Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Elvis: The Lonely Hunter of Circle Beach

It's not really anything to do with bats, but this short spoof natural history film by Matt Hulse is nothing short of genius!

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Echometer EM3: The machine I love to hate

Ever since I got my hands briefly on a pre-production example of Wildlife Acoustics Echometer 3 (EM3) late last year I have been looking forward to trying one out in the field. This machine has been much discussed by professional bat-workers: a detector with heterodyne, time expansion and frequency division functionality, SD card recording and the ability to display live sonograms on a built-in screen represents a  step forward in bat survey technology. Now that I have had a few months to try one out for real I have two things to say about it:

1. Do I like it? No, I don't.

2. Would I buy one? Hell, yes.

At first sight that doesn't appear to make much sense, so perhaps I should explain...


The Echometer EM3

(Photo copyright, Wildlife Acoustics Inc)

I don't intend to recite the capabilities of the EM3. You can look that up for yourself on the Wildlife Acoustics website and in any case it would take too long. This machine is packed with functionality, and it's packed into a surprisingly small box. So I shall leave you to do your own research and tell you what I think matters.

First of all, the facility to view live sonograms (and oscillograms) is incredibly useful, allowing faster and more conclusive species identification in the field. I have long been a convert to this, having been using an Anabat-PDA combo in the field for several years. However, this has always been a large, cumbersome set-up and one that is clearly a bit of a bodge-up. It's also a bodge-up that costs an outrageous amount of money (but that's the Titley Electronics way of doing business: marry up minimum product to maximum price and factor in poor quality control for good measure!). So having the screen in a more convenient and much cheaper box should appeal to me, right? Actually, in use I found the EM3's display clarity disappointingly poor, compared to the lovely clear picture you get on a PDA screen.

In terms of functionality, the EM3 allows you to record in WAV (normal audio), WAC (Wildlife Acoustics own compressed WAV format) and also ZCA (Anabat) format. Including ZCA is great, as it means that you can use Analook to analyse calls far faster and easier than is possible using any other software. It also means that you can choose to record in a more high-fidelity mode whenever you choose to.

One of the great things about an Anabat is it's flexibility: you can use it as a handheld detector for transect work or as a passive (unattended) monitoring machine. I was expecting the same to be possible with the EM3. It is, but for some unaccountable reason you can only record in ZCA format if you also record in WAV format simultaneously. The inevitable result is that the SD card rapidly fills up with unwanted WAV files, limiting the machine's potential as a passive monitor, as it can only be used for short periods.

Wildlife Acoustics appear to have listened carefully to their customers: the machine has a number of handy and innovative gadgets. For example the ability to tag calls with a site name and user-specified labels. An interesting function is what Wildlife Acoustics have termed "Real Time Expansion" or RTE. Effectively this provides you with a Time Expansion Detector, but without the traditional problem of TE detectors: you listen to what just happened, rather than what is currently happening (TE detectors normally work by recording bat calls and replaying them to you, at around 10 times slower, thus reducing the call frequency so that you can hear it). RTE digitally reduces the gaps between the calls. so that you get the TE functionality with the advantage of continuous monitoring. Clever, though a bit weird in use.

So, why don't I like it? Well, we live in an age when electronic equipment packs more and more into the same box: many mobile phones can do a phenomenal range of tasks. Wildlife Acoustics have tried to do something similar here. But with a bat detector, it's not just about functionality - it's about the human being using it. Picture the scene: it's late at night in the middle of the bat survey season. You're tired, possibly cold and wet and you're doing your fifth survey of the week. You also face the prospect of 3 hours sleep, followed by a dawn survey. In that situation what you need is a simple-to-use and reliable detector: something that will prevent you from accidentally doing something silly and ruining your survey results. For all its cleverness, the EM3 is not as intuitive to use as I would like it to be and 5am in the morning is not time to be digging out the manual.

Now let's consider ergonomics. This may be unfair, given that the EM3's nearest competitor is an Anabat with a PDA clipped to the front, but if you're going to carry a machine in your hand for many hours you want it to FIT in your hand....comfortably. And you want all the controls to be in the right places. With all it's cleverness, the EM3 misses the boat here. It's uncomfortable to hold and awkward to use. Wildlife Acoustics would be well-advised to look at the Bat Box Duet. It's amuch simpler machine, but it's curved to fit the hand, with the frequency wheel placed exactly where your thumb sits and it's built into a solid case that you could probably play football with and still find it fully functional.

