The Patchs Beach 4WD entrance is now blocked with a bar and has concrete blocks next to it, but continuing bad behaviour from some beach visitors further south has led to a police crackdown on 4WDs from Richmond Police, in conjunction with Richmond Valley Council Rangers.
A police statement said, ‘Richmond Valley Council Rangers spoke to over 200 people, issuing over 20 infringements for dog offences, driving in dune areas and other fines for non-compliance of council regulations.
‘Police conducted over 30 random breath tests and licence checks and issued infringements for negligent driving to two drivers who were caught fishtailing and driving at high speeds near children on the beach.
‘These operations were well received by the local community and will be ongoing as police and council continue to work together to keep our beaches a safe place for everyone,’ the police statement concluded.
South Ballina section
Further north along the beach it seems little has changed, so far. Stephen Totterman from Coastal Defenders Network at Empire Vale has written to Ballina Shire Council and Crown Lands, saying ‘that closing the Patchs track will not appease local residents and non-driving beach users because the beach will continue to be a 4WD highway.’
Local resident Megan Ward said, ‘It is no longer acceptable in our community and beyond to have one of Ballina’s greatest natural assets, South Ballina Beach, be destroyed due to the excessive and dangerous 4WD’s and other destructive human activities such as illegal camping and roaming off-leash dogs.
‘The destruction of the dunes and foreshore has been well-documented, leading to the collapse of the beaches and littoral forests.
‘Ballina Shire Council has made a commitment to care for its constituents and return South Ballina Beach to an environment where everyone can enjoy it while appreciating the natural beauty. They also agreed to write to the state government to request that South Ballina Beach be closed to the general public driving 4WD vehicles.
‘With eco-tourism in Australia and the world becoming one of the largest areas of growth in tourism, having access to a natural wild beach is becoming a unique experience. This provides an ideal opportunity to strengthen Ballina’s economy.’
Ms Ward has launched a petition to protect the pied oystercatchers and other endangered species on South Ballina Beach, which calls for 4WDs to be banned from the beach and in-depth ecological study.
The view from Ballina
Ballina Shire Councillor Keith Williams told Echonetdaily he was pleased to see the 4WD entrance to Patchs Beach closed, and said it’s taken a ‘bit of work’ to get council to the point of agreeing unanimously to this.
‘I’ve been involved with working on the beach since 2009 and my Seabird Rescue days, and doing projects trying to protect Pied Oystercatchers and keep dogs off the beach.
‘There’s a caravan park that advertises itself as “come bring your dog here”, even though it’s surrounded by National Park.
‘The fact that the state government agencies control most of what’s been going on down there, that’s been the most frustrating thing.
‘You just can’t get them to act. So it’s been taking a long time.
‘We’ve been sending motions saying do something, do something. The only thing we can do now is close it, you’ve left us no choice.
‘As a campaigner for wildlife I’m pleased we reached that point, but I wouldn’t have expected that we’d have got there so early. Six months ago, I wouldn’t have thought we’d get a unanimous vote to close the beach.
‘We might have got a majority vote. I was working on let’s limit, let’s control it, let’s introduce permit systems, that’s our first step, and then we can try and get a handle on the numbers and then control it. So I’d been talking down that path, and that still may be the compromise that eventuates.’
Cr Williams said he’s more optimistic about the future of the pied oystercatchers now, but there are still major challenges for the threatened species while the damage continues.
‘The decline has been substantial already, and that’s what you worry about. We’re down to probably 10% of what was nesting there previously,’ he said.
‘Will it come back? It seems when we shut down for COVID there was a slight increase in numbers again. If they’re not constantly being harassed, the birds will use that beach. I hope we see a bit more of that.
‘I understand some of the community’s concerns that they want access, they fished there since they were a boy and that kind of thing.
‘I’d like us to try and work that out as well, because I think there is a level of community use that is acceptable, but not the hordes, and not the open slather for anybody from anywhere,’ said Cr Williams.
‘I’m always keen in conservation terms to not create winners and losers, because you build resentment and then you actually lose a lot in the long term,’ he continued.
‘People will say “bloody greenies”, but if you give them a reason and example, and if you can do stuff in a way that says “look, you can still have that thing that you value, but we’re going to achieve this other outcome”, that’s so much better in the long term.’