Nature conservation

Native animals

Living with grey-headed flying-foxes

Grey-headed flying-foxes are increasingly setting up camp near towns and people in search of food and shelter because of the loss of their natural habitat and in response to local food availability. Living near flying-fox camps can be difficult. Like all flying-foxes, grey-headed flying-foxes are noisy and their camps can be smelly and messy.

The grey-headed flying-fox is listed as a vulnerable species both within NSW and across Australia. As a vulnerable species, prior approval is required from the State Government to disturb or relocate a grey-headed flying-fox camp or modify its habitat. In some cases, further approval may be required from the Australian Government.

Disease risk

Flying-foxes pose no health risks unless you are bitten or scratched, so it is very important that you never handle them. Australian bat lyssavirus and Hendra virus are two diseases associated with flying-foxes. The risk of flying-foxes transmitting disease to humans is extremely low. Provided basic hygiene measures are taken there is no reason for the public to be concerned.

Lyssavirus is extremely rare and preventable. It is only transmitted by flying-fox saliva coming into contact with an open wound or mucus membrane such as the eyes, nose or mouth. It is not spread through droppings or urine, so you are not exposed to the virus if a flying-fox flies overhead, feeds or roosts in your garden, or if you live near a camp or visit one.

Hendra virus outbreaks are very rare. There is no evidence that humans can catch Hendra virus directly from flying-foxes. Hendra virus may be transmitted from flying-foxes to horses and it is possible for humans to contract it from infected horses.

What can you do?

  • Never directly handle flying-foxes.
  • If you find an injured flying-fox, please contact WIRES or a  wildlife care group in your local area. Do not attempt to rescue it yourself.
  • If you are bitten or scratched, wash the site immediately with plenty of soap and water and seek medical attention straight away. Report the incident to NSW Health.
  • If you must dispose of a dead flying-fox, always wear thick gloves, e.g. gardening gloves, and wrap it in plastic bags. Wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
  • Do not keep food and water for pets underneath trees, particularly for horses, and keep undercover if possible.
  • Move horses away from paddocks where flowering/fruiting trees are attracting flying-foxes.
  • Use good hygiene practices around horses and be vigilant of sick animals.

Noise, smell and mess

Flying-foxes are noisy animals, but this noise is an important part of their society. When flying-foxes are present in large numbers, this noise can understandably be a nuisance for residents.

Often there are calls to relocate flying-fox colonies, but this may make flying-foxes even noisier and more agitated.

Flying-foxes can also be smelly, particularly in large numbers. Although this smell may be unpleasant to us, it is an important way that flying-foxes communicate with each other, including between mother and baby.

What can you do?

  • Don’t disturb the flying-foxes. When flying-foxes get stressed, they tend to squabble and make even more noise. They are quietest when left alone.
  • Flying-foxes prefer tall vegetation, so they may be deterred by trimming vegetation and removing branches from around houses or public buildings. If flying-foxes have already set up camp in trees, contact the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) Environment Line on 131 555 before trimming any of these trees.
  • Planting a buffer of low vegetation, such as shrubs on your property can provide a screen between your house and flying-foxes.
  • Plant food trees preferred by flying-foxes away from houses and orchards.

Damage to orchards and backyard fruit trees

Removal of natural habitat means that flying-foxes take advantage of a range of new foods in urban areas, including fruit trees. This is naturally a source of frustration for orchardists and backyard growers.

What can you do?

  • Properly constructed netting is the best option for protecting fruit. More information about netting is provided on the OEH website.

Why do people care about grey-headed flying-foxes?

The grey-headed flying-fox, like the koala and kangaroo, are native species and are protected in Australia.

Like all flying-foxes, grey-headed flying-foxes play an important role in Australian environments because they are natural pollinators and seed dispersers. They are crucial for the survival and regeneration of our native forests and are important for local honey production. They also provide food for other native animals such as owls.

The grey-headed flying-fox is listed as vulnerable to extinction both in NSW and nationally. As their numbers are declining, destruction of their habitat remains a significant threat.

