BatChat

The find of the century

November 23, 2022 Season 4 Episode 36
BatChat
The find of the century
Show Notes Transcript

S4E36 You join us in a secret location this week. Back in 2019, Scotty Dodd from the Sussex Bat Group made the most significant discovery in the history of the bat group...the first maternity roost of greater horseshoe bats in Sussex for one hundred years. Truly the find of the century! In a small dry valley surrounded by beech trees, Scotty & Steve are sat in front of the run-down stable block as Scotty describes to Steve how he came across the roost and got the verification he was looking for.

As you'll hear in this episode, the team need a lot of money to save this roost and improve it so that the colony has every chance of survival. So if you can,
donate to the JustGiving appeal here
See the roost on the VWT website
See what else the Sussex Bat Group get up to and follow them on twitter

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Steve Roe:

Hello and welcome to BatChat from the Bat Conservation Trust. This podcast is for anyone who loves bats. We bring you the stories from the world of bat conservation, from the people on the ground doing work that furthers our understanding of these magical creatures. There's a lot of information and experience out there and our aim is to bring it right to you. I'm Steve Roe; I'm an ecologist and a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. Don't forget you can join the conversation online using the hashtag BatChat that's all one word. Later on, we'll hear from BatChat listener Wendy who tells us about the bats she's living alongside. But first this week, we come to you from a secret location near Midhurst in West Sussex, recorded in July with Scotty Dodd from the Sussex bat group. We're sat in a small block of woodland at the bottom of a dell on a leaf covered track leading to a rundown building hidden amongst the trees. In 2019, Scotty made probably one of the bat groups most important discoveries, the first greater horseshoe bat maternity roost in Sussex for 100 years. As the evening breeze moves through the beech trees around us, he starts off by taking us through the story of how he discovered the roost that we're both sat in front of during this interview.

Scotty Dodd:

Okay, yeah, so as you say, I found it in 2019, it was still winter, so February, February, the 14th. And at the time, it was just a single bat. And obviously, I told people in the bat group, Tony Hudson, and Martin Phyllis. And the general consensus of opinion was that we've occasionally seen these bats turn up in structures before, and they've usually disappeared by May, and we've no idea where they go. But we think they might gather somewhere for a small maternity roost. So at that point, I started putting passive bat detectors, trail cameras, that sort of thing in the building, so we could monitor whether activity went up or down. That year, the bats weren't particularly visible, it's quite a large building. And the there's areas of the roof void that you just can't view into without being very disturbing, using ladders, that sort of thing. Which if it was a maternity roost we wouldn't want to be doing throughout the summer, and you know, causing the bats to abandon the building. And so we were doing everything very carefully. And all that we got in the first year was some tantalising ultrasound calls, which we sent to Margaret Andrews, who's done an awful lot of work on greater and lesser horseshoe bats over the years. And it took us some time and deliberation. But eventually she got back to us. And said, I've measured and re measured your calls for a number of times set about it, thought about it gone back to it. And now I'm absolutely sure that what you've recorded is a mother carrying the baby, and some other evidence of juvenile calls. And then she said, categorically, when we talked about numbers of bats being caught on the trail cam, rather than going down to zero, we were starting to see two, three, maybe four on the trail cam, but the image isn't great. And she said, Well, bats will only be gathering at a building that this time of year and making these sorts of social calls, if it's a maternity roost. And of course, we were seeing on the emergence surveys, you know, more and more bats starting to emerge from the building until I think we had a maximum in the first year of five or six. In 2020, we had a much luckier time we still had all your recording equipment in there. But the bats were good enough to spend a lot of time roosting at the end of the building, where we could view them from from a real window. So we were literally stood outside of the bat roost, just filming in through a grill. And it was then that we made the discovery of the first baby and which then within a few weeks became a cluster of babies or pups. And yeah, we've we've gone on from there really.

Steve Roe:

So what's the largest counts then of these horseshoes you've had so far?

