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Farmer wins flying fox battle

Relocating flying foxes has been the battle of a lifetime for Jack Long.JACK Long sits on the stump of a tree in a house garden at North Eton, which until six months ago had for seven years been the roost site for a colony of an estimated 5000 little red and black flying foxes.

Jack began farming in the Pioneer Valley at Mia Mia in 1964 with an eight-hectare cane assignment from the North Eton Mill, and on his other 40ha he ran a few cattle and grew tomatoes and cabbages for the Mackay market.

Over the years, the assignment increased to eventually cover the whole farm, and now in his late 70s Jack is semi-retired, running a few steers on the 14ha of the farm he still owns.

Always leading from the front, he can be relied on to get things done.

This got him elected to the board of the mill, and about 18 months ago he was embroiled in the battle North Eton residents were having over flying foxes.

The Mackay Regional Council considered the problem a State Government matter, and the State Government didn’t want to know about it.

A letter from the relevant minister pointed out that flying foxes were a protected species under the Nature Conservation Act 1991, and no damage mitigation permits would be issued to enable them to be moved, as moving them only created a similar problem elsewhere.

The Environmental Protection Authority had the answer, stating in a letter in 2007: “The key to removing the impact is planned revegetation”.

In other words, to grow an alternative roost site for the flying foxes.

Another government suggestion was to “provide artificial roosts away from the township”.

“When I was asked to help,” Jack said, “I found the flying foxes didn’t mess beneath their roost site but evacuated their bodies as they flew away in the evening. That meant the whole town was impacted, including the bowls club which was losing members and unable to hold tournaments because nobody turned up.

“Residents couldn’t hang their washing outside. They couldn’t leave windows or doors open because of the smell; children couldn’t play in their yards; and if they wanted to sell, there were no buyers; and even though there’s a shortage of rental properties in the Mackay area, they couldn’t find tenants prepared to rent.”

Working on the principle that the squeaking wheel gets the oil, Jack began each week phoning any politician and state or local government official who had any likelihood of being able to help.

This resulted in him arranging a visit to the site by the Member for Mackay Tim Mulherin, who agreed nobody should have to live in such a polluted environment. That prompted a high-level meeting with council, government officials, members of Parliament and the public, which, with the persistent phone calls, eventually resulted in a six-month damage mitigation permit being issued to the Mackay Regional Council in late October 2009.

The permit enabled the flying foxes to be encouraged to move by using smoke, noise, fog or intense lighting even though none of those had ever solved the problem before. However, there were also restrictions. If the females were pregnant or there were young present, they couldn’t be moved and they were not to be stressed.

As flying foxes breed during the wet season, that meant the permit would almost expire before they could be encouraged to move on.

Investigations into how other places had handled the problem were studied, including a situation in the Northern Territory, where at Katherine the roost trees were removed.

With only a few weeks left on the permit, the Mackay Regional Council spent more than $30,000 having a contractor cut down three of the 40-year-old roost trees and severely prune the other four, but to avoid stressing the flying foxes, the work had to be carried out at night when the foxes were not in residence. Without their roosts, they stayed away for a week, and then about 1000 found a couple of mango trees 40 metres or so from their original site that suited them. These trees were heavily pruned and the problem was solved.

The colony now lives a few kilometres away in the forest on the Eton Range where they no longer impact humans.

It’s nine months since they left. The residents are happy, the bowls club is back in business, and Jack’s phone bill has returned to normal, but he said it was the biggest battle of his life.

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