Relocating Sydney’s Flying Fox Populations

One of my favourite sights in Sydney was during my walk home from work through Hyde Park at dusk. Silhouetted figures of Sydneysiders and massive fig trees contrasted against the hazes of oranges and purples of the setting sun. And overhead, grey headed flying foxes chattered and swirled in the sky, feeding on fruits and insects. The chittering, squeaking soundtrack of the feeding flying foxes at dusk, and their earthy smell was all part of the identity of Sydney’s green spaces.

Around 2011, it was decided that the bats needed to be moved to a new home. But why was it necessary to move the flying foxes out, and how could this be achieved?

What is a flying fox?

The grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus poliocephalus) is a fruit bat that lives across the west coast of Australia. They are the largest bat in Australia, and despite their consideration as a pest due to their habit of defoliating large areas of parkland, are also classified as vulnerable.

Flying foxes weigh between 700-1000 grams, with a dark grey body and wings, light grey head, and an orange collar. Flying foxes eat fruit, pollen and nectar, and will leave their roosts at dusk to forage. They are very important in distributing and pollinating many Australian plants.

Flying Foxes in Sydney’s Green Spaces

The Sydney Royal Botanical Garden makes up 75 acres of beautifully arranged and maintained flower fields, lawns, forest areas and plants from all over the world. It’s located in the heart of Sydney, next to Darling Harbour, adjacent to the Opera House and the CBD. The city’s green spaces extend onwards to The Domain and Hyde Park.

Since the establishment of the gardens in 1816, it has been home to many animals, such as cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets, and relatively recently, flying foxes. The flying foxes have been living in the trees of the Botanical Gardens for over 30 years.

Flying foxes damaging trees in the Royal Botanical Gardens

Since the flying foxes took up residence in the 1980s, their feeding habits on fruits have defoliated and killed over 30 trees, and over 30 palms, damaging hundreds more. Most worryingly, the flying foxes began settling in Palm Cove, where some of the gardens oldest and most historic trees are located. So, it made sense to encourage the large bat colonies to find more suitable homes.

The problem? Flying foxes are listed as a vulnerable species in Australia, and are protected. So obviously they couldn’t be exterminated. Instead, a plan was formulated to encourage them to move to a new space.

How were Sydney’s Flying Foxes relocated?

Melbourne successfully relocated a population of flying foxes from the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne to Yarra Bend Park by playing loud recorded noise before dawn, disturbing the animals’ sleep. It worked, and the animals went in search of more peaceful roosting grounds.

In June 2012, Sydney used the same method, disturbing the sleep of the 30,000 animals with recorded percussion noise. The animals were forced to head towards Centennial Park. Meanwhile, the Gardens had a chance to restore the damage done to the trees.

The plan was short-lived, however, playing the recordings for only a month or two so as to not disturb the baby flying foxes and pregnant mothers too much.

Populations of flying foxes were also moved from areas such as Batemans Bay, Gordon, and Singleton. In suburban areas, flying foxes disturb the peace with their noise, and leave droppings on cars and sidewalks.

Was the relocation of Flying Foxes effective?

In a way, yes – the fruit bats left the Royal Botanical Garden for the most part to find new territory to roost. But flying foxes are inherently nomadic, and will eventually return to wherever the food is. Flying fox colonies tend to move between dozens, or even hundreds of roosting sites across the state, so there’s no telling when they may return.

Time will tell if the Gardens will once again be teeming with the flapping of leathery wings in the future. In the meantime, whether you consider them friendly locals or destructive pests, the gardens are quiet of chittering, squeaking and flapping animals for now.