Bat cull: should the grey-headed flying foxes in Melbourne's Botanical Gardens be culled?

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The issue

In January, 2001, it was decided to attempt to relocate a large colony of grey-headed flying foxes which had taken up residence in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.
There was wide-spread concern that the bats were causing serious damage to the gardens and that the control methods that had been used up to that point had been a failure.
The gardens management had begun a limited cull of the bats in May, 2000, but had stopped when the Victorian Government indicated it was awaiting the recommendation of its Scientific Advisory Committee.
The Committee ultimately recommended that the flying foxes should be protected, however, in the intervening period the plan to relocated the animals had been rejected as impracticable and it had been decided to proceed with a cull.
The question of how the bats should be controlled has generated wide-spread and heated debate.

What they said ...
'... many human-hating activists want to ... sacrifice part of our civilisation to these flying rats'
Andrew Bolt, commentator for The Herald Sun

'I would have no choice but ... the protection of the native fruit bats. We have a species in trouble that needs help'
Michael Kennedy of The Humane Society International

Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 06
Copyright © Echo Education Services

First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.

Issue outline by J M McInerney

The flying fox's numbers are estimated to have declined, Australia-wide, by 50 per cent since European settlement. The primary factor bringing about this decline is believed to be habitat loss.
In the 1930s the grey-headed flying fox's range of permanent camps or breeding colonies along the east coast of Australia extended from far north Queensland (Rockhampton) to the Victorian border (Mallacoota) in the south. Occasional camps could be found as far south as Warrnambool.
Since then there has been large scale habitat destruction, especially in Queensland and northern New South Wales, and the grey-headed flying fox is no longer found in Rockhampton or anywhere north of Hervey Bay. This represents a loss of territory of some 300klms in northern Australia. The numbers of grey-headed flying foxes in Brisbane has also declined markedly.
As habitat has been lost in the north the grey-headed flying fox has moved south and extended its range by some 500klms. A permanent colony is now found in Melbourne, in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
The flying foxes first arrived in the Royal Botanic gardens in Melbourne in 1981.
The flying fox is particularly susceptible to food shortages in winter when its food sources are less available.
Annually reliable winter resources are limited in distribution to a narrow coastal strip in northern New South Wales and Queensland, and primarily occur on freehold land. These coastal areas are targeted for further intensive residential development to cater for a projected 25% increase in the human population over the next ten years in northern New South Wales and Queensland.
This loss of winter feeding territory in the north is expected to put even further pressure on the grey-headed flying fox.
The grey flying fox is also under pressure as it is seen as a pest by Queensland and New south Wales fruit producers.
Direct killing of animals on orchards and harassment and destruction of roosts has played a role in the species' decline. The exact number of animals destroyed is unknown, but estimates as high as 100,000 annually have been made.
The impact is more substantial than direct deaths alone would indicate, for a large proportion of animals shot on orchards are pregnant and lactating females.
Currently permit systems in Queensland and New South Wales regulate pest destruction activities, but the impact of this destruction on both the size and structure of the population is unknown.
Roost sites have been legally protected since 1986 in New South Wales and since 1994 in Queensland.
Roost sites are not legally protected in Victoria.

The grey-headed flying fox is classified as vulnerable.
An action plan for the conservation of the grey headed flying fox has been established under the Endangered Species Program. This program has been set up under the new Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
The Endangered Species Program is administered by Wildlife ( Australia Branch) and Environment Australia, in partnership with State and Territory agencies, communities groups and industry.
The program aims to prevent further extinctions of Australian fauna and flora, and to restore endangered species and ecological communities to a secure status in the wild.
The action plan for the grey-headed flying fox aims to
stabilise the population at its current level;
define patterns of landscape use, and identify and protect essential habitat;
develop non-destructive methods for crop protection;
develop non-destructive methods for management of camps in problem areas (this would presumably include the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne) and
ensure consistent management of the species across all range states (Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria).
The action plan notes that its agents do not currently have sufficient funds to put the plan into effect.

