UK Bats: Why we should learn to live alongside them.

Over the past seventy years England’s countryside has undergone an extreme transformation; species that were once common such as hedgehogs,  sparrows, skylarks, and water vole are now under serious threat.  There are, however, some species facing similar threats that we tend to forget – enter bats!

Bats are suffering globally at the hands of humans, primarily through development; be it directly via the loss of roosting sites or indirectly via the loss of prey.  Conserving bats is more than just a responsibility, they fulfil vital roles within ecosystems e.g. fruit bats are important seed dispersers and are considered keystone species.

As a result of increasing deforestation more than 25% of all bat species are threatened and, unfortunately, owing to a lack of political will and funding, conservation efforts are faced with perpetual road blocks.  The species at greatest risk tend to be island endemics, such as those found in Madagascar and the Comoros Islands.  This further increases the impact to local communities who depend on the land for food, medicine, and jobs.

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The stigma

Unfortunately, many people have rather negative attitudes towards bats, so much so that a couple of years ago they were voted the third least favourite mammal in the UK.  After starting my own little love affair with this species last summer quite a few of my friends expressed their surprise, confusion, and even distaste towards my choice of dissertation subject – more often than not they will avoid the Livingstone’s enclosure when visiting Durrell wildlife park (a weekend trip to Jersey and its most popular tourist attraction is an annual occurrence for many Guerns!).

Having observed them up-close and learnt of their value and charm I find it a little heart breaking to hear such negative comments about them – below is a list of the most common reasons people seem to dislike bats.

  • First and foremost – fear – bats are mysterious and unpredictable (as are many wild animals, however, they don’t benefit from the same large fluffy stereotype that pandas and tigers do).
  • People are afraid of them ‘flapping around their heads’.
  • They dislike the way they look – bats are associated with rodents and vampires.  The only thing I can say to this is, look up some images of bat pups, their faces are incredibly innocent looking, not to mention gorgeous!  What’s more, most species are actually covered in fur (fruit bat pups look just like tiny fox pups).
  • Many bats are nocturnal (a lot of people I have spoken to don’t even realise diurnal bats exist), and the simple association with night-time and their dark colouration is unnerving for many people.
  • People believe bats are vermin – a common misconception is that they carry rabies and other diseases.  In fact, rabies is extremely rare in UK bat species and bats are relatively clean animals, much cleaner than other ‘pests’ found in urban areas.

All this being said, I spoke to a number of visitors at Durrell last year when I was undertaking my research who told me that their attitudes towards bats had completely changed after visiting the fruit bat enclosure.  Those who took the time to actually stop and watch quietly were able to appreciate not only their beauty but their incredible design.

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UK Bats

In the UK we have 18 species of bat, 17 of which are known to be breeding here.  The most common, and smallest, is the common pipistrelle weighing as little as 4g.  It is this species you are most likely to find roosting in your barn, garage, or even house! 

Unfortunately, they have experienced a dramatic decline over the past 40 or so years as roosting sites are removed for building development.  They have been protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act since its inception and were granted further protection in 1994 from the international Agreement on the Conservation of Bats.

Bats roost in various places including trees, caves, tree hollows, houses, and barns; they will squeeze themselves into gaps behind beams, tiles, and loose brick.  They have been forced to adapt to urban landscapes so they can often be found living in houses (most likely the roof, basement, or garage).

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A small selection of UK bat species

Common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrelles)

The smallest of all UK species, the common pipistrelle is brown in colour, sometimes reddish-brown.  It is a flexible species in terms of habitat occurring in urban areas and throughout most other habitats.  Pipistrelles can be found in rock crevices, trees, and, in winter in particular, buildings.  They are also generalist feeders, this coupled with their flexibility in habitat choice means it’s hardly surprising they are the most common species in the UK.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-17-12-05

Alcathoe whiskered bat (Myotis alcathoe)

Discovered in the UK in 2010, this species is considered endangered due to its specialisation for old forest habitats (which have declined due to development).  They are insectivorous and are believed to catch their prey mid-flight.  Evidence suggests that they roost in tree cracks and are rarely found in areas affected by forestry – this implies that they may be unwilling to frequent buildings inhabited by humans – sightings and information for this species are lacking.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-16-28-10

Barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus)

The barbastelle’s habitat is generally limited to a wide range of forests but they have also been found in gardens and near hedges.  When possible they form large social groups; teams of up to 100 females have been known to build roosts.  These bats are very agile hunters and undertake rapid dives to catch their prey.  Sightings in the UK are rare, therefore, it is difficult to survey populations.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-16-54-59

Bechstein’s bat (Myotis bechsteinii)

The Bechstein’s bat is known for its relatively large ears and broad wings.  They typically favour oak trees as roosting sites in which they are found in trunk holes and crevices – they are rarely found roosting in houses.  Their large ears allow them to detect prey movement which they do so whilst flying slowly and hovering relatively low in the canopy, and even close to the ground.  Males are generally solitary animals, however, the females will roost and forage with closely related individuals.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-16-56-02

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They are not vermin though – leave them be and they’ll keep themselves to themselves:

  • They are at extremely low risk of carrying rabies.
  • They produce just one or two offspring a year, therefore, they will not rapidly grow in numbers.
  • They produce dry crumbly faeces that disintegrate rapidly.
  • They don’t make nests out of bedding, so will not accumulate ‘litter’.
  • They don’t chew or gnaw fixtures and fittings.
  • They are great for pest control as they feed on insects including mosquitos, flies, and moths (which sounds great to me as I cannot help but fear moths!).
  • And finally, they are relatively clean animals; they are good bio-indicators of air quality and ecological health (just like nits – they may annoy you, but they only chose you because you’re clean!).

You can detect bats via their droppings (similar to rodent droppings but very dry) and their chattering sound at dusk (and dawn in the summer).

If you discover bats living in your home contact the bat helpline (link below) for further information 🙂

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Images

Unless otherwise stated all images were taken from the UK Bat Conservation Trust website.

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Further reading

National Bat Helpline

Altringham, J.D. (2011) Bats, from evolution to conservation, second edition. Oxford University Press.

Bat Conservation Trust – http://www.bats.org.uk/index.php.

Dietz, C., Helversen, O.V. and Nill, D. (2009) Bats of Britain, Europe and Northwest Africa. A&C Black Publishers Ltd.

Mickleburgh, S.P., Hutson, A.M. and Racey, P.A. (1992) Old World Fruit Bats: An Action Plan for their Conservation. International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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Kristina Middleton is an aspiring wildlife conservationist with big dreams. Based in Bath, she is currently researching the early social developments of the critically endangered Livingstone's Fruit Bat. She is a field data and publications volunteer for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and a freelance wildlife surveyor for Keystone Environmental. She has worked in the field in South Africa, and Madagascar, assisting important wildlife conservation initiatives, and is always seeking new opportunities to learn. Krissy is committed to a future in conservation and, by sharing her experiences, wishes to inspire others to get involved.

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