Scotty Dodd:

Well, in 2020, we had six adult females that had three pups and we think we lost one of the pups to a tawny owl we had some trail cam footage of of the owl up in the roof void being swarmed by the bats and what looked like a limp bat wing between the the rafters and sure enough, the the subsequent count I think we only had eight coming out instead of nine. So we we think we lost one nature red in tooth and claw. This year, I think 2021 We didn't have as much luck but this year we've had a maximum of nine adults and And so far, and we need to check again this evening. So far we've had five pups. But also, even in the winter hibernation surveys, we've been having record numbers, Nick Grey and his team recorded across the several tunnels that they survey, a total of 13 bats, and that was in conjunction with Daniel Whitby, who was going to some of the structures where he knew the bats overwintered as well. So all the Sussex bat ecologists have been coordinating so we can get the best information on the estimated population size.

Steve Roe:

And like you say you've been working with other ecologists who suspected that there was a population here, how many of the different sites roughly, have you been recording these bats in the winter then?

Scotty Dodd:

The several tunnels I do I do do some of the tunnel checks myself, but I've not been to all of them. And Tony is probably best best placed to answer that. Because, you know, he's been doing it since since the bat group began. But yeah, they're, they use several of the tunnels, some more than others. And then there's, as I say, a couple of other structures that other ecologists are aware of, as well.

Steve Roe:

So, I mean, we've seen this, this has attracted a lot of media attention and the headlines that's been grabbed by everyone is, this is the first maternity roost of greater horseshoe bats in Sussex for at least 100 years. You've attracted lots of media attention with this good news story. And you've even got the broadcaster and author Stephen Moss involved. Why is this roost so significant for for the South East of England?

Scotty Dodd:

Well it's a pioneering roost. Greater horseshoe bats suffered a massive decline. We've all heard some horror stories about, you know, the catastrophic number of casualties at say, Creech manor in Dorset. You know, going back probably 50 years. And the numbers drop somewhere in the 90%, I think was it. And they were completely lost from well, as a breeding species. As far as we knew from the southeast of England. The the only records we were really getting was occasional individuals or a small number of individuals in winter hibernation sites. But the feeling was that it was possible they could be breeding. So So to find that, you know, it's absolute luck. You know, it's a needle in a haystack thing. But yeah, as luck would have it, the the building they were using, came came under my nose.

Steve Roe:

And when she had found that discovery, and Maggie Andrews had confirmed it was indeed a maternity roost, how quickly did you move to protect the site and the bats and make the landowner aware of the significance?

Scotty Dodd:

Once again, we were very, very lucky. The landowner was an executor. And he was just sorting out the sort of will of the guy who owned this, and to all intents and purposes had been an absentee landlord, had bought the place and not really done anything with it in his 30/40 years of tenure, or whatever it was. And so they didn't really have a great vested interest. There was more land within the parcel that we don't own. And there's another sort of two and a half acres, and then there were various meadows and other bits and bobs. And the executor had come up with a plan a housing scheme, if you like, within the area, and that that just didn't even get off the ground. So they were looking at converting this building were at into a residence. And, you know, we sought advice from Natural England, would they even can see to letting that go ahead. As it happened. Yes, they would, because I think they had the foresight to see that if no one did anything, the building was going to fall down. I mean, as soon as we discovered the place thieves came and stole a lead off the roof. And from that point in, it started to deteriorate. You know, it's quite an old building. It was built in, in around the 1830s 1840s. And so the the internal construction is lath and plaster rather than, you know, modern plaster boards, that was getting saturated and falling down in huge chunks, which was letting the light into the bats roosting area. It was it was changing the airflow, so many things going against it. So we had to come up with a plan. But I think that the executor at the time, realised that was going to be not only a long but potentially very expensive road if he had to provide roosting space for the bats within the building or an alternative. And so I sort of said, well, what if I could find someone who might be interested in in buying it as is just for conservation, and we settled on a price as everyone should know by now that's been following a campaign that was £200k and we we are in the heart of the South Downs and National Park. So land, buildings premium. And we went around a few organisations, it was a very, very difficult time, the pandemic had just kind of come upon us, people didn't know what was happening and, and no one wanted to take the risk. But Vincent Wildlife Trust, were interested and did take that risk. And now we're working in partnership as a bat group. And Vincent Wildlife Trust to to raise the funds needed. Now we've purchased the building, we now need to repair it and there's a lot of repairs, there's there's damage to one of the walls, the roof needs completely replacing and anyone who's done any building work during the pandemic, will be acutely aware how costs have risen for doing this, you know, everything from batons to slates is a lot more expensive than it was two, three years ago.

