If you go down to the woods today…

Whan you think of forests in Scotland and Northern England then you are most likely to think of the vast, rolling swathes of coniferous forest that cover the hills and upland areas.  But think forests in general, especially those which are best for biodiversity and it is large, semi ancient broadleaved woodlands which spring to mind.   However these forests have been decimated in much of Western Europe, especially in Britain which at the beginning of the 20th Century had only 5% of forest land area remaining.  Afforestation, originally to provide wood for the two world wars, has increased the forest land cover in the UK, but has done so using fast growing exotic monocultures, at the expense of deciduous oak woodlands (Watts et al. 2008)

Plantations mixture of stands, open heathland and water

Plantations are a matrix of different aged stands, open heathland and water

While some plantations replaced semi ancient natural woodlands or resulted from the draining of blanket bogs, the vast majority were planted on poor, degraded agricultural or upland soil.  Plans are now in place to convert plantation areas back to semi ancient native woodland or blanket bog where appropriate but large areas of the UK will continue to be covered in coniferous plantations for years to come, and it is now being accepted that simply preserving areas of land for conservation will not be sufficient to protect sufficient populations of species (e.g. see Zurita et al 2006).  Productive areas of the landscape will have an increasingly important role to play in conservation for years to come, and sympathetic management of productive forests is becoming an increasing focus (Zurita et al 2006).  While there is the common perception that these large, sitka dominated forests are deserts for biodiversity recent studies (Humphrey et al. 2001,  Ferris et al 2000) have revealed a surprising amount of life within these woodlands, and starting my 4 year PhD study, I was very hopeful that the promising results for fungi and invertebrates would also be true for bats.

Bats (as outlined in a previous blog post by Kirsty Park) are subject to substantial protection under EU law, and destroying a roost, known or otherwise is an offence.  In addition, just understanding where they are in plantations and how they are using them is tricky.  While a lot of work has been carried out in plantations in North West America and New Zealand, there has been far less carried out in Europe and most habitat surveys have shown selection against coniferous plantations, most likely because there is a lack of adequate roosting within plantations.  Mortimer (2006) found that Natterers bats are using natural faults in Corsican Pine to roost, and bat boxes in plantations tend to be filled quickly, even when placed near owl boxes so I was hopeful that bats were using plantations to some extent.  Thankfully my summer has not been wasted.  There is a large food supply within the plantations; although I was moth trapping to determine the food availability of light attracted invertebrates, I can confirm that there is plenty in the way of small, irritating midges – a prime food source for pipistrelle bats.  That on its own has to make the pipistrelle species at least worth promoting!  We confirmed 8 species of bats by capture over all across the three forests with every bat species supposedly in the area caught within the plantations, and quite a few breeding females caught  These included Whiskered myotis, Natterers bat, Daubentons bat, both pipistrelle species, the Brown Longeared, Noctules and Leisler’s Noctules.  In addition we saw badgers, foxes, numerous toads, an incredible diversity of moths, deer, slow worms, ospreys, red kites and a magnificent Golden Eagle.  We were also recording bat calls within different stand managements, and hopefully will be able to link bat presence and activity to silvicultural practices.  Despite the poor reputation of Sitka dominated plantations, there is life there, and managing our forests in a sympathetic way should improve biodiversity within these large forests.

Taking morphometrics of the captured bats

Taking morphometrics of the captured bats

Pipistrellus pygmaeus (Soprano Pipistrelle) in the hand

Pipistrellus pygmaeus (Soprano Pipistrelle) in the hand

Nyctalus leisleri (Leislers Noctule) in the hand

Nyctalus leisleri (Leislers Noctule) in the hand

So it is with more than a small sigh of relief (otherwise the next few years could have been slow…) I can say that appears to be abundant life, even in what seem to be the most deficient of places.  And considering nearly all of our large remaining forests are coniferous plantations, it is hopeful for both wildlife and those of us who go in there to find it that current management is taking into account the need to protect and preserve biodiversity.  This also shows the danger of assumption – after all, when I started my PhD there was the fear that there was no point in looking because the bats wouldn’t be there.  Now I have established that bats are in coniferous plantations and using them far more than originally thought, the next challenge is to try to understand how different species are using different areas in order to advise management, and figure out where they are coming from or roosting.

Moth trap in a harvesting aged block

Moth trap in a harvesting aged block

Putting up mist nets with all the midges is no easy task!

Putting up mist nets with all the midges is no easy task!

Plantations can dominate upland landscapes

Plantations can dominate upland landscapes

Catching the light on a day with good weather can make all the difference!

Catching the light on a day with good weather can make all the difference!

To hear more about bats and forests, follow me on Twitter @ForestBat

References:

Ferris, R., Humphrey, J. et al (2000). “Relationships between vegetation, site type and stand structure in coniferous plantations in Britain.” Forest Ecology and Management

Humphrey, J., R. Ferris, et al. (2001). “Biodiversity in planted forests.” Forest Research Annual Report and Accounts 2000–2001.

Mortimer, G. (2006). Foraging, roosting and survival of Natterer’s bats, Myotis nattereri, in a commercial coniferous plantation, University of St Andrews.

Watts, K., C. P. Quine, et al. (2008). “Conserving forest biodiversity: recent approaches in UK forest planning and management.” Patterns and Processes in Forest Landscapes: 373-398

Zurita, GA. et al. (2006). “Conversion of the Atlantic Forest into native and exotic tree plantations: Effects on bird communities from the local and regional perspectives”. Forest Ecology and Management

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