Whilst on the subject of ergonomics, the EM3's loudspeaker is poor. It's buried somewhere inside and squirts the sound away from you, instead of towards you, where you need it. With any amount of background noise it can be a struggle to listen to it. Purists will say that you should use headphones with a bat detector, as it allows you to hear and understand a bat call more easily. They're right, but when you're working alone and don't know who else might be walking about, remaining aware of surrounding noise is an important safety factor. Also, our commercial survey team use radios to keep in touch during a survey, which really wouldn't work with headphones.

To tell the truth, I don't really like the EM3: it's uncomfortable to use and hard to listen to; it feels quite cheaply made and potentially vulnerable to damage and it's just a bit too complex to be sure that a dopey, sleep-deprived mind will remember to do everything correctly.

Yet, despite that I keep finding myself taking it out on surveys. That fantastic functionality is addictive and the live sonograms are great. Okay, the screen is naff compared to an Anabat and PDA, but it fits in your pocket and no Anabat is ever going to do that, even before you erect the scaffolding to support the PDA. The bottom line is that Wildlife Acoustics have raised the bar by developing the EM3. And let's not forget that they did it for less than a grand, which is great price for a professional bat detector.

The EM3 is far from perfect and there are many things that niggle me every time I use it, but it's still impressive. Somehow it's wriggled it's way into being an essential part of my bat survey kit and if I'm honest, I'm not sure that I would part with it willingly, though I wouldn't want it to be my only choice of detector.

Wildlife Acoustics: www.wildlifeacoustics.com

Friday, 15 June 2012

The art of radio-tagging a bat

People sometimes ask me when I'm going to write my next blog post. The honest answer is that I'd love to write posts more often, but much of my time is taken up by doing bats surveys, writing reports, analysing bat calls and all the other myriad tasks that keep me busy whenever bats are active!

Here, to keep you going, is an example of what's keeping me from blogging. It's a great set of photos taken by Mike Beard, showing my colleague Rebecca Brassey and I (with help from Isla, Richard and Mike) preparing some Noctule bats for a radio tracking project this spring.

First find your bat. Here it's Rebecca's turn to check a bat box and see if our target Noctules are there. Typically, we found a group of them in the very last box we looked in.


Before attaching the radio tag, biometric data was gathered about each bat. First the bat is sexed, the forearm is measured with a pair of callipers and then the bat is weighed.


Weight is especially important as I need to be sure that the radio tag will weigh less than 5% of the animal's body mass. The ratio between forearm length (which doesn't vary once a bat is adult) and weight is also a useful indicator that the bat is healthy and therefore a suitable candidate for radio-tracking.


Next I wanted to age each bat. This is hard to do with non-juveniles, but with larger bat species it is sometimes possible to get a hint of age by looking at wear on the teeth.


Another feature which can help with understanding the age of a bat is the amount of scarring on its wing membranes, though again this is an imprecise science!


I hadn't examined this colony for ectoparasites previously, so each bat was examined and with Rebecca's help some specimens of Spinturnix acuminatus were taken. This is a species of wing-dwelling mite normally found on Noctules.



The specimens are preserved in a 70% solution of Isopropyl alcohol and labelled in pencil on small slips of paper, which are inserted in the vial with the specimen. This prevents the specimen and label from becoming separated.


Next I check the manufacturer's label on the tag, so that we can check the radio frequency of it's "chirp" transmissions. I am also double-checking the weight of it, to ensure it is below 5% of the bat's weight.


A small patch of fur between the bats shoulder-blades is snipped short. This location is used for the tag, as it is a hard location for a bat to reach to groom the tag off. That won't stop it's roost-mates from having a go.


A thin layer of mastic glue is applied to the trimmed patch of fur and allowed to cure until it is sticky.


A similarly thin layer is applied to the tag....


...and the tag is pushed firmly in place.



Next another layer of glue is painted over the top of the tag...


...and the adjoining fur pulled over it.


In this picture you can see the tag's antenna, the thickness of a human hair, trailing behind it.


Voila, one Noctule bat, with radio tag attached and ready to be released at sunset.



