Authors: Will Tait and Jodi Newcombe
In early 2021 we gathered to begin developing what would become Djakitj Larr – the afternoon of storytelling and creative conversation that gathered stakeholders of the City of Bendigo’s UN Creative City of Gastronomy designation. Dja Dja Wurrung woman Bec Phillips had just joined the team, and one of our first sessions together generated this exchange:
Will: And if your ancestors were here today, with the state of the land as it is, how would they eat off Country?
Bec: They would eat Country healthy! Eat the abundance, that’s what we did. So, if we look at Djaara Country, there’s lots of rabbits everywhere! So I guess we would eat rabbits!
Will: Pest control on a plate!
This exchange felt revelatory on so many levels. For one thing, it disrupts any misconception that a modern Indigenous gastronomy would consist exclusively of foods that were here before colonisation. More profoundly it frames eating as an act of participation in the life and wellbeing of our ecosystem. Later we discovered similar approaches being advocated and celebrated in other parts of the world, and even a fancy new term: Invasivourism.
Of course, prior to the abundance of the supermarket meat section, and stretching way back before they proliferated on this land, rabbits were not eaten for pest control, but simply for eating. Jodi’s father used to catch abundant rabbit as a child on his big sister’s dairy farm in the Otways, selling the pelts for pocket money. They also ate the meat, which was commonly known by those who worked the land as ‘underground chicken’.
However, rabbit is of course far from being a top pick for today’s mainstream palate. If we’re going to get folks to include it in their diet as a means of ‘Eating Country Healthy’, then it seems the main hurdle would be to make it appetising: rabbit as a gourmet choice. This is the approach taken by Alex Perry at his Castlemaine establishment Bar Midland, and in the delicacy he devised for Djakitj Larr.
However, as Alex points out, despite the troublesome abundance of wild bunnies, there are major hurdles that hinder their pathway to our plates. Legally, to be sold and served as food, rabbits need to be processed in an off-site abattoir from where they are shot. Abattoirs are usually set up for factory farmed animals, and very few will process rabbits. That usually means a long drive for whoever caught them. Add to that the cost of processing at around $8 per rabbit in Victoria, and the consumer ends up paying up to $20 per wild-caught rabbit, at least $6 more expensive than a caged farmed rabbit.
It’s not just European ferals that are wreaking havoc on the landscape with their overabundance. Kangaroo numbers on Djaara Country – and elsewhere in Victoria – are sufficient to warrant their own culling program; their ongoing destruction of saplings and other valuable vegetation over the last few years grew into enough of a concern for the State to step in.
Glen Cole is a professional roo shooter who joins our lunchtime conversation at Bar Midland with Carly Noble and other primary producers from her network. Glen shares his insights into the culling program and some of its pitfalls, the main one being the meagre fee offered to shooters. Because there’s not a lot of money in it, you don’t get people who are really good shots, and you end up with gruesome, inhumane results. A case in point: the photographs recently posted on the Castlemania page of a roo found with its jaw blown off, left there to suffer and die slowly with a joey in its pouch. No wonder kangaroo culling has a bad name.
Nevertheless, Glen says most people get too emotional about kangaroos. Without witnessing or feeling the brunt of the damage they inflict, it’s hard for them to understand why the beautiful animals that hop around the paddock next to the house are being shot. If only the role of the shooter, as someone with incredible expertise who can humanely kill an animal, was properly valued and resourced. This would do a lot to build trust in the public that this necessary process was being carried out with care and respect.
Meanwhile, Bec Phillips points out that to date that most of the kangaroos that are culled in this process have been designated as dog meat, and that doesn’t feel respectful in the slightest. Although a proportion of the cull has been processed for human consumption since Victoria passed its new laws regarding Kangaroo in 2021, there is currently a lack of processing infrastructure and a lack of demand from consumers. As a result wild shot Victorian kangaroo is only available in a handful of specific game butchers and not currently in any supermarkets.
And yet, while we were writing this blog, a story showed up revealing that up to 70% of kangaroo meat harvested through Australian culling programs is now being exported to the EU for human consumption under an Australian Commonwealth Government approved “wildlife trade management plan”. There are questions over whether this export complies with EU regulations on the humane killing of animals for meat, and also allegations that the “overabundance” of kangaroos is being exaggerated in order to fuel this trade. Either way, this definitely seems to be a case of profit trumping conservation values.
Compare this whole system with the stewardship approach at the heart of Djaara Culture, which encourages us all to be a part of our ecosystem. This approach tackles overabundance by observing numbers, breeding cycles, movements, habitats and harvesting accordingly. Hunting is one part of this interaction; and eating is not just about sustenance, but in essence ‘becoming Country’ through eating locally. Moreover, using and respecting the skins and other remains, and keeping those remains on Country, is integral to honouring the gift that each animal represents. This is an extension of the Djaara principle of exchange, if you take from Country you give back to Country. If you take a roo for food in this Country, it should be consumed here, so as to only transform it to another part of Country – us. The yearning for that principle to be upheld in relation to an animal as culturally significant as Gurri (the Djaara word for Grey kangaroo), makes the somewhat shady extraction of its meat to overseas markets all the more distressing.