Internet links

The Grey-Headed Flying Fox Action Plan can be found on the Environment Australia Internet site. This is the site detailing the activities of those federal government bodies responsible for environment and conservation.
The action plan is an extremely valuable source of information about the grey-headed flying fox. Most of the information outlined in the background section of this issue outline has been taken from this action plan.
It can be found at

The Grey-Headed Flying Fox is also listed as vulnerable in New South Wales. A preliminary determination of the flying fox vulnerable status was made by the NSW Scientific Committee under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995. This preliminary determination was made in January, 2001.
An outline of the reasons for the flying fox being classified as vulnerable in New South Wales can be found at

The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne has set up a special section of its Internet site to outline what it refers to as 'The Bat Crisis".
This can be found at
One section of this sub site explains the significance of the Fern Gully within the gardens. (The Fern Gully is the area in the gardens most effected by the bats.) This can be found at
Another section of the site titled "Saving Fern Gully" gives a brief history of the flying foxes' colonising of the gardens and explains some of the methods that have been used up to this point to remove or control the animals. It concludes with a reference to the plan to relocate the animals and, if that fails, 'to capture and euthanase a number of the flying-foxes'.
This discussion can be found at

It would appear that the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney are also having a problem with flying foxes, though theirs appears to be a much more recent one with fruit bats only coming to the gardens over the last four or five years.
The Palm and Cycad Societies of Australia Internet site suggests that the flying foxes' activities caused almost terminal damage to some century old trees and a few palms. Currently the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens are using passive methods, such as children beating tin cans, to control the problem. None of the methods they have tried has been fully successful.
A brief discussion of this problem can be found at the Palm and Cycad Societies of Australia Internet site at

Interestingly, in some parts of the world botanic gardens are actually seeking to encourage bats to roost within the gardens. This is the case at Wakehurst Place, West Sussex, England. Wakehurst Place is administered as part of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, and has a management plan intended to encourage bats into the gardens.
Storm damage in 1987 caused a major loss of trees and thus roosting sites for bats. The staff of the gardens are now positioning bats boxes throughout the gardens as alternative roosting sites.
An overview of the decline in bat numbers in Great Britain together with the steps being taken at Wakehurst Place can be found at

Arguments in favour of culling flying foxes in the Royal Botanic Gardens
1. The bats are damaging the Gardens.
Farah Farouque, a conservation writer for The Age, has commented, 'In the past six years the bats have become a serious health - and public relations - problem for the gardens. They have stripped foliage from trees, and their urine and faeces has destroyed ground plants. The Fern Gully - which includes Victoria's only native palm, the cabbage tree palm - has sustained the heaviest damage. A third of the trees making up the canopy will die if the bats continue to roost in their present numbers, according to the gardens' latest forecasts.'
This point has been explained further by Dimity Reed, professor of urban design at RMIT University. Professor Reed has stated, 'The flying foxes ... wear out the canopy and destroy the possibility of new growth as they squabble and flap about. They also nip leaves off to let sun and warmth in for their comfort ... trees, ferns and smaller plants in one-third of the 38.5 hectare site are now shockingly damaged, and vast areas of lawn are unusable.'
It has further been suggested that excessive nutrients flowing from Fern Gully into the Gardens' ornamental lake has contributed to the toxic algal bloom which it is believed may be responsible for the deaths of numbers of birds who use the lake.
The Royal Botantic Gardens director, Philip Moors, has claimed that the bats represent the greatest threat to the gardens in their 155-year history.

2. The Gardens are a valuable cultural, scientific and historical resource.
The Botanic Gardens are the oldest scientific institution in Victoria, pre-dating the university, the museum and the Royal Society of Victoria. Some of the plant specimens preserved in the garden are well over one hundred years old, while the gardens themselves are claimed to be a living link to the city's past.
It is claimed that they preserve rare and threatened plants, retaining the gene pools of endangered species for research purposes.
The Royal Botanic Gardens director, Philip Moors, has stated, 'We're talking about 155 years of heritage with these plants.'
Additionally, the Gardens are said to occupy a valuable place in the social and cultural life of the city, providing a place for families to recreate and acting as a venue for dramatic and musical performances.
Dimity Reed, professor of urban design at RMIT University has stated, 'We see the gardens as pleasure gardens, and rightly so. They are to us a free source of joy, wonder and relaxation in a busy city.'
The Age, in an editorial published on March 15, 2001, called on Melburnians to 'place a value on our city's heritage' by removing the bats.

