BatChat

Tony Hutson & the greater mouse-eared bat

February 01, 2023 Bat Conservation Trust Season 4 Episode 41
BatChat
Tony Hutson & the greater mouse-eared bat
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

S4E41 Tony Hutson has been shouting about bats since the 1960's and has changed the bat conservation landscape in that time. He was a founding member of the bat groups of Britain, the precursor to the Bat Conservation Trust. His survey work on the lonely greater mouse-eared bat inspired a play and he's been on expedition to a remote cave with astronaut Neil Armstrong. Steve sits down with Tony in this episode to find out more about Tony's work.

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Steve Roe:

Hello, welcome to BatChat from the Bat Conservation Trust, the leading charity in the United Kingdom solely devoted to the conservation of bats and the landscapes on which they rely. This podcast is for anyone who loves bats. We're bringing stories straight to your headphones from the world of bat conservation, and from the people out there doing work that furthers our understanding of these magical creatures. I'm Steve Roe; professionally, I'm an ecologist and in my spare time, I'm a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust. You can join the conversation online using the hashtag #BatChat. This week, we're talking to one of the founders of bat conservation, Tony Hutson. As you'll hear in this episode, which was recorded last summer, we discussed the UK's one and only greater mouse-eared bat, which resides in Sussex during the winter months. As you might have heard on the news or seen on social media in the last few days, an exciting discovery was made by the bat group this winter. And we've got a quick interview from one of the team involved in that discovery at the end of this episode, so stay tuned. But first joined the summer heatwave back in July, I found myself in a little village just north of Brighton, walking down the gravel driveway of a house set back from the road I found the side door wide open and Tony sat at his kitchen table. After a natter over a coffee we relocated to the summerhouse in the garden. And my first question to him was how he got into bats and how bat conservation all started in those early days.

Tony Hutson:

Yeah, I guess I got involved as a kid really was interested in first shown my first bets at about age eight or something. But then I was particularly impressed with visiting some old mines in Kent and seeing bats hibernating and just thinking, well, that's amazing that they're just doing nothing for what seems to like months on end, because at that time we were in and out these places well, 10 times through the winter. And yeah, taking bats home to have a look at them. What's feeding them and taking them back home with us. This was in around 1960. Yeah, so we weren't doing much favours at all really. But yes, it got us interested in. Shortly after that, I got to ask for a job in the Natural History Museum. And asked them if they had any vacancies in birds or mammals, which is really what I was asking for. But they said they could give me a job in entomology. So I took that and won the round to working on ectoparasites. Okay, yeah, that's particularly Yeah. Got me off for quite a few little expeditions around the world. So quite quite a bit of experience of bats in that way.

Steve Roe:

So elbowing it around bat parasites then. And were you at the Natural History Museum long? I know you've just finished a book for them. So are you still involved with them?

Tony Hutson:

Not really so much involved with them now. I mean, I was there for 22 years. I left in 1984. So long time ago.

Steve Roe:

Yeah. And then, in terms of so I have no real real preconception of what that work was like back then, you know, there were no bat groups. The bat conservation just wasn't a thing. The wildlife and countryside acts hadn't been created, you know, what was that work? Like back then? Were there bat detectors? know?

Tony Hutson:

Well, yeah, I guess. Back detectors were introduced in the first ones appeared in around the mid 60s the first portable things like late 60s. pretty quickly, they'd be developed to the point where we could identify any bat flying past but still haven't quite I don't think! There was mist nets were fairly recent introduction by them. So it was relatively few people using this nets. And most of the techniques were just looking at bats inside roosts or inside hibernation, so I was I guess, very little field work as such.

Steve Roe:

And did you have a obviously you were involved in that process of getting bat groups started in the precursor to the Bat Conservation Trust, which was The Bat Group's of Britain was it called? Was that did that come about? Because you'd recognise that bats had declined or was it purely out of a natural history interests, sort of thing?

