Wedge-tailed eagles are falling foul of the giant, swift-moving wind turbine blades at Yaloak South wind farm near Ballan.
The renewable energy company Pacific Hydro confirmed to The Courier that three deaths of the eagle – Australia’s largest bird of prey – have been recorded at the wind farm since it began operating in Moorabool Shire last year.
It bears out the claims of Glenmore-based wildlife campaigner Kevin Ramholdt, who told local radio about the eagles’ deaths last week.
The wind farm, which consists of 14 turbines, began operations at a site 15 kilometres south of Ballan last June. One of the closest wind farms to Melbourne – as well as one of the smallest in the country – the Yaloak South site has wind turbines that are 80m high with the blade tips going up to 126.5m. The tips of the turbine rotors can reach up to 250km/h during rotations, making them mortally dangerous for passing birdlife and bats.
Pacific Hydro had originally proposed a wind farm with 70 turbines, but the State Government rejected the plans in 2006 due to concerns about the effect on the local eagle population.
The area around the wind farm is known as an excellent viewing point for the birds, producing thermals that allow the eagles to soar to heights of up to two kilometres.
Revised plans for a dramatically scaled back operation were approved in 2010 by the then Minister for Energy and Resources Peter Batchelor.
Former firefighter Mr Ramholdt, 58, told The Courier he feared the total of wedge-tailed eagle deaths could be higher in reality, citing concerns about the accuracy of the bird death count.
“I’ve got no beef against wind farms and renewable energy,” he said. “They just built it exactly where it shouldn’t have been built.
“This is one of the best places in the state, if not the country, to see large numbers of wedge-tailed eagles.
“They’re just magnificent. You get quite an attachment to them living close to that sort of wildlife. There’s been three killed in a very short time since they started collecting statistics so it’s a real concern.
“We’re adjacent to the Brisbane Ranges national park – they’ve got to cross through those turbines, coming from nesting sites to hunting grounds or foraging areas. It’s like they [the eagles] have got to cross a busy road all the time.”
“As far as siting wind turbines, it’s probably the worst place in Australia they could have put them.”
Pacific Hydro spokesman Adam Chandler said the eagle deaths at Yaloak South were reported promptly to the relevant authorities when they were discovered in August and September last year. He said that no deaths had been recorded since then.
“Pacific Hydro has dedicated environmental specialists in our team to ensure that we fully meet all current planning conditions and environmental requirements,” he told The Courier in an email.
“The project’s approved management plan specifies a limit of 10 wedge-tailed eagle mortalities within the first year, or an average of seven over two years.”
“To continue management and mitigation of risk, Pacific Hydro is working with our ecology consultant to undertake scavenger trials, monitoring, and regular auditing on site, which are all in line with our planning permit conditions and best practice.”
He also said the company had supported a local wildlife shelter through its Yaloak South Community Fund.
The Victorian Government’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) describes the wedge-tailed eagle as a “magnificent bird” with a wing span of up to 2.3 metres that can carry up to five kilograms of prey. It is known for its binocular vision – up to eight times beyond human range – and typically preys on ground-dwelling animals such as hares and rabbits. The birds also feast on carrion.
While they are threatened in Tasmania, wedge-tailed eagle populations are categorised as “secure” in Victoria and all other Australian states.
Until relatively recently, the birds had a poor reputation among livestock farmers, with eagles suspected of preying upon and killing lambs.
Poisoning and shooting of the raptors used to be commonplace with hundreds and thousands – possibly millions – of the birds slaughtered in the 20th Century. According to the Australian Museum, 147,237 eagles were killed in Western Australia from 1928 to 1968 and 162,430 in Queensland from 1951 to 1966.
However, DELWP says wedge-tailed eagles rarely take healthy lambs while attacks on adult sheep are unheard of – although they are known to hunt in groups and attack fully grown kangaroos.
The eagles are now protected under the 1975 Wildlife Act, along with the rest of Australia’s native flora and fauna.
Last year, an East Gippsland farm worker was jailed for 14 days and fined $2,500 for the mass poisoning of 406 wedge-tailed eagles.
All potential wind farm projects need to include proposals to mitigate the danger to bird life and bats – with birds of prey particularly at risk, according to the conservation organisation Birdlife International.
Wildlife campaigners have also cited concerns for bird life at the proposed Golden Plains wind farm, approved last week by the Victorian State Government and awaiting Federal sign-off. An assessment suggested that developer WestWind Energy should adapt its plans to reduce the project’s footprint and the risk to brolga cranes.
The Bird and Bat Management Plan for the Yaloak South site suggests strikes could be mitigated by removing of carrion, livestock, native animals and pest animals that might attract raptors to turbine areas.
In addition, the plan recommended protocols with land owners to manage paddocks around the turbines in lambing season, again to reduce the risk of attracting birds of prey.
Techniques such as blade-marking to make turbines more visible to the eagles in flight could also be tried.
Pacific Hydro runs several wind farms in Australia, including Challicum Hills Wind Farm 90 kilometres to the west of Ballarat, as well as Portland Wind Energy Project. It also operates three hydro plants in Victoria at Lake Glenmaggie, Lake William Hovell and Eildon Pondage, with three solar farms either in development or under construction in Queensland and Victoria.
The company was acquired in 2016 by the State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), one of China’s five biggest power companies. SPIC cites its assets as totalling US$113billion (AUS$156billion), with operations spread across 36 countries including Australia, Chile, Malta, Japan, Brazil, Turkey and Vietnam.
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