Well the statistics say that it was actually the pig hunter that broke themselves.
Hunting behind a team of pig dogs is hard yakka and could well be described as a big fun semi-organised ball’s up. For those of you that have been lucky enough to give it a go, you’ll be well aware that there are plenty of opportunities for things to go very wrong. And go wrong they do, I can assure you.
My own pig hunting misadventures have taken me into some of the worst situations and nastiest gullies on the planet and for some reason I manage to forget all the bad stuff and return for more punishment the very next weekend. Occasionally I’ve even ended up in the human vet clinic for a bit of a patch up and haven’t be able to return to the hills for weeks or even months. Experiences like that are actually more common than you’d think amongst pig hunters and I reckon it’s because we tend to take big risks during that adrenalin filled heat of the moment, barrelling on in to the thick of the action to help out our dogs.
The intention of this article is to highlight some of the injuries that occur while out pig hunting and what you can do to prevent these injuries occurring.
The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council collated and analysed the available data from several sources including ACC injuries, SAR, fatalities and participation to produce a document called “A Hunter’s Tale” which highlights the key risks to the safety of hunters. The results indicated that pig hunting injuries happened most frequently during the pursuit or final moments of the hunt, in close proximity to wild pigs or hunting dogs or in challenging terrain.
Bites are the biggest risk with 59% being inflicted by pigs and 41% by dogs. Compared with all hunters a pig hunter is 2.5 X more likely to be inflicted with a knife wound. Post hunt infection from bites and cuts has been a common reason for pig hunters to seek medical attention. Strains, breaks and open wound injuries to the limbs were also more common in pig hunters than other hunters and this is due to the very rough terrain that us pig hunters seem to force ourselves into.
The desire to carry out heavy loads also makes pig hunters more likely to experience back problems than other hunters. There have been five recorded accidental fatalities during pig hunting trips in New Zealand, three were caused by drowning, one from falling over a bluff and one accidental self-shooting.
Over 25 years of very regular pig hunting I’ve been afflicted by several injuries and have seen some nasty damage to my mates and we’ve certainly made good use of ACC. If we were in a different country where you rely on private insurance to cover accidents we probably wouldn’t be having quite as much fun, as pig hunting would definitely fall into a high risk category. I’ve suffered a few pig bites to my hands, some requiring medical attention, taken a tusk gash to the leg which luckily didn’t go too deep, and have slipped with the knife into my thumb. I’ve also been stuck 15 cm deep by a Manuka stake which jabbed up through my calf muscle and into my hamstring tendon, requiring surgery to remove the bits left behind and keeping me off the hill for a couple of months.
A busy lifestyle is catching up with me and my knees are in a really bad way. I’ve had several surgeries to try and keep one of them functioning, rugby was the original cause but carrying heavy wild pigs over rough country certainly hasn’t helped. One of the worst injuries I’ve seen happen to a mate was when his hand slipped down the knife during the stick, partially severing his fingers. Another mate with a broken leg had to get a chopper ride out, and a bloke I took on his first hunt took a boar tusk slash to the forearm as he went in for the stick and it’s left him with a pretty decent scar. Most of us have seen the gory pictures on the internet of the tusk rips up the legs and I’ve heard about a solo hunter who somehow slipped the knife right through while throat sticking a pig and slashed his own inner thigh, an injury that very nearly could have taken his life, bleeding out right there on the hill.
Anyway a few horror stories aren’t going to keep a good keen pig hunter away from the bush and life would be bloody boring if you let the nay-sayers slow you down, so the best thing I can write about are some of the things I’ve learned that may help to reduce the risks of injury while out pig hunting with dogs:
(1) Be an athlete
You enjoy your hunting so much more when you are fitter and arguably you could actually do a much better job of it with more enthusiasm to cover ground and put the dogs where they need to be to catch a pig. You will also get to the dogs on the pig faster and when you are right in the thick of the action you’ll be able to make good decisions without the hindrance of exhaustion. Good decisions could make all the difference in preventing injury and helping your dogs. If you’re still recovering from a night on the razzle, you’re not really being fair on the dogs, the pigs or yourself either. Nutritional food and plenty of water will also help to keep you in beast mode. I do realize that not all pig hunters are world class athletes, but everyone has it in them to be the best that they can be within their life style situation. This could be as simple as walking the dogs on their daily exercise route, instead of driving beside them.
(2) Wear PPE
Personal Protective Equipment, most of us in outdoor or trade jobs know exactly what this means and it’s no different for pig hunting. If you’re operating through gorse, blackberry, lawyer, briar or matagouri, you’ll thank yourself for trading in the fleecy pyjamas and wearing heavy duty canvas chaps or pants and strong jackets. Thick gloves are a great addition to your belt bag as well and you’ll get along a lot quicker if you’re not pussy footing through the prickles. If a pig did happen to have a go and you cop a bite or a tusk slash, the damage will be much reduced if they have to chew through some heavy duty clothing. If you do happen to get injured an item of bright clothing will help in your rescue, as will a personal locator beacon and a hunt plan left with a family member or friend. If you wear rubber gum boots like red bands into rough and slippery terrain you will have a higher risk of a sprain or strain, than if you are wearing lace up boots with ankle support. Don’t forget your headlamp, I find you fall over more when you can’t see!
(3) Set your limits! Train yourself and your dogs.