The tags of course do not harm the bat: after a short period the fur will grow and either the tag will fall off naturally or it will be groomed off. But for a few days or weeks the bat will give us a windows into it's life:when and where it hunts, where it roosts, whether it associates with other bats and so on.


My thanks to Rebecca, Isla and the various trainees and volunteers who helped out with this particular project and of course to Mike for the photography.

Please note: all bats are protected from disturbance and harm in the UK and EU. This type of work should only be undertaken by experienced personnel under a specific license, issued by the relevant statutory nature conservation organisation (Scottish Natural heritage, Natural England etc). Attempting to handle bats without an appropriate license is a criminal offence and carries risks. If you are interested in getting involved in working with bats on a voluntary basis contact your local bat group (The Bat Conservation Trust will put you in touch with them). 

Friday, 10 February 2012

An update on the Bat-nav

Last month I wrote about the Bat-Nav, Wildwood Ecology's GPS add-on for Anabat (Navigate that bat - January 2012). I mentioned one or two niggles about an otherwise useful piece of equipment and Bob Firmin from Wildwood seems to have lost no time in reacting (I always find it slightly astonishing that people actually READ what I write here!).

In my original post I mentioned that the Batnav unit draws its power from an Anabat SD2's USB socket. This was incorrect - it actually draws power from the serial port. They have also now launched an SD1 version (similar to the one I tested) with a power connector which clips into the battery case.


The Batnav attached to an Anabat, with the cable tied round the serial plug.

The Batnav was designed to be used with an Anabat SD2 and comes with the GPS receiver and KML generator software. Bob advises they are now developing an upgraded version of the Batnav KML generator, which they plan to sell as a stand-alone product for people using other GPS receivers or ZCA bat detectors, which is good news.

My other niggle was that the Batnav's magnet was insufficient to get it to stick to an Anabat cover (as advertised). This was fine for vehicle transects, as the Batnav stuck well to the exterior of the car, but more of a problem for walked transects. Wildwood have sourced an adhesive ferrous strip (which is oddly rustproof), which can be stuck to the Anabat, to give the Batnav something better to stick to than the Anabat case. This improves matters and allows you to stick the batnav to the rear of the Anabat instead of the front, though it may not get as good a GPS signal there. However, I find that the Batnav can still come adrift. With some experimentation I have found that the problem is actually the Batnav's slightly stiff cable, acting as a lever and forcing the Batnav's magnetic pad off the Anabat. Coiling up the excess cable round the serial plug with a cable tie has reduced the problem significantly. An alternative would be to use a stick-on cable grip (from any DIY store) on the Anabat, to stop the Batnav cable moving around.

The Batnav website: www.batnav.com

Avoiding the tail-waggers - The new SM2BAT+

It's nice when specialist equipment designers listen to their customers: the people who will actually use the equipment they create. I recently read about the collapse of the British aircraft industry in the 1950's, due in part to designers at companies like Avro, Vickers and Handley Page who were so full of their own importance that they refused to listen to feedback on their designs from the test pilots who flew them. The inevitable outcome was aircraft which varied between being unnecessarily difficult to control to downright lethal (James Hamilton Paterson, 2011, "Empire of the clouds: when Britain's aircraft ruled the world"). Sadly manufacturers of bat survey equipment often suffer from the same malady.

At a recent conference I spent some time at the stand of one manufacturer, talking to the designer of a new bat detector. All I wanted to know was whether it could fit my needs for a particular type of bat survey. All he was interested in doing was telling me how I should adapt my survey methods in order to make the best use of his machine. Where I come from we describe that as the tail wagging the dog. Not surprisingly I have no interest in buying his rather expensive white elephant!


The new SM2BAT+
(Photo copyright Wildlife Acoustics Inc.)

So when a bat detector manufacturer takes the time to listen to their customers and adapt their product to meet our needs I sit up and pay attention. Back in August 2011 I compared the Anabat SD1/2 with the Wildlife Acoustics Songmeter SM2BAT (Anabats & Songmeters - August 2011) and raised some issues with the SM2. I considered it's waterproofing to be poorer than portrayed, found the SM2 unnecessarily slow and difficult to analyse data from, compared to the Anabat. I also felt that it was less flexible than the Anabat and disliked it's memory-hungry recording format.

