Monday, May 2, 2011

Update: 1st May 2011

Here’s an update on a few of the ongoing issues that are affecting flying-foxes in NSW. It’s been a pretty grim few months and there’s not much good news.

Shooting of flying-foxes for crop protection

NSW is the only state that still allows flying-foxes to be shot as a method of crop protection. It’s a practice that an independent panel, commissioned by the NSW Labor government, found to be “unacceptable legally and ethically” because of the duration and extent of suffering caused to both the animals that are shot (many of which will not die immediately) and young flying foxes that are orphaned by the loss of their mother and will subsequently die of dehydration or starvation (a fact acknowledged by the NSW government department responsible for the issuing of licenses to shoot flying-foxes). 

Prior to the March NSW state elections, both Liberal and Labor parties committed $5m+ of support to orchardists in the Sydney and Central Coast regions of NSW towards the installation of full exclusion netting which offers far better protection against flying-foxes (and birds, and hail) than shooting can. This was the first glimmer of hope that perhaps we might actually see a reduction in the rate of shooting, and the cruelty associated with it. 

But post-election, things took a significant turn for the worse...... 

NSW Politics Part 1

In the lead up to the NSW state elections, the Liberals Environment Spokesperson, Catherine Cusack, had demonstrated a strong degree of support on the matter of shooting and there was some hope amongst conservation groups that she could bring some real passion to the Environment portfolio should the Liberals, as expected, be elected.

So it came as quite a blow when Cusack was omitted from the new cabinet and the Environment portfolio was handed to Robyn Parker, a junior minister with no apparent environment experience. 

Worse was to come. The NSW Dept of Environment, Climate Change and Water (DECCW) was disbanded and its functions transferred into the Department of Premier and Cabinet. NSW Premier O’Farrell claimed that this demonstrated an elevation in the status of environmental issues within his cabinet but few conservationists believe this and instead see it as a clear sign that the O’Farrell government has little commitment towards positive environmental outcomes. DECCW is now known as the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and the former director of DECCW is now the head of OEH. This is clearly a demotion even though effectively she still holds the same job. And the Minister of Environment, Robyn Parker, seems to be little more than a figurehead as the OEH departmental structure reports not to her but to Barry O’Farrell. 

NSW Politics Part 2

Within weeks of the election, the new Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson was describing flying-foxes as pests and vermin. This was in response to calls from farmers in the NSW Central-West region for the new government to make it easier for farmers to acquire licenses allowing them to shoot flying-foxes. 

NSW Farmers appear to have taken full advantage of Hodgkinson’s inexperience in the ministry and, in an apparent attempt to appease the increasingly strident (and unverifiable) claims of damage created by flying-foxes, her Department issued a press release indicating that she would pursue having the grey-headed flying-fox removed from the threatened species list. It would appear that her expectation was that this would make it easier to allow the farmers to shoot larger numbers of flying-foxes whilst ignoring the reality that the species is in decline and increasing the rate of shooting would inevitably hasten that decline. Hodgkinson’s media release on the issue contains some significant errors which suggests that she was either poorly briefed or was more focused on appeasing NSW Farmers than she was on getting her facts right. 

It’s worth noting that threatened species listings don’t even fall within Hodgkinson’s remit. They fall within Robyn Parker’s Environment portfolio and to the department now known as OEH that reports in to Barry O’Farrell.  In a further sign that Primary Industries interests have greater precedence than environmental concerns, neither Barry O’Farrell nor Robyn Parker made a single public statement on the matter, even with respect to those aspects of it that fall within their responsibilities and not Katrina Hodgkinson’s.

After the initial flurry of media, Hodgkinson has been silent in the last couple of weeks and it’s not at all clear what this means. Hopefully she’s now been adequately briefed on the issue and understands that her initial comments were poorly considered and that she needs to be more wary of being misled by vocal minorities in NSW Farmers. But of course, it’s entirely possible that behind the scenes, she’s pursuing the environmentally destructive policies that she’s already announced. In an attempt to get some clarity, peak welfare and conservation groups are urgently seeking meetings with Environment Minister Parker but have yet to have had any success in that regards. 

Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney dispersal

The project to evict grey-headed flying-foxes from Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney is now entering a very complex phase. The period from 1st May to the end of July marks the only portion of the year when the Botanic Gardens Trust can actively attempt to remove the bats from the Gardens because it is acknowledged by experts as the time of year when any action against the bats will have the least impact on their breeding cycle. And it’s important to be aware that this does not equate to NO impact, it just represents the LEAST impact. 

BGT appear to believe that 3 months gives them plenty of time to complete the project. In fact they claim that the project should achieve its goals within 2 to 4 weeks of the commencement of the dispersal. These claims are exceptionally optimistic and it's hard to understand what grounds they have for making such bold predictions. 

A cursory review of previous dispersals (including the one in Melbourne in 2003/04 that took six months to move the animals and which BGT claim, somewhat disingenuously, to be a success and a precedent for the Sydney action) indicates that three months is not, in fact, a vast window of opportunity. Rather, it is a period which is very likely to be insufficient for the project to achieve its stated objectives of removing the bats from the Gardens and (more importantly) moving them to alternate and acceptable habitat. It’s finding them a new and suitable roost site, not evicting them from the Gardens, that’s likely to take time. 

It would seem reasonable to suggest that the BGT would want to get the dispersal underway as soon as possible but all the signs are that BGT are some weeks away from being able to actually start the dispersal.  

Why is this? It's impossible to be 100% certain because BGT are playing their cards close to their chests but it seems likely that the delay is related to the "conditions of approval".

Both state and federal government approvals place a number of complex conditions on the project and it would appear that the BGT still has a lot of work to do to before they can claim to have met the conditions of approval and start the actual dispersal.

One of the most complex series of conditions relates to the use of radio tracking collars. We'll go into this issue a bit more in future but the bottom line is that fitting radio collars to a large number of bats is a very complex, expensive and time consuming process. It was difficulties with this aspect of the program that caused BGT to postpone the dispersal project in 2010. 

BGT appear to be having just as many problems this year and we believe that they will, if they haven’t already, apply to the federal government for a variation of the conditions of approval so as to make it easier for them to proceed with the project. Conservation groups have already voiced, to the federal Minister of Environment Tony Burke, their opposition to any variation of conditions that would allow the BGT to break their previous commitments.  Inexplicably, his department allowed a variation of conditions, also relating to radio collars, last year which compromised the objectives of the scientific program and conservation groups are keen to not see the conditions be weakened further by more variations. 

As a side issue to this, a grey-headed flying-fox with severe, life threatening throat injuries recently came into care with a Sydney wildlife care organisation., The injuries were caused by the animal losing weight after a BGT radio tracking collar was fitted around its neck. The weight loss allowed the collar to move around and chafe so badly that the animals jawbone was exposed. 

Dr Tim Entwisle, who until very recently has overseen the dispersal project in his position of Executive Director of the Botanic Gardens and Domain Trust has now moved overseas to take on a role at Kew Gardens in the UK. His replacement is Professor David Mabberley who will take on the role in August. Prof Mabberley appears to have broader experience in the field of biodiversity than Dr Entwisle so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the issue of the flying-foxes. 

Other Issues

A large number of bats in Ku-Ring-Gai flying-fox reserve colony (in the lower north shore Sydney suburb of Gordon) have apparently moved to a new location within the reserve that is increasing the level of conflict with some residents. Even in isolation, this is a concern but if many of the bats evicted from RBG relocate to the Gordon camp (as predicted by BGT), then the conflict could become a real problem. 

A small colony of grey-headed flying-foxes in the Sydney northern-beaches suburb of Avalon is under threat as Pittwater Council intend to trim back vegetation in the camp to an extent that it is unlikely to sustain even a small sized camp. The trimming is in response to the calls by a number of residents who find the bats to be unwanted neighbours. The action will almost certainly be sanctioned by the NSW Office of Environment & Heritage. The Federal Department of Environment will not step in as the camp, numbering only 300 or so animals, does not come into the category of what they consider to be a “significant population”. The current camp footprint is so small that it seems likely that any trimming will result in the animals moving on from the current site (which may of course be the unspoken intent of the action). As always, it’s impossible to predict whether the site they choose as a new roost will bring them into even more conflict with humans.