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A case of not in my backyard?

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Nancy Pallin takes a look at the problem of the flying foxes that inhabit Sydney’s Botanic Gardens. Some of the tallest and oldest trees in the Botanic Gardens are affected by the colony of flying foxes that camp there.     
Many are losing their leaves and dying because of increased nutrients and the scratching from flying fox claws. The Botanic Gardens Trust has been assessing the situation over the last couple of years, preparing a public environment report which has to be submitted to the federal Environment Minister for assessment. The report has to outline what they will do about the problem and justify any special circumstances.

Virtually any camp of flying-foxes will have some impact on people living in very close proximity to it but they are more an inconvenience and are not a health threat. For example, McLean High School in northern New South Wales was originally quite small until the 1980s, then subsequently the school was expanded and a TAFE college built next to it. These developments encroached further upon the remnant rainforest on the banks of the Clarence River, which had long been occupied by flying foxes. Despite repeated ‘dispersals’ of the camp at the request of the school, the flying-foxes continue to return to this roosting habitat.

Flying fox camps use the tallest of the trees (they use many different types - it's the height and density that are important) and are generally situated near water. They prefer to all live in the one place so the trees are dense with the creatures. They fly out at night to feed, perhaps some ten to thirty kilometres away from the camp, before returning to the same branch on the same tree before dawn. They use their camps not for food but to rest, groom, sleep, socialise and care for their young. As they feed on over a hundred species of native trees, flying foxes play an important role in the long distance dispersal of pollen and seeds.

The Sydney Botanic Gardens Trust wants to use noise to relocate the flying foxes and have assessed where they might go (there are camps at Gordon, Parramatta, Cabramatta and irregularly, Wolli Creek for example) if this happens. In winter numbers fall to a few thousand or even zero however they can reach 30,000 in summer which is why they do present a problem in the gardens.

However, if the Botanic Gardens Trust is permitted to disturb the camp of flying-foxes, will this provide a precedent for applications to attempt to relocate other camps too and if so, where will the animals go? Already many camp sites have been lost as a result of clearing native vegetation and developments. The federal department for the environment has a draft recovery plan on its website for the grey-headed flying foxes which outlines the science and knowledge of these native animals that are listed as vulnerable - one step away from being endangered, which is the likely outcome if they lose further habitat and camp sites.

Where there is adequate habitat and trees are healthy, the large camps do not cause permanent damage and destruction. This has been shown from long term mapping of the camp sites on Indooroopilly Island on the Brisbane River. Gradually, the camp moves sideways around the island's habitat, thereby allowing the trees to recover. This is not possible when the camp habitat is reduced in area or the animals are prevented from using camp sites.

Community groups have been working on bush regeneration around Sydney and further afield for up to three decades, restoring habitat for flying-foxes and other fauna. Wingham Brush, in northern NSW, is a shining example of positive community action in this respect. Their efforts led to the rescue of the largest remnant of lowland rainforest left in the Manning River valley available for flying foxes. The removal of weeds, especially the fast growing and smothering South American vines, has avoided the loss of trees and enabled the regeneration of many. Loss of some camps by relocation of the animals will put pressure on those which volunteers and Local Government have been working to restore.

Nancy believes that even if the camp in the Botanic Gardens is moved, the flying foxes will return as they feed nearby in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Further, during the course of a year, different groups of flying foxes join and leave the camp, so that the 'relocation' activities would need to be ongoing and prove expensive. Even successful exclusion would probably only be a short term success since this attractive site with nearby food sources will lure flying foxes back.

It seems that by removing flying fox habitat we have been outfoxed.

Text: V.B. January 2010

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