Meet Mid Devon's volunteer bat nurse

PUBLISHED: 10:37 21 May 2019 | UPDATED: 13:43 21 May 2019

Bella, a Noctule Bat, is the largest species in Sue’s care

Bella, a Noctule Bat, is the largest species in Sue's care

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In the heart of Mid Devon SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE discovers a haven for injured and orphaned wild bats

Bella is beautiful: soft brown fur, bright eyes, extraordinarily delicate feet and an inquisitive nose which investigates the gloved fingers that gently hold her.

But all is not quite well: Bella is a Noctule bat and one of her fragile wings has been badly torn. Unable to fly, a wrecked wing could be the death knell for a bat.

Bella the Noctule with a torn wingBella the Noctule with a torn wing

But for Bella the future is bright. Currently residing with Sue Davidson, a woman with a remarkable talent for fixing these exquisite creatures, Bella is mending well and can look forward once more to a wild future.

Sue's 'guest' bedroom is unlike any other I've ever encountered. Ranks of softly-draped cages line the walls, tiny twitterings fill the air, everywhere is bat-related paraphernalia.

Bella the Noctule showing the torn wing now re-growing wellBella the Noctule showing the torn wing now re-growing well

Bella's cage sits in the intensive care corner, where the bats need daily treatment and are kept warm and awake, at a time when they would normally hibernate, to allow healing to continue.

A former medical secretary, Sue has been caring for bats for more than seven years. She explains how it began: "I was already a volunteer for Secret World; if they had a call from my area I would help catch or transport an injured wild animal to them for treatment.

Sue Davidson’s Bat Cave sanctuary at her home in Mid DevonSue Davidson’s Bat Cave sanctuary at her home in Mid Devon

"One day they asked me to collect a bat. I investigated to see if there was anyone nearby who helped injured bats, in the same way that there are people helping hedgehogs. That's how I found the Devon Bat Group and realised there was a gap in the 'care network'.

"I then went to an experienced bat carer for training and ultimately became registered with the Bat Conservation Trust. After that, bat care took over from the Secret World work. I now have trainee bat carers and ambulance drivers coming to me to learn the necessary skills and techniques."

Harry, an elderly Whiskered BatHarry, an elderly Whiskered Bat

The 'ambulance drivers' Sue refers to are volunteers who collect an injured bat from whoever has found it and take it to the nearest registered bat carer.

She is part of a national network of such carers, and because bats are a protected species is licensed by Natural England in order to carry out her rescue work - a requirement if someone is keeping bats for more than six months.

Sue displays the wing of Cocoa, the Common Pipistrelle BatSue displays the wing of Cocoa, the Common Pipistrelle Bat

As well as widespread habitat degradation, night-prowling cats are one of the main threats to bats, causing 75% of the injuries Sue sees.

I meet an astonishing variety of bats: Daubenton's, Brown long-eared, Pipistrelle and sweet little Harry, a Whiskered bat who is too old to be released and now accompanies Sue when she talks to small groups, helping to educate and show people just how wonderful bats are.

Bella, a Noctule Bat, is the largest species in Sue’s careBella, a Noctule Bat, is the largest species in Sue’s care

Each bat has a cage draped inside with cloths, amongst which the occupant can hide, and various items of enrichment to keep them occupied when awake. For each bat Sue wears a different pair of gloves - and she is at pains to point out that anyone handling bats should always be gloved.

There are 17 species of bat breeding in the UK. Baby bats are born in 'maternity' roosts and spend their first three weeks clinging to their mother's fur, hanging on as she flies out to catch her insect dinners.

Bella, a Noctule Bat, has much larger feet than the othersBella, a Noctule Bat, has much larger feet than the others

Sometimes the babies drop off or, as they get older and start to explore the roost, fall through the cracks in houses ending up amongst the human occupants downstairs.

This is when Sue is often called in to help, trying to reintroduce the babies back to mum or, if that doesn't work, hand rearing them.

A Brown Long-eared bat in Sue’s careA Brown Long-eared bat in Sue’s care

"This is something we can do very successfully but is always a last resort," Sue tells me. "They can be fed raw goats' milk or puppy formulation. Later they are released with a group of other baby bats, first going to a carer who has a flight pen where they learn flying skills and build up their muscles.

"Once they can catch their own food they are 'soft' released in a bat box to which they can return and which is replenished with food every day."

The cages replicate miniature caves, where the bats can hide themselves amongst the drapes. There is plenty of ‘enrichment’ to keep the bats occupied when they are awakeThe cages replicate miniature caves, where the bats can hide themselves amongst the drapes. There is plenty of ‘enrichment’ to keep the bats occupied when they are awake

As Ghandi once said: "The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Watching Sue tend these little scraps of winged loveliness with extreme commitment and gentleness, I realise this is the kind of thing he meant.

It's a privilege to meet someone who is so selflessly doing something for the greater good, quietly working to 'put things right'. All power to the Sues of this world.

Sue Davidson caring for a bat; 'I investigated to see if there was anyone nearby who helped injured bats, in the same way that there are people helping hedgehogs'Sue Davidson caring for a bat; 'I investigated to see if there was anyone nearby who helped injured bats, in the same way that there are people helping hedgehogs'

HOW TO HELP

Human activity can conflict greatly with bats' interests, but we can redress that balance.

If you find a needy bat contact the Devon Bat Group or ring the Bat Conservation Trust. They will put you in touch with your nearest carer.

Carers are completely self-funded; their biggest expenses are food and vets' bills. We can help by giving items for them to sell on eBay or by donating via their Facebook page: Bats - Rescue & Rehabilitation Devon

Become a bat carer or ambulance driver - there is a particular gap in the Plymouth area. Contact the Devon Bat Group for information.

If you are about to replace your roofing felt please don't use breathable roofing membrane (BRM) as bats get tangled in it when it breaks down, causing a long, slow death.

Devon Bat Group: devonbatgroup.org

Bat Conservation Trust: 0345 1300228 / bats.org.uk

BAT FACTS

Bats' main threat is habitat destruction, such as loss of trees and hedgerows, and building conversions that destroy their roosts.

Bats are an important part of the ecosystem, catching mosquitoes and other insects. In some parts of the world they have vital pollination duties. Sue tells me: "If we didn't have bats we wouldn't have tequila!"

Bats are not blind but they use echo-location, rather than sight, to hunt for food.

They are far too clever to get tangled in your hair.

Bats are mammals and can live for up to 30 years.

Bats are very gentle and easy to handle, seeming to know that a carer is trying to help them.

No UK bat sucks blood.

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