Steve Roe:

And you've done you've answered my next question, you know, what, what plans are there to improve the site? Are you going to improve any of the internal features for the bats to use, as well as making the building watertight? Etc?

Scotty Dodd:

Yeah, so once we've made it weatherproof, there's other things we need to do. But we need to do it carefully. And we need to do it incrementally. So at the moment, it's a beautiful building, it's it's saying we can't show it to you on an audio,

Steve Roe:

I was gonna say do you want to do an audio description to describe what we're set in front of them.

Scotty Dodd:

So it's, it's a classic textbook, greater horseshoe bat building. It's a large old Victorian stable block made out of local stone with brick coins, and a pitch slate roof. But it wasn't just any old stables for any old nags. This was for a polo team. And the landscape around this has changed considerably. You know, we're set, essentially in an in a woodland, we but you see how the land slopes up away from us, we're kind of in a dell here. And you'll notice if you can see through all the nettles and whatnot over here now, that is actually quite flat along the top. And that's where they used to I'm told exercise, the horses just walking around just just to warm them up. And then yeah, and then they had out in the wider area, there were various other training grounds and polo fields and whatnot. It's got excellent flight and access via the main door. And then there's several windows that aren't blocked by grills or anything else. And the bats are quite curious. They're down the far end of the building are up in the roof void. And there's many places where they could egress from the building, but they choose to fly up and down the corridor, which some people call light sampling, Margaret Andrews call it social flight. And they always come out the front door. Every time these bats have manners, they'll try and confuse either fly back into the windows, but then they'll always come back out the door again. But because we've got problems with predators, we've had cats, owls, humans, all coming into the bat roost, we need to do something to as I say, gradually start blocking these exits off so predators and people can't get in there. But the bats can still get in and out and aren't put off. So we don't want to do anything too quickly. Just putting it off and leaving them a little letterbox. We need to do it slowly, probably over a couple of years.

Steve Roe:

And you recommend those sorts of improvements, the roof size may well increase over time.

Scotty Dodd:

Well, I think once it's weather tight, once it's secure, that gives them the best chance but there's so much more we can do. And it all really depends on how generous the public are, how generous the grant funds are, and how much we can raise because to give them the best chance and to enhance or maximise on colony growth. I mean, and as you well know as a bat lover, you know bats in general have about one younger year. So it's always going to be slow when you're you're starting with with only nine bats and of course greater horseshoe bats can take four or five years to reach sexual maturity. So they, you know, a female pup born this year, won't be producing for for several more years. So it's going to be a slow game. But if we can afford to put in heaters and hot boxes, and other heat variations, say cool cool boxes or cool rooms, cooler areas within the roost. We can make the roost better for the bats at different times of years and maximise on colour comment and growth at the time when it matters in summer.

Steve Roe:

And that's what horses need is that they want something that's got a range of temperatures to be suitable for both summer and winter.

Scotty Dodd:

Yes, I mean they have got the hibernation tunnels as well but there's a potential here for us to give them another safe option. I mean, because the tunnels are great but I mean I'm I'm aware that they get broken into here and there and That must be quite disturbing for the bats, particularly if it's cold winter, not that we're having too many of them. But yeah, we just want to give them as many options as possible.

Steve Roe:

So if they're here in this building, are they then also somewhere else nearby, you know, is there another rooster or another population even,

Scotty Dodd:

I would be surprised if there was another breeding population Never say never. And it'd be wonderful if they did have an alternative. We are aware of other structures, buildings, underground structures, and of course, the the old railway tunnels that they use at different times of year. And certainly, some of these are what you might call spring and autumn transitional roofs. So it can always be a bit quiet here in around April, early May. But we've got an inkling by working with other bat ecologists of where they are or might be. And and there's a good spread these sites across Sussex. There's also other structures that we now have, the less important, in fact, there's one here on another part of the site. That's just a night rooster feeding roost. So so we've got evidence that they go in there, they their beetles, eat their mouths, and undo their droppings, etc.

