By Peter Hannam
A coastal shorebird conservation program that taps thousands of volunteer hours and boasts many years of success faces collapse after the Berejiklian government cut funding for its paid staffer, volunteers say.
The South Coast Shorebird Recovery Program, set up in 1999 and hailed as recently as February by Environment Minister Matt Kean as producing "great conservation outcomes", will no longer have a dedicated National Parks & Wildlife Service co-ordinator from as soon as next February.
John Perkins, a volunteer who has worked for more than two decades advocating for the protection of endangered species at South Durras including pied oystercatchers and hooded plovers, says the loss of employment for Parks employee Jodie Dunn "is a devastating blow" for the conservation efforts.
"It's a real flagship program for the Parks Service," Mr Perkins said. "It's something they should be proud of."
The Herald approached Mr Kean for comment. A spokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and the Environment said the program's success of the most recent breeding season included 50 fledged little tern and pied oystercatcher chicks at nesting sites despite the bushfires and beach visitors.
"To support delivery of this important conservation program, NPWS has historically used two temporary part-time Recovery Planning Officers, one officer based in Ulladulla and another in Narooma," the spokesperson said, adding that funding runs until next June.
The Department spokesperson said the shorebird recovery program will continue to be delivered by the Parks service, adding that the community can support the survival of the birds by keeping dogs and four-wheel-drive vehicles away from nesting spots.
Mr Perkins and other volunteers, though, say Ms Dunn's contract will only run until next February.
The risks for the beach-nesting birds are evident to any visitor to the region. Species such as the pied oystercatcher typically lay their eggs on the top of small mounds so the parents can see any predator.
Unfortunately, the eggs can take five weeks to hatch, leaving them vulnerable to be trampled on by beach walkers in what are often very popular tourist spots on the South Coast.
With the COVID-19 restrictions limiting travel options, the spell of recent warm weather has already brought droves of visitors to the region, increasing the risks for the eggs and the chicks that are now hatching.
"We're facing a holiday season from hell over summer," Mr Perkins, 65, said.
Along with co-ordinating some 80 volunteers putting in about 3000 hours a year, the Parks staffer also helps provide electrified fencing, other barriers and signs to keep the public away from the nesting sites.
Once hatched, pied oystercatcher chicks can't fly for almost five weeks, leaving them susceptible to foxes and other predators. The electrified fences keep foxes at bay.
Rob Clemens, a shorebird ecologist at Birdlife Australia, said shorebird species around Australia faced a variety of threats. Those adapted to breed in a variety of locations, such as on offshore islands or in wetlands, were typically better off than those limited to beaches.
"Most of your beach-nesting birds would be threatened along the coast to varying degrees," Dr Clemens said.
While volunteers will also be the mainstay of protection efforts, "you always need a government stakeholder", he said. "You also need someone on the ground who can educate the users potentially having an impact on the birds."