Tony Hutson:

I think it was. but only two species were included in the wild creatures and wild plants act as it used to be called. But increasing evidence was accumulating. And so bats essentially got all got protected in 1981. By that time, there were quite a few odd bat groups scattered around the country. But then there was a big initiative to try and develop more of them. Yeah, people like me and Henry were running around the country trying to set up bat groups through local trusts or other organisations. And that was going surprisingly well, really.

Steve Roe:

And just how much work and effort was to involved in changing public attitudes and getting bats protected in those early years.

Tony Hutson:

I mean, it was a lot of that. And in fact that was one of the main drives all though it was surprising even then to find how many people who are out there who actually quite liked bats really that it wasn't so difficult to give people a bit of information about bats they didn't understand to make them appreciate that they didn't really need to destroy them or their roosts.

Steve Roe:

So after you were involved in getting that legislation starting to change, and BCT was in its early days, what happened after that? How did momentum keep going?

Tony Hutson:

I suppose that that was before BCT, really. So. It was the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society, which felt there was a need to initiate a of NGO to sort of helped with bat conservation and help implement the legislation. Really. Yeah. And so John Burton, who was the Executive Secretary, approached me and asked me if I felt like taking on that sort of role. But meanwhile, we had organised a meeting to try and just gauge the interest around the country, organised a meeting at London Zoo, which had 250 seats in its auditorium to get people to come along hear, what had been going on with bats, and what might go on in the future. And that meeting was booked out. Overnight, almost. And so we did the meeting on the Saturday, did it again on Sunday, for another lot of people. That was pretty remarkable, and made everybody convinced that there was good justification to get a project going. And so it deveoped from there. We had a small project based with FFPS. To that was working with government bodies and other NGOs and organising this so called Bat Groups of Britain, which was a committee that linked all the national bat groups together. And then funding got a bit tricky. After about six years they way it does. And so there was a secret... FFPS was thinking it would have to abandon the project. So there was a secret little meeting held in the basement of the Natural History Museum. That said no, we're going to set up separate organisation. So that's what happened that year, the Bat Conservation Trust was registered.Hadt its first AGM in 1991, I think, rest is history, I guess.

Steve Roe:

And how many members of staff did it have back then in those early days?

Tony Hutson:

Oh, well, FFPS days it was three I guess. So there was me and then there was somebody brought in really as a London project officer with funding from GLC but a lot of what he did this is Simon Mickleborough. Yeah, a lot of what he did was relevant nationally. So those that name we had a national bet year in 1986 and got somebody in Jan Tate came in to to do that. And we sort of brought in other volunteers and so on to help out. And that went pretty well. Joan stayed with us after that. So it was three there. And then when it came setting up the BCT office in 1991. It was a bit dodgey I mean, we had that three months money for two members of staff. Right at the beginning, we got this anonymous donation of 25,000 quid, which made us feel a little more comfortable. And then managed to start getting other grants in. It's, I suppose it was only about six or seven people in the office in by 2000, I left. Whereas now...I dunno...

Steve Roe:

30/40ish I think. So we still don't know who that anonymous donor was? Do we?

Tony Hutson:

No I mean, usually, you know, bodies know where their anonymous donations come from but no we never found the source of that. Have suspicions but no evidence at all!

Steve Roe:

And what do you think it is now that BCT does best?

Tony Hutson:

What's it do best? Well, I guess the monitoring programme very pleased about that's going seems to be going really well. Yeah. Nice to see things like bats in churches project. I'll do worry about the sort of restriction in the scope of roost visits and things like that. I think that's probably one of my major concerns is the limitations on what qualifies for a free visit, that I feel as it worked originally was one of the most important factors in the conservation of bats, not just for those individuals who were visited, but in that they would then pass on information to other people who would otherwise never have come into contact with nature conservation.

Steve Roe:

Well, am I right in saying you were one of the founding members of the Sussex bat group? Have I got that right. Yeah. Yes. So tell us a bit about the Sussex bat group I'm not from this area at all, I don't know anything about it. So give us a flavour of what have been the milestones in its history and what sort of work it does now compared to when you first set it up.

