Can citizen science provide a solution for bat-friendly planning?

07 Apr 2022 | No. 2022-15

A new study, published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, has used a novel ‘citizen science’ approach to deliver much-needed information on bat distribution and activity, information that can be used to support planning decisions and effective mitigation measures.

Bats generally respond negatively to urbanisation, so understanding the impacts of planned developments on bat populations is of great importance. A lack of information on the distribution and activity of many UK bat species limits the opportunity to account for these species early in the planning process. 

The traditional survey methods used for bats, such as roost counts, cannot be scaled up to a countryside level, making it difficult to inform planning and mitigation decisions at the landscape scale. An additional approach, documented in this new work, indicates that data collected by citizen scientists could address this issue, delivering landscape scale activity information earlier in the planning process and which better informs decisions on where to target habitat mitigation measures.

Using data collected by volunteers participating in the Norfolk Bat Survey (see notes for editors) the researchers, led by staff at BTO and Natural England, were able to produce maps showing high and low risk areas to bats from urbanisation, additionally identifying other areas that offered the best opportunities for habitat creation and management to benefit commuting and foraging bats.

The value of the urban risk maps delivered through the research is highlighted by its application to existing planned housing development within Norfolk; while two thirds of the planned developments fall within low risk areas for bats, the remainder fall in medium and high risk areas.

Dr Jennifer Border, BTO Senior Research Ecologist and lead author commented ‘Importantly, the work demonstrates the value of a citizen science approach to the collection of acoustic data, such as bat calls, and demonstrates how a volunteers can support planning decisions by contributing to a sound evidence base.

Dr Stuart Newson, BTO Senior Research Ecologist commented ‘Both the risk maps and the opportunity maps have particular value for guiding decision-making at the early stages of the planning process, and should be viewed as complementary to the detailed bat surveys carried out during later stages of the planning process.

Gregor Neeve, Principal Adviser at Natural England commented: “Natural England have worked in partnership with BTO to design a tool to help decision-makers make informed decisions about bats in relation to development proposals. This paper is a great example of Natural England’s commitment to improving evidence and  it provides an opportunity for avoidance and enhancement actions for bats to be designed strategically and considered at the landscape level.”

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Notes for editors

The paper was published in Landscape and Urban Planning, and copy of which can be accessed via the following web link

UK bat populations receive protection under national and European law, and sites at which new developments are planned need to be surveyed for bats and the potential impacts assessed. If planning permission is granted, avoidance of loss or damage to roosts is the first priority and where this is not possible then mitigation/compensation measures must be applied to provide for the loss of roost sites and foraging habitat.

The Norfolk Bat Survey has been collecting information on bats within the county since 2013, using a network of passive acoustic detectors deployed across 6,145 sampling locations by volunteers. The resulting sound files are then analysed using an acoustic classifier, which compares these recordings against an extensive library of known species recordings, to assign a species identification and associated confidence score. The species identification of a random sample of the recordings is also assessed manually which provides an additional independent assessment of error in species identification, which is used with the confidence score to allow a more robust identification certainty value to be assigned to each recording in the whole dataset. 

BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Belfast (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations.

BTO has been developing the use of acoustic monitoring approaches, delivering both survey designs and analysis tools to support a range of uses and end users. These include the BTO Acoustic Pipeline, a cloud-based tool that processes and analyses the acoustic calls of bats and a number of other species.

Natural England is the government’s advisor on the natural environment. Established in 2006, our work is focused on enhancing England’s wildlife and landscapes and maximising the benefits they bring to the public.

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