Tuesday, 2 March 2021

A student view of the BCT Bats and Woodlands symposium

Blog by Eilidh McNab

Despite no one being in the same room (thanks Covid!), there was a very congenial, chatty atmosphere to start this second Bats and Woodland Symposium hosted by BCT, 7 years after the first symposium. The opening of the symposium included a spur of the moment competition as to who owned the oldest New Naturalist book (1948 I think was the oldest?!). Brilliant. After an official welcome from Sonia Beverley (BCT Woodland Officer), Dr Carol Williams (BCT Director of Conservation) outlined some follow up from the previous symposium discussions before the main talks of the day began.
The keynote address was very engagingly delivered by Mike Render; covering his (almost!) 50 years of work in both the forestry and academic sectors. It truly was eye opening to hear his first-hand accounts of types of woodland management from previous decades – for example including laying substances to kill oak trees to allow Sitka spruce to go!!! (which subsequently killed the spruce too, what a waste of a woodland!). How times have changed (we hope!).

Chloe Bellamy of Forest Research then discussed some work she and colleagues (including at BCT) have been doing on woodland bats and their distribution across the UK using Habitat Suitability Models (HSM). Once developed these HSM can then be used to ‘fill in the gaps’ of known distributions of our rarer bat species, thus allowing the targeting of resources where they are really needed.
Gareth Fisher from the RSPB then presented an introduction to the woodland wildlife toolkit – a great example of a practical tool that should appeal to a wide range of landowners and managers. This is an online toolkit allowing you to input the location and characteristics of your woodland; then highlighting some key species that may be present. The website then gives detailed information on suitable management strategies for these species. It’s a fantastic example of a successful collaboration between many different organisations, including BCT, Butterfly Conservation, Forestry Commission, Natural England, Plantlife, RSPB, Sylva Foundation and Woodland Trust.
Sonia Reveley then presented a great citizen science project run by BCT to survey bats on the National Forest Estate. She highlighted the need to innovate and problem solve in bat recording – in this case making waterproof cases for audiomoths to allow for this large-scale citizen science project to go ahead. BCT now hold over 45,000 audio files for the project – a fantastic data set that I look forward to hearing further about in due course! She also highlighted how useful bats are as indicator taxa – they are long-lived species and are sensitive to environmental changes that also affect other species, so surveying bats can highlight potential changes in other groups.

Following Sonia, David Hill’s talk highlighted just how important woodlands are to all bat species, but also how difficult it can be to properly survey for bats within woodland habitats. Methods are often very labour intensive and specialist (e.g. tree climbing), and many tree roosts are transient, making them more difficult to find. Trapping can favour certain species over others. A potential solution is to trap using acoustic lures, increasing the likelihood of catching a wider range of species. It is important to consider the impact of lures of bat behaviour (both disturbance to other bats in the area as well as the bats you actually catch). As has been noted in other areas where autobats have been used, many more males of most species were caught than females (apart from Daubenton’s), so this must be considered when discussing results.
After some minor technical hiccups (dealt with very well by the speaker and by BCT staff!!) Rich Howorth of Back from the Brink (BftB) provided an introduction of the BftB project, a partnership of 8 different organisations (NE and 7 NGOs) to transform the fortunes of nature, inspire the nation to discover, value and act for threatened species, and leave a legacy of restored threatened species. It highlighted the very many huge benefits from such a project, but also (importantly) some issues with setting up a project of this scale. He then handed over to Susannah O’Riordan (Butterfly Conservation) who outlined some of the species-specific projects they have planned for BftB – including the beautiful Barbastelle and Brown Long-eared bats, but also many plant, reptile, bird and invertebrate species. She highlighted how often specific management regimes for single species can lead to benefits for several others; for example, providing woodland clearings for adder benefitted many plant species and provide excellent bat foraging habitat. After this there was a question to the audience about how to integrate and balance the needs of different taxa in site management – which sparked many constructive comments and discussion and was a nice activity to get everyone actively involved in the symposium.

The final organised session was a panel discussion on the drivers of change in woodland creation and management, tree diseases, and infrastructure projects, starting with “the right tree in the right place!”. When creating a woodland, while picking the correct species according to soil, micro-climate, etc., is
important; you must first identify why you are planting a woodland – is it for the conservation of certain species, is it for a commercial crop, is it for carbon sequestration, etc. What do you want to achieve with your site?! And do you want to plant trees everywhere?! The need to understand how some species require open habitats was highlighted - planting trees may actually ruin a site (as happened on a site Keith Cohen surveyed for fungi called waxcaps, which were present in acid grassland habitats that were subsequently planted with trees and the site destroyed for that species). Highlighting the importance of knowing what is already present (i.e. having solid baseline surveys) and then deciding on what target species you want to encourage.

Further discussions included Richard Crompton on tree diseases and pests, the need to ‘climate proof’ what tree species we are planting now, and what non-native species may need to be considered in planting regimes to allow this to happen. There was then a discussion regarding infrastructure projects – where Sue Hooton and Sarah Proctor highlighted the importance of site work and micro-siting to ensure protection of certain habitat features. A 50m corridor on plans could, on the ground, often be reduced and routed to ensure that larger trees with good bat roost features are left rather than simply clearing a 50m corridor that isn’t actually needed.

It was a great day, thanks so much to the fantastic staff and trustees at BCT and to all the great sponsors of the symposium. A special thanks to the BftB project for sponsoring free student places, allowing 11 students to attend this brilliant event. There were great talks from a wide range of speakers, and the discussion groups were particularly engaging – a brilliant environment for scientific and industry discussion and engagement.

Click here to listen to the Woodland Symposium episode of BCT's BatChat podcast, to find out more about the 2020 Woodland Symposium!

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