Many species of wildlife, especially flying foxes, get caught on barbed wire fences. Most are caught on the top strand of a fence, often on fences near a feed tree, on a ridgeline or where fences are strung over or near approaches to water. Unless rescued, entangled animals suffer a slow and cruel death.

Most years Tolga Bat Hospital rescues over 100 flying foxes from barbed wire fences. Many of these animals cannot be released back to the wild because of the severity of damage to wing and bone. Many in desperation have tried to bite themselves off the wire, causing major mouth damage; and many die of heat stroke as they hang crucified in the hot sun.

Wildlife carers in Australia have been concerned for a long time about this issue, and some have investigated local solutions. However the issues surrounding entanglement of wildlife on barbed wire require a coordinated national approach. Carol Booth recognised this, and through an Action Plan has galvanised support for such an approach. Carol's support was instrumental in our successful application for a grant from the Threatened Species Network of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Full details of this project "Reducing the Impact of Barbed Wire on Wildlife" can be found at www.wildlifefriendlyfencing.com

The website for the WWF project contains very detailed information about the issues surrounding entanglement of wildlife on barbed wire, but continue down this page for an overview.

 
Tolga Bat Hospital - Bird On Wire

Little Red flying foxes are affected more than the 3 larger species of flying fox, maybe because their flight is weaker in windy conditions. It is not uncommon for large numbers of Little Red flying foxes to get caught over a few weeks, especially when the young cannot fly well enough to cope with windy conditions. In this part of Australia, the Atherton Tablelands, these mass events usually occur September to October. In 1994, 442 little red flying foxes were caught, mostly along one 10 km stretch of barbed wire in the Ravenshoe area. Little Reds occur across northern and eastern Australia extending inland long distances depending on the availability of flowering trees.

We have often rescued bats from government-funded fences that are protecting revegetation plantings from cattle. The irony is that one goal of the revegetation plantings is to improve biodiversity. Yet when bats come to offer their seed dispersal and pollination services, they are caught. As the plantings increase in height, the situation often improves.

If landowners need barbed wire fences to protect watercourses, crops, revegetation plantings etc from cattle:

  • use plain wire as the top strand
  • consider training cattle with electric fences
  • conduct daily early morning inspections of fences if flying foxes are camped nearby
  • have the phone number of nearest wildlife care group
  • put fences below rather than on ridge lines
  • improve the visibility of the fence with devices that rely on the flying foxes' vision and hearing eg flagging tape, shiny metal tags, bunting.

Flying foxes(or megabats) do not have echolocation like the smaller insect-eating bats (or microbats). However microbats can get caught on fences as well, again especially in windy conditions.

Tolga Bat Hospital - Bat Wing Injuries

 

Tolga Bat Hospital - Bat Wing Injury

  Holes in wing membrane can heal very successfully. However if these holes were to break through to the outside and result in a slit, healing would be a lot less satisfactory. It is important that this bat has the opportunity to fly while the holes are healing, as the resulting scar tissue needs to be stretched.   Injuries often involve loss of membrane around bone. In this instance the use of duoderm resulted in total healing. There was granulation of tissue along the exposed bone and finally closure of the wing membrane.  

The photos below are of the same tubed-nose bat. Its right wing (on the right) was severely bruised from the barbs, while the left wing had a huge slit between the fifth finger and the forearm.

Tolga Bat Hospital - Injured Tube Nose   Tolga Bat Hospital - Injured Tube Nose 2

If you do see a bat caught, please don't handle it. If you are bitten or scratched, the Health Department will want the bat killed and tested for Australian Bat Lyssavirus (ABLV), a rare disease in flying foxes. Keep it safe from predators, establish some shade if its hot, but then stay back as it will panic and probably bite the fence to try to get away.

Do not be tempted to rescue the bat and let it go. There is usually a die-back process in the wing that may not be evident for several days. The damage may look quite minimal at first, but lack of blood supply to the wing while it is still entangled can lead to a surprising amount of die-back, or loss of wing membrane. Many of these bats may fly away at the time, but then lose the ability to fly over the next few days. Bones are often broken or stripped of wing membrane, and infection may set in. The animal is nearly always stressed and dehydrated, and needs to be kept in care for a minimum of 2 weeks to assess the full effect of the damage. Bats can have a lot of difficulty eating anything except smoothies and fluids until their mouths heal. It is not always immediately evident if the bat will be releasable.
 

 

 

You may be a long way from an experienced vaccinated carer. Some basic advice if you attempt to rescue a flying fox.

To rescue a bat from a barbed wire fence, you will need

  • preferably 2 people, one to restrain the bat while the other untangles the bat
  • best to wear shirts with long sleeves for protection and have thick gloves especially for the person restraining the bat
  • water and juice for rehydration, water also to soften wing for releasing from barbs, syringes. If the bat is badly dehyrated, it will need fluid injections from a trained carer/vet; and it is best to use a product like Vytrate instead of water.
  • several towels - to restrain bat, hang over fence each side of the bat and on the strand under the bat. This avoids further entanglement.
  • good side cutters (wire cutters) to cut the barbs on which the bat is entangled, as close as possible to the bat
  • good pliers to bend wire if necessary
  • good scissors as you may need to cut the wing membrane to disentangle
  • carry cage or basket. It is generally better to leave the bat securely wrapped in the towel at least during transport.

Get as much information from the caller as you can eg height of fence as it may be industrial fencing. Ask them to make sure bat is safe from dogs or birds of prey, but to keep a respectable distance so that bat does not become more stressed. Ask if they know if its been there since just the previous night.
Approach the bat slowly while talking to it. Assess the safety of the situation for you and the bat eg is there an electric fence as well? Is this a fence that can be cut?

Have 2 people, one has heavy duty gloves, holds a bath towel folded in half lengthwise, and restrains the bat. The bigger the bat, the larger and thicker the towel. The other person assesses the degree of entanglement. Is the wing dried onto the wire, or is it fresh and likely to slide easily? Syringe or spray water onto wing if its dried on to the wire.
Cut barbs with side cutters as close as possible to the wing, or with landowner permission cut the fence itself each side of the bat. (Extreme care is needed if the fence is well strained, as the strain will need to be taken up first). It can be very difficult to unwind the wing from the barbs and the longer the bat has been there the more difficult it is. Once the bat is removed, it will generally settle best if wrapped in closed basket, rather than being allowed to hang in a cage. Done properly, it should almost never be necessary to cut the wing. Get the bat to an experienced bat carer as soon as possible.

Click here for more information on barbed wire injuries in flying foxes.