You may not think it, but bats are a great friend to hikers and campers. To find out exactly why, you will have to read on! Now, whilst bats may have a bad name on account of Count Dracula, the truth is, like most other mammals, bats are furry and very cute. If you need proof, just look at some of the bat photos on this page! So, by now you must be wondering to yourself “Where do bats live and is it possible to observe them in the wild?”
There are eighteen species of bat that can be found wild in the UK and eight bat species can be found is the Lake District. Since the Lakes are also a good place to find walkers and campers, we thought it would be a good idea to find out more about bat watching in the Lake District. So we decided to ask a bat expert all about bats, bat conservation and bats in the Lake District.
Bat expert Chloe Bellamy has spent the past three years studying bats which included tracking them across the Lake District. Using a bat detector, a GPS device and a Geographic Information System she was able to relate bat distribution to different environments within the Lake District National Park. This in turn enabled her to create a computer model that will predict how bats use the diverse habitats of the Lake District. An accurate computer model like this is essential for setting up effective bat conservation measures.
In order to do her research Chloe had to spend a great deal of time walking, hiking and canoeing around the Lake District. That sounds to us like a perfect job!
Bats and the Lake District – Interview with Chloe Bellamy
CheapTents: Do you have a favourite species of bat?
Chloe Bellamy: My favourite species is the barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus). It is very distinctive from other UK bat species because of its dark fur with frosted grey tips and its small eyes which sit high at the base of wide, triangular ears. The scientific name comes from the Latin for ‘star beard’, which describes the whiskers around its chin. I’ve only ever had the fortune of seeing one in the hand once, whilst helping someone else in our research team catch bats in Poland. We do get barbastelles in the UK, but sadly they are restricted to the south and are now one of our rarest mammals. This is most likely due to the fact that they are highly dependent on mature deciduous woodland, a habitat which we have reduced and modified over the centuries.
CheapTents: What does a bat detector do?
Chloe Bellamy: Bats emit high frequency calls and use the returning echoes to build up a picture of their surroundings, allowing them to navigate and find food in the dark. This is termed echolocation. Although these calls are very loud, we typically cannot hear them because they are so high in frequency – UK bats typically echolocate from the high end of our hearing range up to around 120 kHz. So young people with good hearing can often pick up the low frequency calls made by bats, but to be able to listen in on all the calls bats make we need to use bat detectors. Different types of detectors work in different ways, but they all translate these high frequency calls into a frequency we can hear. The time-expansion one I use simply slows down these calls by a factor of ten, which causes a simultaneous drop in the frequency. Different species have different calls to help them navigate around the environment they are specialised for – so by recording and examining these time-expanded calls we can often determine which species they came from. Bat detectors are therefore extremely useful in helping us gather information on these nocturnal and rather elusive animals without disturbing them.
CheapTents: Why did you go to the Lake District to look for bats?
Chloe Bellamy: The Lake District provides the perfect landscape for this type of study – it is a rich tapestry of habitats laid over wide U-shaped valleys which have been carved out by periods of glaciation. This high level of complexity within a relatively small area meant that I could easily measure bat activity within a wide range of habitats. Ten of the UK’s seventeen bat species can also be found here and the large areas of woodland and water across the Park’s lowland flanks provide very good foraging and roosting opportunities for these species.
CheapTents: Why is important to protect our native bat species?
Chloe Bellamy: Bats are fascinating species which make up over one fifth of our UK mammals species, yet we know relatively little about their population trends because of the challenges of gathering widespread data from these nocturnal animals. What we do know is that they are not like any other small mammal in terms of their life history – they are more like deer in this respect! They are long-lived (a bat can live for over 20 years), but females only produce one offspring a year, called a pup. Population growth is therefore very slow and this can limit the recovery from any crashes or declines caused by the threats they face, like habitat destruction and the loss of roost sites. They are an essential part of our ecosystem, and any hiker who visits the north of the UK on a balmy summer’s evening would be happy to know that a single bat can devour over 3000 insects – including midgies – in one night!
[We told you that bats are a great friend to hikers and campers!]
CheapTents: What type of conservation measures are needed to protect bats?
Chloe Bellamy: We need to protect the habitats which they roost, forage, mate and hibernate in – and think about the space in between. Bats lead very long, complex lifestyles, and use a variety of sites to meet their needs. Within a night a bat may leave a roost site to travel a few kilometres to visit a number of foraging grounds and night roosts; within a season bats may fly tens of kilometres from summer roosting grounds to underground hibernacula where they mate and spend their winter. To protect bats we therefore need to be thinking on a landscape scale and attempt to manage and maintain these important sites, and the bridges of land connecting them.
CheapTents: How can your research be used in bat conservation?
Chloe Bellamy: My project focuses on the habitat which different bats use to forage and roost in. Whereas most studies of this nature measure the habitat at a fixed, arbitrary spatial scale, mine encompassed a range of scales. This simply meant measuring the amount and structure of different habitat types at different extents (from 250 m2 to 36 km2) and relating this to the bat activity we found at the centre. This gave us a greater insight into the habitat needs of the different species, which is very important if we want to try and protect these species and the habitats they use. We then used these data to build models which predict the distribution of each bat species across the entire Lake District National Park, allowing us to locate potential “hotspots” of bat activity. The project also told us a lot in general about the bat species in this area and provides useful baseline data for potential long term population monitoring.
