Monday, 12 September 2011

Listening to the public, speaking for bats – The Bat Conservation Trust National Helpline – some things I’ve learnt....

It is estimated that by 2030 a staggering 92 percent of us will be living the ‘urban life’. This is quite a shocking projection, and if it is to be anywhere near realised within the next two decades, it will be at the expense of large parts of our countryside, with cities and towns continuing to eat up important natural habitat in order to accommodate a swelling urban population.

This continued loss of natural habitat is a stark inevitability, and although many of our native species are equipped with the behavioural flexibility to adapt to an urban environment, in order to ensure their persistence, we must find means of accommodating and encouraging them within the fabric of our towns and cities. Although protection of habitat remains the cornerstone policy for conservationists, the reality is that many of the species under threat will only stand a chance of survival in the future if we actively pencil them into our urban plans. This requires careful research and consideration of species’ needs, and the ability to incorporate these into an urban framework while not significantly compromising the needs of the human inhabitants.

Additionally, in order for this proximity between man and beast is to be harmonious, effective communication and education must play their part, engendering attitudes of conservation and protection close to home. This is a modern conservation issue, requiring a modern and multi-angled response. The plight of the UK’s bats, and the subsequent work of the Bat Conservation Trust are a very good example of this 21st century challenge; a challenge that will become more and more prevalent with continued urbanisation in years to come.

Although a nation full of animal lovers, the general public’s enthusiasm for our furry, slimy or feathered friends tends to wain once they encroach upon ‘our’ space, or interfere with our day to day existence: thumbs up for nature, so long as it doesn’t mess on my car or down my windows! As well as the issue of habitat loss, an increase of people living the ‘urban life’ creates another challenge for conservationists: a population more and more disconnected from the natural world. Alongside the physical detachment from the country’s plants and animals that an urban migration leads to, our emotional link with many of these precious organisms is under threat; no longer relevant to a generation where blackberries are now seen as an important communication accessory, rather than tasty pie filler! As a result, a great division of opinion exists when it comes to our feelings towards wildlife. This is especially true when it comes to bats, an animal that has been shrouded in myth ever since stories began, and has gothic associations with evil and bad omens that still underlie much public opinion.
Working on the Bat Conservation Trust Helpline means that I come face to face on a daily basis with the extremes of our own reaction to this group of animals, and has frequently left me baffled as to how the same creature can create such polarised opinion; while one person is gushing with admiration and plans of bat adoption over the phone, another would have you believe that the very spawn of Satan has come fluttering in through their window and is now doing laps around the dining room.

Aside from allowing me to conduct my own crude litmus test on bats and public opinion, working on the National Bat Helpline has also highlighted how even the staunchest bat-opposer can have their opinion softened by some well placed facts and reassurance. The detachment that many of us have with the natural world, especially those in urban areas, can be addressed via effective communication and engagement, and the misunderstanding and disinformation upon which fear and irrationality thrives can be lessened.

Although this battle for the public’s hearts is an essential component in the conservation of bats, their future is still very much dependent upon the appropriate application of practical conservation techniques, and implementation of legal protection.

Fortunately, bats enjoy a high level of protection under both EU and UK law, and since the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981), it is an offense to disturb or harm bats as well as their roosting sites. This protection is paramount to the conservation of bats in the UK. They are an animal with a specific set of needs: a roost site with the correct conditions (normally a separate roost site is required for summer and winter seasons), proximity to suitable foraging sites, and sheltered commuting routes between the two; and if the law permitted easy exclusion of bats from roosts at “un-natural” sites, we would see a huge fall in population numbers, and local extinctions would be likely.

However, despite this protection, even our most common species (pipistrelles) have declined in numbers dramatically over the last few decades. This is largely as a result of changes in agricultural practices and the continued loss of mature woodland. Subsequently, protection alone of roost sites may not be enough to conserve bat populations. Instead, we should seek to actively create new spaces and opportunities for them in future developments located in high bat potential areas. Bats are running out of options, so it is important that new ones are created where possible.

Like bats, artificial roost sites come in a number of different shapes and sizes, reflecting the varying preference and requirements of the different species, but essentially their purpose is always the same: to create a sheltered and protected space for an individual or group of bats as either a transient roost site or for the duration of the maternity and/or hibernation seasons. They have mixed success rates, although continued research is providing us with a clearer picture of their specific needs. Traditionally, artificial roost sites are external structures, attached onto the sides of a building. However, there has recently been the emergence of an alternative, integrated bat box. These are built into the walls of a new property; very much a physical acceptance of the idea of a shared space with nature.

Currently however, the only time that such provisions are required in a build is if it follows the destruction or demolition of a previous roost site. That said, there are still many enthusiastic individuals that go out of their way to consider nature in their planned developments, and working on the helpline, and with the assistance of my colleagues, I have had the pleasure of advising where possible on how best to maximise potential for bats in new builds. The hope is that others can be inspired or encouraged to take similar pro-active measures to conserve our bat species, however, the reality is that effective communication and education on its own is unlikely to guarantee a sufficient uptake of such ideas. Instead, as is often the case, monetary incentives are required as a more persuasive means of ensuring compromises are made for conservation. Subsidies are available for ‘green developments’, but following drops in funding (that has also seen green farming subsidies dangerously cut), only the Sustainable Development Fund (DEFRA) now exists as a source of grants and loans for developments that encourage biodiversity in the UK, with the potential for 75% of project costs being supplied from the fund. If continued development is inevitable, then these subsidies are crucial in ensuring that biodiversity targets are met in new urban areas.

By the continued work of organisations such as the Bat Conservation Trust, there is hope that the potential environmental damage caused by continued urbanisation won’t be sufficient to exclude bats and other UK wildlife from our urban areas, and with a little help, could even bring us closer together. Meanwhile, it is important that we continue providing accurate data on the status of bat populations in the UK to justify their protection, provide support and accurate information to all of those that encounter bats in the UK, mobilise public support where possible, and continue research into these fascinating animals. This, along with the generous work of a large network of volunteers in the UK, will ensure the Bat Conservation Trust is well equipped to take on the modern challenges of protecting a species in the face of continued urbanisation, as well as tackle future challenges that may arise.
The Helpline has a big part to play as well, and it has been a real pleasure to have been able to contribute during my time as seasonal helpline officer.

Please visit http:// for more information about bats in the built environment

David Urry, Seasonal Helpline Officer