12 December 2007

Hanging on in Forest Hill

It’s Halloween and Mayow Park is pitch black, save for the ghoulish faces of the pumpkins flickering in the cold night air. The children have morphed into witches, devils and worse. And there’s an overwhelming smell of sticky sweets, which they tricked or treated earlier in the evening. We’re all set for a Bat Walk!

It was late in the year for bat hunting. As the insects they eat disappear, the bats start thinking about hibernating. But they made a special effort for Halloween. We didn’t actually see any but we did pick up a couple on our bat detectors – electronic devices, which convert the bats’ ultrasonic, echolocation calls into audible clicks. These were pipistrelles – small, fluttery bats, which are the ones we’re most likely to encounter in our parks and gardens. They may even roost around our houses in summer without us knowing they’re there. They weigh less than a pound coin but they eat up to three thousand insects a night.

Our guide for the night was Colin Higgins, the new warden of Sydenham Hill Wood who works for the London Wildlife Trust. He says we’ve got at least six bat species in Forest Hill out of seventeen species nationally, which is pretty good seeing as they are in decline due to loss of habitat and the overuse of pesticides which kill off the insects they eat.

At Sydenham Hill Wood we’re lucky enough to have brown long-eared bats - one of the more attractive UK species. They normally prefer rural locations, such as farms, but the wood has a good supply of insects and plenty of places to roost.

There is a Woodland Bat Roost Project, funded by the SITA Trust, with extra help and money from Southwark and Lewisham Councils, which seeks to improve the wood as a habitat for bats. This involves surveying the woods with bat detectors and putting up bat boxes to provide extra roosting spaces. There are also plans to carry out building works on the disused railway tunnel to improve it as a bat hibernation site.

The best way to see and hear bats is to go on a bat walk. These are public events held in many parks and public places generally between May and September, when bats are most visible.

And if you’d like to do your bit for bats, you can contact the Bat Conservation Trust at www.bats.org.uk or 0845-1300-228

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