CheapTents: Your research meant that you needed to spend a lot time walking. Did you have any previous experience of walking or hiking?
Chloe Bellamy: I have always enjoyed being outside and I try to take the opportunity to walk places whenever I can. Although I was not a particularly devoted hiker before I started my PhD, having the opportunity to explore the Lake District over three years has definitely got me hooked. I bought a couple of Wainwright’s books during my time in the Lakes to pick out some places I wanted to explore and I like his detailed illustrations of the routes, and the funny comments written alongside. I really enjoy the physical exertion of a hike, the beautiful sights from up high, and the wildlife and other people you meet along the way.
CheapTents: What was the most physically challenging aspect of your bat tracking adventures in the Lake District?
Chloe Bellamy: My field work sites were randomly chosen and spread reasonably far apart in an attempt to capture a range of habitats available across the Lake District. This meant that every survey was different and presented me with new challenges – from crossing Coniston Water by canoe to weaving through dense woodland in Grizedale. And this was all in the dark! The most physically demanding sites included a long hike to get to the top of the high peaks, including Whitbarrow and Bow Fell. Attempting to clamber down these in the dark whilst holding a bat detector and other equipment was an interesting experience, but it was worth it to find bats foraging at this high altitude!
CheapTents: What is your favourite part of the Lake District?
Chloe Bellamy: Having study sites scattered over the Lake District gave me the opportunity to explore many different places and get to know the area intimately. I love the dramatic landscape around the Langdales and the wooded hills of Grizedale Forest, but my favourite spots are a bit more tucked away and peaceful during the busy summer months. The Duddon Valley is a lovely area in the south west between Eskdale and Coniston, which has the wide River Duddon running through lowland fields and wooded hills in the south. Further north the landscape becomes rather more bare and stark as you reach the source of the river and the steep, windy roads called Hardnott Pass and Wrynose Pass. I’m just in the middle of reading “Cockley Beck: A Celebration of Lakeland in Winter” by John Pepper, who gives a personal account of this area during winter, the people and animals that live there, and the peaceful solitude that this wilderness can bring.
CheapTents: Can you observe bats without a bat detector?
Chloe Bellamy: Bats begin to emerge from their roosts to forage around half an hour to an hour after sunset. Often it is still light enough to see them flitting around, without needing a bat detector. You can tell them apart from birds at dusk by the way they fly – rapidly beating their wings and often veering off their path sharply to catch an insect. Some of the first bats out are the pipistrelles – they are our most common species of bat and are found in a range of habitats, including urban areas. Another early emerger is the noctule bat, which flies higher and faster than the pipistrelles, occasionally diving for its prey – mainly flies, beetles and moths. Noctules will also take insects which are attracted to street lights – giving us another chance to catch a glimpse of them.
CheapTents: Can you recommend a particular type of landscape and time of day to observe bats?
Chloe Bellamy: Bats will forage in a number of habitats, but most of our species are highly dependent on woodland and water so this is a good place to look. If you head to a calm stretch of water (a large pond, river or lake) which has trees or woods around it about an hour after sunset you will have a good chance of spotting a bat. Either take a bat detector to listen out for echolocation calls, or, if you skim the beam of a powerful torch over the water you might just catch a glimpse of a Daubenton’s bat feeding on insects low over the water’s surface.
CheapTents: What can hikers and campers do to minimise disturbance to bats?
Chloe Bellamy: Bats and the places they reside are legally protected, and any potential roosts or hibernacula should be left undisturbed. However, foraging bats will often pay little attention to the presence of people, and may even come close to us to feed off the insects we attract by our body heat and the lights we use. When this happens you can just sit back and enjoy their presence.
CheapTents: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Chloe Bellamy: We are very lucky in the UK to have a large network of people who are interested in bats and enjoy learning about them – each county has its own bat group which organises bat-related events and activities. You can also get involved in carrying out surveys to help the Bat Conservation Trust monitor bat populations.
Do you Like Bats?
Whilst you are out walking and hiking why not keep an eye out for bats! Bats are fun to watch as the fly around, but you can also help to protect them by reporting sightings to the local bat group for that particular area. It is important to record the locations of bat roosts, whether it be a building, bridge, tunnel, tree or cave etc., since this information can then be used to help protect the roosts. You are most likely to see a bat leaving their roost in the evening. Following your sighting, a local volunteer may then want to go and visit it with their bat detector to establish what species is using the roost. One of the problems associated with well known roosts is that volunteers always think that someone else will have told the bat group record collector!
If you’re involved in wildlife conservation that would be of interest to outdoor enthusiasts or if you simply like bats then let us know! Leave a comment below…
Footnote – Important Information about Handling Bats
*Please note that bat handlers would normally wear gloves. This is because there is some danger in handling bats – the greatest hazard being a bite – especially if the bat carries rabies! This a rare event but people have died in the UK from this disease transmitted via a bat. All responsible bat handlers have a rabies vaccination. Bats should only be handled by those licensed to do so or those under the supervision of a licence holder.