Friends of the Far North Flying Foxes Inc

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The following is an article from the "Newsletter of the Friends of the Far North Flying Foxes", Ed.2 October 1995. It describes a big problem in a small area; it is a manmade problem with world-wide implications.

Thousands of adult flying foxes and their babies are coming to grief in a corner of Far North Queensland, Australia. Friends of the Far North Flying Foxes, a small community group, is actively trying to come up with some solutions.

Barbed Wire


by A. Johnson

Australia's four most common species of flying fox migrate seasonally in their search for food and warmth. For example, the spectacled flying fox, Pteropus conspicillatus, migrate from the Atherton Tableland camps during the months of May, June, July and August to the warmer coastal regions of Innisfail and Tully. The little red flying fox, Pteropus scapulatus, is even more mobile than this, following the regional flowering patterns of Australia's native hardwoods (Eucalyptus, Syncarpia, Tristania and Melaleuca).

Last September, large numbers of the little red flying fox moved into the central zone of the spectacled flying fox colony on Whiteing Road near Millaa Millaa. Although only one little red flying fox was found with a paralysis tick over the following months, more than 450 of them became ensnared on barbed wire fences in the Ravenshoe and Millaa Millaa areas.

Flying FoxThe little red flying fox has reddish brown fur and is about half the size of a spectacled bat. The fur on the head is usually grey and the wings appear semi-transparent in flight. Unlike the spectacled bats, the little reds hang on top of each other when sleeping during the day. The sheer weight of so many bats on a single branch often causes large limbs of rainforest trees to snap off. Bats are seen flying off in all directions as the timber crashes to the forest floor. It is a wonder they get any sleep at all!

On dusk, the little reds circulate in the characteristically indecisive manner of flying foxes leaving camp, before congregating into a unidirectional stream of bats. This "river of bats" heads off in a southwesterly direction, following the Beatrice River valley, weaving between hilltops and eventually fanning out into the flowering eucalypt forests west of the town of Ravenshoe.

The little red flying fox is a nectar specialist as evidenced by its diminished molar dentition compared to that of the spectacled flying fox. Its long tongue extracts the nectar from eucalypt blossom and in the process, pollen grains, a source of protein is consumed. Brushing against the stamen of the blossom, thousands of pollen grains adhere to the bat's fur, giving them a dusty appearance. It is not uncommon for little reds to fly in excess of 80 kilometres in a night visiting different stands of trees. Carrying their load of pollen, they are thus very efficient cross-pollinators of native trees. In fact, some species of eucalypt blossom open primarily at night and produce most nectar around midnight! Healthy forests contain millions of trees and need large numbers of animal agents for pollen dispersal. Colonies of little red flying foxes containing hundreds of thousands of individuals fill this role. Imagine trying to do this artificially!

Removing little reds from barbed wire fencesAround 5 o'clock in the morning, just before sunrise, thousands of little reds, full of eucalypt nectar (some of which may have slightly fermented) head back to base camp at Whiteing Road. Weary from the night's activity, they face a strong, cool, gusty head wind from the east. Flying over the cleared, bare hills of dairy and beef grazing properties, the swarm of returning bats is forced low to the ground to reduce wind resistance. Many are less than a metre from the ground and had to fly around my car parked on the roadside. Blinded by the light on the eastern horizon, many do not see the strands of new barbed wire fences, strung out across the landscape like long-line fishing lines.

The barbs jag the delicate membrane of the bat's wing and they may spin around the strand of wire several times before coming to rest. Frantic from the ensnarement, they struggle and bite at the wire. A second wing is often caught and some are even trapped by the mouth. The wings are holed and fine wing bones smashed. Frequently, the upper palate is punctured or completely fractured. Unless rescued by a human, the bat is marooned on the fence to die in the hot sun over the next 2 days.

It was through the experiences of removing little reds from barbed wire fences that I discovered three new definitions of hell:

  • getting a little red off an electrified barbed wire fence in the rain! (After having turned off the electric fence unit, only to find there were two!)

  • getting a little red off the top strand of a barbed wire fence in the middle of a dam in a narrow canoe (without getting yourself snared as well!).

  • removing a little red from a barbed wire fence, jagged in three places - held by both elbows and the jaw at the same time.

The number of flying fox collected from a ten kilometre section of the flight path each morning varied with the strength of the headwind. The worst day was 23 October 1994 when the Needham and Johnson families removed 75 bats from barbed wire fences from 8 am to 6 pm. About one half of the bats were unreleasable due to physical damage. Harry Kunz from Kuranda kindly assisted with the care and fostering of the unreleasable bats.

The local farmers were quite supportive of the rescue operations. Les and Ros Bugner, stud beef cattle farmers whose property lay directly in the path of the bats removed nearly one hundred bats from their brand new barbed wire fences. They have offered their property as a test site for "environmentally friendly fencing." Since most of the bats are snared on the top strand of the fence, the replacement of the top strand with 3 or 4 mm diameter smooth galvanised wire (soft or cold drawn) is an obvious possible solution to the problem. It is of interest to note that older fences in the district were traditionally constructed in this manner, ie one strand of smooth wire on the top, and two strands of barbed wire underneath.

Old style fencing with smooth top strandNew style fencing with barbs on top



Old style fencing....................................New style fencing

The reasons for this is unknown, but, maybe when these older fences were built, smooth wire may have been considerably cheaper than barbed wire.

A visit to the local hardware store soon revealed the reason for the present trend to use only 3 or 4 strands of barbed wire in new fences in the district. A roll of 4 mm diameter smooth galvanised wire was costed at $66 whereas a roll of barbed wire (also 500 metres) was priced at $49.95. Other discount suppliers advertised barbed wire as cheap as $44 and $39 per 500m roll.

Other factors may also be influencing the trend to build higher fences and utilise barbed wire on the top strand. The trend is for larger breeds of stock these days, such as Holstein Friesian dairy cows and Brahman beef cattle. Trials could be devised to determine whether these breeds would be equally well contained by a fence with smooth wire on the top strand.

Little red flying foxes caught on barbed wire fences is not a new problem. They are being snared on fences all over Australia, along with other wildlife, such as gliders and birds. In addition, the larger flying foxes such as the spectacled fruit bat are also snared on rural and industrial security fencing. Barbed wire is a weapon of war. Maybe it is time to rethink our fencing procedures and bring them into line with a more environmentally friendly future.

barbed wire strand

Removing flying foxes from barbed wire is an unpleasant, time consuming and heart-breaking job. A conservative 40% of the bats were unreleasable due to membrane, bone and jaw damage and the care of all these injured animals, some of which would never be releasable imposes a serious dilemma for rescue workers. All farmers whose permission we sought to remove the entangled bats were co-operative and sympathetic. The best solution to the problem is obviously a change in fencing practice. In Australia, however, barbed wire is almost institutionalised in beef and dairy farming. We welcome your input on what should be done with the hundreds of injured bats, plus possible preventative measures and fencing alternatives.

Drawing by Isabelle and Elspeth Johnson.