Thursday, 10 March 2011

Realities of bat conservation in Malta

As a wildlife conservationist with an especial interest in bats, I sometimes despair of the state of conservation in Britain and the prospects for the future of biodiversity. Cut-backs in conservation spending, prioritisation of projects that engage people, rather than those with real impact, the near-impossible task of enforcing wildlife law are all sources of frustration. Whilst these problems are all very real, they were put in context for me last year, when I spent some time working with bats on the Maltese Islands.

Malta is of course, part of the European Union and therefore bats and their roosts have the same legal protection, as elsewhere in Europe. However, Malta is a small country and pressures on wildlife are magnified by problems of scale, as well as by social issues.

I was lucky enough to spend time with Dr. John Borg, Director of the Malta Natural History Museum in Mdina. John is an energetic and ornithologist and bat-worker, who faces monumental difficulties and yet still works relentlessly to promote conservation. Malta, like several other Mediterranean islands, has a strong culture of shooting and trapping migratory birds. Though now curbed by European legislation, this is still a very real problem in Malta and it affects bats too, as they are used for target practice as they emerge from the roosts at sunset.

John Borg with a Maghrebian Mouse-eared Bat

When I was there the sound of gunfire was a constant backdrop, away from the towns. Hunters take their shooting heritage very seriously and John's work as a bird-ringer has brought him into conflict with them. Whatever our problems in the UK, we don't face the kind of intimidation John faces. He has had his car set alight, his tyres slashed and lights smashed and has even had a hole punched in the driver's door by a shotgun blast! To emphasise the point, when we were leaving a bat cave we had to leave quickly, as the trees above our heads were shredded by apparently deliberate shotgun fire.

A typical Maltese bird-shooter's hide. The island is littered with these structures.

The small size of the islands and their growing population creates massive development pressure, and the Maltese Environmental Protection Agency (MEPA) are very active in enforcing the law. Nonetheless, bat roosts are heavily pressured, especially underground sites, as the size of the islands makes the limestone caves used by Maghrebian Mouse-eared Bats (Myotis punicus), Grey Long-eared bats (Plecotus auritus) and Lesser Horseshoe Bats (Hipposideros hipposideros) often well-known and threatened by human activity.

I visited two of the biggest maternity colonies of Maghrebian Mouse-eareds, neither of which showed any signs of being used by the species any longer. Ghar Hasan is an extensive cave on the cliffs at the south east coast of Malta. It is a popular attraction and, as well as being visited by tourists, the litter within showed it is also used by the seedier end of humanity. In order to protect the bat colony, John Borg paid for a gate to be installed on the section of the cave used by the bats. When we visited part of the gate had been ripped away. John showed me where, in previous years there had been a large heap of bat droppings. Now there is nothing.

The vandalised bat gate at Ghar Hasan

Another formerly prolific maternity cave was Ghar il-Friefet, on the outskirts of the town of Birzebugga. When a new road was built over the cave attempts were made to safeguard the bats by gating it. Today this gate lies alongside a hairdresser's salon and the cave is no longer used by bats. The road surface was less than three metres above the cave roof and John described how the bats would take flight every time a truck drove overhead.

The bat gate at Ghar il-friefet - sadly a lost cause.

I wouldn't want to leave you with the impression that wildlife conservation is a lost cause in Malta. Alongside John's efforts, Birdlife Malta are an extremely active conservation organisation, who are making a real impact. Also, MEPA have a deliciously hands-on approach to dealing with planning violations (often the hands are on the controls of a bulldozer), from which our SNCOs and local authorities could learn a lot.

One of the most poignant moments of my visit to the island was when I spent some time with a group of undergraduates at the University of Malta, teaching them how to use bat detectors. Their enthusiasm and commitment to wildlife conservation was little short of inspiring and if they are the future of Maltese wildlife conservation the game ain't over yet.

Discussing bat detectors with a group of students from the University of Malta - the bright future of Maltese conservation

My website: www.plecotus.co.uk
Birdlife Malta: www.birdlifemalta.org

Swarming bats and shivering bat workers

Last September I spent a night outside a disused lead mine, with fellow bat-workers from Lothians Bat Group and Dumfries and Galloway Bat Group. Our goal was to find out whether any autumn swarming activity took place and to catch any swarming bats and examine them for ectoparasites. As a licensed trainer I would also use this as a opportunity for bat license trainees to gain some experience handling bats.

The site was high in the hills of Dumfriesshire and as the sun went down it was a beautiful, calm evening. The mine had two access points: a ventilator on the hill above us and an addit (a horizontal shaft) leading into the mine. We blocked the ventilator with rubble netting, to ensure that any bats inside the mine would leave by the main entrance and set up my harp trap across the addit (see "The Kitchen Table Harp Trap", Feb. 2008 and "Happy Harp Trapping", August 2008).

The harp trap in place across the mine entrance, with rubble netting at the sides and below, to prevent bats from flying round the trap.

Our hope was to find that the mine might be used by Myotis bats (which in Scotland means Daubenton's, Natterer's and Whiskered) as a swarming site. It has suitable characteristics to be used as a winter hibernaculum and swarming bats had been recorded there the previous autumn. Myotis bats tend to gather in the middle of the night during August, September and October and fly together. It's not clear why they do this, but mating is probably involved, as males tend to remain around the sites and females commute in from surrounding areas. It may also be connected with checking access to a hibernaculum or showing the site to juveniles. John Altringham's team at Leeds University have been researching this for some time, revealing some fascinating insights (see "Untold riches of swarming bats", April 2008).

Soon after sunset a bat flew into the trap from within the mine. It was an adult male Daubenton's Bat (Myotis daubentonii). Sadly (for me, not the bat) it had no ectoparasites, but provided good handling experience for two trainees. This was fortunate as it turned out to be the only bat that we caught...

The adult male Daubenton's Bat we caught, before the temperature dropped.

As autumn swarming is an all-night activity we started the evening sitting around in folding chairs, for all the world like a group of picnickers, with positive thoughts about spending the entire night there. Then it started to get colder....and colder. Soon it seemed like a good idea to erect the gazebo someone had brought. Then we added the side walls. Then the sleeping bags and blankets came out!

Dr Stuart Smith demonstrates the right equipment for bat-work in sub-zero temperatures.

Common sense told us we should give up. After all, with the thermometer at just 2 degrees there wouldn't be any bat activity would there? Actually, yes there was. Two bats had been swarming around the front of the mine fairly continuously since not long after the Daubenton's was caught and released, but were not tempted into the trap. From the bat detector we could see they were Myotis and their relatively faint calls made me suspect they may be Natterer's Bats (Myotis nattereri), but without catching them we couldn't be sure. Possibly they were males, awaiting females arriving from elsewhere. If so then they were destined to be disappointed...as were we!

Eventually, after many hours, when the thermometer descended below zero we concluded that the female bats had more sense than us, or the males, and had stayed home! We packed up and followed their lead. The next day I tuned in to the TV weather forecast in time to hear the forecaster say that the previous night was "the coldest September night for decades".

My website: www.plecotus.co.uk

Important note: In the UK (and other European countries) it is a criminal offence to catch, handle or disturb bats without a license issued by the relevant SNCO (Scottish Natural Heritage, Natural England etc).