Steve Roe:

And what did it feel like when you walked into this building and saw horseshoes? You know, what was that feeling like to discover the roost?

Scotty Dodd:

A bit overwhelming to be perfectly honest, you know, I don't consider myself a bat expert at the level of Tony Hutson and whatnot. And so I had my infrared camera with me, I got a good zoomed in image of this bat. And it's almost like your brains telling you it cannot be a horseshoe bat, you must be mistaken, it must be something else. So I got it home, blew it up on the big screen. And I was, you know, a certain as I could be, but I still sent it to my mentor Martin Phyllis, and said, Please, Martin, you've just got a double check, because he had lots of experience of Horseshoe bats. He's another back group member who's been doing it for years and going into the channels for years. So he was very familiar. And so that's great. He goes, Yes, Well done, Scotty. But you know, at that point, again, it was still well, let's wait and see what happens. But let's not get too excited just yet.

Steve Roe:

And how quickly do you need to raise those funds, then?

Scotty Dodd:

Well, the bats start to leave the building after the maternity season. And so sort of September October, we should in theory, be able to start doing some of the work. And as I say we're going to phase it, I mean, the most important thing is going to be structural stuff. And getting the roofs got to come off completely. All the timbers replaced. And then it's going back on with all new slates. We've got slates here, we could reuse them. But you know, they were put up there in the 1840s perhaps. And so you know, how much life have they got left in them, a lot of them are broken and crumbly. So VWT think it's best just to put all new and then then you know, it's got 100 years lifespan, at least the states that do come off, you see this little unroofed building here, that when I first came here that did actually have a roof on it, and it collapsed after the storm. But we've got a local company, artisans of wood who do fantastic Hobbit like wood building with round wood timber frame as well as traditional timber frame. They've very, very kindly offered to frame out that building and clad it. And then our builder will recycle the slates off of the main building that and put them on there and make a lovely hide for you know, bat group members, potentially down the line, maybe even small, quiet school groups, and such. But there'll be a little building opposite the main entrance where you can get a front row seat and watch our glorious greater horseshoe bats emerging from the building.

Steve Roe:

That sounds great and quiet. I love the other Vincent Wildlife Trust roost sites have cameras in has that discussion happened in terms of putting cameras in so that people can view them from home on the internet?

Scotty Dodd:

Absolutely. As I said at the moment, we've got various trail cams in there. That's more for monitoring purposes. But we've already been speaking with the National Trust to own nearby Petworth House about the possibility of if we could have CCTV in here, would we be able to live stream but and then people pick it up when they're visiting Petworth house and be aware of the project and get involved? But also yeah, there's the potential to stream it to to websites, VWT's website, that sort of thing.

Steve Roe:

So you realised she needed to secure this rooster and take it off the open market. How did you then kickstart the fundraising Scotty?

Scotty Dodd:

Yeah, it was a tricky process because So we were given a deadline, and yet to actually get started and go public, if you like and get the money coming in. And we were really slow, slow off the mark for for various unforeseen reasons. So it was basically leaving aside no 6, 7, 8 months, I forget how long, but the bat groups really, really rallied round nationally, not not just those in the southeast with an interest in seeing the species spread back. But from far and wide, we had some superb and significant donations, and we really can't thank them enough. We also had a substantial donation from the people's trust for endangered species, so great to see another charity, putting their money quite literally where their mouth is, in supporting an endangered species project that wasn't their own. So yeah, good on them. Thumbs up.

Steve Roe:

So 100 grands needed? How can people listening to the show donate?

Scotty Dodd:

Actually, we need a little bit more than 100 grand. So we managed to raise the 200k to purchase the building by the deadline in February gone. But we did have to take out a little bit of a loan just to make up a shortfall. And then as I say the the estimates in quotes have gone up. So I think, in reality, we're looking at a figure more like 150k to 200k. If we want to do everything, the bells and whistles that we talked about earlier, the hot boxes, the cool boxes, the cameras, you know, we we don't have to do everything if we realistically can't make the money. But I like to think that we can. I like to think that even though times are really really tough with rising food costs and travel costs, there's still a lot of people that love bats love wildlife in general, and have great generosity and we'll get behind this campaign when they finally get to hear about it.

