Staff blog: People often underestimate plantations...

Em Mackie, our new Glenlude conservation officer, reports on 24 hours finding 388 species for Chris Packham's UK Bioblitz

Kevinlelland glelude bioblitz   chrispackham and andrew bachell web detail

"My brain has gone mushy," said my boss Karen, the weekend before the big day. "It feels as though it’s actually been Bioblitzed."

So much hard work, thought and careful planning went into the organising of this event: the list making, the timetabling, risk assessments, contacting surveyors and volunteers... For me, I’m almost ashamed to say, the Bioblitz felt strangely indulgent - a chance to revel in the delights of my new position here at Glenlude, to really explore its nooks and crannies and to absorb as much expert knowledge from the volunteers and surveyors possible.

Night-time Bioblitzing

"People often underestimate plantations." Richard is a consultant for the Forestry Commission, a lover of lichens and bryophytes and our bat surveyor for the first evening of the Bioblitz. "It’s a shame they’re so readily dismissed. All sorts of interesting things can be found in a Sitka spruce plantation."

"Like what?" I asked him.

"Flies," he said without a hint of irony. "I’m sure if you found an entomologist they’d be able to identify all sorts of species here. And flies are good for bird life." He smiled widely at me after this. "Oh, the Forestry Commission would love it if I managed to publicly extol the virtues of a conifer plantation."

"You might want to swap your Commission cap for your conservation cap, Richard."

"Ah yes."

Richard is also my neighbour and friend, so I know he is a keen conservationist and supportive of what we’re setting out to achieve at Glenlude. He warned us as we set off that it may not be a particularly fruitful night for bats (no pun intended) given we’d just had the first rain in weeks. "This evening is a bit of a damp squib," he said, adjusting the wee knobs on his bat detecting device and squinting up into the gloaming. "But there should be some activity, I’m sure."

We made our way down through the orchard, almost stepping on a tiny frog followed by a large toad (I took photographs with the intention of ID’ing them with full latin titles at a more sensible hour).

"I imagine we’ll certainly see some common pips," he told us, "and maybe some Daubentons over the pond."

He pointed his bat detector towards the heights of a copse of trees. Not a sound. We stood and watched the darkening sky and the new shadows forming, swatting the midgies from our faces. We waited for… what felt like… a long time. But before any of our small bat spotting cohort could begin to feel deflated, there was a high pitched otherworldly flurrying sound from the bat detector and a shadow darted across the sky. 

"There it is." Richard followed the flight path of the bat as it twisted and turned above us again. He adjusted the frequency on the bat detector to find the peak range. "That’s a pipistrelle," he told us. "You can tell by the peak listening frequency on the detector and the way it sounds almost like a marble dropping on a table."

He talked to us about echolocation, the way in which bats navigate and hunt insects at night, a sound inaudible to the human ear unless you have a bat detecting device. He described the best habitats and thoroughfares to go batting and demonstrated the different sounds the most common UK bats make. He had a nifty bat-app on his phone with audio clips to compare the echolocation of our swooping bats to.

Before long we all tried our hand with the bat detector, tracking flight paths and counting each pass. I enjoyed the experience so much I started wondering how much a bat detector costs and rehearsing the pitch I would give to my partner on investing in yet another hobby: "...but this one is work related!"

We returned via the road in the deepening darkness, where now many a pip was dipping low over our heads. For an excited moment we thought we might have the larger noctule, the UK’s biggest bat, making passes above us. Certainly the wingspan looked bigger!

But Richard brought out his bat-app and played what we should be hearing on the detector if it were a noctule, a very slow chik-chop-chik-chop, and at a much lower frequency. "No, I’m afraid that’s another common Pip." He sounded disappointed, as though it was in some way his fault that other bats weren’t performing for us during the Bioblitz.

It was pitch black and a decision was made to return to the hut and call it a day, but like an excited child I didn’t want the evening to end. To my delight Richard saw the neon glow of a moth trap beckoning to us. We picked our way over heath to see what other flying things are being called to the illuminations and discovered, in fact, that this was a relatively busy outpost for bats. A prime impromptu insect hunting spot! We tuned into the last hopeful pips of the evening, flirting with the possibility of a soprano pipistrelle, before making our way hut-wards, tired but full of a bat-filled joy and the beginnings of the Bioblitz.

Daytime Bioblitzing

The next day for me was damselflies and dragonflies, pond dipping and taking photographs of every bug and beastie that I could see.

The hut was a hive of activity, our volunteers returned with samples that they’ve foraged, scat that they’ve bagged, dead insects in jars and detailed lists of all the flora and fauna they’ve successfully identified. We were pouring over books and field guides and sharing discoveries with our fellow Bioblitzers.

I was still like a child, painfully aware of how little I know and staring at all these amazing people who seem to know so much. I wanted to be like Andrea, deftly catching damselflies in her net. I wanted to be like Verity squealing with the excitement of spotting an interesting lichen on a rock. I wanted to be able to pluck birdsongs from the air and say with confidence: "that’s a family of jays" or "can you hear the drum of the snipe?" I couldn’t. As yet. But everyday I’m learning.

I reminded myself that I did not bring to the Bioblitz a wealth of useful knowledge, but I did bring cake. By the time Chris Packham and his team arrived in the evening, the cakes were but crumbs on their plates.

All remaining Bioblitzers walked with Chris and the crew to Phoenix Forest to watch the filming of the last hour of what had been a truly spectacular and fun event.

"I see that there are no young people here," Chris Packham later said to us. "That’s by no means a judgement or criticism." He went on to explain the importance of engaging the younger generation in conservation, how it is our responsibility, as adults, to inspire in them a love and respect for nature and the environment.

I found myself smiling. As a career-changer in my 30s I know that we can be inspired to make a difference and reengage with nature at any stage in life. I wanted to say to him: "Chris, but you do know, don’t you, that we don’t ever really grow up, right?" But I remained silent, shy, hiding at the back of our small crowd, because Chris Packham is a TV star and I am a child… at heart… tired after a long, exciting, exhausting day and it was well past my bedtime.

The bats, however, were just waking up.

Glenlude bioblitzers 2 - July 2018

Photos by Kevin Lelland: (top) Chris Packham talks to Trust CEO Andrew Bachell by the plantation and (above) Trust staff (l-r Isaac, Em, Izzy, Liz and Karen) with volunteers during the bioblitz at Glenlude