Conservationists take fire at farmers who shoot bats

Marty McCarthyWednesday, 30 January 2013

A bat conservation group says it is concerned many farmers may be continuing to kill flying foxes illegally, even though a legal avenue is now available to them.

Eighteen landholders have applied for permits, known as DMPs, to kill flying foxes since they were re-introduced in Queensland four months ago.

Ten have been granted.

It means farmers can shoot up to 30 bats on their properties each year across four types of flying fox.

But Bat Conservation and Rescue Queensland’s Louise Saunders says she does not believe the numbers reflect the reality.

"You'd have to be a bit of a stupid person if you think there wasn't illegal stuff going on.”

"Flying foxes only have one baby a year, it's the same year that fruit is ripening, so when they shoot a female, it's taking out two animals.

Ms Saunders says it's very difficult to know how many bats are being killed as a result of the DMPs.

"We're relying on other people to dob them in if they're doing the wrong thing," she says.

"EHP [Department of Environment and Heritage Protection] officers don't have a right of entry so how can they police it?"

However, the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection says it is yet to receive any reports of orchardists illegally shooting flying foxes, although it is currently investigating one report of alleged illegal shooting of flying foxes that is not related to crop protection.

The department says a number of properties have been inspected to ensure permit conditions are being met and that a review of the DMP process will take place at the end of the growing season.

However, some believe it may not be a good season to use as a case study for the bat problem, particularly in north Queensland.

Anecdotal reports of farmers not needing to shoot flying foxes despite being permitted to do so have emerged from across the region, something EHP has confirmed.

"Feedback from DMP holders suggests that generally flying foxes have not been a major problem so far during the current season and individual DMP quotas are unlikely to be fully utilised," wildlife operations manager Mike Devery says.

Mutarnee lychee grower Martin Joyce, the first fruit producer to be granted a DMP, confirmed this when interviewed by the ABC in December in the middle of his lychee harvest.

"This is one of the first seasons we haven't had any problems with bats for years and years," Mr Joyce said.

"I don't know if other growers have had problems but we haven’t."

Mr Joyce said it could have been a result of the extensive dry conditions in the lead up to the harvest, but was unsure of the reason.

But Louise Saunders says it’s most likely because bats are getting enough food from native forests to sustain themselves, but it may not continue.

"(Native food) is their first choice," she says.

"But when we go into starvation events that is when these crops that are open to the bats will be predated like there's no tomorrow.

"We had one [starvation event] in 2007 and one in 2010 and it's predicted we will have them again."

However, Ms Saunders acknowledges the lack of bat incidents on orchards may also have been impacted by other preventative measures by fruit growers.

DMP applications must comply with a Code of Practice which specifies the property either use exclusion netting over the entire crop or two prescribed non-lethal methods to manage flying-foxes, such as sound scaring or lighting devices.

But Ms Saunders says although use of these devices is welcomed, nets are still the best option.

"These animals are very smart and clever," she says.

"They soon work out that they can get around lights and sound.

"So just net the crops with proper exclusion netting."

Despite being a passionate advocate for flying fox conservation, Ms Saunders is sympathetic to the needs of farmers and understands the need to protect crops.

"We’re not silly," she says, " We want farmers and the growing of fruit."

"It's essential for the future of Australia, but to do it humanely and without the killing of animals is what should be happening.

"Just remove the DMPs, they're not going to work."

But, currently DMP holders are required to report their kills to the department.

If that process is overturned, as conservationists hope it will be, there will be no way of monitoring how many bats are killed, whereas the current DMP process requires applicants to document all bat shootings.

Flying-foxes are a protected species and it is an offence to deliberately kill or injure them or interfere with their roosts without authority, with a maximum penalty of $110,000 or a year's jail.

Wildlife protection groups feared the worst when a four-year-ban that allowed farmers to kill flying foxes was overturned by the LNP Government earlier this year.

Despite concerns, only nine Queensland producers have successfully lodged applications for damage mitigation permits (DMP).

The permits allow farmers to shoot a small number of bats if they can prove their crops are under threat and other existing measures are not working.

Martin Joyce, a lychee grower from Mutarnee just north of Townsville, was the first producer in Queensland to be granted a permit.

"In past years flying foxes have come in the thousands and it's very hard to control them," Mr Joyce said.

"I hope that never happens again."

Mr Joyce says prior to the permit system, he had already used a number of bat preventive devices, including nets, flood lighting and sound equipment. He hopes he won't need to shoot any bats.

"We've done a lot of work to try and protect our crop and to get a system in place to protect it," he said.

