Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Norfolk goes batty

I wrote a column last year about the Big Norwich Bat Project, a study that set out to discover which bat species could be found in and around the city (www.norwichbatgroup.org.uk/project.html). The project has proved to be stunning success, with 85 percent of the city surveyed and some 30,000 records generated. Eleven different bat species were recorded during the survey, including Nathusius’ pipistrelle, a species previously only known from a handful of sites across the county. The project is being run again this year but, additionally, it is also being expanded to cover the whole of Norfolk.

The success of the project is, in a large part, down to the volunteers who ‘host’ a bat detector for a few days. These detectors record the calls of passing bats and store them on a memory card which, once the detector is returned to the survey organisers, can then be downloaded and the data analysed by computer. The detectors are available from 17 different centres located across the county and volunteers can sign up to the survey via the project website (www.batsurvey.org).

Monitoring of this kind is important and has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of bats and their distribution across the county. Our knowledge of bat distribution, particularly for some of the less common species, is relatively poor and this new approach should deliver a far better understanding of which species are present and where. It will also tell us how bat activity is influenced by the weather and with season.

UK bat populations have declined over recent decades and many are still under threat because of our activities. Building and development work, which affects roosting and breeding sites, and loss of foraging habitat, which reduces feeding opportunities, are thought to be particular problems. One of the difficulties in dealing with the problems that are faced by bats is that we have insufficient information on bat distribution and population structure. Knowing where a species occurs and in what numbers are key to successful conservation action; projects like the Norfolk Bat Survey will go some way to addressing these gaps in our knowledge, adding information that will slot in alongside that collect through other schemes that look at roosts and breeding sites.

Equally important is the way in which the Norfolk Bat Survey will introduce many new ‘citizen scientists’ to bats and their study. Being nocturnal, bats are often misunderstood or even feared and work is needed to demonstrate to a wider audience just what fantastic animals they are. It looks set to be an interesting summer for this pilot year of bat recording. If all goes well then it is likely that other counties will follow Norfolk’s lead and more people will get involved with bats.

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