Bats: Rats of the sky or angels of the night?
Consistently associated with the dark unknown and often roosting (‘setting up camp’) in people’s homes, it is easy to understand why bats get such a bad rep; but these assumptions about bats do not conform to the reality. Bats are actually peaceful mammals, capable of performing elaborate mating rituals, exemplifying their agility and finesse, and their precision hunting using echolocation (commonly referred to as ‘sonar’) showcases their unique and quite frankly thrilling lifestyles. If left to their own devices they are no threat to us, merely a work of art showcasing nature’s talent at producing wildly creative adaptations and wildlife. These masterpieces lurking in the shadows can be found across the globe, with 17 species calling the UK home.
UK Bats and How to Tell Them Apart
Despite the 17 species of bat in the UK, sighting these wonderfully alluring mammals is a rarity many people miss out on in their lifetimes. This is due to their nocturnal nature and their inactivity during the winter months while they hibernate. To spot them we must be outside between March and November, preferably at dawn or dusk roughly 15-30 minutes before or after each respectively.
If you are lucky enough to spot a bat, perhaps as you are walking home from work or taking a morning stroll with your dog, there are many ways in which you can distinguish one from another. To the untrained eye one species may be almost identical to another, however they can be distinguished in many ways. Firstly, it is possible to use what is called a ‘Dichotomous Key’. This is a stage-based approach that uses an elimination method to narrow down the scope of possibility. One great example is the ‘illustrated identification key to the bats of Europe By Christian Dietz & Otto von Helversen’ (To view click here).
Most bats that are sighted tend to be Pipistrelles with roughly 75% of sightings being of this type.
• Common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrelles)
• Soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus)
• Nathusius’ pipistrelle (Pipistrellus nathusii)
The other 25% of sightings cover the vast array of remaining bat species:
• Daubenton’s bat (Myotis daubentonii)
• Natterer’s bat (Myotis nattereri)
• Brandt’s bat (Myotis brandtii)
• Whiskered bat (Myotis mystacinus)
• Bechstein’s bat (Myotis bechsteinii)
• Greater mouse-eared bat (Myotis Myotis)
• Noctule (Nyctalus noctula)
• Leisler’s bat (Nyctalus leisleri)
• Serotine (Eptesicus serotinus
• Barbastelle (Barbastella barbastellus)
• Brown long-eared (Plecotus auritus)
• Grey long-eared (Plecotus austriacus)
• Greater Horseshoe (Rhinolophus ferrumequinum)
• Lesser Horseshoe (Rhinolophus hipposideros)
Keeping Our Bats Safe
If you are curious to see a bat up close and stumble across what you believe to be a roost, take care to curb your excitement and tread with caution. Disturbing a roost can lead to incomplete mating cycles or the abandonment of young by a mother if she gets frightened. Young that have been abandoned, or perhaps have fallen to the floor during attempted flight (they can be as young as 3 weeks when trying to fly), must be handled with care, while gloved, and kept in a safe environment such as a shoebox with adequate insects to eat. There is a helpline available to aid you should you feel the need to rescue a bat and are unsure what actions to take (0345 1300 228) or visit The Bat Conservation Trust Help pages.
Despite bats being peaceful creatures who will if left alone, mind their own business. Sadly their populations are steadily decreasing. The vast loss of habitats synonymous with climate change and urbanisation means bats are beginning to decline in number and need to be increasingly protected. This can be done in a couple of simple ways, namely by using bat boxes (available online to buy or for home-making) or something as simple as increasing wildflower number in your local green spaces or gardens. Planting flowers such as bluebells or creating herb gardens will increase the number of prey available for bats and allow them to fatten up and survive harsher winters in hibernation, along with providing more sustenance for their young.
We must look past their negative reputation and open our minds to the angels of the night. Now capable of distinguishing between the species and having basic knowledge of how to nurture them you now have the ability to help these misunderstood creatures to thrive on our ever-changing planet.
- Soprano pipistrelle summer roosts support colonies of around 200 bats but can reach numbers as high as one thousand bats.
- The noctule is one of the largest UK species yet it is still smaller than the palm of your hand.
- Noctule echolocates at 25kHz just within the upper limit of human hearing and have been known to be heard by children without bat detectors.
- A bat’s heartbeat in flight can reach over 1000 beats per minute, roughly 5 times the maximum heartbeat of humans.
- The oldest bat fossil is 52.5 million years old, 263 times older than the oldest humans fossils for our current form.