruger to strike down yet another feral critter, much to my delight.

The first night out with the Ruger fitted with the thermal scope was great, the ease and effectiveness of being able to approach a paddock, scan its entirety and move on in the absence of feral hot spots, as opposed to relying on a relatively thin beam of white light catching the eye of a feral critter, that may or may not be spooked as a consequence.

An adjoining paddock provided the first thermal signature of the night. Watching the movement revealed that a feral cat was on the prowl, slinking along for an evening meal. It gave me great satisfaction to be able to follow the cat’s progress until it was within effective range. The gentle use of the Tenterfield fox whistle hanging around my neck was enough for the cat to freeze and stare in my direction, which allowed me to take a successful shot.

Upon arrival, at a yet to be harvested chickpea crop, the unmistakeable thermal signature of a pig was detected several hundred metres away. My mate Ian was able to stop the vehicle and despite sometimes erratic wind direction, all was good for a walk towards the unsuspecting sow. Walking into the breeze, between the rows of chickpeas, courtesy of periodic stops and review via thermal scope, all was going to plan. I was able to approach close enough to the sow to hear her crunching happily away on chickpeas, which is how she passed – she had been happy and I was now happy. Regrettably I’d neglected to have a tow rope with me to drag the sow more easily from the yet to be harvested crop. That proved to be the hardest part of the night.

The next couple of days fell into a comfortable routine of a mid-morning walk through either the national park, melon hole country or following waterways in search of feral critters. The middle of the day became siesta time, but heat largely prevented the rests from being truly refreshing. Afternoons were again a walk through likely locations and success in despatching a mottled camouflaged boar from a patch of lime bush, shaded by some large gum trees, was a welcome reward after several hours on shank’s pony in the field.

After dinner and several hours after sunset, the thermal scopes and monoculars came into their own again, I remain happy to take any unfair advantage over feral critters available to me and ‘thermalising’ has proved to be most effective. Being able to productively hunt from sunset until sunrise with a minimal spooking of game, is I presume as good as it gets from a hunting perspective. The thermal scope also allowed me to spot an echidna meandering through a fence that stopped long enough for a photograph to be taken. I doubt that a spotlight would have afforded a similar opportunity.

The beauty of participating in a CWM project is the diversity of colleagues’ experiences and skills displayed and joined in with, from which you can further develop your own hunting prowess and capacity. John was keen to set some dog traps, but finding evidence of their presence proved elusive, so no traps were set – much to John’s disappointment. However, that didn’t stop me picking his brain on trapping hints and tips and also discussing the finer points of my to date limited use of an electronic game caller to attract and despatch wild dogs. I have enjoyed some success with the ‘howling coyotes’ recording in eliciting responding howls and drawing in some curious and/or territorial wild dogs.

One night, returning to the unharvested chickpeas paddock, a small mob of pigs were observed well into the distance. Again, a favourable wind allowed Ian and I to covertly approach the pigs, stopping periodically to confirm their location and that we had not been compromised. A few of the pigs drifted away from the mob as we covered several hundred metres towards the feasting swine. The favourable wind again allowed us to hear the contented critters crunching on chickpeas as we moved within range. On the count of three we fired and some pigs fell and others scarpered off to safety. When Ian and I reached the fallen pigs we again dragged them from the crop, so as not to interfere with the yet to come harvesting. Discussions then ensued as to who shot which pig. Ian claimed that he shot the larger one of the two. I was fortunately able to counter that Ian always claimed he was a much better shot than me, so it stood to reason that I could only have shot the bigger of the two targets – ultimately, we shook hands on a job well done.

While further day and night-time shoots resulted in more pigs and cats being despatched, the greatest lesson I learned was from taking Ian’s lead, based on his longer experience is using a thermal scope, in approaching detected animals from sometimes significant distances and if conditions remained favourable, going to within 50m or closer of the target without detection. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the Pulsar equipment worked and impressed by the enhanced capacity it provided to hunters. On occasions our stalks were frustrated by a change in wind direction, but overall, ‘thermalising’ has added a whole new dimension to my hunting repertoire.

Another cat also fell as a result of relying on Ken’s advice to “meow” when it looked like a cat had become spooked or was drifting away. In this instance curiosity most definitely killed the cat. Intense interest arose as a result of “meowing” and a casual retreat turned into a determined investigation which gave me the chance I needed to despatch the killer. I am advised on good authority that is quite appropriate to practise ‘meowing’ with the family cat, to sharpen your skills, prior to your next hunting trip. I do not have a pet cat and don’t propose acquiring one for “meow” practice either.

The SSAA Queensland Branch of the CWM was established in 2001 and has in excess of 700 members that participate in more than 60 feral control project properties each month in some magnificent parts of the state, enjoying mateship and camaraderie with like-minded individuals. If like me, you had trouble securing hunting properties, because cold calls can be awkward, or a change of management/property ownership didn’t support existing arrangements, then CWM is likely the answer you are looking for.

Now my challenge is finding the time before I retire, to be able to attend more of the available projects. CWM membership is only $55 per annum. To be eligible for membership you are required to undertake an accreditation course and undergo practical marksmanship, as well as being a member of SSAA. As a member you are covered by $20 million public liability insurance and the accreditation course provides training which includes: bushcraft skills, map reading and use, first aid, conservation and animal welfare, ethical hunting practices, GPS use, 4WD use, remote communications and more. CWM also conducts regular skills development weekends which allows you to meet fellow members and participate in sometimes challenging shooting matches and conditions.

My only unpleasant experience from Project Moonie was being ambushed by pigs on the way home. Travelling towards Moonie shortly after 5am and being wary of kangaroos, I was driving below the posted 100kph speed limit when from the right-hand side of the road a large sow led a string of about 10 piglets across the road in front of me. I was suddenly confronted by what looked like the deployment of a police stinger (tyre deflation device). I pumped the brakes and steered to the right in a manner that Craig Lowndes would have been proud of, I’m sure.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I managed to hit only one or several of the suckers as opposed to big momma. Damage to the air damper and front end of the Kia Rio seemed relatively minor and no vital vehicle fluids were lost. While the episode did manage to increase my overall pig tally by one, I’m not sure who got the better end of the encounter – at least I’ll keep my insurance rating at one after the incident. I plan on acquiring a Ranger Raptor in due course and this incident may make the minister of war and finance more receptive to my proposed upgrade.

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