Devon woodlands contribute to ground-breaking AI study to help protect bats

Laura White
Laura White

The hidden habits of England’s rare woodland bats are being revealed in ways never seen before thanks to ground-breaking new technology piloted by Forestry England and the Bat Conservation Trust.

This pilot succeeded in recording and identifying nearly two million bat calls in summer 2019 in West Country woodlands including Lydford, near Tavistock, and Elfordleigh, near Plympton. The study is a huge step forward in understanding the behaviour of important protected species and the health of woodlands and biodiversity more generally.

The study in numbers:

  • 400 surveys
  • 60 monitoring locations
  • 16 forests
  • 7 million potential bat calls

The pilot is the first of its kind in the UK and emerged when Forestry England and the Bat Conservation Trust decided to collaborate. They wanted to test whether a low-cost static acoustic sensor, together with cutting-edge artificial intelligence-assisted sound identification tools, could help discover more about the bats living in the nation’s forests and contribute to conservation efforts.

Before these innovations in technology, large scale surveys in woodland of these elusive mammals had not been viable because bat detecting equipment was costly and to get this amount of data would have taken too many people too much time.

The AudioMoth has been a game-changer, with its advanced capabilities and low cost, meaning large numbers of sensors can be left in the field to record bat echolocation all night. Data crunching and analysis was carried out over the winter using AI tools developed by researchers at University College London, and successfully identified 1.7 million bat calls to eight species and two specie groups.

The species detected in Lydford and Elfordleigh include common pipistrelle, soprano pipistrelle, common noctule and barbastelle.

Andrew Stringer Head of Environment at Forestry England said: “This pilot has been extraordinary. It gave us more data than we’ve ever had to work with before and it is fantastic to see new technology being used for robust conservation science. Monitoring and evidence are the bedrock of conservation efforts, and it is tremendously exciting to look to the future and how these methods might give us crucial insight into how bat populations are performing in the long-term.”

Carol Williams Director of Conservation of Bat Conservation Trust said: “In only one year the Forestry England Bat Survey identified just under two million individual bat calls across sixteen woodlands.

‘This exceptional amount of data represents the largest dataset of bat records ever collected by the Bat Conservation Trust. With that wealth of data comes the potential for this approach to produce trends for some of our woodland bats for the first time.

‘As some of our rarest bats, gaining this information will be a vital step in understanding their status and securing their future. It will also be possible to use the wider bat data as an indicator of the condition of woodland. We are delighted by what our collaboration has produced at this early stage.”

Bats are an indicator species, meaning that they help us understand more about the wildlife we often don’t see, such as the insects they feed on. When we understand their habits better it helps us understand how biodiversity and nature is faring more widely and provides an indicator of woodland health.

The success of this pilot project provides ample opportunities for bodies such as Forestry England and Bat Conservation Trust to monitor, over time, the change in status and condition of woodland environments where bats thrive.

Local Life