Tony Hutson:

Oh I dunno about milestones in its history. It currently has about 220/250 members, I think, although not of course, that many of them are active in the field. There's a lot of monitoring of roosts going on particularly hibernation sites and other kinds of occasional surveys and so on. A lot of taking of bats into care for rehabilitation, that kind of thing, which is producing quite interesting results. I mean, Sussex generally as a, well, all the UK species have been recorded in Sussex

Steve Roe:

Show off!

Tony Hutson:

I think we can claim to be the only county that can claim that. There are also for other species have been recorded here.

Steve Roe:

You mean in terms of vagrants?

Tony Hutson:

Vagrants yeah.

Steve Roe:

And you mentioned hibernation surveys. So I guess now's a good time to to elbow in the UK's only greater mouse-eared bat do you want to give us the story about how you discovered it and a bit about its roost site and what we now know about that individual.

Tony Hutson:

I came in a bit late in the original story. So there was a population found in Sussex in 1969. And that was probably between 30 and 40 animals. Something happened in 1974 Because most of the females didn't come back to the... we only knew where they were hibernating, they didn't come back and then the remnant population just drifted away. There was two left in 1981 one left in '85 and none by 1990.

Steve Roe:

And 1991 was when it was officially declared extinct, wasn't it? Which I think was the first mammal to go extinct in Britain since the wolf back in the 18th century. That's the figure that's in all the books.

Tony Hutson:

Yeah. Yeah, that's right. And then I mean, we never And that's a lone individual male bat. Yeah. And what sort of quite knew whether they might be looking around somewhere. But these sites where we'd been finding them, were good sites, roost type has it without giving the location away? really. We were monitoring quite a lot of sites and not finding anything at all. So I'm pretty sure it had disappeared. But then one was found in Bogner in 2001, and it was a old female that had never bred. And it had one wing much longer than the other one. So! Strange animal and then the next year 2002, we found one hibernating again. And that was a young male of that year, and so assumed that was going to be a pioneer of recolonisation. Because species had been declining heavily through the 60s, 70s, in northwest Europe, and was showing a bit of a comeback by them. But nothing ever happened this bat just came back on its own. Ringed it in that first year, and it came back every year, until 2020. And then it was missing. So we assumed it had gone. And then we weren't able to check the following year, for reasons of COVID. But then when they went back this winter, there it was again. So it hasn't quite gone yet. Oh, it's an old disused tunnel, railway tunnel.

Steve Roe:

And was it was it was that a site that you were monitoring regularly before it turned up? Or did you just happen to go in.

Tony Hutson:

the same site as the previous one of the same sites that previously they'd been in two neighbouring sites, and this was in one of those. And that also led to feelings that perhaps it was a relic from the old, that there was a little population that carried on out there somewhere, because I really don't think so. No, no, I think it was just a one off.

Steve Roe:

So is that thought because you've done lots of survey work? And you've got no other evidence there?

Tony Hutson:

Yeah. Yes, there's quite a lot of sites that are regularly monitored in Sussex, neighbouring parts of Hampshire as well. And nothing. There's a number of those that are good sites for mouse-eared bats. So I really think that it's on its own.

Steve Roe:

Which is a shame. What are your thoughts? Is there a way that we could get that species back into Britain?

Tony Hutson:

Oh I don't know we had all sorts of discussions early on about introducing animals. And then there were all the issues of trying to quarantine and all the other issues that made that difficult really. And originally, I thought, when this one turned up that we'd radio tag it and try and find out where it was in the summer, so that we could search around to see if there were others there. And I even have a guy, local guy here with a plane who's, happy to fly up and down Sussex, looking for if we could tag it. But then there are sort of difficulties turned up and didn't do it then. And I just think it's much too late now. Really, it's not going to tell us very much I don't think. So I've my feeling is that probably the species will come back sooner or later on its own.

