Monday 27 June 2016

The NBMP 20 years on: Still the most fun you can have in the dark.

by By Dr Allyson Walsh, Cambridge University

In the beginning
Last night I went out and counted bats. All two of them. It was a classic NBMP evening. The rain in the Welsh marches was stuck in a repeat cycle of heavy, to light to nothing and back again in the period leading up to the count. The dreary weather provoked much debate about cancelling or going ahead, but as several of us had gathered from near and far at a significant sized roost, we opted to “Carry On Batting” in the damp. We were rewarded with a count of over 200 bats from our particular building (though not through my allocated exit to count!). The twist in this particular evening was this was the first time I have been out on an NBMP count since leaving England almost 15 years ago.

Twenty years on and still going strong makes me proud. Very proud. And given it’s EU referendum month, it may be an opportune time to reminisce on the main driver behind setting up the NBMP. It was the EU. The program was designed to directly address pressure to fulfill the UK Government’s obligations to conserve bats under European Directives, in particular the EU Habitats and Species Directive, and the Agreement on the Conservation of Bats in Europe (under the Bonn Convention). Beneath the legislative veneer however lies the important point that robust information on trends in bat populations at a range of geographic scales is essential to the long-term conservation of bats.

The BCT team from the early days

Time Proof Design 
Our world is a dynamic place, and time proofing any monitoring framework is not easy.
In exploring designs for the programme, one of our main challenges was that we knew technologies would change through time, and we would need to be able to adaptively manage this over the long term. Our goal was not to conduct a Roman style census count of every single bat, but instead to be able to compare population indices across years and look for responses to a multiplicity of factors, including climate, changing over time. Consultations with key RSPB personnel and statistician Steve Langton helped myself and my colleagues Colin Catto, Paul Racey and Tony Hutson reach consensus on a sampling based strategy to minimise bias and maximise precision, using methods that were the best available to us at the time. Sometimes starting is the biggest hurdle in project development, and we were keen to see the UK lead the way in Europe.

Citizen Superheroes
As I have watched the progression of the NBMP from the other side of the pond, I have found it remarkable, that so many citizen scientists contribute to NBMP and that so many collaborators have joined in partnership to fund the program and keep its momentum going (Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Natural England, Natural Resources Wales and Scottish Natural Heritage. Bat Conservation Ireland contributes Northern Ireland bat records collated by the Irish Bat Monitoring Programme which is funded by the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland Environment Agency). Perhaps the secret to it is in the social nature of the program. Inviting your friends over for a BBQ and bat count is certainly a unique evening’s entertainment. Or perhaps the secret is the nurturing team at BCT (notably Dr. Kate Barlow) who have continued to lead the programme, providing regular feedback to, and cherishing, volunteers. Or perhaps the magi lies with the simple mystery and love of bats. One of my future hopes is that we can quantify the social networks and wider conservation benefits of NBMP citizen science members, as I personally know many people who started out as volunteers who have carried on to invigorate local bat group bat work, initiate spin-off conservation projects, or progress into conservation careers themselves. To me, this will always remain a big success of this program, equally as important as the big data.
Allyson Walsh out with an early design detector

Back to the Future
Looking forward, where would I like NBMP to be in 20 years time? Having filled in paper forms in the drizzle last night, it goes without saying that a shift to an App based system for data recording would be a positive goal. But ultimately, rather than being the harbinger of bad or good news, I would like to see the NBMP increasingly utilized as a springboard for conservation action. Knowledge and choice gives us power. The power to make evidence based decisions and chose a different future.  It is more than likely that monitoring programs like the NBMP, designed to attain a high degree of scientific rigor in the hands of the public as well as capture and kept the attention of non-scientists, will become more prevalent in our future. And I am hopeful for this future.

My hope stems from one of my fondest memories of the NBMP. One day I received a phone call from a lady with her knickers on her head. She explained to me that she had done her washing and grabbed a pair for protection because there were bats flying around the utility room inside her home, She explained she didn’t want them getting stuck in her hair. After explaining to her that she was safe (and hence could remove the knickers from her head), and what to do about the bats, our discussion then progressed to all about bats and their conservation status. By the end of the phone conversation, she had agreed to count her bats as part of the NBMP! Probably one of the biggest impacts you can make in conservation is to influence people’s mindsets and behavior, and participating in the NBMP opens up a plethora of opportunities to do just that. So if you are wavering on whether to go out in the to do that final NBMP count of the season - please do Carry On Batting!

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