Bats: vulnerable, threatened and misunderstood
Robert Morgan Norfolk Wildlife Trust
- Credit: Dale Sutton
Bats are fascinating creatures, and despite constant slander, they don’t get caught in your hair or suck your blood (well not in the UK), they also possess good eyesight.
They do, however, need our help, as many species are exceptionally rare and all are vulnerable. That's why all bat species are legally protected, as deliberately harming a bat or destroying their roost is a criminal offence. This is necessary as bats are incredibly sensitive to disturbance and many bat ‘roost groups’ stay faithful to a site for decades. Along with the destruction of roosts through the renovation of buildings, the loss of habitat, lack of large flying insects, road traffic, wind turbines and light pollution are all affecting our dwindling bat population.
There are 18 species of bat in the UK. Perhaps surprisingly, this is nearly a quarter of all mammal species in the country. In Norfolk we are lucky to have 12 species represented, with the county being important for the threatened barbastelle bat and the extremely rare migratory Nathusius’ pipistrelle.
Seeing bats for yourself is not difficult and a twilight stroll along a country lane or the edge of a wood in late summer is a sure way of finding them. There are numerous bat detector and identification devices on the market (of varying quality and cost), as bats are best identified by tuning into their ultrasonic echolocation calls. All British bat species produce a high-pitched call; the returning echo is picked up by their exceptionally keen hearing. This echolocation method is not only used to avoid trees, buildings and peoples’ hair, but they can find and even estimate the size of their insect prey.
Astonishingly they can even judge the density of objects by echolocation. Each bat species has a unique call, so biological surveyors can measure this sound in kilohertz then produce a sonogram image that is representative of that particular bat species, however, one does not need to be an expert with specialist equipment, for a casual observer can make a fair guess at many of our species.
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A place I like to visit to watch bats is the boardwalk running through Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserve at Ranworth Broad, which culminates at the floating Broads Wildlife Centre. At the entrance to the reserve, where a magnificent old oak stands, you may spot a noctule. It is our largest bat and often emerges first, sometimes before dusk, in good light a sharp eye may spot its distinctive ginger fur.
Through the carr wood you could come across a long-eared bat plucking insects off the leaves of the trees, and as one emerges into the open fen area, serotine bats are often seen feeding over the reed and along the edge of scrub. From the viewing platform the bats observed darting and skimming over the broad maybe Daubenton’s water bat. It is important to remember, if you start out at dusk it may be quite dark upon your return, so a decent torch is advisable.
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Of course one need not travel far to see bats, many urban gardens provide a home for several species, and the acrobatic common pipistrelle is often seen weaving around street lamps. In fact our houses and gardens play an important part in the success of this tiny aerial mammal, and with a single pipistrelle feeding on hundreds of midges and mosquitoes each night, I’d say it’s worth encouraging them.
Take Action Yourself
The most important thing we can do to help bats is to leave them in peace, if you have a bat roost in your loft or, more usually, in a wall cavity, they do no harm. They won’t chew cabling or damage the structure of your house, and although sometimes they may leave droppings, they are dry and odourless. Many bat species will use bat boxes if provided and there are numerous designs available made from a variety of materials. Alternatively, you may wish to build your own bat box, which can be cheap and relatively easy, although it is important to use untreated wood. Different species have different preferences, including the size of the box and where it’s positioned, so you may have to do some research.