Threats

Why is the grey-headed flying-fox listed as vulnerable to extinction?

The grey-headed flying-fox is listed as vulnerable to extinction under NSW and Australian legislation because of declining numbers and key threats such as habitat loss and urban conflict.

Records indicate that grey-headed flying-foxes may once have numbered in the millions, but are now reduced to as few as 400,000. In the decade before listing, their population was estimated to have declined by 30%.

Loss of habitat is the main threat to grey-headed flying-foxes and is a key cause of their conflict with humans. Winter foraging is particularly affected by development in the NSW coastal floodplain areas.

Habitat loss has meant grey-headed flying-foxes are more affected by extreme weather and years of native food scarcity, leading them to target urban gardens and commercial fruit orchards. Farmers and those affected by nearby camps (flying-fox roosts) have in the past resorted to a variety of lethal methods to deter flying-foxes. Shooting of flying-foxes to protect fruit crops is legal in NSW if a licence has been issued under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. However, these licences will gradually be phased out, and will no longer be routinely issued after 2014. 

Flying-foxes have a very low breeding rate, with mothers giving birth to only one pup per year. This means flying-fox populations can only increase slowly. Pregnancy and lactation coincide with fruit harvesting, so shooting at this time can have a significant impact on the population.

The listing of grey-headed flying-foxes as vulnerable gives the species more protection and attention. It has changed the way licences to harm flying-foxes are issued in NSW and the way in which proposals for development applications that will impact on grey-headed flying-foxes are assessed.

The grey-headed flying-fox has also been listed as vulnerable by the Australian Government under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

See the Species Profile and Threats Database for more information on the Commonwealth listing of this threatened species.

Given the wide geographic range of this species and its ability to travel long distances, strategies to ensure its survival need to cross state boundaries. A Draft National Recovery Plan for the Grey-headed Flying-fox (08214dnrpflyingfox, 420KB) has been prepared to promote the national survival of this species.

The national recovery plan considers the conservation requirements of the species throughout its range, sets objectives for its recovery, and identifies measurable actions that can be undertaken to reverse its decline and ensure long-term viability.

What is being done to help the species?

OEH has identified 10 strategies to support the survival of the grey-headed flying fox, ranging across habitat management, community education, monitoring, research and mapping.

Management strategies need to acknowledge that flying-fox roosting habitats will increasingly occur close to urban homes and include measures to minimise impacts to and from flying-foxes. Similarly, in times of food scarcity, flying-foxes will choose to eat the fruit in orchards rather than starve. Therefore, foraging habitats need to be protected and restored, and a greater understanding of food-source dynamics and the feeding trends of flying-foxes is required.

There are a number of documents and websites with more information, including the following:

  • Best practice guidelines for the grey-headed flying-fox (08540tsdsflyingfoxbpg.pdf, 1MB) These guidelines provide key information, including best-practice guidance to land managers, bushland regenerators and private landholders seeking to conserve grey-headed flying-foxes.
  • Flying-fox camp management policy (ffcmp07281.pdf, 250KB) This report outlines OEH strategies for appropriately conserving and managing flying-fox camps in NSW, particularly when these camps are located close to urban areas.
  • Ranking the feeding habitats of grey-headed flying-foxes for conservation management (main report; GHFFmainreport.pdf, 3MB) The major threat to grey-headed flying foxes is loss of habitat and food resources, particularly food resources available in winter. This document highlights foraging habitats and locations critical to the survival of flying-foxes to help inform and target conservation efforts.

To provide balanced public input into flying-fox management issues, the Department of Environment and Conservation established the NSW Flying-Fox Consultative Committee in August 2001, shortly after the listing of the grey-headed flying-fox as a threatened species in NSW.

The following reports are specific to NSW and detail the locations and patterns of use of known grey-headed flying-fox camps and food sources.

All native species, including flying-foxes, are protected under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. The grey-headed flying-fox is a threatened species: it is listed as vulnerable to extinction in NSW under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and across Australia under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.



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Page last updated: 12 March 2014