Batemans Bay is a picturesque coastal town that always leaves the welcome mat out for tourists. But tens of thousands of visitors of another kind have more than outstayed their welcome – large bats.
Residents feel trapped in their guano-coated houses, and those who venture outside soon feel a disgusting “sprinkle of something.” Then there’s the early-morning screeching, so excruciating that Danielle Smith said it compelled her to go on anti-depressants.
Her 2-year-old can no longer play in the backyard, and “won’t even sleep in his own bed anymore because he’s so frightened of the bats,” she said.
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“I can’t open my window at all because the smell is so bad,” Smith said. “We can actually taste it; that’s how strong it is.”
The area’s population of the gray-headed flying fox, Australia’s largest bat, peaked at up to 140,000 in April, nearly three times the number seen there last year. That’s about 12 bats for each of the 11,000 human residents of Batemans Bay, a tourist destination 150 kilometers (95 miles) southeast of Canberra, the capital.
Civic leaders agree the stinking, noisy, messy and potentially diseased bats have got to go. The local council will consider methods of driving them away in the next week. But getting rid of the protected native species, which is listed as vulnerable to extinction because of habitat loss, is no simple task. Some experts warn against even trying.
“It’s an unprecedented event because we’re in uncharted territory with how to manage it,” Mayor Lindsay Brown said.
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization estimates there are 680,000 gray-headed flying foxes in Australia, meaning Batesmans Bay has been home to one in every five of them. Each bat can weigh a kilogram with wing spans exceeding a meter.
They fly out at dusk to feed on flowering spotted gum and bloodwood trees in forests, then wake locals with a cacophony of screeching on their return to town before dawn.
Thousands flew en masse into power lines, knocking out power to the entire town. It happened not once, not twice, but on nine consecutive nights in April.
Their acidic droppings can burn through the paintwork on cars if not washed off within hours. The pungent scent that the males use to mark out their roosting territory is sickening. A bite or a scratch from a bat carries the risk of the rabies-like lyssavirus that has claimed three lives in Australia in the past 20 years.
The bats have been returning to this habitat annually since 2012, making their home in an urban wetland known as Water Gardens and a nearby golf club. But this year’s numbers are unprecedented; last year there were only 50,000.
Bat colonies in Australian urban areas have become increasingly common since the 1990s, Sydney University bat researcher Kerryn Parry-Jones said.
“We don’t really know why there is this urbanization,” she said. “It is a bad thing for everybody, including the bats. But it’s probably concerned with habitat destruction.”
They are more than nuisances. Children are losing sleep and the bats have been blamed for cases of depression with some residents complaining of feeling trapped indoors by the smell and noise, researchers found.
“It’s just not pleasant,” said resident Kim Swadling. “I do a lot of running and by 5:30 you’re covered in whatever it is, pee or whatever. It’s disgusting. I haven’t been pooed on yet but you certainly get a sprinkle of something on you. It’s the stench more than anything, and they poo on everything.”
While thousands of bats have already migrated north, Mayor Brown wants the remainder “nudged” out of town in hopes they won’t return to Batemans Bay next year.
The Eurobodalla Shire Council’s plight has recently attracted a 2.5 million Australian dollar state government grant to get rid of the bats. The federal government has given the council an exemption from environmental protection law to disperse the bats without killing them.
The council is removing trees to create a “habitat buffer” between the colony and homes, Brown said.
Water Gardens resident Davida MaChing questions whether the cure will prove worse than the problem. She fears that native birds will stop coming if more trees are removed.
“I do agree that the flying foxes have to go, but I don’t think they have to go to such drastic measures of chopping all the trees down,” said MaChing, who has lived in Batemans Bay for 33 years.
The council next week will consider a plan to drive away the remaining bats by August by disrupting their roosting through smoke machines, loud noise booming from powerful speakers and bright lights before dawn. The council warns that humans nearby would also endure weeks of disturbed sleep.
Meanwhile the council is providing affected residents with free car and clothesline covers, as well as portable high-pressure water pumps to clean bat droppings off their property.
Parry-Jones, the bat researcher, warned against trying to remove the colony. She said such efforts usually result in the bats splitting into two or more colonies in the same area that annoy even more people.
“We have … an ecological problem which has been generated over probably 50 years, and it’s only now people are becoming aware of it. And now they want a complete and utter solution within 24 hours,” she said.