Since 1997, 30 countries take the last full weekend of August to celebrate International Bat Night. Naziya O’Reilly talks to bat conservationist Michelle Dickinson on why there’s much to love about the nocturnal flying mammals.
Of all the creatures we associate with the night, perhaps the most misunderstood is the bat. Mainly thanks to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the legendary tale of the undead that popularised the myth of the blood-sucking vampire bat. Familiars of witches, denizens of the underworld, their totem has typically inspired a cultural and widespread fear of these harmless, yet helpful nocturnal creatures.
Not so for bat conservation volunteer Michelle Dickinson, whose love of animals started at an early age when her mum used to read to her from the family’s Animal A-Z. Unable to get past the letter D due to an obsession with dogs, Michelle’s familiarity with the details of aardvarks, aardwolves, bears and bats never left her.
A continuing fascination with animal facts and conservation would come back to revisit her in her late 20s when she heard a statistic that people who do voluntary work are happier than people who don’t. It was the spur she needed to get in touch with a local active bat group. After her first bat walk she was hooked. Michelle soon found herself spending every spare minute involved in bat conservation, even roping in new partner Ed so the couple could spend time together.
The UK is home to 17 species of breeding bat, protected by law and conserved by more than 90 local bat groups. Commonly sheltering in dark hollows and tree crevices, the world’s only flying mammal is a vital pollinator, pest controller and a keystone species for whole ecosystems.
“To Michelle, there’s no question of keeping a bat captive once it’s well enough to fly again. Success means every single bat going back into the wild.”
Michelle reminds us that we’ve always been adept at sharing our homes with bats, right from when our cave-dwelling ancestors first rubbed two sticks together, to present-day colonies who find shelter in overhanging roof tiles and abandoned buildings. She is also keen to dispel some popular myths. Yes, they can see perfectly well with their eyes, and no, they’re not trying to fly into your hair. Tests have shown that thanks to their echolocation bats can avoid hitting a single human hair in an empty room. In fact the reason they fly so near is due to the amount of heat radiated from the human body; this draws them in, as does the amount of carbon dioxide we exude, which attracts tasty (to bats) insects to fly around our heads.
Sadly, the involvement of volunteers such as Michelle and her partner has become ever more vital as bat populations have fallen dramatically during the past century as the result of a loss of natural habitat. Nowadays such proximity to human activity comes with its own price as bats find themselves at risk from domestic works, chemically treated materials and our affection for cats.
The local bat helplines pick up calls from the general public on grounded and injured bats and luckily there are whole networks full of people like Michelle who will happily get up from the sofa on a Saturday night and venture out to the homes of the general public to make decisions about a bat’s future.
Number one on their list, though, is the safety of the public. “Although it’s 99 per cent likely to be a harmless pipistrelle roosting near a house,” Michelle tells me, “there is a slight chance that the bat being rescued is a Daubenton’s. This species has been known to carry a slight risk of rabies which can pass to humans. This has never happened in Britain; however, the most important thing the bat-line operator will do is check to see if anybody has been bitten or scratched by a bat and to get them urgent medical attention if that is the case.”
“It’s vital to keep your cats indoors for an hour and a half after sunset during July and August. This will give bat babies the best chance of getting away unharmed.”
Though the temptation to handle a vulnerable bat straight away may be tempting, Michelle always advises anyone who is thinking of doing so to treat them like wild animals. Always wear sturdy gloves or cloths and remain extremely wary. Bats are really placid animals but an injured animal or one that is very roughly treated could bite.
You can help get the first aid started by preparing a box, such as a shoe box, for the bat, making sure there is no tape with which the bat can become entangled. Pierce the box with air holes and place a milk bottle top of water inside, as well as some kitchen towel for the bat to hide under. The most difficult situations occur when people use fraying materials, such as cottons, which are then caught on the bats’ fingers and toes. Keep the box safe in a cool but not cold environment (room temperature is perfect) and phone the Bat Conservation Trust.
Looking after bats appears exciting and heroically romantic but it is definitely not for the weak-willed. For every feeling of joyful relief with the successful care and release of an injured bat, there are also tough decisions as to whether to euthanise one whose suffering cannot be eased. Also, once a bat is in the volunteer’s care there remains the ordeal of providing the injured bat with a diet of mealworms. This requires ripping off the heads with tweezers and squeezing the innards into the bat’s mouth. Lastly, volunteers must refrain from becoming too attached to their patients. To Michelle, there’s no question of keeping a bat captive once it’s well enough to fly again. Success means every single bat going back into the wild.
Even if potential volunteers have a strong constitution, there is also the fact that bat care requires a great deal of time. Caring for bats can take months; raising and weaning baby bats from a milk formula to adult feed and teaching them to hunt and look after themselves requires patience and a lot of time spent at home. A ripped wing from a cat attack may take several months to heal.
In fact, Michelle tells me that predation from cats is her biggest anxiety: “About 70 per cent of cases are cat attacks. It’s a worrying situation because once the cat has figured out where there is a roost, they will return again and again. I’ve heard of cats sitting outside roosts and swiping at every bat coming out.
“Male bats are particularly vulnerable to predators during the autumn when they become fixated on finding a mate,” she adds. “However, callouts soar during the summer months from cat attacks on fledgling bats. A female bat will only have one baby a year and all in the colony will come together in the roost to conserve heat and energy. If cats have sighted a roost and are present during the baby bats’ first attempts on the wing, when they are particularly clumsy, they can do real damage to the population of that roost.”
“Tests have shown that thanks to their echolocation bats can avoid hitting a single human hair in an empty room.”
Given the nation’s love for their feline friends, what advice does Michelle give cat owners who are concerned about any unwanted gifts? “It’s vital to keep your cats indoors for an hour and a half after sunset during July and August. This will give the babies the best chance of getting away unharmed.”
And the top three personality requisites for budding bat carers?
“Obviously you need patience and a caring nature because you don’t know how long that bat is going to be with you,” she says. “It takes months for huge wing rips to heal and you have to change your social life to revolve around that, coming home early from social events to feed them, for example.
“It helps to be hugely observant; they’re so tiny that you have to be able to watch them and try and work out what looks wrong. I would also say that you need good people skills. The public have so little knowledge about bats, and you need to educate them about their cats or their homes and to be able to ask others for help. It’s definitely a team effort.”
Bat care and conservation has transformed the lives of both Michelle and her partner. Witnessing the behaviour of such extraordinary creatures close up, including one memorable rescue of both mother and baby from a builder’s rubble sack, has provided them with a huge amount of respect and admiration for this wild species. If you’re looking to volunteer, are willing to travel locally and have time on your hands during the day and night, then get involved with your local bat group. Find your group at the Bat Conservation Trust and perhaps, like the ancient Mayans believed, bats might be lucky for you too.3023 Views
Naziya O'Reilly is a teacher, performer and gold medal-winning rhythmic gymnast (aged 8). She is currently studying for a philosophy of education PhD at Leeds Trinity University.