"Now we have [the permit] but I think we still need a damage mitigation permit for those years when we do have a great influx of flying-fox. "

The number of bats producers are permitted to take down is low and strictly capped.

The permit allows the taking of 30 black flying foxes per month, 30 little red flying foxes, 20 grey-headed flying foxes and 15 spectacled flying foxes per month.

Conservationists say that regardless of how many bats farmers are permitted to shoot, the permits will still put some species at risk.

Mr Joyce disagrees his license to shoot bats will jeopardise flying fox populations in the area because only occasional scouting bats will be targeted.

"With a damage mitigation permit we can shoot the early scouts that come in."

"If [the scout] gets a free feed you'll usually find that… he comes back with a couple of mates or several mates.

"So if we can control those early scouts we seem to have a lot less problems."

Mr Joyce said he acknowledges the arguments from wildlife conservation groups but would like them to understand the issue from a producer's perspective.

"We're not trying to kill out the wildlife of Australia - we're trying to live with it," he said.

"We really appreciate the wildlife of Australia."

"[But] we can't just fold up and close down everything because of the flying fox.

"They [conservation groups] have to look at our point of view that we have to supply food to people and make an income.

"Hopefully they will continue to go along with us and we'll go along with them and hope everything works out alright."

But green groups aren't sitting silently on the issue.

The Grey Cross is a group that encourages people to display a grey upside down cross in areas where flying foxes are being killed.

Its website states "grey is a reference to the grey-headed flying fox - one of the two threatened species targeted for shooting under these laws".

"The symbolism of hanging upside down crosses from trees was an obvious choice to commemorate and protest the unnecessary deaths of these unique Australian native animals."

But if past campaigns are anything to go by, it won't just be in paddocks where conservation groups argue their case.

Merv Thomas is a former lychee grower who left the industry after losing $401,000 in legal fees battling green groups who argued his design of a non-lethal electric fence to deter bats was inhumane.

Mr Thomas, who still keeps the devices in his garage and detailed draft designs on his computer in the hope someone will take an interest in them, said his fence was made to deter bats, not to kill them.

"We used the existing electric fence and we found that with a number of bats that died in the fence that there were some still alive," he said.

"We found by disconnecting the power to the fence those ones survived and flew away."

"So we modified that control to increase the fly-away time versus the contact time.

"The fence reacted to the bat contact by turning off, which allowed the bat to escape.

"Bats need to drop and fly so we didn't want a system which allowed the bat to fall on the ground.

"So instead of running continuous systems we ran it for one second only so the bat was only getting a one second contact."

Green groups didn't agree that Mr Thomas' system was humane and he faced considerable backlash in the courts and on his own property, which he says activists trespassed on a number of times.

But despite Mr Thomas' own experience with green groups in the past, even he says producer permits are not the answer to reducing bat-inflicted crop damage.

"In this area there's half a million bats," he said.

"If you said to yourself that you wanted a ten per cent control each year… you've got to get rid of 50,000 bats every year.

"But if you're the only big farmer in the area that means you've got to kill [over the hundred days that your crop is available] 500 bats a night.

"A bit of a tall order for a shotgun.

"Forget about it."

Queensland's Natural Resources minister, Andrew Cripps, is sympathetic toward Mr Thomas' case and encourages people in the industry to develop their own bat preventative strategies.

"I certainly would hope that the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection would continue to talk to Mr Thomas and support him in his attempts to create these alternative and non-lethal methods of protecting crops," he said.

"It really is up to industry to develop these methods of non-lethal protection."

"But certainly when they are developed the Department should consider them very carefully and give consideration to improving them."

But Mr Thomas says support for farmers who want to protect their crop against bats doesn't actually exist.

He says after the lengthy court challenges bought on by conservation groups, government departments refused to even meet with him to look at his non-lethal electric fence design.

He says if they had seen his device they would have realised the fence was a humane and effective approach to deterring bats.

"Over probably the five or six years I've spent developing this we've had no support in any shape or form and no encouragement from the Environmental Protection Agency."

"We've had no financial support to cover the costs of developing the system which, quite frankly, hasn't been approved and hasn't been disapproved.

"It's just been totally ignored."

Mr Thomas said producers won't come up with alternative methods to protect their crop if there is no government support for them.

"If this area is to become the food bowl for Australia and for the rest of the world, the management of the bats has to be looked at," he said.

"It's not a matter of 'I'm right and you're wrong.'"

"It's a question of positive approaches towards it."


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BATS. Megabats, Flying-foxes, Fruit bats and Microbats: Conservationists take fire at farmers who shoot bats
Conservationists take fire at farmers who shoot bats
BATS. Megabats, Flying-foxes, Fruit bats and Microbats
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