Thursday, 1 August 2013

August Wildlife: Bats

Nick Acheson, NWT Volunteer

When my grandmother – now in her nineties – was a girl in North Norfolk, she would cycle home from evening tennis matches with her racket on her head to protect herself from bats getting tangled in her hair. For bats, she tells me, are well known for getting tangled in your hair.

Long eared bat, photo by Mark Ollett
In response I tell her that she is bonkers. On the one hand, any fool, bat expert or otherwise, can see that riding a bike along a dark Matlaske lane with one hand holding a tennis racket is reckless. (Really, was there no Health and Safety in the 1920s?) But on the other hand, straying back to the facts, it’s not possible for a British bat to get tangled in anyone’s hair because all of our native species have an incredible talent called echolocation.

They need echolocation because they fly at night and, as the old adage has it, in addition to getting tangled in the hair of innocent tennis players, bats are blind. Wrong again! You can’t be as blind as a bat because they aren’t. In fact in low levels of light (such as moonlight, or riding your bike home along a dark Norfolk lane) bats can see better than we can. However, vision isn’t British bats’ principal way of finding their way around the world at night: it’s echolocation. Bats can map their environment in great detail through the use of sound. As they fly they constantly emit tiny clicks, too high-pitched for us to hear, and the echoes from these clicks allow them to create a 3D mind-map of everything around them. So subtle is their echolocation that it enables them to catch hundreds of minute midges to eat each night.

So a bat can catch hundreds of midges by sound in complete darkness and it’s really going to get tangled in your hair grandma?

Wherever you live in Norfolk, there will be bats around you and these bats need your help. Most gardens are visited by common pipistrelles and near woods or big trees there may be brown long-eared bats and noctules. Near water there might be soprano pipistrelles or Daubenton’s bats too. Along with another half dozen scarcer species, these bats have all greatly declined in the Norfolk landscape in the past century. Our relentless tidying up, spraying and developing of the countryside has left little room for the rough meadows, the hollow trees, the undisturbed woods and the crumbling old barns which bats need. In our over-manicured Norfolk landscape, life for a bat is hard.

The good news is that there is plenty you can do to help bats in Norfolk. You could keep your garden pesticide free and plant scented flowers which will encourage insects right through the spring and summer. You could put up bat boxes and make sure that roof developments leave plenty of cracks for bats to use. You could make a pond in your garden and ensure cats – which just love killing bats – can’t reach exit holes from bat roosts. As a first step, perhaps you could learn more about these fascinating, beautiful animals and their bizarre lifestyles by attending one of the many nocturnal bat walks run by conservation NGOs all over the county. Yes, it’s time to put aside superstition and embrace your inner bat-lover.

Just don’t forget your tennis racket.

Find out more about bats and all of Norfolk’s wonderful wildlife on the Norfolk Wildlife Trust website:

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