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PeopleNick Tomlinson

Nick Tomlinson

Like a lot of people in my line of work I grew up obsessed with the natural world. My childhood was spent on a farm in the Lake District with wonders like toads in the garden and crayfish in the stream, and I spent hours and hours just pootling in the garden, seeing what I could find, and revelling in it. I found school a bit of a distraction from what I really wanted to be doing, so didn’t achieve much academically at that time.
I joined the Navy at 16, a life which took me away from my childhood interest, but even then, out at sea, there were the birds to watch, so that fascination’s never completely gone away. I had started work in a hotel kitchen and thought I was going to be a chef, but a lot of my mates joined the forces at that age and I did the same. I was in the Navy for over 10 years, and loved the life, seeing many different parts of the world. But looking back I think of that time as having been a bit asleep, and when I left my fascination with nature reawakened.
I went back to college and got an OND, then went to University and got a degree in physics. Studying for a scientific degree, although in a subject not directly connected to what turned out to be my working life, fulfilled something which has always been a big part of my nature—a need to find out how things work, and why.
I worked for a while in industry and in the public sector, then in 1999 I got my first job in conservation, which was comparatively late in life. All through my OND and degree courses I had been volunteering on a local nature reserve, and at one point I thought I might pack up the degree and go to work there full time, but after discussing it with my wife thought better of it and finished the course. So it took me a long time to get my toe through the door.
My first job in conservation was for the RSPB at Radipole Lake in Weymouth, working in the visitor centre. My previous job had been in IT, so I took a big pay cut, but the quality of life went through the roof. It’s an amazing place, teeming with all sorts of wildlife, even though it is situated in the middle of a town, and I think that was where my interest in bats took hold. My wife and I joined a course run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust to train as volunteer roost visitors, which enabled me to advise people what to do with bat roosts in their houses, and I was immediately hooked. I soon realised that Radipole was absolutely heaving with bats. Later we found that there were Nathusius’ Pipistrelles (a migrant species from Scandinavia and Russia) and Brandt’s bats, both comparatively rare species, to be found there. Then I went to work for the Bat Conservation Trust, who are the leading non-governmental body for bat conservation in the UK. Coming back to Weymouth a year later I was site manager for the RSPB’s Weymouth and Lodmoor nature reserves for 7 years. And after a spell working for both Dorset and Somerset Wildlife Trusts, I went self-employed 6 years ago.
In the early days most of my work was about advising homeowners who wanted to convert a loft or build an extension, who needed to get a bat survey done to help with planning. I would guide them through the process so that they got the development they wanted but the bats were also safeguarded. I also run a number of research projects, some of which are voluntary, such as radio tracking the rare Bechstein’s bats here at Clive Farrell’s Ryewater Nursery. I am slowly doing more and more research projects, and I find the work fascinating. One of the things I love about these creatures is the challenge of studying them. They fly at night for a start, which brings its own challenges, and they use echolocation to navigate, so you need to understand how that works, which is something we only discovered in the middle of the last century. If you compare our knowledge of bats to what we know about birds, there is still so much to learn. For instance radio tracking Greater Horseshoe bats recently was hugely satisfying because we found all sorts of information we didn’t know before. One big unknown is we don’t actually know where over 90% of our bats spend the winter. I’m now applying the results of my research to working with organisations like the National Trust, Natural England, and the Wildlife Trusts and that’s where I’d like to see the future of my work going, encouraging everyone to do the best for bats.
In the UK there are 17 or 18 species of bat, of which 9 are on the UK Mammal Society’s red list, which puts them in the same category as so many species these days, at risk of extinction. Sometimes we simply don’t know enough about that species’ population numbers or its habitat use. But bats use many sites to roost, which include buildings which often get converted or developed, so they lose places to breed—and bats are very particular about their breeding sites. Their food source, insects, has also declined massively over the last 30 or 40 years. Light pollution is another big one; as a sweeping statement, bats don’t like light at night, so street lighting and illuminated buildings are a problem. Sometimes they have a fantastic place to live, and a great source of food, but they can’t get from one to the other because features in the landscape which they move through, like hedges, have gone, or there’s too much illumination. We think some species’ numbers are improving due to legislation and conservation measures, but there’s still a lot to do.
Planning for development now has to take account of biodiversity gain, so places for wildlife species to live have to be designed in to new schemes. But the simplest thing anyone can do is to allow places to be a bit more untidy. Leave a few patches of nettles and brambles in your garden and stop being so neat. Wildlife can thrive in urban settings if all the right conditions are there; Radipole is a good example, because although it’s surrounded by housing and street lighting, there’s a fantastic dark corridor formed by the river Wey along which bats can travel.
In fact, Dorset is one of the best counties for bats in the UK and, like many other counties, it has its own voluntary group, the Dorset Bat Group. We undertake a range of surveys and activities that give people the chance to get up close and personal with some of the country’s rarest animals and the great news is you do not need any experience or knowledge, we welcome anyone and everyone.
We also run a series of research projects, aimed at trying to understand our bats a little better and safeguard them for the future, part of which also includes running training courses for people who would like to learn a bit more and perhaps work towards running their own projects.
Each winter, for the last three years, we have had a series of on-line evening talks, exploring the world of bats, both in the UK and around the world (we’ve got a talk on vampires this year!). Hopefully, by next year, we’ll get back to holding these events in person. As with many things, the last couple of years have been a bit of a challenge, thanks to Covid, and we have not done as much as we might have wished, but we are re-starting things, slowly and, by next year, we hope to restart our regular programme of events, including talks and walks for the public, which act as kind of taster sessions to see if these amazing creatures fascinate you as much as they do us!

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