Wildlife Acoustics held seminars at the National Bat Conference in Warwick last year, in which they came under fire for these issues. What sticks in my mind is the statement "We are engineers, not bat experts. Tell us what you need and we'll try to deliver it", which is a refreshing approach. To their credit they appear to have taken the feedback on board and have created an updated machine, The SM2BAT+, which is now available.

The big step forward with the new machine is a hardware change which allows users the option of recording in ZCA format - the same format as used by Anabats (sadly, as it's a hardware change older SM2s cannot be upgraded). This is good news for three reasons. Firstly, it means we do not have to spend hours converting data to ZCA format in order to use Anabat's user-friendly Analook software to analyse calls. We are also saved from drowning in tens or even hundreds of Gigabytes of data as ZCA files are tiny compared to Wildlife Acoustics own WAC format (tyically 5 Kb or less).

The third benefit is a broader one: Wildlife Acoustics' Willingness to adopt the ZCA format means we are a step closer to having an industry standard recording format, used by all manufacturers. This would make flexible use of different machines and sharing of bat records far easier. I'm not saying ZCA is the best format available: WAV or WAC files do create nicer sonograms for analysis (if recorded from a time expansion detector), but their size creates many issues and in my book ZCA is the best compromise.

The new machine also has enhanced waterproofing. The internal circuit boards now have a waterproof coating, so that when you open a machine in the field the electronics are not at risk of being exposed to rainwater. It also means that any condensate which forms inside the case is less likely to create a short-circuit and cause problems. I am also aware that Wildlife Acoustics are working on providing amuch bigger moisture absorbing pouch, to help overcome the high humidity we experience at upland sites in the northern UK.

I have a shiny new SM2BAT+ awaiting the return of our bats from hibernation. Once I have had time to try it in the field I'll have more to say about it, but for now let's compare the Wildlife Acoustics approach to customer service to the slow indifference typically offered by Titley Electronics (Makers of Anabat). On the present evidence Wildlife Acoustics appear to be streets ahead. Come on Titley, it's your move: adapt and survive!

Monday, 30 January 2012

Memories of Summer Bats

This post has absolutely no meaning or purpose, except that I was tidying up my hard drive and realised I had recorded several video sequences of bats in the hand over the past year or so. It's minus four outside and the only bats I have seen for a couple of months have been deep in torpor (hibernation). So, to relieve the winter blues, here are some lively, wriggling bats to enjoy...

First, a Brown Long-eared Bat (Plecotus auritus). This was one of a group of 12 in a bat box on a golf course near Edinburgh. I filmed several sequences, trying to get the bat to extend it's massive ears, but the best I could get from it was the wiggle of its ears you see here. Long-eared Bats use their ears like parabolic dishes, concentrating sounds made by prey such as harvestmen, spiders and larger moths, allowing them to minimise the intensity of their echolocation calls. Some of their prey have rudimentary hearing and this prevents them from hearing the bat's approach.


Next up is a Noctule (Nyctalus noctula). This is the biggest bat species found in the northern U.K. This female demonstrates nicely the importance of using the right hold and the correct amount of pressure when holding a bat (see the note as the end). To begin with she struggles to free herself, but she quickly realises that she is secure and relaxes.


Next is a Soprano Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus). It's not a particularly good video segment, but it sits quite nicely beside the previous segment as the Soprano is our smallest bat and looks tiny by comparison with the bruiser in the previous video!


Lastly, here is a longer segment of a male Whiskered Bat (Myotis mystacinus). This species is quite rare in this region, so I took the opportunity to record a video showing some of its morphological features. Whiskereds are hard to tell apart from Brandts Bat (Myotis brandtii) or Alcathoe's Bat (Myotis alcathoe). One of the best characters for telling them apart is their dentition, though examining the teeth of a small and annoyed animal isn't always easy! Sadly the camera I had available on that day wasn't capable of showing that level of detail, so you can't see the teeth very clearly.


Important note - disturbing bats in the United Kingdom or anywhere in the European Union is an offence unless you hold an appropriate license. In the UK these are issued by one of the statutory nature conservation organisations (Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England, Countryside Council for Wales, etc). If you would like to learn to work with bats your best starting point is to contact your local bat group for help, advice and training.

