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Three years at Mt Painter what a neighbour has witnessed

Imagine that for 25 years you lived near animals you had come to love, observing and walking near them: it could be flocks of birds or pods of dolphins or whales; it might be kangaroos or wallabies or it could be neighbouring horses or dogs. And then one day the government decides to shoot most of these animals over the course of a couple of years.

That’s the situation Christine Woolfenden of Cook (and others like her) find themselves in since the ACT government initiated its controversial ‘culling’ of Eastern Grey Kangaroos in Canberra’s nature reserves for a shifting range of reasons.

Christine recently spoke at length to the Bulletin about what she has witnessed at Mt Painter and what she has seen of the war zone enveloping ACT kangaroos since 2008.

A Mt Painter grazer in 2010
A Mt Painter grazer in 2010

“There used to be really healthy mobs in the nature reserves up on Mt Painter, in Aranda bushland, across to the Pinnacle and in the Molonglo area. Nice mobs, where you saw males and females and families living peacefully and not harming anything.

“It was joyful for a lot of people, locals and tourists alike, to go for a walk and see them, just happily grazing. Even during the drought, they never looked like they were starving. There was always grass there.

“My Mum came regularly from Sydney and loved walking up there and seeing all the kangaroos and thinking what a lovely plan it was that Burley Griffin left all the hills undeveloped.”

We walk across to the nature reserve. “Over there,” she points to a horse paddock area at the base of Mt Painter, “was a very large group of males. Everyone used to walk past them on their way up Mt Painter and the kangaroos weren’t fazed because they knew they were safe. There was a mob of about 40 or 50 in that paddock.

“Then in 2010, one day they were all there and the next day they were all gone. And there were also the tracks of vehicles all over the ground, flattening the grass and across all the horse paddocks and towards William Hovell Drive, everything was driven over. And that’s when I first discovered the pit where the bodies were buried, marked by construction tape. There were drag marks and bulldozer marks and vehicle marks.

“In the reserve at the back of houses behind Wybalena Grove there was a matriarchal area (mothers and joeys) of 20 or 30 and they would lie under these beautiful peppermints. The grass was not all eaten up. That’s where they rested with all their young. But now (after the third year of culling) you hardly see any at all, anywhere. The main thing you see is the occasional dead one after being knocked by a car trying to cross Bindubi Street from Aranda bushland.

Horses now occupy the paddocks where a large mob of male kangaroos lived before the cull.
Horses now occupy the paddocks where a large mob of male kangaroos lived before the cull.

“When the government originally wanted to get rid of them they said there were too many of them. But then they didn’t have the scientific data so we were told they’re starving.

“And then when it was obvious they weren’t starving, the story changed to ‘Well, it’s a special sort of grassland here.’ But it’s not a special sort of grassland, it’s mainly horse paddocks and previously cleared farmland. Once they killed the bachelor group (of kangaroos), they put horses in that paddock and now it’s all full of weeds.

“I think it all started as they were getting the kangaroo management plan together in 2009. I’ve been told that the government ecologist told all the parkcare groups that the problem in getting their plants to grow is the kangaroos – despite the steep slopes, the rabbits, the drought and everything else.”

Not sustainable, just a wipe out

“The whole idea that I understood from the kangaroo management plan was keeping the numbers at a sustainable level. But it’s not. It’s just wiping them out.”

Some 500 animals were targeted for culling in 2010 and 2011 and according to official figures 327 were actually shot. Christine is not sure what was done in 2012, although Mt Painter was again on the cull list. All of this is visibly upsetting, but Christine still bears witness to what is happening.

It started in 2008 with the Belconnen Naval Transmission Station first cull of some 500 kangaroos, a heart-wrenching action that had many in Canberra protesting and made worldwide headlines. It continues to haunt those who love kangaroos and who witnessed the pathetic and often brutal scenes of the animals being herded to their death day and night over a two week period.

“There was Japanese media at Belconnen. They couldn’t understand how this was different from ‘scientific’ whaling. They said it was big news in Japan. It was like a war zone or concentration camp. Now when May comes around, I just dread it. The other part of me says, ‘No, you have to be there as a witness otherwise who will be there to tell the truth if we can break through this wall of silence and destruction?’ ”

Christine Woolfenden stands at the Mt Painter Nature Reserve in Aranda.
Christine Woolfenden stands at the Mt Painter Nature Reserve in Aranda.

