Wednesday, 8 September 2010

A rant about problem bats

Yes, it's true, there is such a thing as a problem bat roost. Regrettably once in a while a bat colony makes someone's life difficult through noise, smell, stray bats in living areas, phobias etc. A big part of the skills of competent bat-worker relate to communicating with people and trying to find solutions which allow bats and people to share a building in harmony.

Here in Scotland we have an excellent system of contract bat-workers (I am one), employed on a casual basis by Scottish Natural Heritage, who visit people with bat problems and work with them to try to identify solutions. We also have a streamlined licensing process for domestic properties, to allow problem bats to be appropriately and safely excluded after the breeding season is over (most problem roosts are maternity sites). As a result we should be able to avoid the negative publicity for bats which could result from unhappy people suffering bat problems without help or support...or can we?

In my opinion there are three problems with the system as it stands.

1. Only domestic premises are included. Shouldn't big business pay their way? Of course they should when they cause problems, but we're not necessarily talking about big business.

What about the small business, struggling to make any headroom in a difficult economic climate, such as the hotelier near Dumfries I recently met? He was at his wits end trying to keep his business afloat whilst a Soprano Pipistrelle colony made two of his bedrooms stink. Is it reasonable for him to have to pay several thousands pounds he doesn't have for a consultant to carry out surveys and deliver a mitigation solution under license?

What about the Primary School who recently hired me to help with the Soprano Pipistrelle colony which were turning up in classrooms all over the school, creating havoc? Shouldn't their budget be spent on books and teachers, rather than consultancy fees (heavily discounted, I have to say) and a heated bat box as licensed mitigation?

With SNH refusing to help in situations like these, the risk is that people will choose to find their own solutions, with disastrous results for bat conservation. The hotelier had already done exactly that.

2. Domestic licenses for exclusion are streamlined and supported by SNH... up to the point when the license is issued. At that point the householder is left with a license and a leaflet advising how to carry out an exclusion (admittedly an excellent leaflet). If there are any complications the license may state that a licensed bat-worker must be involved, but the support has stopped, so the householder is left to sort that out by themselves. Surely the point in the process when SNH supervision is at its most critical is the physical exclusion? This is the moment when it could all go horribly wrong due to misunderstanding or indifference on the part of the householder. And is it reasonable to expect the householder to track down a consultant and pay consultancy fees? Some bat groups do great work filling the gap here, but not all have the numbers to be able to do so.

3. Domestic licenses do not usually require mitigation to be put in place. This is perhaps not unreasonable. Expecting householders to spend many hundreds of pounds on a heated bat box is a sure way to ensure their neighbours quietly kill their bats, instead of seeking help and advice. However, I have now encountered several situations where a problem bat colony has been excluded, no mitigation has been put in place and the following year there is a call from another house nearby: we have simply moved the problem on.

Of course mitigation measures are rarely used immediately by bats, but if centrally funded mitigation measures were put in place the number of repeat problems would inevitably diminish.

This is a thorny subject, especially when there is a massive squeeze on government funding. But if bat conservation is to be best served a number of facts seem clear to me:

1. Incidences of problem bat roosts should be dealt with quickly and sympathetically, regardless of who they are causing a problem to. Beaver reintroductions in Germany succeeded precisely because of this sort of open and supportive approach.

2. If a funding stream were available (and that's a big "if") then mitigation measures at domestic exclusions could become a norm instead of a rarity, with direct positive results for bat conservation.

3. SNH support for problem bat roosts should be a start to finish process. What is the point in providing a fantastic service to bats and householders for half the process and then walking away, allowing all the good work to be wasted as the householder gets fed up and tells all their friends that she wishes she had simply blocked up the roost entrance and told no-one about it.

Of course it's easy for me to sit here and carp: I don't have the thankless task of balancing SNH's budget. But on my desk lies a copy of SNH's glossy quarterly magazine and I notice the teas and coffees at this weekend's National bat Conference are sponsored by Natural England. I'm grateful for both... but I can think of better ways of spending the money.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In the UK and Europe all bats are protected from disturbance and attempting to exclude bats or otherwise disturbing them is a criminal offence.

If you have a bat colony in your home or premises and need help or advice (in the UK) contact the local office of the relevant statutory nature conservation organisation: Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England, Countryside Council for Wales or Northern Ireland Environment and Heritage Service.

Help and advice can also be obtained free of charge from the Bat Conservation Trust bat helpline on 0845 1300 228.

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