See the Bat Conservation Trust Website for details of your local bat group: Local Bat Groups

My website: www.plecotus.co.uk

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Navigate that bat!

This is an exciting time for bat survey technology: after a number of years of stagnation the equioment available for surveying bats is taking some serious leaps forward. A number of new pieces of equipment have appeared on the market over the past 18 months and several more will be available soon. But sometimes it's not the equipment that matters so much as how you use it.

I have been using Anabats extensively for a number of years, both for passive monitoring (automatic recording of bats in flight) and for transect surveys(walking or driving a survey route, recording bat activity). The Anabat's ability to be connected to a GPS unit to record grid reference data alongside recorded bat passes is especially useful in understanding bat activity as you can plot the location of each bat pass accurately on a map. However, this tends to take a bit of post-survey work (unless you use a personal computer with your Anabat/GPS combination...but madness lies that way if you're not an uber-geek).

The flexibility and potential of Anabats for generating extensive high quality data has led them to move out of the realm of the professional bat ecologist and into the hands of voluntary bat groups around the UK. They're not cheap at around £1400 each, but many enterprising bat groups have obtained funding and are using their Anabats to great effect, generating lots of new biological records of bats.



A Bat-Nav in place on an Anabat SD1. In practice I found that the magnet wasn't sufficiently powerful to hold it in place (photo copyright Wildwood Ecology)

Recently I came across a new gadget, designed to be used in conjunction with an Anabat. In essence Wildwood Ecology's Bat-Nav acts as a GPS plugged into your Anabat and feeds it grid references as you walk or drive around. It comes with a simple but effective computer Widget, which uses Excel to extract your bat records and GPS file and generate a KML file. This file allows you to see your bat records plotted on Google Earth with a miniumum of fuss.

The Bat-Nav is designed to be used with an Anabat SD2 and draws its power supply from the USB socket on the machine. As I only had an older SD1 available for testing Wildwood kindly rigged up a wire to connect to the positive side of the battery pack, which worked ok. Since then Wildwood have launched a model designed to be used with an SD1.

To test the Bat-Nav in practice I used it to do a car-based survey around my home village one night in September. Wildwood suggest the unit can be attached by it's own magnet to the Anabat's own steel casing. I found the magnet too weak for that, but it stuck to the car door very well.


I recorded plenty of bats during a 2 hour drive. When I got home I used AnalookW to identify and label each bat call and created a count labels file in the usual way (if you've never used AnalookW, it is a delightfully easy to use piece of software for identifying bat calls which, with a few clicks allows you to create a simple spreadsheet). I then opened the data in the BatNav KML generator (see above) and after half a dozen clicks I had a KML file. All I had to do was click on the file for it to open in Google Earth (you probably have to have Google Earth already installed) and here is the result.


The transect route is shown as a yellow line, with each bat pass labelled (I chose to label P5 for Soprano Pipistrelle, P4 for Common Pipistrelle, Psp for unidentified Pipistrelle and Msp for Myotis). For anyone with access to GIS software (and the training to use it) this kind of thing is easily prepared, though it takes a little time. If you don't have acces to GIS or want a quick and simple way of looking at your bat data geospacially, this fits the bill. You can also manipulate the data three-dimensionally in Google earth and even look at it in Google Streetview, as you can see below.





Would I buy one? I think I would, though it's not without drawbacks. The area I chose for my test survey is in open farmland and the terrain is clear to see from the air. A woodland transect would be far less clear, with the tree canopy tending to hide paths and some roads and structures. Sadly Google Earth does not (so far as I know) allow you to convert between the satellite view and a decent map view (for that you need Bing.com/maps, which allows you to use Ordnance Survey maps as well as satellite images. Unfortunately it's part of Microsoft's evil empire, but these are the breaks).

Another niggle is that the magnet is disappointingly feeble, making it less usable for walked transects, but some sticky-backed velcro would probably sort that out.

Of course £150 is rather a lot of cash to shell out, especially if you already have a GPS receiver you could use. A friend of mine said it just took him a couple of hours, playing with Excel and Google Earth, to work out how to produce his own KML files. But he's a bit of a geek (sorry Tom). Perhaps Wildwood should consider selling the KML generator widget separately from the magnetic GPS - they may find some customers who are already happily using a normal GPS with their Anabat, but would like the hassle-free conversion to KML.