Steve Roe:

And you think the habitats here are okay for right now.

Tony Hutson:

Yeah, nothing. Yeah. I think there's plenty of reasonable habitat. Certainly plenty of hibernation sites and available nice country houses for it to roost in and that sort of thing.

Steve Roe:

And your, your activity in that tunnel over those years inspired a play in London, which I went to see actually did you go and see it yourself?

Tony Hutson:

Yeah, I thought that was really weird. That. Interesting play. And, yeah, we went and we were able to have off so I've got the script for the play. And we went and had a drink with the writer and director and that sort of thing. And that was quite interesting. They were looking for other places to put it on. Did think about. It was in London. It was in some again, sort of like disused railway tunnels the vaults under Waterloo station.

Steve Roe:

Which worked fine, I thought it worked quite well it was gonna work very well in terms of staging.

Tony Hutson:

So I did inquire as to whether they could put it on in the Brighton sewers, which are sort of the old Victorian sewers are open to the public now and again, didn't get very far with that

Steve Roe:

Shame! So, this afternoon, I'm off to meet some of the members of the Sussex back group another new discovery the first greater horseshoe roost, maternity roost found in Sussex for about 100 years. Can you tell us about some of the work you've done with horseshoes in that time? And how the discovery came about? And did you think horseshoes were in the county before that roost was found?

Tony Hutson:

We knew they were there were odd ones around the county that the first one was about 1975 in these same railway tunnels. And then we'd had odd records through the years from then. But in the last 10 or 15 years, there seem to be increasing frequency and perhaps slightly increasing numbers. And as part of a little job for the National Trust that went through all records and compiled a report. And it was it had been bugging me up 'till then anyway. But I just felt there was something going on here we had records from about six or seven sites, all within close/one area, including, we'd been ringing them in these tunnels and including ring bats in a number of these other sites being reported. So I just felt more and more convinced that there was some little breeding colony tucked away somewhere in Sussex and then had no idea how we were going to find it. And just fortuitously turned up in 2019. And you know, in that time we've had a steadying increase in the number of records in winter, which did further suggest that's something going on. But yeah, generally those species had been pretty widely recorded around the southeast, up until the mid 50s. So don't think they've been a breeding roost known for about 100 years, but it had been recorded. But actually couldn't find anything pre-1975 for Sussex. Except one record supposedly of a greater horseshoe found on the sale of a boat off Brighton about the turn of the turn of the last century. So yeah, interesting species. And you know ours is 100 kilometres from the nearest one in Dorset. So we see it as a potential to we started look shopping around for organisations to take on the responsibility that we felt the bat group couldn't do. And Vincent Wildlife Trust said, yeah, we'll do it. Very good. Yeah.

Steve Roe:

And when the broadcaster Chris Packham came on the show, back in 2019. Now, he said, he said the bat science didn't develop that quickly compared to other mammal species from when he first saw his first bats back in the 60s, for a whole number of reasons. Tony, why do you think it's lagged behind other wildlife? I'm sort of thinking about the amount of stuff that we know for our say bird populations in comparison.

Tony Hutson:

I guess it's just difficulties study really. Yeah. There was precious little information, even the evidence that was put for introducing the Wildlife and Countryside Act that was pretty thin. I got involved in doing stuff towards the habitats agreement. Yeah. That wasn't very robust. But, but I mean, now, I think, yeah. And, in fact, with what with the Habitats Directive and the Eurobats, the sort of agreement on conservation bats in Europe. That was what prompted the government to stick up over money to develop the National Bat Monitoring Programme, which is very pleased to say is still going well, really. And I mean all, all the other gizmo that's out there has really made enormous advances in that research and conservation.

Steve Roe:

What's, what's your view on the state of Bat Conservation at the moment? What do you think is done really well? And in which areas do you think it could be improved?

Tony Hutson:

Oh, dear!

Steve Roe:

Be as controversial as you like!

