The Australian town of Bairnsdale in Victoria – 300km east of Melbourne – is known as the gateway to east Gippsland’s natural wonders. It is also the scene of a 10-year battle between a group of residents and the East Gippsland shire council over a colony of grey-headed flying foxes that roost along the town’s Mitchell River.
In 2014, the council received federal government approval to clear critical habitat in a three-stage process, the first occurring in 2015. The debate is now heating up in the approach of stage-two clearing, which the council intends to complete by the end of 2018.
- The nightly spectacle of grey-headed flying foxes departing their Bairnsdale camp to fly up the Mitchell River to feed
East Gippsland ShireThe council maintains the clearing is needed to remove dead or dying trees that make up almost the bats’ entire habitat. The council’s grey-headed flying fox roost site revegetation plan includes a requirement that the area be replanted with trees as a condition of the clearing. Revegetation of stage one has not yet occurred, although the clearing took place three years ago.
Council spokesman Chris Waites says: “The delay of the revegetation since the 2015 clearing was due to pathway works, and the council intends on completing it [the revegetation of stage one] this calendar year.”
The group opposing the clearance has undertaken freedom-of-information requests to expose what it considers a breach of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act by the shire, objecting on the grounds that the Bairnsdale colony is classified as nationally important in the department of environment and energy’s national flying fox monitoring program. It also claims some of the federal government’s conditions for clearing have not been met, including revegetation and consultation about the impact on the bats.
Local bat campaigner Lisa Roberts has lived near the roost site since 2003, documenting the bats’ behaviour and breeding activity, and has campaigned against the clearing of the grey-headed flying fox habitat since 2013.
- Lisa Roberts and her daughter Lola have recently documented pups and mothers at the roost
“I hold serious concerns about the next stage of clearing. I have captured images of mothers and their pups, indicating it’s a maternal roosting site, not just a summer camp and, therefore, have requested an urgent pause and review of the tree removal,” says Roberts.
The documentation behind the council’s clearing permit application states there is no data or knowledge on where the bats may go when the trees are cleared or what impact it will have on the colony’s population.
“We have recently engaged an ecologist to monitor the colony but as stated in our management plan, there is no information on where the colony may roost following the clearing,” Waites says.
- Grey-headed flying fox mother and pup
Bairnsdale is not the first town to debate the competing needs of bats and the people that live near them – it is just one of many towns and cities along the east coast of Australia where similar debates rage. Advocates of clearing cite noise, smell, disease and impact on agriculture of bats entering the urban environment, while opponents claim the “solutions” offered by councils are often violent, environmentally destructive and ineffective.
Front of mind for bat campaigners such as Roberts is the declining size of bat populations across Australia. Grey-headed flying fox numbers are falling by 30% a year, mostly due to habitat loss. At this trajectory, the species will be nationally extinct within 100 years.
- A grey-headed flying fox gliding through the air
“In many ways the flying fox is emblematic of Australia’s human-wildlife conflict when wild animals enter the urban environment,” Roberts says.
She believes the proposed next stage of clearing in Bairnsdale targets trees most used by the colony and the bats will simply relocate to private land.
Dr David Westcott, a senior principal research scientist at the CSIRO, visited Bairnsdale before the stage-one clearing in 2015 and addressed a public meeting. “History has shown it is easier and more successful to train humans to live with flying foxes than the other way around,” he says.
- Grey-headed flying foxes socialise (left) and an adult grey-headed flying fox at Yarra Bend at Melbourne’s Yarra Bend park
Australia’s “bat solutions” have achieved limited success at great financial cost. In Melbourne, 30% of a colony in the city’s botanical gardens was lost after the Melbourne city council spent $6m relocating it. On the Sunshine Coast, relocation efforts resulted in a new bat camp being established 400 metres from the initial camp, and in Batemans Bay, the council asked for $2.5m from the federal government to disperse a colony.
- A grey-headed flying fox colony takes flight over Melbourne
Westcott says: “The key thing is that communities understand what it is that they are getting themselves into when they try and move a camp. And while it might work, there is a very good chance that it will only work temporarily [for days or weeks], that it won’t work at all, or will make matters worse.”
Roberts believes the Bairsndale roost site could be a major tourist attraction. “We made a walking map at the gallery for tourists with coffee and cultural attractions. Tourists love the whole concept of them,” she says.
Similar efforts have been implemented in Bellingen, New South Wales, and Yarra Bend in Melbourne, where councils now market the bat roosts as tourist attractions.