Court grants reprieve to a critically endangered bird

Today the NSW Land and Environment Court made a decision that could save habitat critical for the survival of the Regent Honeyeater, a bird species on the brink of extinction.

11 March 2016

A community group from the Hunter Valley, Friends of Tumblebee, represented by community legal centre EDO NSW, successfully challenged Cessnock City Council’s approval for the construction of an industrial development in an area of forest that is home to the Regent Honeyeater, a bird that is listed as ‘critically endangered’ under both NSW and Australian environmental laws.

Friends of Tumblebee argued that a species impact statement should have been undertaken before the development was approved. The case was reinforced by independent scientific research showing that the Hunter Economic Zone, where the development would have been located, contains one of the few remaining viable breeding sites for this extremely rare bird. The area supports about 10 per cent of the national (and therefore global) population of between 350 to 400 birds, according to the latest expert assessment.

The Regent Honeyeater is described by the Australian Government Department of the Environment as a 'flagship species' for conservation. In its fact sheet on the bird, ‘A yellow flash no more’, the Department states:

With its brilliant flashes of yellow embroidery, [the Regent Honeyeater] was once seen overhead in flocks of hundreds. Efforts to save the Regent Honeyeater will…help to conserve remnant communities of other threatened or near threatened animals and plants, including the Swift Parrot, Superb Parrot, Brush-tailed Phascogale, Squirrel Glider and Painted Honeyeater.

The Land and Environment Court concluded that because the proposed development will require clearing the habitat of the Regent Honeyeater, it will have a significant impact on the survival of the bird. And this means that Cessnock City Council had no legal power to approve the development without a species impact statement, which provides a comprehensive understanding of the development’s impacts on the Honeyeater and an opportunity for the public to comment.

“We’re very relieved by the court’s decision, this is a decision about survival,” said James Ryan from Friends of Tumblebee. “The Regent Honeyeater is on the brink of extinction, we need to do all that we can to protect it, we should be doing all that we can to help the species to recover and move off the critically endangered list. We should not be allowing development in the few areas where the bird is still breeding. The bird’s ability to breed is essential to its survival.”

Sue Higginson, EDO NSW’s CEO and Principal Solicitor, said “The decision is an example of how our environmental laws can provide an invaluable safety net for biodiversity.”

“It’s unfortunate we had to litigate to ensure the law works as intended, but we’re developing stronger links with councils around New South Wales to help them better understand how to navigate Australia’s complex web of environmental laws. Working together is the best way to ensure we protect our environment for future generations.”

You can read the judgment online. More background on this case can be found at EDO NSW’s website.

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Media enquiries: Sue Higginson 0428 227 363 or Chris Madden (02) 9017 3907