Steve Roe:

Great stuff. And as that donation link on the VWT website

Scotty Dodd:

yeah, there's there's actually a couple of ways you can go about it. The easiest and simple way which is for me is you can just Google Sussex bat appeal and something will come up. But Vincent Wildlife Trust website have got [a] dedicated page it's got the video with Steve Moss that you mentioned earlier, it's got something we try and keep updated, which is a history of of finding the site and what's been going on. So what's new this year, YouTube links to footage from from the routes that we've got this year, so you can get to see the babies yourself. And then of course it's got a link to making donations, or you can just contact the VWT by mail by telephone if you're feeling a bit old school and you can talk to their finance team and you can you can make a donation over the phone backs check will accept anything Sussex back group for our part, one of our members set us up with an excellent just giving page. Again, that's got a little bit of history pictures of the bats. And you can just click on a button and make a donation anonymously if you like or you can leave an encouraging message to try and galvanise others into into parting with a few quid and there's also the option to click the Gift Aid as well which means we get a bit more money.

Steve Roe:

So we'll put all those links into the show notes of this episode. So you guys listen at home can find all those links. Scottish should have asked what's your background in ecology and you know, why are we doing the surveys here and what's your history with Sussex bat group?

Scotty Dodd:

I've been working in the ecological sector for many years. I used to be working on organic farms in Hereford shear, and I'd never even heard of a countryside Ranger. And then I met one thought, that's brilliant. He gets to drive around in a Land Rover knows loads about wildlife and gets to do really cool things like hedgelaying copies management, or cops management, and you know all these other things depending where you were dry stone walling you know it just sounded really exciting. And this is kind of pre internet was certainly pre internet for me anyway, you know, I was just living on a on a farm. We didn't have much technology beyond tractors to be perfectly honest. And so I managed to find out that you could go and do courses in this sort of thing, agricultural colleges, and I was actually from the kind of Surrey area and so the local college was there would have been Merrist Wood. And so I found out a bit more and I could do I think it was a three year course and I was already really into natural history. I went out with the Ledbury Natural History Society which was full of people that were older than me that had diverse interests in you Learn about fungi plant galls got pretty good at Botany and insects and stuff like that no one did bats I note in the group and so I already had a pretty good knowledge and so I went to this Merrist Wood course I did it for three years or whatever and I walked into my first post is a ranger or a warden with the National Trust on a beautiful chalk downland. And that's where I first started to learn a little bit about that because National Trust was a fantastic organisation to to work for you you wanted for nothing kit wise, and equipment, but also they were really good training and personal development. And so they'd run events like getting involved with the Surrey bat group taking oral wardens off to DAPT Yun wharf or somewhere like that, and, and we'd be there with the tunable detectors listening and watching Daubenton's, sopranos, that sort of thing. And, yeah, it was from there that I sort of flirted with bat groups, but I was mainly a ranger, a practical habitat management kind of guy. But then I started to get more and more into invertebrates. And I was referring out the inhabitants of plant corpse of tiny tiny little wasps and all the things that make the goals so say the centipede wasp that makes a marble gall on our on an oak tree, we'll have lots of little child said wasps, little jewel like wasps, that parasitize it and there's parasites on the parasites and so on so forth. And I got quite good at identifying these things. And then started looking at other things like beetles, bugs, flies, and then other invertebrates, spiders, wood lice, and so it's an almost endless foreigner in in the UK, even though we're quite depauperate compared to you know, the tropics or something. And so I ended up transitioning from being a ranger at Surry Wildlife Trust to being their dedicated in vertebrate ecologist once you know once I'd got good enough at it and that's what I do now for a living you know with a smattering of other ecology surveyss as well because you know, I'm a fairly good all around botanist and an interest in in all other wildlife and so yeah, I came to this site just to do what we call kind of a preliminary ecological appraisal just to see if there was any quality to the site before they build on it and yeah, and here we are.

