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Impacts of Off Road Vehicles on Beaches

27 October 2021

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I rise to speak on the escalating damage that inappropriate off-road vehicle usage is doing to our coastal environment and our ecosystems in South Australia. Our beaches are the busiest they have ever been, but our presence is starting to have an environmental impact on the landscape that should not be ignored. Off-road four-wheel driving is a popular recreational activity and one that has only grown more popular as these vehicles have become more powerful and more widely accessible.

Unmanaged off-road vehicle uses cause significant long-term damage to our environment. In coastal dune environments, four-wheel driving can contribute to physical changes in the structure of the beaches, the destruction of dune vegetation and to the introduction and spread of pest species and diseases into the coastal environment, leading to a significant loss of biodiversity. A healthy dune system is also an important buffer, acting to protect the mainland from erosion and storm events.

This loss of habitat and native vegetation has profound impacts on our animal life. Macroinvertebrates, macrofauna and shorebirds are particularly affected by this disruption. South Australia has four species of resident shorebirds and all except for one species are listed as vulnerable or rare. The most critically endangered of these is the hooded plover. The hooded plover preferences high-energy beaches and breeds exclusively on ocean beaches in South Australia. They, among other species, are utterly dependent on these beaches and do not have the option of going elsewhere. The birds lay their eggs in the summer, coinciding with the peak period of beach use.

In addition to loss of habitat and food supply, vehicles can impact coastal bird communities directly by crushing their nests and their chicks. Indeed, studies along the Coorong ocean beaches showed 81 per cent of hooded plover nests had been crushed by vehicles—81 per cent. The disturbance caused by vehicles can also lead to distress for the nests to the point of abandonment by the birds. Recent surveys in the Fleurieu Peninsula only counted 29 breeding pairs, and beach nesting bird population numbers are subject to rapid decline. If we do not provide a helping hand, it will not be long before these species face extinction. We cannot allow that to happen.

We must strike a better balance between our enjoyment of the beach and the health of our coastal ecosystems. All signs would indicate that we are getting that balance wrong. The right to access beach areas must depend on keeping the environmental impacts of vehicles within acceptable limits. If we do not do this, we then risk permanent degradation of our unique habitat and the destruction of our animal life.

Other states have been able to recognise that unrestricted vehicle use on beaches is a significant threat. Let's look at what is occurring interstate. New South Wales and Queensland maintain permit systems whereby four-wheel drives require permits to access and drive on the beaches, thereby introducing greater accountability and protections. In Victoria, off-road and recreational vehicles are prohibited from driving on public beaches entirely. Sadly, that is not the case in South Australia.

The brunt of the work done to combat this coastal damage has fallen upon the shoulders of community groups who have spent their time rehabilitating damaged beach areas, and groups such as Birds SA are working very hard to protect our resident shorebirds in peak seasons. The negative effect of unmanaged beach vehicle use is mounting, and it is well past time for the government to show some leadership here. It needs to work to bring us up to speed with other jurisdictions in Australia.

Recently, I had the opportunity to host a screening of the film On the Right Track, looking at the fate of the plover and the impact of unregulated practices on our beaches on our native birdlife. We need to do something about this, particularly as we head into our summer months. We cannot afford to put our beautiful native birds at risk during this summer season. Really, it is time for the government to step up and to show some leadership.