Monday 19 August 2019

Interview with Gail Armstrong

Gail Armstrong is a volunteer bat worker, bat carer, bat trainer, part-time bat surveyor and as she puts it she ‘generally allowed bats to fill my life!’

Gail out in the field (c) Will Walton
What first got you interested in bats? OR what is your first memory of bats?
Ah, that’s always a popular question. Well although the original (and best) batman, Adam West, was a childhood hero of mine, I grew up in a town and as a child, I had little opportunity to see nice wildlife sites (no car, no money, no freedom). But I did always have a love of animals and birds and took more of an interest in wildlife conservation as I got older (and richer). One day, I saw a bat walk advertised in the Chorley Guardian and thought it sounded fun. I went along, stayed out late and signed up with the local bat group. I was in my mid-30s at the time, I started slowly and learnt as I went along.
What roles do you see bat care playing in bat conservation?
Well in a strict conservation sense, you could say that it doesn’t have a role at all! For example, the rescue of individual BIRDS plays no part at all in the work of the RSPB. But bats seem to be different because a bat on the ground is so conspicuous and vulnerable.
Can we try to equate bat care with bat conservation? Well, we get bats into care, we make them better, we let them go and thereby increase the number of wild bats so it sounds obvious. But bat conservation is not about individual bats, it’s about working to influence policy, safeguard habitats and maintain populations. And while we make a difference to the individual bats that get a second chance, it’s hard to make a case for this being a conservation effort. We are only dealing small numbers and they are the bats that already failed in some way.
However, don’t underestimate the impact that finding and helping a bat can have on a member of the public. They could be won over for life and go on to champion the cause of bat conservation themselves?
Bat carers often pick up pups that have been found indoors or on the ground and we find new roost sites as a result. Hopefully we help to secure these for the long-term and that’s a massive conservation win.
But at the end of the day, the biggest win for bat care as a conservation tool is in the better bat workers we become and that we help to turn out for the future. To know a bit about bats means knowing also that they are worth looking after.
Is there a particular aspect of the work that you do that you prefer or is there one you find more challenging than the others?
After 25 years, it’s all a bit second nature and a lot is done without thinking whether I enjoy it or not. I am the bats' champion, they need me to be there for them and members of the public need advice from someone who understands bats.
But challenging is dealing with bats that have been caught and badly injured by cats. Too often, a bat is mortally wounded but still alive and I end up in the role of bat killer. That feels pretty rubbish, to be honest.
Also challenging, but in a better way, is turning all Cagney and Lacey to work out how bats are entering living spaces in houses and other buildings. On my patch, these are usually large soprano pipistrelle nurseries located in roofs. Young bats can find the smallest gaps to squeeze through and so we visit time after time, blocking up gaps around internal roof beams, window lights, pipework, etc. We never give up until bats stop getting indoors because, if we can solve those problems and support the roost owners, they will be able to live happily with their bats in the roof, doing a great job for bat conservation while doing nothing at all!
Enjoyable is training other bat workers and seeing them get hooked like the rest of us. I also enjoy counting bats for the NBMP, there is nothing better than a large group of bat group members clicking away as bats flood from a roost on a summer’s evening.
And I do love it when I get a call that begins “Hello, Mrs Batty” from the man who is calling to let me know his bats have returned for another season. He also sends me pictures of the bat droppings on his front step, he pretends he’s not happy but I know different!
Q. And speaking of challenges, what do you think are the biggest challenges for bat conservation?
Stopping the loss of habitat must be the main one as humans want more and more space to live, build and grow food. How will we leave room for all the other species with which we share the planet? I don’t know the answer and it makes me very gloomy for future generations.
Q. What advice do you have for anyone wanting to get involved in bat conservation?
Join the Bat Conservation Trust and your local bat group straight away. In my experience, bat groups have always been a very easy, welcoming place for volunteers. With a bit of prior knowledge, bats are easy to see going about their normal business, you don’t have to be unduly still and quiet. Everyone loves being out in the countryside in the dark so just get out there, learn about bats and take it from there.
Q. And lastly a very difficult question – do you have a favourite bat species? And if so which one is it and why?
The favourite bat is always the one I am watching or caring for at the time.
Common pipistrelle, so placid, so adaptable and easy to help.
Soprano pipistrelle, feisty and spirited and they have that lovely smell.
Brandt’s bats, stealth bats, trying to be inconspicuous and usually succeeding. I rather like that they are pretty rare but we have loads of them in my part of the world.
I could go on (and I usually do).

This interview was part of our membership magazine Bat News Summer 2019 which contains more photos (and other interesting features). To join as a member and receive our magazine visit this page:

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