It is a crisp November evening, with the sun starting to slip behind the horizon, when a small group of us meet outside the Harper Adams Library for a walk with a difference.
Abby Chalkly and Genevieve Kiero Watson, final year BSc (Hons) Applied Zoology and Zoology with Entomology students, have invited Dr John Reade, Principal Lecturer and Zoology Course Leader, Connie Morgan, the University’s Digital Engagement Officer, and me to join them on a bat survey.
Our route will take us on a circular loop, out from the buildings of the Harper Adams campus along a country lane, across some fields to woods at Caynton Gorse, and back – with the bulk of the walk across Harper Adams land, and a mixture of different habitats, each of which may affect the kind – and number – of bats we encounter, we’re told.
As we set off into the gloaming, a flock of Fieldfares – the first I have seen this autumn – passes overhead and towards the sunset.
While the clear, cold night means the walk is very much a pleasant way to pass three quarters of an hour - with The Wrekin bathed in purple cloud and Jupiter, Saturn and a host of stars coming out - Gen tells us that the recent turn in the weather might affect our chances of seeing bats.
“During October, the bats are feeding up while there is still more insect activity. As you get into November, and it gets colder, there is less food – and you would expect to see less activity.”
This means that the first few weeks of bat walks completed by Gen and Abby have seen more bats recorded – the recording itself taking place through a bat detector attached to a hand-held smartphone or tablet.
The walks began on October 16, with the early November walks likely to be among the last – as the weather change alters the bats’ behaviour and they hunker down for the winter.
Abby and Gen explain how their records will feed into a piece of field work they are doing as part of one of their final year modules, and combine with their fellow students to help show how bat populations are faring in Shropshire. Groups are heading out across a range of environments across the county - from rural, to semi-rural, to urban - each recording what bat activity they discover.
While designing and evaluating their study, the group discovered that, surprisingly, there were only three sets of bat records available in the area around the Harper Adams campus. As their recording has continued, they have been able to add their own records – with three different species tallied, via both the hi-tech recorders and through some more traditional – and visual – methods.
Abby explains: “We’ve recorded three different species, the Pipistrelle, Soprano Pipistrelle, and the Noctule. With the Noctule, we saw it at close range – it flew in front of our faces, pretty much, and that meant we could just look at each other and say ‘that was definitely a Noctule’ thanks to its size!
“Both pipistrelle species fly between 5 and 10 meters off the ground and are erratic with their movements. Noctules fly high too but in a straight with occasional deep dives - which is what it did when we saw it- and they're less agile as well because they're roughly double the size of the pips.”
By now, we have emerged from the Caynton Gorse woods, and are heading back towards streetlights and homes along Marsh Road and back to campus.
The pair have not caught as much activity tonight as on previous nights, but we have been able to record some activity, and as John explains: “Data is data, and it is all important. What is key here is that they have been able to set up, design and run their own experiments and their own recording work. That is something you don’t get to do at every university – so it’s great that you get to do it here.”