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hThe shy and enigmatic Latham’s Snipe has travelled a long way from far eastern Russia and Japan to Victoria, only to find that its decades-old resting place in Port Fairy is under attack. The importance of February 2 was not lost on the tight-knight bird-loving community of Port Fairy.

By Beatrice Paull

The shy and enigmatic Latham’s Snipe has travelled a long way from far eastern Russia and Japan to Victoria, only to find that its decades-old resting place in Port Fairy is under attack.

February 2 was World Wetlands Day, the significance of which was not lost on the tight-knit bird-loving community of Port Fairy. The day served as a poignant reminder of the value of Port Fairy’s vanishing wetlands, and of the ongoing legal battle the community finds itself engaged in to prevent wetland development.

EDO Victoria is assisting local bird lovers who wish to protect the dwindling habitat of the impressive migratory bird, the Latham’s Snipe. It is seeking a merits review in VCAT of the Moyne Shire Council’s decision to allow the development of the habitat.

The EDO is representing Port Fairy locals, teacher Jodie Honan and artist and avid birdwatcher Don Stewart, in their quest to save habitat the Powling Street wetlands complex.

The part of the Powling Street wetland complex that is being targeted by the development contains three ephemeral wetlands, which provide foraging habitat for the protected bird.   A stony knoll that serves as a roosting area is proposed to be given back to the Council by the developer as a condition of the proposed subdivision. An earlier VCAT hearing found that the stony knoll is unsuitable for development because it would ‘result in a permanent loss of Latham’s Snipe habitat’ .

Independent studies indicate that the Powling Street wetlands complex is one of the most important habitats for the Latham’s Snipe in Victoria and possibly in Australia.  According to a 2012 GHD report commissioned by the Federal Environment Department, over a hundred birds have been counted at the wetlands complex on 38 occasions. One count showed 430 of them. Any site where over 18 birds are counted is classified as an ‘important habitat’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (‘EPBC Act’), and the Powling Street wetland complex disputed area well exceeds this.

The Latham’s Snipe is listed as near threatened in Victoria, and is an international shorebird migratory species listed under the EPBC Act as being a ‘matter of national environmental significance’.

At the hearing before VCAT, EDO Victoria brought evidence concerning the negative impact that the development will have on the Snipe’s use of the adjacent council-owned permanent wetland, and the stony knoll,. The prospects of development have also  created community concerns about flooding impacts on the proposed development and surrounding homes from storm surge and seal level rise.

No other site in the region has been shown to  regularly contain similar numbers of Latham’s Snipe.

Despite this legal battle centering on one localised habitat, and aiming to protect one particular species, the case demonstrates the importance of a strong sustained legal defence especially when dealing with a migratory species that rely on multiple wetlands in multiple jurisdictions.

Loss and damage to the habitat of shorebirds such as the Latham’s Snipe is a global phenomenon. Recent scientific evidence shows the Latham’s Snipe numbers are declining in their breading habitat in Japan. This incremental loss of habitat has a cumulative long term effect on the bird life, and the protection of this wetland is particularly important given the large numbers of birds that it supports.

For an elegant, brown bird that prefers to spend its days hiding in long coastal grasses, the Latham’s Snipe has come out into the legal spotlight in recent months. For the local Port Fairy community and for the small bird they are rallying to protect, this most recent battle is one that cannot afford to be lost.

The case was heard in Warranmbool last week – we’ll let you know when a decision is made.

Image:Latham’s Snipe Jason Girvan