Pensthorpe researchers uncovering the nocturnal mysteries of bats
- Credit: Gemma Rogers / Bat Conservation Trust
A pioneering research project at a Norfolk nature reserve aims to shed light on the nocturnal habits of bats, and how they interact with our agricultural landscape.
Winged mammals caught at Pensthorpe Wildlife and Gardens near Fakenham are being delicately tagged with radio transmitters, under licence from Natural England, and monitored using radio tracking devices.
The project will initially focus on the soprano pipistrelle – one of the UK's smallest bats, and one which scientists have less data about compared to other species.
Researchers will also use automated, passive bat detectors to see which of the UK's 17 species can be found on the reserve's Conservation Grade (CG) farmland plots – areas managed with the aim of reversing the impact which intensive agriculture can have on wildlife.
Bats have been shown to consume large numbers of insect pests, so conservationists believe that encouraging bats to forage in agricultural environments may substantially help farmers control pests, and potentially reduce the need for pesticides.
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So, with bat populations declining, the project team said discovering how the creatures use farmland has become a priority.
Ed Bramham-Jones, head warden at Pensthorpe, said: 'This study is vital to the development of CG farming practices and hopefully a much-needed, widespread boost to bat populations throughout the UK. It's something Pensthorpe has long been passionate about and our rich variety of habitats make this a very interesting place to research bats.'
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The project is a joint initiative between Conservation Grade, the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust, the University of East Anglia (UEA), and the Norfolk Barbastelle Study Group (NBSG).
Dr Iain Barr, senior lecturer at the UEA, said: 'This project aims to see how an often overlooked component of the UK's biodiversity is using our agricultural land. 'We expect that the bats will show us a lot about their lives and enable us to really learn about how they use the habitat that is important to the whole of the UK.'
Dr Katherine Boughey from the NBSG said: 'Bat populations in the UK have declined considerably over the last century. There is great potential for farming to help conserve bats, but to do this we need to know more about how bats use agricultural landscapes. The findings of this project will help support the development of bat-friendly farming practices.'
With limited knowledge about bats' usage of microhabitats like wildflower margins, hedges, trees and vegetation, it is hoped the findings will inform the design of CG's 'sustainable farming protocol'.
Tim Nevard, director of CG and a trustee of the Pensthorpe Conservation Trust said: 'Bats have often been forgotten when agri-environment habitats have been designed and established in the past, and this research with UEA, Norfolk Barbastelle Study Group and Pensthorpe will help correct this.'
The results are expected to be ready by August 2014.