A batty night out
PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 June 2014
Matt Parkins takes an inquisitive look at the wild side of Devon
What could be better than a mid-summer night out with a good friend? The breeze is warm, the meadow flowers are sweet and the sun begins its lazy descent to the horizon.
Right, I’m ready. I’ve got my coat and boots on and a collection of electronic gadgets in my pocket. No smart phones or tablets but a head torch, a watch and, most importantly, a bat detector. Don’t forget the paper and pencil – this is as high-tech as it gets!
With my ecologist friend alongside, I make my way along a darkening lane and we approach a historic Devon farmhouse; the sturdy cob walls still standing the test of time. The silhouette of the gently undulating roof line rises above us as we take our positions. I’m standing at the gable end while my companion is stationed by the barns at the far end of the house.
We wait … looking up, with the whisper of the bat detector in hand. My eyes are wide, heart bumping, vigilant. Time seems to stand still and the smallest sounds are amplified as my senses are on high alert. Something shuffles by my feet – it’s a toad. Don’t be distracted; keep looking up towards the chimney pots. More silence, then a gentle rustle in the trees behind me. Keep concentrating.
Now! Here we go, this is it, the bat detector bursts into life with machine gun crackles. The fluttering wings take flight and are gone in an instant. Get the paper, check the time, shaky hands hold the pencil, that’s one! Another minute goes by, there’s another, then two more. I’m all fingers and thumbs, trying to record the emergence time and keep tabs on the numbers of bats, dozens of them.As the frequency of chattering and fluttering slows down I begin to wonder, why are the bats here? Why do they choose to roost in places people have built? This is a summer maternity roost and the bats darting from the roof are females – mothers foraging for food. They need their strength to suckle their young, another generation of the Natterer’s Bat. They’ve probably been here as long as the house, centuries maybe. We have a mutual link with these small mammals; they consume thousands of tiny insects every time they venture out and we provide them with safe homes. I hope this situation continues because we have co-existed with bats for a long time, though they are elusive and often unseen.
I recently learned about the Lesser Horseshoe Bats hibernating in the catacombs in Exeter’s Bartholomew’s Cemetery. These bats are particularly rare and to see them in the city with all the lights, noise, smells and people is a joy.
Researchers have been looking into the effects of light pollution on bats and whether the recent late night street light switch-off makes a difference. The voluntary survey I took part in is organised by the Bat Conservation Trust and aims to paint a long term picture of population trends in maternity roosts.
We can all join in taking care of our little allies; keep a look out for bats where you live and Devon Bat Group will be pleased to hear your reports of batty activity. It’s a good way to spend an evening out too.
Learn more at bats.org.uk/pages/take_part_in_surveys.html