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Netting backyard fruit trees


 
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Marjorie Beck, from the Ku-ring-gai Bat Conservation Society (KBCS), looks at the national problem of backyard fruit tree netting and its effects on flying foxes.    
Every year, large numbers of flying-foxes become entangled in protective netting which loosely covers backyard fruit trees. The injuries sustained are horrific, often causing a painful and slow death. In addition, for every lactating female caught, a young flying-fox will ultimately die alone in the camp from dehydration and starvation.

It is not known precisely how many animals become entangled as many go unreported because they have already died and in some cases have been beaten to death by the people owning the fruit trees. Wildlife rescue groups estimate that numbers of animals killed or entangled in inappropriately netted backyard fruit trees could run into the thousands each year.

Marjorie still remembers her first rescue of a flying fox caught in netting. Entangled in thin nylon black netting that had been loosely thrown over a backyard fruit tree, the bat had multiple breaks to its finger bones, a compound fracture to its arm, shockingly torn wing membranes and a swollen and cut mouth from trying to bite its way out of the netting.

 

After removing it from the netting it was taken to the vet for euthanasia. Marjorie sat and waited for over an hour to have this poor animal helped (see right).
This was not a one-off event - it is typical of what happens when a backyard fruit tree is not netted correctly.  Flying foxes are not the only animals caught in netting, with snakes, possums and birds also become entangled. Marjorie recalls rescuing a bird that had lost its leg from entanglement - the netting had completely severed it as it tried frantically to escape.
It is not unusual to have more than one bat caught in one net particularly in years when native food resources are poor and the animals predate backyard fruit trees for food.


 

One of the main problems with netting is that people wishing to protect their backyard fruit trees from animal predation visit their local nursery or hardware store to ask how best to do this.
They are advised to drape netting – often black in colour which the flying foxes don’t see - loosely over their trees. The animals fly into this and become hopelessly entangled.
Black monofilament netting is the worst “offender” and should never be used. Even stretched tightly over a frame, wildlife can still become entangled and suffer appalling injuries often resulting in death.
This netting sold as “Anti-bird Netting” is recommended by retailers as being the cheapest and easiest way to protect backyard fruit trees. While several larger stores agreed to gradually phase out the sale of black monofilament netting, there are many outlets where this is not the case.


 

If netting is to be used to protect backyard fruit trees it should be stretched tightly over a frame so that the animals 'bounce’ off it if they try to land. People interested in protecting our wildlife are encouraged to purchase ‘knitted’ nets, consisting of two or three strands of netting spun together. Having nets coloured white is also a good preventive measure, as the net can be seen by the bats, birds and possums and so can be avoided.
However, no matter what type of netting used, to avoid being a trap for wildlife,  it does need to be stretched tightly over a framework erected around the fruit tree.


 
One of the problems with building a framework is that it is quite expensive for backyard use, costing around $100 or more per fruit tree and most people are not prepared to spend this amount on fruit tree protection.
However, there are cheaper alternative methods of protecting ripening fruit: Use clothes pegs to peg 30% shade cloth over the branches of the tree bearing fruit. Shade cloth can be removed after fruiting has finished and reused the following year.
Left: Marjorie with a 'how not to do it example' of backyard fruit tree netting.

 

Another method is to tie paper bags over ripening fruit. Here it is important to remember that the bags need to be replaced if they become wet. With both these methods, it is unlikely the top branches on taller trees will be protected. However, why not leave the top branches of the fruit tree - where fruit cannot be reached by you - for the wildlife to eat and just protect the lower branches for home use - this is a win-win situation for householder  the flying foxes and birds.


 
Householders who find netted animals are advised to call one of the wildlife care organisations in their area to rescue it. Entangled animals should NOT be handled but kept as peacefully as possible until rescue occurs. If the weather is hot, they can be gently sprayed with water or protected from the sun with a towel. Household pets should be kept away.     

Guidelines for safe netting
All of the information on how best to protect backyard fruit trees can be found on the website www.sydneybats.org.au which is KBCS’s home page.

Netted trees need to be inspected daily (in the morning since flying foxes are active at night).
If householders are absent for extended periods, they either should remove the netting or arrange with another person to inspect the nets each morning.

Use durable knitted netting with mesh size 40mm or smaller to exclude flying foxes.
White netting, which is more easily seen by wildlife is recommended
Stretch the netting tautly over a homemade frame
Ensure the frame is at least one metre clear of the tree;
Peg the netting securely to the ground for full protection.
“Velcro” or tie one side of the net to the frame to allow access to fruit and closure after collecting fruit.


 

Marjorie Beck was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Images supplied by Marjorie Beck and are from Mark Jupp, Heather Smith, Marjorie Beck and Sydney Wildlife. Summary text was prepared by Victor Barry, February 2011 and revised August 2014.


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