The first Saturday in May.

The night still lingers as the alarm goes off, he slowly rises out from the cocoon of his sleeping bag, stiff and slower than usual, as the home comforts were left behind last night. Instead, spending the night on the floor of a friends’ woolshed, the tang of sheep mature lingers in his nostrils as he goes outside for his morning pee. His face welcomes the chill and dampness from the air, a smile escapes his lips as he looks up, the sky remains dark, no visible stars or moon. A quick shake and then back into the woolshed to gather his things and get dressed. Today requires many layers, as the cold will bite during the long hours ahead. He is too nervous to eat but was mindful enough to have packed both food and drink the night before. Two others are also awake, trying to shake themselves into alertness as the restless night on the floorboards has left them fatigued. As the time to leave is nearing they double check to ensure they have everything they need. This is not a spur of the moment trip, it is one that they have been planning for months, the preparation and reconnaissance has been meticulous as they only have one chance at this.

The tension gathers as they mount their quad bikes and turn on the headlamps for the trip into the hills. When they arrive at the ridge of the last hill, darkness is still present, this is essential as they need this cloak of darkness to succeed. They also need quiet, so they kill the engines and coast down the hill into the gully that awaits. The air is damp, as is the ground underfoot, it gives way slightly and squelches as they dismount. They gather their things and start the trek on foot, two are wearing red bands whilst the other has wanders to compensate the damp wet conditions. Their destination is a small cramped enclosure which is open to the elements. They struggle as they navigate the walkway leading up to it as it moves precariously under their weight; it consists of planks with not enough supports spanning the reeds and water below. Once they enter, they remove their belonging and perch on the shabby mismatched chairs, breathing a sigh of relief as they have made it. They quietly prepare for what comes next.

A sprinkling of light touches the horizon, they can start to recognise the shapes of their faces which are darkened with paint in shades of black and green, their clothes match the mottled shades of their surroundings. They are cold and cramped but they are in their element, happy; they make up part of the 30,000 other New Zealand’s, the majority of whom are men, huddled in a shared kinship in their maimai’s camouflaged cloaked in darkness awaiting the light that signifies Duck Shooting opening morning.

The Duck Shooting tradition has always been significant for the men in my life. As a child my dad and my brother and Dad’s friends were all keen shooters and during my adulthood my husband and son and many of our friends enjoy the sport and the preparation and companionship that comes with it. My memories of the many traditions which extends both pre and post opening day are good ones. These involve family time including cutting down the weed that has grown in the past few months, repairing the makeshift construction and replacing the vegetation that camouflages the structure, clay bird shoots as practice, cleaning or repainting decoys, feeding the ponds and much more. Post shoot involves the plucking and preparing of the birds along with the debrief and comparison (often exaggeration) of numbers from friends shooting at different locations.

I appreciate that like any sport that involves guns and hunting, Duck shooting in New Zealand has its supporters and critics however there are strict regulations, included to ensure the ongoing survival of the bird with limits and the introduction of non toxic shot. Fish and Game New Zealand provide the licences and monitor the population trends using banding to help inform the bag limits and season lengths which can vary by region.

This year the first Saturday in May is like no other, the memory I have of opening morning is one of silence, whereas for so many years the dawn has been signalled by the shots heard from distant waterways. In 2020 this sport, like so many others, will wait until we return to Level 2 where social distancing will be permitted.  Stay Safe, Be Kind.

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