Jenifer Slattery shares her knowledge on bats and their associations with Cornwall.
When asked what they think of bats, most people will give you the same answer: “They’re scary.” Widely associated with Halloween, they come out at night, get stuck in your hair and suck your blood, why shouldn’t you be scared? Well the answer is that, like many other supposedly scary things, most of the terror they instil is based on myth.
Only three species of bat drink blood – none of which live in Britain – and the echolocation systems they use to navigate are far too accurate for them to get stuck in someone’s hair. In fact, aside from the fact that they have wings, bats join their other nocturnal brethren in that, other than posing the normal risks associated with wild animals, they’re actually quite fluffy and cute.
Cornwall is a particularly good place if you’re keen to go bat-spotting (made easier with a bat-detector, which takes the ultrasound calls of bats and makes them easier to hear), as of the 18 species of bat that reside in Britain, 12 can be found in Cornwall, roosting in a variety of places, from hollow trees and caves to church-towers and houses.
Particularly associated with Cornwall is the Greater Horseshoe Bat, one of Britain’s largest bat species, which likes to roost in abandoned mine-shafts. Distinguishable by its horseshoe-shaped nose flap, which it uses like a little satellite dish for its echolocation system (though it does make it more than slightly weird-looking), the Greater Horseshoe is one of the rarest bats in Britain. Its numbers have dropped by, it is estimated, over 90% in the last hundred years and, confined to the South West corner of Britain (including Cornwall), it is on the brink of extinction in the UK.
And Greater Horseshoe Bats are not the only ones that are getting rarer. These little creatures that have inhabited Britain for millions of years have all been experiencing a severe drop in numbers over the last few decades. Ecologist Jacqueline Davey explains that this decline is all too often due to man-made causes: “Building work and large-scale farming are massive threats to bat numbers. Building projects often result in the destruction of roosts, and the widespread use of pesticides means that there are less insects for bats to eat. Combine a loss of habitat and a lack of food and you’re going to see a drop in numbers, I’m afraid.”
Chris Harlow, who runs the Bat Aid centre with his wife Sue as part of the Cornwall Bat Group, points out that, though people still hold misconceptions, a growing awareness of bats and our role in their survival can help to stem the decline. “Bats have had a bad press over the years, but it’s improving – people are more aware of bats and so things are being done.
For example there are very strict planning laws now with regard to bats: if someone’s got a bat roost then it’s protected by law and as long as that’s in force then any building work has to work around the bats.” In Cornwall, where mine capping has had a detrimental effect on the bat population, special caps have been designed for mines so that bats can get in and out to roost.
It’s not all government and councils though: there are things everyone can do to help bats flourish in their area. “Obviously, you can’t keep a bat without a permit so it’s very hard to have one individually,” laughs Mr Harlow, “but you can most definitely help them indirectly.”
Getting a ‘bat-box’ which acts as an artificial roost, is a fantastic way to offset the loss of habitat, but there are other, simpler ways to entice bats by attracting the insects they eat, for example building a pond, not using pesticides and not pruning hedges back too far. “Nature isn’t tidy,” says Miss Davey, “so if you want to encourage wildlife you have to make room for it. Give over a bit of your garden to nature and don’t keep it too neat.”
If you want to learn more about these definitely un-scary creatures and find out what you can do to help conserve them, visit the Bat Conservation Trust’s website at www.bats.org.uk. The free National Bat Helpline can be reached on 0845 1300 228.
Photos supplied by the Bat Conservation Trust.
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‘CORNISH WILDLIFE: Bats’ is taken from our Dec/Jan 2012, Vol.2 Issue 9. Subscribe to myCornwall magazine for more stories like this one.