3. The number of bats in the Gardens is growing.
The bats first appeared in the gardens in 1981. There was an original colony of some 500.
It has been claimed that the bats are thriving in this environment, where, with no predators to reduce their numbers, they are protected during the day and are within easy distance of suburban gardens where they feed at night.
It is claimed that the colony of bats in the gardens has increased by some 500 a week over much of 2001. Initially it was claimed that at this rate there would be some 10,000 bats in the garden by mid March. Later estimates increased the figure to some 19,000.
By March 15, 2001, it was being claimed there were some 20,000 bats in the gardens.

4. Relocation is too expensive.
It has been estimated that it would cost about $400 to transfer each bat to a new location in Mallacoota. As it was intended to transfer several thousands bats it has been argued that this scheme is simply too expensive.
It was further claimed that such an expensive course could not be justified as there was no guarantee that the flying foxes would not simply return to the gardens.

5. Relocation is likely to be ineffective or impracticable.
It has been suggested that as the bats are migratory, it is highly likely that they would return to the gardens even if transferred to Mallacoota.
A concern about ineffectiveness was voiced even before the proposal to transfer the bats to Mallacoota was put forward. The Victorian Environment minister, Ms Sherryl Garbutt, has stated, 'A trial relocation of some of the bats to Dowell Creek was investigated but due to a number of factors, including ... local concerns and no guarantee of success, it could not be implemented.'
Local opposition within the regions were it was proposed to send the bats is another reason why the scheme has been seen as impracticable.
The independent member for East Gippsland, Mr Craig Ingram, has stated, 'The people down here [in Mallacoota] didn't want the bats. They're sick and tired of Melbourne taking their resources, such as water, and then dumping their problems on them.'

6. Control methods, other than extermination, have failed.
The bats have inhabited the gardens since the early 1980s. It has been claimed they have resisted attempts to drive them out using smoke, water sprays, drumming and cracking stock whips. The gardens' management team has stretched lines between trees to impede flight paths. They have also trialed the use of bat repellents, scents, which it was hoped, would make the gardens unattractive to the flying foxes.
Some of the strategies, such as noise, have worked in the short term, but none of these methods has been permanently successful and the number of flying foxes in the gardens has continued to grow.
The divisional director of the gardens, Mr Richard Barley, has stated, 'We have tried a range of things in the past and none with much success. We are getting pretty desperate.'

Arguments against culling flying foxes in the Royal Botanic Gardens
1. The grey-headed bats are declining in numbers Australia-wide.
Rheya Linden, a spokesperson for Animal Liberation, has stated, 'The grey headed flying fox has now been listed by the Scientific Advisory Committee as vulnerable, endangered and veering towards extinction.'
It has been claimed that the growing numbers of bats in the gardens is misleading as it does not reflect the situation with regard to their total population along the east coast of Australia.
The Age in an editorial published on March 15, 2001, noted that 'Fruit farmers shoot the bats, and in New South Wales their numbers are estimated to have halved - from 700,000 to 360,000 over 10 years - due to habitat loss.'
It has been claimed that the flying foxes are only coming to the gardens in creasing numbers because they are losing their habitats elsewhere.
According to this line of argument, killing a significant proportion of the bats that come to the gardens will only put under further pressure an already vulnerable species.

2. The Botanic Gardens contains Victoria's only permanent bat breeding colony of grey-headed flying foxes.
It has been claimed by Dr Penny Eby, a bat researcher with the University of Queensland, that some 70,000 flying foxes are shot each year by fruit farmers and that their habitats are declining at an alarming rate.
These arguments give an added significance to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne as a bat breeding colony as it is the only permanent breeding colony in Victoria and has become important to the survival of the species because of shrinking habitats elsewhere.

