On the hunt for bats with the Heath and Hampstead Society

Surveying bats on Hampstead Heath.

Surveying bats on Hampstead Heath. - Credit: Archant

Hannah Al-Othman joined a group of volunteers from Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum as they learned how to carry out bat surveys.

Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum has launched a new project to document bat populations in the area, and I went along with volunteers from the group as they got to grips with bat surveying.

Members will be using specialist equipment to record sightings of bats across Hampstead, which will help to provide evidence for the Open Spaces section of the Forum’s Neighbourhood Plan.

Vicki Harding from the Forum said the data would be used to help protect not just the bats themselves, but also trees and hedgerows that have been in Hampstead for thousands of years.

She said: “Bats have quite a bit of legislation behind them and we’ve got that to support us.

“We want to keep Hampstead nice and leafy, we have veteran trees, and hedgerows, and we want to keep those.

“We can’t underestimate the importance of biodiversity.”

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In order to hone our bat-spotting skills, members of the Forum and I joined ecologist Dr Greg Carson, from Ecology Network, on the Heath for a hands-on tutorial, in which we were taught how to dinguish between different species by their size, habitat, and calls.

Dr Carson, who is in an expert in the field, taught us how to use bat detectors, which can be bought for as little as £60, to identify different species flying overhead.

Dr Carson applauded the Forum’s project, explaining that it was vital to take an interest in conserving bat species in the UK - all of which are protected.

He said: “It’s great to see people in the local area really interested in their natural enviornment, and especially in bats.

“They’re very threatened, and they’re very fragile, they’re just like us, but smaller.”

Dr Carson added that bat conservation was more important than ever in the current political climate.

He said: “With the current government back in and unleashed, we will be going back to the stone age as far as conservation is concerned.

“If we do vote out of Europe we can kiss all wildlife in the countryside goodbye.”

After hearing about the different species native to Britain and the threats posed to bats, we spent an hour learning to use the detectors, which make the animals’ echolocation calls audible to humans.

Dr Carson showed us that by adjusting the tuning frequency of the detectors we could ‘listen’ to different portions of the bat call and then consult the charts he had prepared to distinguish between the calls of a number of bat species.

He told us that different bats emit calls at different frequencies, with long-eared bats, which typically inhabit woodland areas, emitting a much lower frequency call than a horseshoe bat, which hunts in the open.

He also explained the difference between feeding calls and social and mating calls, and taught us to recognise the distinctive ‘feeding buzz’ that can be heard in the moments before a bat feasts on its prey.

Once we were fully equipped with knowledge we set off towards to ponds, armed with a collection of various different detectors.

We set out just before sunset, with the promise from Dr Carson that the warm, clear night, which followed rain earlier in the week, meant conditions would be perfect for bat-spotting.

As darkness fell we optimistically pointed our detectors toward the ponds, and although we could see hundreds of insects flying overheard, the bats kept us waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

The wind picked up, the night grew colder, and we had now been standing in the open for more than two hours – without seeing a single bat.

I began to grew a little despondent, but told Dr Carson I was reluctant to leave until I had seen at least one of his flying friends, and he assured me, neither was he.

And then suddenly, our patience was rewarded.

The bat detectors buzzed and hummed in unison, and we saw bats swooping overheard from all angles, as they glanced the surface of the ponds to snatch their prey.

We tuned the detectors to identify the different bats, we heard the feeding buzz, and they came so close that one swooped right over the top of my head.

These much maligned and misunderstood creatures were really quite magnificent close-to, and it certainly felt like the wait was worth it.

And after spending a night with Hampstead’s bats in their natural habitat, I am more convinced than ever of the need to protect them.