If Djaara Country were “returned” to full health, humans would also not be the only ones hunting roo. We would see dingoes back in Lani Galgal and ranging elsewhere through the region. Fulfilling their role as apex predators, dingoes would keep the kangaroos in check, and the rabbits too! We’ve seen this pattern play out with the return of wolves to Yellowstone in the United States. What a wonderful dream it would be to achieve something similar here! But surely, that will never happen given the threat the dingoes represent to the livestock that are such a fundamental part of our food system? Never say never: the return of dingoes to Djaara Country is part of the Dhelkunya Dja Healing Country Plan, although there is some realism in the first step they are exploring towards this goal: rehabilitation of the population of tiger quolls – a lower tier predator that can start to help bring ecological balance to its habitat.
So let’s consider what could help us all orient towards a healthier relationship with Australia’s most iconic animal. What if the regulations around hunting roo were informed by the health of the land and First Nations cultural values? And this was backed by the generation of appropriate demand through education of the community, including the presentation of that meat in a way that people get a reverential taste for it? Most people don’t appreciate how beautiful roo can taste. Carly Noble was one of those people until she came to Djakitj Larr. Her reaction: “Wow, I just want to share how this tastes and how exquisite it can be, with people who I work with, who just think it’s only pet food!”
However, if this does catch on, if people really do start eating roo and it becomes a mainstay, Bec is concerned that they will end up being farmed like cattle: “Gurri must remain free to fulfil its role in Country and be harvested with the measure of keeping balance. Yes, we need to step up in the absence of the dingo, as the apex predator, but this is a culturally significant animal that we have a relationship of respect with. I cannot condone it becoming just another product to be consumed.” So what if our relationship with all meat was far more respectful? What if our gratitude for being able to eat meat extended to our respect for the animals to have a life of their own? A life that is shaped to their evolution and shaped to who they are in the landscape and what they do for the land, what symbioses they’re involved in?
Which brings us to the bovine in the room. Our hooved friends raise many questions on this continent: what their hooves have done and continue to do to our soils and waterways, how the land has been cleared and fenced to accommodate them, should we be eating them at all (for any number of reasons)…? Should we add to those the question of whether we should give them the freedom to express their primal selves? Well maybe. Getting herds to rotate through pastures has long been a mainstay of regenerative farming with its proven ability to re-build depleted soils. Essentially this practice gets cattle to re-embody the communal movements they would have made when they were sharing the land with predators.
Does that really matter if cows don’t belong here, if this is not their natural environment? Well, there’s no denying that they are here, and the demand for them is not dropping any time soon, so why not put their regenerative powers to restorative use. In fact, what if kangaroo and wallaby grasses form the pastures that they bring back to life? And sheep, who have arguably done the most damage? Let them eat saltbush, and thrive in landscapes deemed lost to salinity! It’s a slippery slope, this systemic kind of thinking. Before we know it we’ll be begging those dingoes to come back and play their part in the mix…
And here’s a moment where we might come against the edges of our anthropocentric thinking and have the courage to step beyond it. Eating Djaara Country Healthy is not just about what we humans eat, it’s about what “everybody” is eating. So what is the roo eating? What is the rabbit eating? What would the dingo be eating if we brought him back? What are the soil microbes eating and what are the plants eating? And is everyone eating just the right amount of everyone else to keep the whole thing in balance? In these questions we can see that it’s not all about us, but we can help things happen well.
That’s the human role we can play: to help steward the whole ecosystem. And our rewards for succeeding in this enterprise stretch well beyond provisioning a healthy diet.
Sometimes we need to look outside of the pack, at the outliers, to get a sense of where things could go. The conversation about roo and rabbit, is a conversation about food sources that exist beyond our fences (literally and metaphorically). In a way, by locking our land up for human consumption, we’ve locked ourselves out of it. We’ve removed ourselves from the dynamic inter-relations that once gave us both food sovereignty and the ability to participate in the wellbeing of our ecosystem. If the appetite for respectful and cyclical harvesting and consumption of roo and rabbit were to grow to a tipping point, could that help us re-ignite this interactive collaboration?
Within those paddock fences there are primary producers who are doing their utmost to rekindle respectful relations with our plant and animal kin, and some of them are sitting around the table with us at Bar Midland. They are practical folk and as the conversation reaches a head they see what needs to happen next to take us towards this desirable future: “Bring back the local abattoir!” It turns out there’s a parallel to the demise of the scotch oven (see Blog 2). Every locality used to have its own abattoir. One by one they were snuffed out as meat processing took the ‘logical’ step towards ever larger, centralised operations. If abattoirs were to return to each Shire, it would give both primary producers and wild game hunters greater flexibility and control over how and when they process their meat, whilst making these smaller operations more economically viable.
It is the radical re-localisation that plays out from this that is likely to have the most profound effect however. As the journey from paddock to plate becomes shorter and more tangible, “eating from the land” becomes more accessible to the minds and mouths of consumers. And here we see the idea of bioregional governance intersecting with an Indigenous approach to food and the land. Both are focussed on understanding and living within our means, both call us home from the externalising dangers of globalised extractive economies. And both nurture our appreciation of the animals that nourish us, and of the roles that they, and we, play in the health of Country.