It has been a poor breeding season for threatened hooded plovers in the Belfast Coastal Reserve, reports Chris Smyth.

Local community monitoring of one beach alone revealed that of 11 hatched chicks, only one survived. Disturbance by commercial horse training and unleashed dogs is almost certain to have been a contributing factor.

Horse training was so intense that dog owners moved to other beaches where plovers came under added pressure. Evidence like this clearly shows that the Andrews Government’s approach to managing the Belfast Coastal Reserve between Warrnambool and Port Fairy is failing – dismally.

The government’s decision to licence commercial horse training in the reserve is a slap in the face for volunteers working to protect hooded plovers. It’s also likely unlawful.

Legal advice from senior counsel indicates that Victoria’s environment minister, Lily D’Ambrosio, did not follow the relevant provisions in the Crown Land (Reserves) Act 1978 and the Coastal Management Act 1995 when in November 2016 she approved the issuing of a licence to the Warrnambool Racing Club and trainers to use the reserve.

Two key clauses in section 17B of the reserves act apply to the licensing; they set out two mutually exclusive tests for the minister to choose from when approving a licence. The minister chose the wrong one.

The first clause states that where the Governor-in-Council has given notice of a reserve recommendation from the Land Conservation Council (LCC), the use to be licensed must be consistent with the purposes of the reserve – in this case coastline protection, wildlife conservation and passive recreation.

Such a recommendation exists for the Belfast Coastal Reserve.

The second clause states that where a reserve does not have an LCC recommendation applying to it, the minister has to cite special reasons which she believes make the issuing of a licence ‘reasonable and appropriate’.

The minister mistakenly chose the second clause, an easier test for the horse training to pass. In her choice, the minister would appear to have ignored the existence of the LCC recommendation.

If the minister had chosen correctly and used the first test, we believe she could not genuinely argue that commercial horse training was consistent with the reserve’s purposes.

Nor do we accept that the issuing of a licence under the second clause is ‘reasonable and appropriate’.

Our legal advice also indicates that commercial horse training in coastal reserves requires ministerial consent under section 37 of the Coastal Management Act 1995, and only after a public notification process.

We have found no evidence of such consent or public process and, in their absence, the reserve’s use for commercial horse training is likely unlawful.

At the time of writing, VNPA was considering its legal options in response to the environment minister’s decisions.

We will continue to work with the Belfast Coastal Reserve Action Group (BCRAG), Birdlife Australia and other groups seeking the removal of commercial horse training from the reserve, and the area’s protection as a park under the National Parks Act 1975.