Wildwood Ecology - www.wildwoodecology.com

My website - www.plecotus.co.uk

Send me your thoughts/comments - email David Dodds

Saturday, 14 January 2012

A major threat to biological recording

If there is one thing which underpins all wildlife conservation work it is biological records. Data on what species live where allows us to understand wildlife better and to plan how best to conserve it. Without biological records we are simply groping in the dark.

A major weakness of professional ecology in the UK (and to some extent amateur natural history) are field skills: the ability to accurately identify species and habitats in the field and record their presence. Universities are churning out ecology graduates who in many cases have spent only a week or two in the field during 3 or 4 years of study. The result is a glut of graduates, but a shortage of graduates who are able to do fieldwork without extensive further training.

Many people turn to postgraduate study in order to address this and by far the best course has for a number of years been the University Certificate, Postgraduate Diploma and MSc courses in Biological Recording run by Dr Sarah Whilde's team from the University of Birmingham, based at the Gateway Centre in Shrewsbury.

Unlike most other courses, these are ideal for those who already work full time and offer enormous choice of species groups to work with. Individual modules are run intensively over 3-5 days at Field Studies Council centres around the country by expert specialists. I was fortunate to study the MSc course and gained enormous benefit as well as great deal of pleasure.

Now these successful courses are under threat. The University of Birmingham took the astonishing decision to close the centre. This is not for financial reasons, in fact they admit that the courses make a strong financial contribution to the university. They wish to close them simply because they do not fit with current research goals at the university. Quite apart from the barking mad concept of a publicly-funded body throwing away a good source of income, the closure of these courses would be enormously damaging to the quality of ecological surveying and biological recording in this country.

After massive pressure the university have conceded that they will attempt to move the courses to another university, but they have made no promises.

Please take a moment to sign the on-line petition against this move and help persuade the university that these courses are too important to conservation and to wildlife education for them to be threatened in this way.

Biological recording petition

Sunday, 8 January 2012

There's Nowt So Queer As Folk...

...whom you meet on bat surveys.

Back in May 2008 I wrote about some strange occurrences during bat surveys (What is it about bat surveys? May 2008). It sometimes seems inevitable that if you meet someone during a survey, there will be something less than normal about them or their activities. I thought it was time to update you with a few of the odd characters I have met and strange situations I have found myself in since then.

Sometimes you meet regular-seeming people, who turn out to have a secret. I was recently setting up a survey in a rural area when a farmer stopped to ask if we needed any help. You know you're in a properly rural area when strangers offer help without being asked - antisocial city dwellers please note. I explained to him that we were doing a vehicle survey for bats, showed him the equipment we use and we chatted for a while about bats and wildlife. Like most farmers he was highly aware of the wildlife around his farm. He described the bats he sees around his farmyard and invited me to drive through after the survey and take a look. Having a bit of time to spare later I drove through his farmyard and bats weren't all I saw. Perhaps he had intended to draw the curtains on the room that contained his cannabis-growing operation but was distracted by some livestock emergency...

Meeting the police during bat surveys is a fairly regular occurrence during surveys. If we are doing something liable to look suspicious I used to call the local station and let them know, to avoid wasting their time with an unnecessary visit. These days the local cop-shop is probably unmanned at night and I object to spending half an hour talking slowly to a disinterested call centre person who usually fails to advise the local patrol of our presence anyway. So explaining to bored coppers what we are doing is a regular thing.

Whilst carrying out a dawn survey close to an international airport I had a less run-of-the-mill encounter with some less run-of-the-mill police Officers. During the survey I heard shots fired in the near distance. "Bird scaring at the airport", I thought and carried on undaunted. A little while later, as I was leaving I saw a police car approaching at some speed. Apart from the everyday odd behaviour native to all bat workers I was probably looking especially suspicious. The site I was surveying was a building within a massive security fence. It was just a couple of hundred metres from the main runway of the airport, so just the sort of place your average terrorist might find alluring. And here I was, desperately trying to disguise the fact that I was placing the key to this high security compound under a brick beside the gate (my client's idea and not one I was in a hurry to take the credit for with the boys in blue).

