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Creating spaces for nature

Old Byron sewage treatment plant. Photo Mary Gardner.

Story & image Mary Gardner

On 28 November 2019, Byron Shire Council unanimously decided to better protect wild birds of the old Tallow sewage treatment site at 1 Broken Head Road. Here’s the back-story, a case study on how to help save wildlife.

What’s at stake

Since 2007, the land use changed and a wildlife treasure developed. With the closing of the Byron sewage treatment plant, people minimised their industrial presence.

Powered vehicles are prevented entry to the site. No artificial lighting remained so that animals and vegetation had the security of unbroken darkness at night.

A few years ago, the few buildings were removed and some of the contamination of the site was remediated. The old ponds remained full of water.

People themselves continued to use the site. They walked or cycled through: most stayed on the ribbon of pavement.  Some people walked their dogs, on leads, along the same paved pathway removing their dog’s faeces.

In these conditions, nature’s healing processes took over. Shrubby plants grew, creating a type of dense hedgerow a metre or two in height. To nature watchers, the most obvious change was with the birds. Small wrens, finches, rainbow bee-eaters and wagtails were increasingly visible quite close to the pathway.

Using available knowledge

Local conservation group Byron Bird Buddies found the site had high conservation value. They know that as land use changes throughout Australia, many populations of small Australian birds are threatened or become locally extinct.

But here, small birds live in pairs or small groups in modest homelands only metres in depth and width and up to two metres in height. They fly, but they don’t go far. They rely on thickets for shelter, food and safety from predators.

When guiding birdwatchers along the pathway, Bird Buddies people explained how warning calls are also passed along the pathway from one species to another, through one homeland to another. Most of this chatter affects small birds. Repeatedly disturbed, they become fatigued, nervous, abandon nests, or die of heart failure. Medium to large birds have more energy and more escape options.

Since 2007, the bird watchers monitored the site. Over four hours on 23 October, 2019, in a 500 metre radius, they counted 73 species of birds of all sizes. At least nine species were breeding and six were ‘first sightings’ in the twelve years of surveys.

They also saw signs of increased traffic off the pathway, traced to the adjacent caravan park. The signs included trampling, dog faeces and other dog odours from urine and sweat. Several dogs, their owners oblivious, were running off leads. One didn’t have an owner present at all.

Researchers from Sydney found all this has, in other places, reduced the numbers of birds by 41 per cent. Hardest hit are small birds as well as the ground nests of larger birds, such as swamp-hens.

To help nature along, dogs must stay on leads and on the paved pathway. This means dog owners, especially tourist dog owners, need to know what’s at stake and what they achieve by doing the right thing.

Writing a NoM

One resident bird lover wanted to start this change. She talked with an ex-councillor about some practical steps the council could take. 

With some suggestions on paper, she then rang a local councillor who knew the site. The councillor agreed to do a Notice of Motion (NoM). A NoM must be in writing on the Monday three weeks before the next council meeting. This gives the council staff time to investigate and recommend a response. 

Using public access at council meetings

To support the NoM, a speaker or two were booked to address Council during public access. This starts at 9am on the day of the meeting. The speakers must sign up online through the Council website by noon on the Wednesday before the meeting. All speakers in support have a total of five minutes to make their case. Any opposition speakers must also register, and have the same time limit.

In this case, the chair of Bird Buddies wrote the summary and the summary was presented by another member. Community supporters were urged to attend.

Public access creates two opportunities. First, all the councillors can see a show of community support (or opposition) and can ask questions of the speakers. Second, every item on public access goes to the head of the agenda which starts after public access.

Seeing it through

With the decision made, the final wording is in the minutes of the meeting online the following Monday. The activists need to see the actions through: watching what happens, getting involved as needed. In this case, tourists as well as residents need to know how much their actions matter. Apart from what Council will do, an explanatory display on site and online, at the caravan park, at the tourist centre, and in other accommodation venues will all help.

So, in this Shire, that’s an Extinction Rebellion 101 Action Plan.  How will you use it?


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2 responses to “Creating spaces for nature”

  1. Liz Levy says:

    Thanks, Mary. How will I use the action plan? Well I tried without much success at the same meeting about this very same, very beautiful place.

    You see I have long been a concerned observer of Council’s processes in their plans to lease this site for development. The trouble was – instead of starting with a master plan that might allow for some strategic analysis, ventilation of the relevant issues and, done properly, scrutiny and community input – Council kicked off by asking potential developers to submit ‘expressions of interest’. Conveniently this meant that everything from then on was totally shrouded in secrecy by the imperatives of ‘commercial in confidence’.

    We were told that all would remain that way until Council decided upon a winning tender, at which time there’d finally be information and consultative processes – all a bit late and all a bit arse about.

    But there was a surprise – when it came time for the Evaluation Panel to announce the winner, they recommended to Council instead that councillors decline to accept any tenders because they scored so badly against the established criteria. Game over you would think but it seemed some councillors felt they had more informed judgement than the people we pay to be qualified and give us advice – they delayed a decision to take a look themselves to see if they could still take a bad plan to it’s conclusion.

    Now I’ve got more than a strong feeling that there is a desire to continue with one of the tenders and anticipating that this would emerge when staff next put their recommendation to a meeting (the one this Thursday in fact) I asked another question at November’s meeting about the ongoing process. It went: ‘

    ‘ … in the absence of a recommended tenderer from the evaluation panel, if Council decides to continue to negotiate with one tenderer, is there any obligation to observe the original criteria and select the tender of highest score or will Council develop and make transparent the criteria and weightings on which their selection is made?’

    I was told that in order to give me a proper answer, the question would be taken on notice. I am sure countless hours of deliberation and research went into the final reply:

    ‘ The confidential tender is again being reported to the 12 December 2019 meeting of Council at which time it will be possible for Council to make a decision’.

    Oh Fast Buck$, haven’t you got anywhere yet in your instruction on the differences between answers and responses?

    Now, like Mary I would encourage everyone to involve themselves in participatory democracy but I warn you – in Byron, it’s not for the faint hearted!

  2. m gardner says:

    Thanks Liz — ABOUT THIS ISSUE
    I am also following this issue and believe the democratic process was derailed when the Management Plan for the site was removed from Public Exhibition and a tender process for some other sort of management was put forward instead. Thursday this week is the day that this issue returns to council again and I urge people to review this case and insist that the staff advice be followed: to continue again with a Management Plan process.
    ABOUT USING NoM
    The NoM process is one way people in other parts of the Shire can bring to council specific suggestions about many things — in this case, wildlife protection. It’s a primer for people new to the local government system. As you say it’s not for the faint heartetd and no outcomes assured BUT these are the steps to take and the Case Study shows something of what can be achieved.

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