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Thursday, 15 May 2008

What is it About Bat Surveys...?

Maybe it's the peculiar hours that bat-workers keep, or maybe it's the association with unusual animals, but there's a definite tendency for odd occurances and very odd characters to be encountered whilst doing bat survey work.

The people we meet range from the scarily enthusiastic, through the utterly barking and the dangerously misinformed to the simply peculiar. On one survey for Daubenton's Bats alongside a canal a bewhiskered Wing Commander type approached me and barked an enquiry as to what we were doing. When I told him he replied "That's alright then: I thought you might be looking for otters." I should probably have extricated myself there and then, but my curiosity got the better of me and I asked why he might ask that. In return I was treated to an extensive diatribe on the evils of the poor otter: how it kills lambs, despoils the countryside, wrecks fishing and probably bears off virgin maidens, causes global warming and harbours Osama bin Laden in it's holt. Where he had got all this rubbish from wasn't clear but it was obvious from the gleam in his eye that his opinions weren't open for discussion and I beat a hasty retreat.

On another occasion I was carrying out a dawn survey in a small park in Livingston, not a town noted for it's ethnic diversity. Just before dawn an enormous black gentleman jogged purposefully towards me, wearing colourful, flowing West African robes and fez hat and carrying a huge carved staff. He padded past me on bare feet without a sideways glance. Ten minutes later he returned in the opposite direction, still with the same purposeful, steady gait and again he acted as though I wasn't there, leaving me wondering if I was dreaming (at 4.30 in the morning that's entirely possible!).

In a town noted for it's UFO sightings I had to attend to a remote bat detector with odd noises emerging from it's radio receiver. When I reached it, I found two men with the case of the detector open, staring at the electronic gadgetry inside. I introduced myself and asked what they were doing. Their candid reply was that they though it might be a bomb, so they had opened it to see. What degree of utter stupidity led them to decide that it was a good idea to open a suspected bomb? Then again, perhaps they had a point: an Anabat detector belonging to the Highways Agency was recently destroyed by the Bomb Squad in a controlled explosion after it was found attached to a motorway bridge.

It's sometimes hard to understand chiropterophobia (or fear of bats), but for those it affects it is a very real problem. Last year I was checking a heated bat box on Ministry of Defence property. The sergeant on duty was built like the proverbial brick sh**-house: his muscles probably had muscles and I had no doubt that he could probably kill me with his little finger, whilst drinking a mug of NAAFI tea with the other hand. Nonetheless, it seemed a good opportunity to attempt some bat PR, so I explained what we had found and tried to show him a photograph on my camera. In a trice he was on his feet, backing away and shaking. I swear, if I hadn't calmed him down he would have reversed straight though the wall.

I was recently asked to look over some derelict council flats for any signs of roosting bats: a long day of methodically working through attic after attic. I expected them to be empty, as the occupants had long gone, but almost every attic was a treasure trove of the weird. One contained a knitting machine and enough wool to keep a knitware factory supplied for months. Another contained most of the body panels for a Ford Escort. Even odder was the attic in which several hundredweight of soil was lying in heaps, reminiscent of the PoW hut roofs in The Great Escape. Why? How? Your guess is as good as mine.

In case anyone reading this is feeling put off bat work I should stress that the odd situations and people are outweighed many times over by enormous numbers of warm-hearted, helpful and interested members of the public.... but the other sort are far more entertaining!

Please remember that some of the bat work described here requires a licence, issued by one of the four statutory nature conservation organisations. It is an offence to disturb bats or their roosts without one.

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