Bowdown bats & the West Berks Living Landscape

by James Shipman (all photos ©James Shipman)

The West Berkshire Living Landscape scheme covers ten and a half square miles to the east of Newbury, bordered to the north by the Kennet valley and to the south by the river Enborne. Between them lie areas of woodland and lowland heathland, one of the most threatened habitats in England. A quarter of the project area is designated as important for wildlife, locally, nationally or internationally, despite habitat fragmentation.

The project originally ran from 2008 to 2019, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and managed by BBOWT and the West Berkshire District Council, working with a range of local landowners. Areas of heathland have been expanded and enhanced and connectivity between fragmented habitats improved.

In 2010 the Berks & South Bucks bat group was approached with the idea to discover more about the bats present within the Living Landscape area. The bat group invested in a selection of bat boxes for the project which was mainly focused to the north of the old Greenham airstrip in Bowdown Woods (purple on the map). 35 bat boxes were erected on what was the most miserable day weatherwise in Bowdown’s bat history. Since then, a further 15 boxes were installed along with inheriting the mitigation bat boxes installed to the south of the airstrip on the Greenham Business Park (brown on the map).

map of Living Landscape area

Across these three sites we have now established the presence of 11 species. In the hand Barbastelle, Brown long-eared, Noctule, Common pipistrelle, Soprano pipistrelle, Nathusius’ pipistrelle, Natterer’s, Daubenton’s, Whiskered and Brandt’s bats have been found with the Serotine being recorded on sound analysis. Since 2012 approximately 150 soprano pipistrelles have been ringed and recorded.

Bowdown Woods are split into three sections: Bowdown on the west, the ‘Bomb site’ in the centre and Baynes in the southeast. The first boxes were erected in the Bowdown area with the additional boxes being installed in the Baynes area. Below you can further see how the boxes are distributed. The flag markers indicate the car parks we use to access the bat boxes. Interestingly, there has never been any recapture of bats ringed in the Baynes population or Bowdown population in the other area.

Bowdown maps

More recently, trapping has allowed us to ring and catch bats in both areas as well as the middle section to enable us to determine where they forage from and to. We are still yet to find bats caught by trapping in any of the boxes. Intensive ‘bubbled’ research continued through 2020-2021 under strict protocols.

An exciting update was that in 2019 a ringed female soprano pipistrelle was found in the southeast of the Baynes woodland under a roof tile, discovered as part of mitigation works. This bat was just 15m from the bat box it was in when it was ringed!

Long term plans are to work towards publishing papers based on a few principles:

  1. The installation of bat boxes in the central section (Bomb site) to find out if and how the Baynes and Bowdown bats interact
  2. The potential monogamy of bats based on the DNA of populations and recorded male/females mating in the same box each year
  3. Colouration changes in pipistrelles based on season and weather
  4. Particularly across the whole project, monitoring the behaviour of noctule bats through the winter where I feel they are actively mating rather than in torpor
  5. The movement of barbastelle across the project sites

Points 4 and 5 are based on the capture of these two species around all the project area and updated licence to ring these two species.

The 2022 dates for box checking and, potentially, netting under Covid protocols are as follows (all are Saturdays):

  • 14 May 2022
  • 21 May 2022
  • 28 May 2022
  • 13 August 2022
  • 20 August 2022
  • 3 September 2022
  • 10 September 2022

If you are interested in learning more or would like to get involved with the Bowdown Project, please contact James Shipman on the bat group members email list or via Facebook.