Steve Roe:

Right so we're gonna have a look at these bats then

Scotty Dodd:

I'll get the camera

Steve Roe:

Scotty's just to moving some tarpaulin aside in he's got a Canon camcorder I'm assuming it's not normal camera

Unknown:

it's infrared. And he's got these little infrared torches a good one with a fisheye beam and then just did a direct light. Else we wouldn't see anything

Steve Roe:

so Scotty is currently scanning the, the inside of the roof along the along the beams and rafters and out. Can you see and just like that as a roost of what's out 1-234-567...about 9, 9/10 Greater horseshoe bats at the far end

Unknown:

is getting tricky now. Because in the earliest puppies is getting quite large when you literally doing the headcount. Now to press record, and then I can have a camera on the big screen. And then this typical little thing that they do we call it or Colin Morris called it the Mexican wave where they all simultaneously do a little shiver.

Steve Roe:

And they're not really bothered by I mean, they must know that we're here. But they're not bothered at all, are they?

Unknown:

It's him again. And that's it, we just sort of talk quietly, but in normal voices because whispering is is more likely to produce ultrasonic noises, you know, sharp little hisses. And so they're not bothered. They're not even done a little fly around to check us out.

Steve Roe:

And they're all clustered in between two rafters just in the one gap far into the barn right now the rich. Presumably, that's where it's going to be warmest with all the higher collects in there.

Unknown:

Yeah, so we're in early evening. Now it's cooled down. It's not been as warm as it was yesterday. So they're actually, as you say, closer to the ridge, whereas when it came a little while ago, and it was blazing hot sunshine. They were actually sort of about call it three rungs down, okay, and where it was just that little bit cool. And when it's really quite cold, they go into this roof or hit here. And they go right down the other end of the building. And as you can see, so that's the door height there and a door height, probably what about seven foot, you're talking six to seven foot, you're talking maybe another eight to 10 foot above that. So it's a ladder job. And as I said earlier, you don't really want to be climbing with ladders because although most of the bats might be at that, and you've got this little area over here where you could have one or two bats tucked away, yeah. So we'll leave them to bitmap

Steve Roe:

stuff, we'll wait for it to get dark and do a count. It was great meeting Scott in the summer, and I want to say thanks to him for taking time out of his day to sit down with me to record the interview. As you heard lots of money is needed to stop the building from falling into disrepair and to make improvements which will get the rest every chance of success and growing in the coming years. If you'd like to make a donation, the first link in the show notes will take you to the JustGiving page, which also includes a video of the site and the roof so you can see the building for yourself. There are also other links to be found in the show notes, including the video featuring the naturalist and author Stephen Moss. Now, just before we go, we've had a voicemail left by a listener. Last week I mentioned we want you to get in touch and that's what Wendy did after listening to that last episode.

Wendy:

Hi, Steve. It's Wendy. Just to say my initial fascination with bats began a few years ago when we rented a property in Mottisfont, Hampshire from the National Trust, and we were informed we had a barbastelle maternity roost in the loft. I then quickly went out and purchased my first bat recorder, which was a bat baton and quickly followed by the echo meter touch several 1000 recordings later, I'm still completely hooked, and several books later and listening to your podcasts. We then recently moved to seemed in Wiltshire and this July, and within two weeks of moving in, I was making a cup of tapes, it was 4am. And to my delight, there was probably 20 soprano pipistrelles swarming outside of their roost entrance. I was so so thrilled so excited. I have not really slept much this summer, I've been keeping my eye on them. recording them. I have posted lots of my slow motion recordings on Twitter. And that that has got to be my highlight so far. I'm so thrilled feel so protective. And just love listening to your podcasts.

Steve Roe:

Thanks so much for getting in touch Wendy. I had no idea that Mottisfont was such an important site for barbastelles who knows batch that may well be making a visit there in the not so distant future. Please do get in touch with the show to tell us about your bats. A special bat sighting you had this year or a site you think everyone should visit to go and watch bats. Whether you're new to bats or a seasoned bat lover, we really want to hear from you. So do get in touch. The voicemail link is in the show notes. And don't worry, you can hear your message back and we record it if you don't like it before sending it to us. Messages can be up to 90 seconds long and we can't wait to hear from you. We're back in two weeks time at a Tudor manor house above the river Wye in the Peak District See you then.