Tony Hutson:

No! I don't know. I mean, I think it's. Well I left the BCT 20 years ago now. But things have changed a lot over that period, I was there or with the initially with the Fauna and Flora Preservation Society project, where our emphasis then was on things like timber treatment, chemicals, and other kinds of pesticides and other issues that really aren't a major moment these days and so much more concerned about general habitat, damage and development, so on.

Steve Roe:

Do you have a favourite or most notable memory of working with bats in all those years?

Tony Hutson:

Certainly, little incidents abroad, in the tropics of getting myself in a bit of a mess with bats in the field, but here. I've enjoyed working with serotine bats in particular, and been running, some long term ringing project, which is producing useful data. I think that I suppose the mouse-eared, finding the mouse-eared bat's quite extraordinary. And there were, normally there'd be six of us on one of these monitoring counts. On that occasion, there was four. And one of them was actually a visitor from Siberia, who was the only person with a camera there at the time. And who well for him that was perhaps the least interesting of the bats he was seeing that day!

Steve Roe:

You mentioned there getting stuff into into a pickle in the tropics, where were you and what sort of thing were you Yeah? doing?

Tony Hutson:

Oh, I don't know, quite a lot in Africa and Indian Yeah. I don't know what his role was in it. But he Ocean islands and central and south America, really? But yes, nice, nice places, and some nice bats. And some pretty mad... There was one expedition to Ecuador, to look at a cave that according to Von Daniken, who wrote a whole series of books in the 70s, about visitors we'd had from outer space, described this cave that had been built by thermonuclear drawls 4000 years ago, in Ecuador. Somebody thought we'd better have a look at mounted a large expedition with a team of 16 cave biologists, cavers and doctors. And Neil Armstrong came along. was a geographer, geologist and caver. So that was quite interesting.

Steve Roe:

And do you still manage to get out and do much work these days?

Tony Hutson:

No, not doing so much at the moment, I think, sort of got out of the habit a bit in COVID times. Having a few little sort of health issues now. So not getting around much at the moment. But still trying to get out now and again.

Steve Roe:

And what do you think we can do to attract the next generation into getting into that conversation?

Tony Hutson:

I don't quite know what we can do. But um, no, it's very important. Yeah, I mean, that's the way that I got in was through as a kid. Joined the London Natural History Society became a bird ringer at the age of 14 or something, and joined the mammal society when we were 14 I think. And those organisations were quite welcoming. I'm not sure that most of the organisations now are geared towards that kind of looking after and encouraging youngsters, but I suppose we also had a lot more freedom to travel around on our own or in a little group or whatever. So I guess yes, just getting them out. I mean, if you get them out, they get very enthusiastic.

Steve Roe:

And what you think will be the bigger challenges for bat conservation in the future apart from getting the younger generation involved, what do you think are gonna be the challenges of the future?

Tony Hutson:

I suppose things like climate change and standard kinds of things; development, habitat loss must be the major threats. And monitoring those changes in patterns and populations is really, really a key issue. I guess.

Steve Roe:

On the way down here I was listening to the World Wildlife Fund's podcast and their latest episode is all about climate change. So finally, what message would you give to everyone listening to the show now who's involved in bat conversation? What one message would come from Tony Hutson?

Tony Hutson:

Where do you get these questions!? I don't know. Just carry on out there and get do what you can to help bats and in all sorts of various ways that people do get involved with bats and help bats. That's good. That means 1400 species out there to worry about. Yeah, get out there and do it!

Steve Roe:

Great stuff. Tony Hutson, thank you very much.

Tony Hutson:

Thank you!

