Drought causing damage to Wingham Brush and its flying fox colony

Concerned: National Parks and Wildlife Services ranger, Michael Thomas at the Isabella Street entrance to Wingham Brush, where ash trees are dying off. Photo: Julia Driscoll
Concerned: National Parks and Wildlife Services ranger, Michael Thomas at the Isabella Street entrance to Wingham Brush, where ash trees are dying off. Photo: Julia Driscoll

The situation for the flying fox maternity camp in the Wingham Brush Nature Reserve is "pretty dire", according to ranger Michael Thomas of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

A walk through Wingham Brush shows how bad the situation is. The canopy is mostly gone, the trees are largely denuded of leaves, and the river is now clearly visible through the Brush. There are many less flying foxes and the big reduction of flying fox chatter noise is eerie.

"From my observations it's the worst I've ever seen it and in fact John Stockard (who, with a team, restored the Brush in the 1980s) said exactly the same, it's the worst he's ever seen and he's been here a lot longer than me," Michael says.

He predicts there will be loss of trees in the Brush, as the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts more of the same for the coming months - warmer and drier than average, with a chance of early heartwaves.

Wingham Brush is a remnant of subtropical lowland rainforest. There are only 1000 hectares left in Australia of this type of forest, and its conservation status federally is critically endangered, while in NSW it is classified as an endangered ecological community.

What little canopy is left will not be enough to shelter the flying fox colony when heatwaves eventuate. Already, numbers are down quite drastically. The maternity camp can sometimes house up to 200,000 flying foxes, but this year Michael estimates numbers are down to less than 30,000 bats.

"If there is the tree canopy loss like we're seeing at the moment there's going to be a lot of heat stress and we won't be able to rehyrdrate them, because you can't rehydrate anything if you don't have a canopy. That's a bit of a problem."

Dire: The flying fox population is severely reduced and has barely any canopy to shelter under. Photo: Julia Driscoll

Dire: The flying fox population is severely reduced and has barely any canopy to shelter under. Photo: Julia Driscoll

In recent weeks people in Taree, and even as far as Old Bar and Harrington, are reporting finding dead flying foxes in their yards, or down very low in backyard trees, because there is little food and they do not have the energy to return home.

Female flying foxes are barren or aborting in an attempt to save reserves so they themselves might live.

The drought is not the only threat to the flying foxes. Michael reports that they are finding rocks on the boardwalk. "Presumably they were used to throw at flying foxes," he says.

They are also finding coke bottles that look like they were used as molotov cocktails, with burned areas on the boardwalk as further evidence.

Barriers are being smashed, repairs are made, and the barriers are then smashed again.

The canopy at Wingham Brush is no longer there. Photo: Julia Driscoll

The canopy at Wingham Brush is no longer there. Photo: Julia Driscoll

This is not being done by visitors to the area - NPWS staff suspects it is local young people vandalising the boardwalk and terrorising the animals. They are placing cameras within the Brush to try and capture footage of the culprits.

With the current dry conditions, should a fire take hold in the Brush it would be destroyed.

Of further concern to some residents is evidence on the large fig trees of attempted and ongoing poisoning of the trees, with the aim of killing the trees so the flying fox camp will be destroyed.

The flying foxes are apex pollinators in the Australian environment, and essential to the pollination of forests, particularly areas like the critically endangered Wingham Brush.

There are very little of other usual residents of the Brush - there are very few little birds, and Michael says the goannas aren't coming out, as there are no eggs for them to eat. The only animals that are still frequently visible are the brush turkeys, and they are desperate for food. During a walk through the brush, one was spied picking at a piece of plastic cheese wrapper,.

While things currently look grim in the Brush, Michael says it will largely bounce back when decent rainfall arrives.

"There will be a whole flush of new growth underneath, but we're going to lose some of that canopy, which means losing some of the flying foxes and losing some of the biodiversity," he says.

While the canopy is disappearing, the under and midstoreys are also barely there. Photo: Julia Driscoll

While the canopy is disappearing, the under and midstoreys are also barely there. Photo: Julia Driscoll