Why we need to care about Bats
This weeks column is dedicated to our own veg buying batgirl
Bats don’t get the greatest of press. Maybe it’s their association with vampires, little mysterious creatures come to suck the life from innocent maidens. Maybe, more prosaically it’s their appearance at night, creatures of the dark. Forebodings at the ned of the day. Perhaps it’s linked to our inability to even hear them squeak most of the time. They don’t come with a pretty song like our favourite birds.
But we should look at it the other way, bats don’t have any easy time of it either. Even some fictional vampires realise that;
“You know, Sergeant,’ said the voice of Sally, as if nothing had happened, ‘you werewolves have it easy. You stay one thing and you don’t have any problems with body mass. Do you know how many bats I have to become for my bodyweight? More than a hundred and fifty, that’s how many. And there’s always one, isn’t there, that gets lost or flies the wrong way? You can’t think straight unless you get your bats together. And I’m not even going to touch on the subject of reassimilation. It’s like the biggest sneeze you can think of. Backwards.”
Thud, Terry Pratchett
Back in the real world, safe from the best of Pratchett’s creations and problems of body mass, it is possible, on a quiet, dry evening to sit outside our back door as the dusk draws in and the last of the sun dips below the horizon and be rewarded by the first bat of the night, flitting disturbingly closely by. Every time it happens it invokes a sharp drawing of breath, the silence disrupted at the last moment by the flashing flutter of wings whipping past with almost no warning.
This, and many other thoughts came to mind during a conversation in the shop with a customer this week who, it turned out, is working towards getting their bat licence.
Yes, I know, it sounds fabulous and I had no idea they existed. Obviously, in the name of investigative rigour I quickly got to the heart of the matter; ‘so do you get a big light to shine in the sky with bat wings on it?’. Turns out it’s not that sort of licence. Nor, more’s the pity, is it what you need to drive the Batmobile.
A bat licence is required to carry out surveying and some type of conservation work because bats are a European protected species. Carrying out activities that may be harmful to bats risks up to six months imprisonment and unlimited fines. If you visit the gov.uk website there is even a bat helpline. I’m not saying we’re wilfully wasting people’s time but we did ring to check Alfred didn’t answer the phone…
Back up on our hill I’m realising that I’ve no idea what sort bat we’ve seen. I’m blaming the way that they flit by so quickly for the fact I have no idea which type of bat our little visitors are. The UK is actually home to 18 species of bat, although one, the Greater Mouse Eared bat was declared extinct a decade ago. But since then there have been recordings of individuals over the last few years in Sussex so it may be that this, the largest of UK the bats is managing to cling on.
And they’re not alone. Six of the 18 Species are classed as endangered or rare and another six are listed as vulnerable. Once you get beyond the common pipistrelle, a lot of our bats aren’t thriving. As is so often the case that is a sign of the wider problems our wildlife is confronting. In the case of bats, often given a bad press, they are an important part of a functioning ecosystem. The Bat Conservation trust explains;
“Bats play an important role in many environments around the world. Some plants depend partly or wholly on bats to pollinate their flowers or spread their seeds, while other bats also help control pests by eating insects. In the UK, some bats are ‘indicator species’, because changes to these bat populations can indicate changes in aspects of biodiversity. Bats might suffer when there are problems with insect populations (because our bats feed on insects) or when habitats are destroyed or poorly managed (for example, some bats only live in large woodlands)”
As indicators of problems with biodiversity, Bats are very much the canary in the coal mine when it comes to declining insect populations. Certain types of bat are capable of munching their way through 3000 midges a night so any drop off in numbers can quickly have an impact on our squeaky little night time visitors. The UK has witnessed drops in several insect populations which corresponds with figures collated globally that suggest as many as 40% of insects species are in decline. Here in the UK the numbers are slightly more nuanced with some insects thriving at the expense of other and some shifting location in response to climate changes. Overall however, the trend is negative and bats remain one of our more important ways of measuring the impact that has further up the food chain.
Contrary to their rather gruesome reputation, some bats are actually pest controllers eating thousands of insects every night. Instead of being bloodsuckers and related to vampires, bats in the UK actually eat blood sucking mosquitoes. All bats in the UK are insectivores, they only eat insects which is a great service when it comes to growing crops. Sadly the favour isn’t always returned as some modern farming practices, including the widespread use of pesticides, can have a harmful impact on bats. The huge loss of hedgerows in the UK over the last 50 years has also removed a key habitat needed for hunting and roosting. Right now, the bat relationship with farming is depressingly one way.
In other parts of the world, particularly Mexico, bats are also important pollinators. In fact, it’s because of bats that you get the Agave that goes into make tequila. See, we told you they were important. And what’s more, they can help regrow forests after clearance by acting as seed dispersers. There really is no good argument for not looking after global bat populations.
Here in Wales, bat licences are obtained through Natural Resources Wales and are broadly similar, if slightly less complicated to obtain, then their English brethren. The Bat Conservation Trust has a specific Welsh Bat project, which does give rise to the beautiful image of little Welsh Bat choirs singing in unison somewhere in a cobwebbed chapel. More sensibly, there are ten Special Areas of Conservation across the country where 15 of the UK’s 18 bat species can be found and the project is designed to raise awareness of bats and protect the habitats they need to not just survive, but hopefully thrive. You can even volunteer to help make sure that is what happens.
For the whimsical nonsense that has flitted across many of my bat conversations this week, there is actually a sensible point underlying all this. Bats are not cute, cuddly, fluffy or obvious cover stars for wildlife calendars. They’re small, not always terribly attractive and come laden with baggage unfairly spun by storytellers over the ages. But they are important. Bats are a sign of a healthy ecosystem, an indicator that the web of life which ultimately supports us, hasn’t been fatally corrupted at the lowest levels. It’s easy to get motivated to save Pandas or Dolphins or some of the big cat species and we do need to do that work. But we also need to do the unglamorous stuff. My customer was heading out on a Thursday evening to survey bats near a ruined house in the middle of nowhere. To most people that isn’t their idea of fun, but more of us need to step up to help with that sort of work. There’s no point sitting at the top of a food chain that we’ve unknowingly collapsed the bottom of. Without visibility and careful records we have no idea of the damage we might have unwittingly inflicted.
That really would be batty.
As always, you can subscribe to ‘View from a Hill’ by hitting the button below for free,