BCT Artificial Light and Wildlife Symposium 2014

The Artificial Lighting and Wildlife conference was held in London on the 20th and 21st of March 2014. It’s scope included effects on a range of wildlife but, being sponsored by BCT, bats were a key focus. Full details of the symposium can be found here. This is a short piece I wrote up for the local bat group but I’ve added in the references and a couple of illustrative photographs below!

Artificial lighting is ubiquitous and almost universally accepted – we have street lights for crime prevention and traffic safety; architectural lighting of statues and churches; lighting of industrial sites to allow work to continue 24/7; and light spill from inside houses. Three scary facts which illustrate this are:

#1 Artificial lighting increases globally at a rate of 6% per year;
#2 There are 7.4m street lights in the UK and;
#3 20% of UK energy expenditure goes on lighting.

Variations on this photograph - a satellite image of the earth at night showing the extent of artificial lighting - was the most widely used photograph throughout various talks and rightly so - it serves to show just what an impact we have on the natural environment.
Variations on this photograph – a satellite image of the earth at night showing the extent of artificial lighting – were the most widely used photograph throughout various talks and rightly so – it serves to show just what an impact we have on the natural environment. Photo copyright: NASA

Most bat workers will know of research, such as Emma Stone‘s work in Bristol, which shows that slower flying species such as horseshoe, long-eared and myotis bats tend to avoid light and that lighting their commuting routes can cause severance. Much of the interesting new research at the symposium came from Holland; Herman Limpens looked at whether there are more ‘bat friendly’ lighting spectra and found that amber light caused much less avoidance than white or green light on bats commuting along a dark canal corridor. This was also borne out in analysis of Irish monitoring surveys which found much lower levels of Daubenton’s activity at lit waterway locations. Fiona Matthews from Exeter University put paired static detectors in light and dark locations in a 2km radius around greater horseshoe roosts and found much higher activity levels were recorded in the dark.

Bats can be disturbed when roost entrances are lit: the Life at Night project changed the lighting regimes of churches in Slovenia and achieved significant improvements in both emergence time – horseshoe bats left earlier – and consistency – bats left over a much shorter time period. Kamiel Spoelstra from the Netherlands Institute of Ecology found pipistrelle occupancy rates of boxes to be significantly reduced under white and red light treatments compared with dark.

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The ubiquitous Illuminated Church – the subject of the Life at Night talk (photograph from the Life at Night Project Website http://www.lifeatnight.si/en/)

But the picture is not that simple; some species such as pipistrelles and Leisler’s are actually attracted to streetlight. Their speed makes them less susceptible to predators and anybody who has undertaken moth trapping will know that moths gather at light sources, especially attracted to shorter wavelength and UV light. A fascinating talk by Andrew Wakefield from the University of Bristol added a further dimension to this – he found that the avoidance behaviour usually exhibited by moths in response to a bat echolocation call – a change of course or a power-dive where they drop to the ground – is reduced by 60% under lit conditions making them a much easier prey for bats.

The impact of lighting upon invertebrates was widely discussed; for example it was found that larger moths with larger eyes are most attracted to shorter wavelength light and they are drawn in at 6x levels compared with longer wavelength light. This attraction is well known but the implications are rarely considered; Matt Shardlow of Buglife estimated that a third of interactions between moths and light sources would prove fatal to the insects through exhaustion, collision, heat or predation.

The influence which lighting can have upon the relationships between species was a trend which came out in a number of the talks – the impact then can be considered positive or negative, depending upon your perspective. Parasitoid rates on moth eggs were much higher under lit conditions as the diurnal parasitoid gains the advantage. Redshank increase their foraging in lit areas, favouring the redshank (perhaps?). Similarly, a Leisler’s bat can forage more efficiently, but to the detriment of the moths which are preyed upon. Lighting at night disturbs and disrupts the natural rhythms, dynamics and ecological signals.

A peacock butterfly seeking out a dark place to hibernate.
A peacock butterfly seeking out a dark place to hibernate.

One of the last talks of the symposium was from Kate Harrington who found evidence for in-combination effects of artificial light and artificial noise on bats – as the two are so often associated such as from traffic along well-lit roads, the potential for this to modify the natural environment more severely is significant.

Several talks discussed the importance of good design in lighting schemes for new developments – light only where it is required, light as low as required and design cut-offs and cowls to avoid unwanted light-spill onto surrounding habitats. The project along the Thames at Richmond is an excellent example of this – this video shows how the lights respond to pedestrians so that they feel they are walking in a pool of lights whilst all around remains dark. The importance of maintaining dark corridors was also an important part of the London 2012 park design.

The copper beech outside the Guildhall on the High Street in Grantham showing the extent to which lighting is a normal and accepted component of our villages, towns and cities.
The copper beech outside the Guildhall on the High Street in Grantham showing the extent to which lighting is a normal and accepted component of our villages, towns and cities.

But new designs are only going to reduce future problems – as I walked back from Grantham station after the conference I was shocked to see the level of light-spill onto hedges, trees, the River Witham and other suitable foraging and commuting habitat. I had never appreciated how much of an effect our lighting of the environment would have upon the species we share it with. BCT will be putting up the videos of the talks and presentations in due course so keep an eye out for the news of their arrival!

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