Hunting laws: Should children hunt alone?

John Mumford and his son Matthew
Image caption Matthew Mumford (right) was six when he first went hunting with his father

A plan to change the law in Australia could see children as young as 12 hunting by themselves. Is that a sensible step or a dangerous one?

Condemned by some as a bloodthirsty move to impose a violent culture on children, authorities in Australia's most populous state are considering a plan to allow under-18s to hunt feral animals on their own with knives, dogs and bows and arrows.

The hunting lobby in New South Wales says the proposal will encourage more families to take up their sport and also to help stop the damage inflicted on the environment by hordes of wild pigs, foxes and rabbits.

Australian Greens, however, insist it would promote an unhealthy interest in firearms and the killing of animals.

The debate is often framed as pitting the sensitivities of the city against the realities and traditions of the country.

On a cattle farm that has been plagued by rabbits and foxes near the town of Blayney, 240km west of Sydney, Matthew Mumford lies on the dirt gazing down the barrel of a .22 rifle, a family favourite.

Watched by his father on a bright winter's day in the Central Tablelands of New South Wales, the 16-year-old high school student steadies his grip, slows his breathing and gently squeezes the trigger.

The air is split by an almighty crack that reverberates off rolling hills dotted with thickets of eucalyptus trees. It is a carefully calibrated routine that has yielded many kills in recent years.

Matthew was six when he first went hunting with his father, but to pick up a gun, he had to wait until his 12th birthday, as the law requires.

"In a way you could say it was like a reward because you have been learning how to use it correctly and how to treat it properly, and when you first get to use one it's exhilarating. It felt very liberating, relaxing.

"They are feral animals so you have to distance yourself from them. I try not to put too much thought into it because you're killing something that is alive. It is not something you take enjoyment out of. It's feral pest control [and] you've got to do it."

His father, John Mumford, is the chairman of the Game Council of New South Wales, a state-run agency that advises the government. It has drawn up guidelines that would permit 12-to-17-year-olds to hunt and kill feral pests on public land with bows, pig-hunting dogs and knives without adult supervision.

"I don't see any reason why young kids can't come out and be taught to hunt responsibly, get them away from Xboxes, computer screens and those sorts of things. I don't see any harm in that."

As Matthew scours the brown grass that blankets the gullies and hills for prey, I ask Mumford if he would be happy for a 12-year-old son or daughter of his to be out killing pigs with knives on their own?

"I was doing that when I was 12 years old, so I can't really turn around and say to my kids that they shouldn't be doing that. It would teach them a bit of reliance, a bit of responsibility for their actions."

Children are already allowed to hunt - they just can't do it on their own. But that would change if the New South Wales Game and Feral Animal Control Act is amended, a prospect that has angered David Shoebridge, a former lawyer and Greens MP in the state parliament.

"There is no doubt that the hunting lobby sees this as a nice intro for kids into a gun culture and a hunting culture," he says.

"The very clear intent of the gun lobby is to normalise firearms. They want to see firearms as just like a tennis racket, just another piece of sporting equipment. They want to de-link firearms and the violence they cause from what they see as a legitimate sport of hunting and shooting.

"Now there are legitimate elements to hunting and shooting but what we don't want is to glorify it and promote it as a widespread culture, because otherwise we are going to be normalising firearms and we'll go down the same path the United States has where suddenly it becomes your right to have a gun. And that has never been the case here in New South Wales."

The debate has divided opinion on local councils. In the Willoughby district of Sydney, Councillor Lynne Saville says she is aghast at the proposal to let armed children hunt alone.

"I'm appalled," Saville told The North Shore Times. "I work in health - I see injuries and there is evidence that accidents do happen."

What hunters consider to be a practical rite of passage for generations of young Australians in the bush is seen by others as fostering a harmful zeal for guns and the shooting of animals.

The New South Wales government is expected to make a decision on whether to allow children to hunt on their own next month.