Experts are warning that Britain’s gray long-eared bats are facing extinction because of the loss of the UK’s marshlands. What’s more, this may be just one casualty of increasing habitat loss.
Britain’s Bat Conservation Trust, in a new publication called Conserving Grey Long-Eared Bats in our Landscape, has warned that there may be as few as 1,000 gray long-eared bats left in the UK because of the “dramatic decline” of their habitats.
The gray long-eared bats, already considered one of Britain’s rarest of species, are generally to be found hunting for food, usually moths, in lowland meadows and marshlands. Their distribution is primarily confined along the south of the British Isles in places like Sussex, Devon, Somerset, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands.
However, changes to land management and farming practices have meant these habitats are virtually all gone.
In particular, the loss of barns has been a particular cause for concern. While the grey long-eared bat had once lived life as cave dwellers, barns provided a sufficient substitute in which to take up residence and exploit nearby meadows.
Now, agricultural policies have seen many barns torn down to make way for more farming land for crops that are no longer stored onsite, meaning the bats have both fewer roosting and foraging sites, leading to a severe loss of maternal colonies. In fact, the Bat Conservation Trust estimates there are as few as eight confirmed active maternity colonies in England and only several known temporary roosts.
All bat species in the UK are legally protected, according to the Bat Conservation Trust, and this protection spans both domestic and international legislation. However, the Trust warns that much more needs to be done if we are to preserve Britain’s gray long-eared bat colonies.
Researcher Dr. Orly Razgour, responsible for the Trust’s report, has gone so far as to warn the survival of the species is “questionable” while saying that the need for greater conservation efforts is pressing.
“Despite being one of the rarest UK mammals, up until recently there was very little known about the gray long-eared bat and what it needs to survive,” Razgour is quoted as saying. “But the population has been declining and has become fragmented in the past century. It is likely to be in response to the dramatic decline of lowland meadows and marshlands, the bat’s main foraging habitats. The long-term survival of the gray long-eared bat UK population is closely linked to the conservation of these habitats.”
In order to properly assess and control the situation, Dr. Razgour has called for a concerted effort to identify, monitor and actively protect roosting sites. Moreover, she believes the only way to preserve the species will be if the UK also commits to protecting the bat’s habitat, including meadows, marshes and grassland areas.
Furthermore, while climate change may initially provide a more suitable climate for the gray long-eared bats in the UK because it could yield a more amenable climate in the short term, the Trust warns that habitat-suitable conditions across Europe would decrease, meaning that action to prevent further climate change will also be important to the bat’s future.
This isn’t just important for the bat, though. The loss of these habitats has wider implications.
“Studying the gray long-eared bat,” Razgour goes on, “I realized that the plight of this bat demonstrates many of the threats and conservation challenges facing wildlife, from the effects of habitat loss and climate change to the problem of small isolated populations.”
It is estimated that the UK’s meadows have decreased by 97% since the 1930s.
This has led to the loss, in some cases irreversible, of a number of habitat specific species. For example, the green-winged orchid has seen its numbers halved over the last fifty years, while the lesser butterfly orchid has declined by 60% — these just two examples of already specialized flowers that, as a result of habitat loss, face an uncertain future.
In turn, many animal species that rely on these specific habitats have seen their numbers threatened, with the dramatic shift in the UK’s bird populations a prime example of how species, such as the sparrow and starling, once considered quintessential British birds, are now increasingly endangered.
We also know that there will come a tipping point where biodiversity collapses and whole swathes of animal populations will be threatened. The potential loss of the gray long-eared bat, then, is just one in a series of reminders that conservation action is needed now.