Steve Roe:

Thank you to Tony for sitting down with me. He's full of anecdotes. And if you're ever lucky enough to meet him do have a chat with him. So as you heard there for the last 20 years or so, one single greater mouse-eared bat has been recorded, hibernating in a disused railway tunnel near the south coast by Sussex Bat Group. Then on the 14th of January this year, a second individual was recorded during the annual survey. Ryan Greaves has been on BatChat before, you can hear him in the Knepp rewilding estate episode. A couple of days ago, I caught up with Ryan over the phone, who was one of the team who saw this second bat. So thank you for coming on the show. It's the second time you've been on the show Ryan. Obviously listeners heard you back on the Knepp rewildling episode. So thanks for coming back on. We've just heard from Tony about the history of the greater mouse-eared bat and Tony said he thinks the species will come back on its own accord, which obviously seems to have happened in this last couple of weeks! When did you guys make the discovery? And how many people got to see this back firsthand?

Ryan Greaves:

So we did the first of all, sort of hibernation checks on the 14th of January, so a few weeks ago. And yeah, so it was a team of five of us. And there's basically a series of tunnels that are connected that aren't used for trains anymore. So there was one team that went to a different site, and we went to this particular site. And yeah, we weren't expecting to see it. They'd never that species had never been found in that tunnel before. So yeah, it was, it was a bit mind blowing, and jaw dropping to see it. So yeah, we were quite excited, but obviously had to contain our excitement not to disturb anything. And yeah, so it's, yeah, really exciting.

Steve Roe:

Now, I didn't realise it was in a different tunnel, I thought it was in the same tunnel that you normally find it and so are you sure that it's the that it is a second individual greater mouse-eared, and not the original one that's just lost its ring, say?

Ryan Greaves:

Yeah, that was our slight fear. So we had to hold our breath and hope that the other team had found I'd found him and they had. So it was we were recording at the same time. And it was clearly hibernating. So yeah, certainly a second bat.

Steve Roe:

That's great stuff. And is the feeling that it's a resident of Sussex or that it's come across from the channel, presumably, the chances of it ending up in the same railway tunnel, if it's a migrant, are pretty slim, but like you say, it's a slightly different tunnel. So

Ryan Greaves:

Yeah. I would think it's probably a resident. But yeah, we're not we're not 100% sure, at the minute as they are a big bat, and they can travel quite long distances to find hibernation sites. So potentially, it has come across the channel, but either way, yeah, fingers crossed. There's more, more to come.

Steve Roe:

And that's great. And in terms of doing more surveys, if you've got more planned coming up later in February?

Ryan Greaves:

Yes. So we've got a check. Again, sort of midway through February and hoping that the bats will be there again. And yeah, we might be able to find out whether it's a male or female, because that would be quite useful to know. But yeah, we're gonna, we're gonna keep our fingers crossed that it stays nice and cold and is still there.

Steve Roe:

So how exciting was it when you first saw it?

Ryan Greaves:

Very exciting. It wasn't me who spotted it. Jess, who's our membership secretary, she, she spotted it and she's said 'Oh, that's a big bat!' It certainly, is a big bat! Yeah. We were sort of looking at some Daubenton's on the wall and she just sort shined her torch up and and as you say, that sort of jaw dropping moment. Wow, that is out there and then yeah, just waiting to see that it wasn't the usual one who had just, you know, scraped off his ring or something. So yeah, it's definitely a second bat. So yeah, very exciting. Very, very exciting.

Steve Roe:

That's brilliant, how excited were the other team when you told them?

Ryan Greaves:

Yes, all very excited and all really keen to tell Tony, that was what everyone was saying can't wait to ring Tony's so yeah, I think he's excited too.

Steve Roe:

Great stuff Ryan t Thanks for that update. To read more head to the shownotes, where you'll find a link to our news article on this exciting discovery. Now, just a reminder, we want you to leave the show a voicemail. Tell us about your local bats a special bat sighting you had last year or a site you think everyone should visit to go and watch bats! Maybe you have a question or you want advice on where to go and see a particular bat species. Whatever your experience with bats 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 re-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. Join us next time when we're on the banks of the River Thames. See you then.

Episode Introduction
Tony Hutson interview
Exciting news about the lonely greater mouse-eared bat