3. Bats are Australia's most effective pollinator and seed disperser for native fruiting plants.
It has been claimed that flying foxes are important not only because they are a native animal species under threat, but also because of the important role they play in ensuring the continued survival of many of Australia's native plants.
Mr Lawrence Pope, a spokesperson for the Humane Society for Animal Welfare, has claimed that bats are Australia's most effective pollinator and native fruit seed disperser. These bats are, therefore, extremely important in allowing many of Australia's native plant species to survive.
It is claimed that there is a certain paradox in a botanic gardens planning to cull an animal which is so important to so many Australian plants.

4. The extent of damage to the Gardens is being exaggerated.
It has been suggested that the amount of damage being done to the gardens has been overstated.
Mr Lawrence Pope, a spokesperson for the Humane Society for Animal Welfare, has asked, 'How much of what the gardens' management calls "damage" is normal usage of native vegetation by a large colony?'
Mr Pope further seems to imply that the damage being done has been relatively slight given the number of years the flying foxes have been in the gardens. He notes, 'The gardens' website puts the destruction of native plants at three percent in twenty years, with a greater percentage "at risk".'
Mr Pope then goes on to dispute the importance being attached to some of the supposed destruction. He asks, '... how much significance can we attribute to a single melaleuca tree before we begin to look ridiculous?'

5. The Gardens should function as a sanctuary for wildlife.
It has been claimed that the purpose of the gardens should not only be to offer protection to native and introduced plants. It has been argued that animal life complements plant life and that the animals that live within the gardens are an important part of its reason for being.
This point has also been made by Mr Pope who has stated, 'For many the deep value of a botanic gardens resides in its presence as a living sanctuary, a haven for plants and animals with whom we share a symbiotic relationship.'
A similar point was also made in a letter written by Ken Duxbury and published in The Age on January 25, 2001. Mr Duxbury writes, '... the gardens management should recognise that resident wildlife is as important to a botanic gardens as plants are to a zoo. A botanic gardens without swans, ducks, eels - and flying foxes - is just as sterile and unnatural as an old-style zoo, with animals pacing up and down in their cages waiting to be fed.'

6. Culling the bats will not provide a permanent solution.
According to this line of argument, culling the bats is no more likely to offer a permanent solution than have any of the other methods employed so far. It has been argued that bats will return to the gardens each year and that they will continue to be destroyed until this ultimately has an enduring impact on their numbers, as has proved the case in New South Wales where flying fox numbers have declined in the face of shooting and habitat destruction.
John Auty, in a letter published in The Age on January 25, 2001, wrote, 'Culling bats will solve nothing but will lock the gardens into an ongoing process of destroying bats year after year ...'
This point was also made in a letter written by Ken Duxbury and published in The Age on January 25, 2001. Mr Duxbury writes, 'As bats are so free-flying and geographically mobile, it is likely, even if every bat in the gardens were eliminated, other bats would almost immediately fly in from Northern New South Wales and Queens land to take their place, especially as their natural habitat ... is rapidly being destroyed for agricultural, residential and tourist developments.'
Mr Auty proposes that the gardens take more effective measures to protect its plants that will have a less damaging impact on the flying fox population. He writes, 'Modern practice puts plants under mesh, plastic or glass rather than attempt to exclude "pests" by spraying, culling or other means.'
Other letter writers have proposed that the Victorian government should also seek to establish alternate habitats for the flying foxes. This point has been made by Anthony martin in a letter also published in The Age on January 25, 2001.
Mr Martin writes, ''The State Government has a critical responsibility to show leadership in coordinating an attempt to establish new fruit bat colonies in other sites outside the Botanic gardens - such as Herring island Park in the Yarra river, Gunn Island in Albert park Lake or Westgate park under the Westgate Bridge.'