The absolute cruelty

“People will say you are dramatising, but I can’t get around the absolute cruelty of it, the destruction of the family structure, the cruelty to those young animals left behind. At that time of year, [May, June] the mothers usually have a joey in the pouch as well as last year’s dependent joey at foot.

“The survivors have to battle horrible conditions of wind, rain, cold and they do die from pneumonia or just from stress when their families are gunned down. I’ve seen the joeys huddle together as orphans who have lost their mothers and aunties who they are normally dependent upon for their survival.”

At Mt Painter, Christine used to hear the shooting in the first years. Now the contractors seem to use silencers and infrared cameras but the bullets are just as deadly and risky to those within a three km radius.

Shooting scares ‘roos into traffic

“One year they were shooting in daylight hours. For whatever reason, they hadn’t finished, so they were back next morning; 8, 9 in the morning and the whole mob was there on the road (Bindubi St) trying to get away from shooters into Aranda bushland. We saw it as we drove by.”

In 2011, she was watching the vehicles going in from outside the cordoned-off area. “I knew it was going to happen because they used the pretext of bringing in a weed spraying contractor to make people move their horses. I was followed and harassed by security guards in unmarked vehicles. They followed me right into the streets of Cook and in the end I had to duck into a yard and hope there wasn’t a dog.

“My brother is a scientist and works at National Parks in Sydney, and when he came in August last year he was just horrified. I showed him a mob that only had juveniles in it, which is so abnormal, that had escaped the last cull. He said he can’t understand what’s wrong with the ACT government and TAMS [Territory and Municipal Services], and why the science on which they claim to base their actions is not peer reviewed. Is it just that we are such a small jurisdiction that they don’t see the big picture?”

ACT won’t allow joey rescues

“If people in Canberra knew about the ACT government’s policy that you cannot rescue most joeys injured or orphaned in the ACT, they would be horrified too. Injured kangaroos and their joeys are automatically killed, not rehabilitated, unlike all other jurisdictions in Australia. [Now a small number of joeys are allowed across the NSW border to Wildcare.] No-one is monitoring or asking enough questions but I’ve spoken to people who say, ‘We love our kangaroos, we bring our kids to the nature parks to see them’.

“People think it’s all done in a clinical way; that the shooters come in and the kangaroo will just stand there under the spotlight and the bullet just enters his or her head and that’s it. But no, many of them are still alive after being shot, I’ve seen bodies of kangaroos injured during the cull, who have got through the fence and then died on the other side.

“And now, because of the big fines for so-called ‘trespassing’, you’ve got to wait until the parks re-open, maybe two or three weeks later and you can’t go in and rescue any poor animals that were left half-dead. And you find the (escaped) joeys all huddling together without their mothers or aunties. That’s why some people might go in and ‘break the law’; because how can you stand by and just watch an animal suffer?”

Double counting is not scientific

“Before the culling started at Mt Painter, I helped out with the kangaroo counts with other residents. We were allocated certain paddocks with a more experienced but still amateur counter. It was just ridiculous. There were hardly any kangaroos in the two or three paddocks we were allocated and the minute someone disturbed them while counting in another paddock they hopped across the fence into our paddock, so we were told we were supposed to count those ones as well, so we were doubling up.

“That’s where they got their number of 500-odd kangaroos at Mt Painter. The person running our group said, yes the double counting often happens. She didn’t know why there weren’t any professionals doing it, but said we’re happy to help the government.

“Now I talk to people on Mt Painter on my walks. And they say ‘There’s not many kangaroos left, isn’t that sad. Why do you think that is?’ ‘Oh, they are killing them!’ And most people are actually quite shocked. They ask ‘What should I do?’ I say ‘You should contact the government and let them know how you feel.’ ”

Losing the bush capital

“There is always the expectation that the bush capital is just there and aren’t we lucky? But, we’re losing it. And there aren’t enough voices speaking up for the whole biodiversity aspect of the environment we live in. Insects, birds, possums, kangaroos, wallabies, reptiles and plants are all part of the whole ecosystem – it’s all interconnected.”

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