The police car did a rather impressive screechy-wheel stop across the road, matched a moment later by another one. All very interesting...until machine-gun toting airport police leaped out, fanned round me and told me to keep my hands where they could see them. You never really know what you're going to do when placed in a dramatic situation, but my brain was whirling with three slightly worrying facts: these guys clearly mean business, in a moment they are going to ask me to explain my highly suspicious behaviour and my answer is going to involve furry flying animals...

It turned out that, whilst I may look suspicious, I don't look at all threatening (which was actually a bit disappointing). Apparently I had been right about the shots, but someone else had heard and reported them, giving Starsky and his mates an opportunity to go play. The really odd sequel was when, having finished with me, one of them asked me to wait as "the Chief Super wants a word with you". After a few minutes a much sleeker police car arrived and out climbed someone whose uniform had a lot more shiny bits on. This is where things took a surreal turn. It was 5am, I was utterly knackered, having been up since 1am and I had just been held at gunpoint. "They all think this is funny" he said, indicating the now grinning coppers "but I've just been appointed to take over the wildlife crime unit. Do you have time for a chat about wildlife crime priorities?" "Errr...ok". That was a very unusual morning.

On another occasion a police patrol stopped, to enquire if everything was ok, as our car, with an amber flashing beacon on the roof and reflective "surveying" sign on the back was stopped at a slewed angle in the middle of the A7 trunk road late at night. I really didn't have the nerve to tell them the truth: that we were looking for Noctule bats, which are quite rare in the Scottish Borders and I had piled on the brakes and leaped out of the car because we heard one. Not quite a Highway Code manoeuvre!

A couple of years ago I was asked to carry out bat surveys of a large number of primary schools in which it was planned to do extensive work so the local council needed to confirm that no bats were present (owing to their legal status as European Protected Species). The first stage of such surveys is usually a site visit, to check the buildings internally and externally for signs of bats and bat roosts. The schools were supposed to be advised when I was coming but, usually weren't. So, when I walked towards the entrance of one particular school I took a deep breath and steeled myself for the usual protracted explanation about bats, bat surveys, why one was necessary etc before being allowed past the Fort Knox security system that all schools seem to have.

To my surprise I was greeted with "Ooh bats, come in, come in!". "Wow", I thought. "This is unusual." I was ushered inside and pointed out to a passing teacher with "This gentleman has come about the bat." "Oh lovely!" was the response. By this point I was thinking something was a little odd. Not only were they unusually excited about a simple survey visit but they were talking about "the bat." Singular.

I was ushered up to a noticeboard covered in drawings of bats, paintings of bats, essays about bats etc. Alongside was a photograph of a Long-eared Bat and pages from the Bat Conservation Trust (BCT) and other bat-related websites. "I've died and landed in bat conservation heaven." I thought. The photograph was of a bat which had been found above the main entrance of the school the previous week. At first I was delighted. To see a school taking such a positive interest in bat conservation is unusual and fantastic. Bats suffer a great deal of prejudice and the best way to stamp out prejudice is to start with children. Then I thought about the bat.

The bat had been found in an exposed place on the outside wall of the school, within a few inches of an entrance used several times a day by a couple of hundred children. It apparently stayed there for two days before it "decided to leave". Whether this animal had been sick, injured or exhausted isn't clear but it certainly wouldn't have chosen to stay there for two days, being stared at by lots of people if it had an alternative option. I doubt very much that it "decided to leave". Perhaps it was eaten by a Magpie or other predator or perhaps it fell from the wall, to be picked up by a passing cat. Whatever happened could have been prevented, if someone had stopped to think "is this wild animal behaving naturally" and sought advice from BCT or the SSPCA. I suspect the kids who had researched the bat, drawn paintings of it and created a display about it would be rather upset if they learned that, whilst they were doing this, it was starving to death or being eaten.


A photo of the school bat, taken by a parent and enthusiastically bluetoothed to me from her phone.


Annoyingly we did a load of night-time surveys in the hope of finding a roost on the premises and never found any evidence. Wherever it came from, it wasn't the school.


If you find a bat and need help, advice or information contact the BCT Bat Helpline: http://www.bats.org.uk/pages/help.html

If you find a strange human or inquisitive copper during a bat survey...you're on your own.

My website: plecotus.co.uk