Biting off more than you can chew is something that many of us pig hunters could think more about. With the modern GPS tracking gear we will often let our dogs get out a bit further than we probably should and this really puts the pressure on when they “tree quarry” miles from where they started. It’s about using a bit of self-controlling judgment to know when to pull the dogs back if they are moving into rough country where the terrain is dangerous for humans, or when the humans are just getting far too tired to thrash around the scrub any longer. To do this you can train your dogs to respond to a return signal. I’ve used a shepherd’s whistle for many years to pull my dogs back and in recent times I’ve managed to use the tone or beep signal on the tracking gear to get the dogs to return to me. The best days out pig hunting are the days that you exit the block with all your dogs at the time you want to leave. Catching a pig is a bonus and there is less risk of a verbal injury from the other half when you make it home on time!
(4) Get in there!
Once the dogs have actually caught or bailed up a pig it’s time to quickly make a plan for a safe approach. Sometimes the shortest way is not the safest way and local knowledge combined with GPS maps will help you to pick a safe route that avoids waterfalls, bluffs, deep river crossings and thick prickly vegetation. Once you are close, if it’s a larger pig that’s giving the dogs a good work out then you’d be very wise to take caution on the final approach. Keep quiet and keep downwind if possible so as not to alert the pig that you are there. Try not to get yourself downhill of the pig or on its potential escape path as you may well get flattened. If the pig is being bailed remember that a pigs first form of defence is attack, I’ve been charged many times as soon as the pig has spotted me and boy can they move quick. It’s best to keep above them and use a bank or a tree as a physical barrier when sneaking in to take a shot.
(5) Secure the pig
Most injuries to pig hunters happen in the situation where the pig is being held by the dogs and the hunter is attempting to dispatch the pig. I find the best way to calm the whole scene down is to secure the pig first and foremost and to do this you need both of your hands free. Approach from behind and pick the pig up by both back legs then roll it onto its back. This will immobilise the pig, making it less able to turn on the hunters or fight with the dogs. The hunter can then pin the pig with their knee on the animals belly and by holding a front hoof upright. Now and only now is it time to pull out the knife with your free hand. Pulling out the knife before the pig is secure is a common mistake and can lead to accidental knife wounds to the hunter or the dogs. Occasionally if the situation is too risky and the pig cannot be flipped, a hunter may need to side stick a standing pig, but the safest way to do this is to have one hunter securing the pigs back legs and the other executing the stick. Grabbing by the tail is not a useful way of immobilising a pig because with all four hooves gaining traction it will simply drag you around. Get those back legs off the ground.
(6) Avoid the toothy end
The toothy end includes both the pig and the dogs and bites are a regular injury to pig hunters. The tusks of a boar might be showy enough to demand caution but also be wary of sows and small pigs as they can all inflict a very nasty bite as well. Just stay clear of their mouths at all times. Excited dogs make no distinction between a pigs head and your hand so make sure they are clear before getting the knife up towards the toothy end. Too many dogs is a common issue and when the pig has run out of ears and cheeks for them to grip the other dogs or pups may be snapping on and off. Limiting dog numbers will certainly help. Also well trained dogs will actually come off the pig once it is secured on its back and stand-off while the hunter dispatches the pig.
(7) Get a grip and keep the sharp edge away
The stick itself if not done properly can result in a very nasty cut. A sharp knife with a well-honed point is required to slide in without too much brute strength required. Conditions are often damp so a non-slip handle is a must. If you are forcing the knife or your grip is not tight enough then your hand may slip off the handle onto the blade, which can cause very deep cuts and even tendon damage. You should always keep the sharp edge of the knife facing away from yourself while sticking a pig and the same goes for gutting. If the knife goes further than you expected where is it going to end up? Avoid the “serial killer stick”, where the knife is raised well above the target before being driven down wards. This is stupidly dangerous and you should instead hold the point on the target then put even pressure on to slide the blade in.
(8) Rifle check, check, check.
Pig hunting rifles can get loaded and unloaded many times on a hunt. Some hunters may prepare to shoot a runner pig that might break over a crossing after the dogs have grabbed one from a nearby mob. They then will unload to carry on down to the dogs, often through thick vegetation. If the pig is being bailed the hunter will load up in the final few meters of the approach. Often the bailed pig will end up being a held by the dogs just before the hunter has a chance to take a clear shot, so the rifle will have to be unloaded again and placed on the ground pointing in a safe direction before moving in to grab the pig. The situation is fast paced and exciting and there are many opportunities for a hunter to forget to unload and make the rifle safe. The only solution is to get into the habit of check, check, check. Even if you’re sure it’s safe, always open the breach and take another look before making your next move. Moving off a pig run, check again. After the pig has been killed, check again. During the carrying out, check again.
(9) Share or lighten the load
We pig hunters pride ourselves on getting the whole carcass back off the hill, one way or another! It sets us apart from the deer stalkers not only in our brute strength, good looks and power but also in our statistically higher risk of injury from slipping over or straining our backs. I could say don’t be stupid and butcher the pig on the hill and carry the meat out in a pack, but most aren’t going to listen to that advice, including myself! If you are hunting in a team then take short turns on the carry and swap over regularly. If it really is unachievable you could always hang the pig and walk out to take the dog’s home, then return with scales if you need to know the total weight, a camera if you need the glory and then pack the meat out once it has cooled and set. Hey I enjoy a decent pig carcass travelling on the back of my ute too, some days I just wonder why the hell I did it!
Post hunt infections of scratches and cuts are a common reason for pig hunters to seek medical treatment. You can alleviate this by cleaning up your hands and arms as soon as possible after the kill, washing in free flowing creeks or rivers and even carrying anti-septic gel in your belt bag. Cleaning up again after the carry will also help and you could consider leaving some soap in your vehicle. It’ll make your steak and cheese pie taste a lot better on the journey home anyway.
Hopefully these 10 tips give you pig hunters a bit of useful knowledge to help keep you safe and get you home in one piece. Now get back out there with the dogs, hook into those hogs and try not to break yourself!