The East Gippsland Shire Council (EGSC) appears determined to destroy the roosting site of a colony of the threatened Grey-headed Flying Foxes. This is a major blunder of immense ignorance and bloody mindedness that will likely result in an even bigger problem for the council, possibly with a million dollar ‘fix-it’ bill and an even more threatened, threatened species.
During 2015 and 2016, the colony remained at the site all winter with females staying to birth their young – defined as a maternal breeding colony which gives this site even more significance.
Victoria is lucky to host three Nationally Significant colonies of the Grey-headed Flying Fox (GHFF). One of those is the colony which roosts along tall vegetation along Riverine Street on the Mitchell River at the edge of Bairnsdale. This could become a major tourist draw-card if properly promoted. But the local East Gippsland Shire forges ahead with a plan to destroy their roosting trees, declaring the trees are a danger to the public (and some fearful community members declaring the flying foxes are a threat to the public). This destruction is planned to happen in three stages, the first stage of tree clearing was in 2016. The next is due now (June 2017).
As a Federally listed threatened species the shire must apply for a permit to disturb or destroy their roosting trees. They were granted a permit despite the shire providing no details of alternative roost sites they expect the colony to move to. The permit detailed a number of conditions but these have not been met. The second stage of tree clearing (another 1/3rd of their day camp area) has been planned despite there being no stage 2 plan provided as stipulated.
This virtual dispersal via habitat destruction is doomed to fail going on past attempts.
- dispersed animals did not abandon the local area – in all cases,
- in 16 of the 17 cases, dispersals did not reduce the number of flying foxes in a local area.
- Dispersed animals did not move far (in most cases it was <600m from the original site, dependent on available vegetation).
- In 85% of cases, new camps were established nearby.
- In all cases, it was not possible to predict where replacement camps would form.
- In 71% of cases conflict was still being reported either at the original site or within the local area years after the initial dispersal actions.
- Repeat dispersal actions were generally required (all cases except extensive vegetation removal).
The financial costs of all dispersal attempts were high ranging from tens of thousands of dollars for vegetation removal to $1-3 million for active dispersals (e.g. using noise, smoke etc).
If the Flying foxes are stressed by the removal of their trees, they could move into adjoining house gardens and trees, the local school or hospital gardens.
Some locals along Riverine Steet claim disease, noise, smell, and the potential for the devaluation of their homes is an issue. Other residents enjoy the bats and find the traffic more of a noise issue than thee GHFFs.
It appears that the EGSC are acting to placate the views of a few noisy and uneducated residents and are happy for untruths about GHFF to be repeated in the local press. In their Action Plan presented to the federal environment department they stated the council will provide Ongoing Community Engagement & Education – which it hasn’t.
When 1/3 of the trees were removed in 2015 this was supposed to be replaced with native species. This hasn’t happened, but weeds have grown and poplars are growing back.
In 2014, Dr David Westcott CSIRO scientist and Bat presented a talk at a public meeting in Bairnsdale. Dr Westcott spoke of the long, violent and unsuccessful history of campaigns to remove flying-fox camps from east coast towns. He warned how things could go from bad to worse. He said, “history has shown it is easier and more successful to train humans to live with flying foxes than it is to attempt to train flying-foxes and move their camps.”
Over 200 people attended that public meeting – including senior council representatives. Most residents were happy for the GHFFs to stay where they were undisturbed.
I suggest fencing off the area, removing only the trees on the edge that are considered dangerous to the public and replanting with native species in the site now – while the GHFF are absent. I suggest educational signage to inform the public of the importance of protecting this keystone species.
This has been going on since 2002 – if EGSC had been planting substitute native species on this site back then, they would now be of an age to replace the Poplars.
History and significance of colony
A quick search of Trove brings up records of GHFF in Bairnsdale going back as far as the mid-1800s. Their normal range is the east coast from QLD to South Australia.
GHFF have been recorded as camped at this site permanently since 2002. The site has been used to for some years as a maternal breeding colony.
Grey-headed Flying Foxes have been a vital part of the East Coast and Victoria for millions of years, co-evolving with flowering trees as key pollinators. They play one of the most important roles in a forest ecosystem, pollinating and dispersing seed as they feed on the flowers and fruits of native vegetation. Native hardwood forests rely heavily on mammal pollinators – many trees only produce fresh nectar and pollen at night, when flying foxes are foraging. Daytime bees and birds are left to mop up, as flowers are dead by morning.[i] Flying foxes can be thought of as giant long-range bees – able to carry large pollen loads over distanced and fractured eco systems.
Grey-headed Flying Fox numbers are falling by 30% a year mostly due to habitat loss – at this rate will be extinct within 100 yrs. Australia has the worst extinction rate in the world. 1 out of every 3 world mammal extinctions in the last 200 years have occurred in Australia.
Grey-headed Flying Foxes are listed as Vulnerable under national environmental law (Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, the EPBC Act). Their vital role as keystone forest pollinators is recognised by legislation.
State law in Victoria: Listed as Vulnerable under the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988;
There have only been three cases of Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABL) reported Australia-wide. ABL can only be caught from untreated bites or scratches from infected bats. ABL cannot be caught from bat droppings or urine. There is no evidence that ABL can be passed directly from flying-foxes to humans, from the environment to humans, or that it is airborne. [ii] Flying-foxes can carry Hendra virus, which can pass to horses in extremely rare cases and only occur under specific and extreme conditions.[iii] .[iv]
With dogs in Australia accounting for over 100,00 attacks on people each year [v] – statistically it sounds safer having bats on the river than exercising dogs. Do we ever lament the increase of our own traffic pollution on Riverine Street?
For the record, Melbourne City Council spent 3 million dollars relocating the GHFF colony out of the Botanical Gardens and lost 30% of the colony in the process.
Lisa Roberts & Jill Redwood
[i] Hall, Leslie, and Greg Richards. Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia.
Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000.
[ii] Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection
[iii] Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection
[iv] Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection
[v] The Australian Veterinary Association, August 2012.
i Hall, Leslie, and Greg Richards. Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000.
ii Hall, Leslie, and Greg Richards. Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia. Sydney: UNSW Press, 2000.
iii Department of Environment Draft Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act Policy Statement 2014 Camp management guidelines for the Grey–‐headed flying–‐fox. iv http://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/species/flying–‐fox–‐law v http://www.australianwildlife.org/wildlife.aspx
vi Dr David Westcott; Principal Research Scientist in CSIRO Ecosystem Sciences’ Ecology Program –‐ speaking at Bairnsdale Public meeting, July 2014.
vii Review of past flying–‐fox dispersal actions between 1990–‐2013. Prepared by Billie Roberts and Peggy Eby June 2013 www.environment.nsw.gov.au/…/flying–‐fox…/flyingfoxsub–‐ballina–‐council–‐part2.pdf
viii Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection https://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/livingwith/flyingfoxes/viruses.html
ix Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection https://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/livingwith/flyingfoxes/viruses.html
x Queensland Government Department of Environment and Heritage Protection https://www.ehp.qld.gov.au/wildlife/livingwith/flyingfoxes/viruses.html
xi The Australian Veterinary Association, August 2012. xii http://www.eastgippsland.vic.gov.au/Community/Our_Environment/Biodiversity