Further implications
Though animal welfare groups have indicated that they will protest strongly against the apparent decision to cull at least some of the flying foxes in the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne it appears very likely that the cull will go ahead.
The Victorian Environment Minister, Ms Sherryl Garbutt, has indicated that relocation is no longer being considered as it is too expensive. She had previously indicated that if relocation were unsuccessful, then at least some of the flying fox colony in the gardens would have to be culled. The decision to call off the relocation has been seen as defacto support for culling.
The minister had also previously indicated that a cull would go ahead irrespective of the findings of the state's Scientific Advisory Committee, which, after protracted consideration, recently judged the grey-headed flying fox to be vulnerable.
Ms Garbutt has stated, '... if all else fails, then I won't be stopping the gardens from resuming the culling program.'
Ms Garbutt has been quoted as saying that Victorians had to realise that if the bats stayed, Melbourne could lose a 'great treasure' that attracted two million visitors a year. It would appear that tourist dollars are a major factor in the decision being arrived at.
It would also appear that popular opinion supports the Botanic Gardens over the flying foxes, with most surveys suggesting between 70 and 80 per cent support for programs to remove the bats, even if that means they have to be culled.
The situation is a distressing one. It seems highly likely that culling programs will have to remove many more than the 100 animals that were killed as part of a trial cull last year. It would be interesting to know how many flying foxes, if any, the gardens' management consider compatible with the long-term survival of Fern Gully.
Given the flying foxes' diminishing habitats in other areas of Australia, it seems likely that they will continue to come to the gardens despite being regularly culled. This is a sorry prospect - the regular killing of a vulnerable native animal in our oldest public gardens.
There appears to be a desperate need to seriously readdress this problem. More sophisticated sound repellents and chemical repellents have been suggested, together with mesh and other devices to deny the flying foxes entry to the Fern Gully. It has also been suggested that alternative roosting sites for the flying foxes be established in other parts of Melbourne. Implementing such schemes will involve significant skill and significant government funding.
It is to be hoped that governments both state and federal will find the political will to give such a management program the financial support it needs.
It is interesting to speculate what the public response would be if the gardens were proposing killing koalas for the damage they were causing to long-established trees. The flying fox is unfortunate in the long-standing popular distaste felt toward 'bats'. Andrew Bolt's Herald Sun comment, with his reference to 'flying rats', typifies this distaste.

Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $34.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)

The Age
9/1/01 page 6 news item by Sally Finlay, 'Bats thrive as experts ponder'
20/1/01 page 2 (News Extra Section) analysis by Farah Farouque, 'Bats' day of reckoning approaches'
23/1/01 page 13 comment by Dimity Reed, 'Cull the bats or kill the Botanic Gardens'
25/1/01 page 2 news item by Brett Foley, 'Bat culling back on the agenda'
25/1/01 page 14 editorial, 'The great bat debate'
25/1/01 page 14 letter from Ken Duxbury, 'Going in to bat for the gardens' bats'
25/1/01 page 14 letter from John Auty, 'There are better solutions'
25/1/01 page 14 letter from Anthony Martin, 'Finding the right balance'
25/1/01 page 14 cartoon by Leunig
26/1/01 page 15 comment by Lawrence Pope, 'We must save our precious bats'
26/1/01 page 3 news item by Brett Foley, 'Off death row, bats head for the coast'
15/3/01 page 3 news item by Richard Baker, 'Gas cull for bats after shift ruled out'
19/3/01 page 12 editorial, 'Beauty and beasts in the gardens'

The Herald Sun
11/1/01 page 11 news item by Regina Titelius, 'Ruin for gardens if bats stay'
17/1/01 page 7 news item by Regina Titelius, 'Blast query on bat plague'
22/1/01 page 13 news item by Regina Titelius, 'Death threat to gardens bat plague'
24/1/01 page 7 news item by Regina Titelius, 'Bird deaths link to bats'
26/1/01 page 9 news item by Regina Titelius, 'Gardens bats to be evicted'
1/2/01 page 18 comment by Andrew Bolt, 'Batty activists have the Bracks Government in a dither'