It was something of a dark and murky day as we stood in the humid forest somewhere in France. The scene was rather typical of what you might associate with a ghostly, eerie horror film, with mist thick in the woodland, and a small group of people standing outside a wooden cabin. Eventually, our guide joined us and we were off, walking through the deserted forest until we finally arrived at an entrance to the cave. I was only young and I held my mums hand firmly as we were told to switch on our head torches and descend into the cave. It was all a great adventure to my siblings, cousins and I; everything was fascinating. The walls dripped with water and were almost honeycomb gold in colour. Eventually, our guide told us to tilt our heads towards the jagged ceiling and each of us gasped as we spotted what we had come to see. There were hundreds of them and they hung from ceiling above us, a handful falling off majestically and flying deeper into the cave. Bats.
With many of my favourite creatures, I cannot pinpoint the exact moment where my fascination with them began. Wolves and birds of prey I have always loved, but I cannot think of a particular moment when they caught my attention; they have simply always been there. But with bats, this was the moment. After our adventure through the caves, I remember pleading with my parents to buy me a simply chain necklace from the shop, which had a silver bat with its wings spread in flight hanging from it. My request was granted and it remains treasured to this day. But why bats? After all, in the minds of many, bats of all species have something of a bad reputation. They are considered vermin, vermin that spread and carry deadly diseases, associated with ghostly stories and dark castles where they lie in wait, ready to terrorise unsuspecting victims. Perhaps their most notorious reputation comes from a novel written in the 1800s. A novel, which happens to be one of my all time favourites, but does little to instil feelings of warmth toward the bat.
“Between me and the moonlight flitted a great bat, comeing and going in great, whirling circles.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula
“The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel looking, with peculiarly sharp teeth; those protruded over the teeth.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula.
Now, the associations between bats and disease are not unfounded and some species do carry viruses such as rabies and ebola, which have and do kill humans. We are also all aware that some species of bat do drink blood and are known as ‘vampire bats’. However, these species are a far cry from the stories of fiction such as Dracula, and instead of being ‘evil’ they are known as very caring and social species. As with any species, it is highly important to be aware of the risks associated with them, but it is also important to be able to separate the fact from the fiction and not get too carried away with a story. I remember once reading an article which was encouraging its readers to find bats terrifying! It spouted all kinds of statements concerning vampire bats and how they will feed on children in the night, it then went on to display a photograph of a rather large, ‘scary’ looking bat and called it a ‘vampire killer’. The photograph displayed a species of fruit bat. Not a vampire and not a ‘killer’, the clue being in the name fruit bat.
Fortunately, in the UK, our species of bat are all insectivores and only 13 individual bats (out of 13,000 tested in 20 years) of one species (there are 17 in the UK), the Daubentons bat, have been found to carry one zootonic virus. Lyssavirus is only transmittable through a bite or scratch that a bats saliva gets into, therefore, if you do not handle bats, you are not at risk. In addition, the rates of the virus in bats is so low that transmission of such a disease is extremely unlikely and those who do handle bats generally wear gloves to protect themselves from any risk.
Despite their less than desirable reputation in some parts of the world, bats are hugely important to each ecosystem that they are a part of; whether they be in the tropics or here in the UK. Bats are important pollinators, seed dispersers and pest controllers and important ‘indicator species’, reflecting the health of the environment. There are over 500 plant species that rely entirely on bats to pollinate them and they may include some of your favourites such as banana, cocoa, mango and agave plants. In addition, as someone allergic to mosquito and midge bites, I am particularly grateful for their skills as pest controllers, eating thousands of insects each night. They also contribute to agricultural practices, by removing bugs and helping to protect crops. In Brazil, the Brazilian free-tailed bat is considered as an important management service, protecting cotton crops and reducing the need for pesticides. In locations such as Central and Southern America, fruit bats are great seed dispersers, carrying the seeds of the fruit they have eaten and scattering them elsewhere. In areas where tropical forests are being destroyed and fragmented and the populations of other dispersers have been damaged, bats remain a vital part of the ecosystem, continuing to disperse seeds to those areas where other species cannot.
Unfortunately, many species of bat in all countries of the world are classed as either vulnerable of endangered. Bats are fragile species and the impact of habitat loss and fragmentation, roost destruction, disease and hunting are taking their toll. In the UK, our bat populations have considerably declined over the past century due to building and development works that destroys roosts, habitats (ponds, forests, hedgerows) and commuting routes. So, what can we do to help our bats? Personally, I love seeing the bats fly around my parents garden during summer evenings and there are some very simple things that you can do to encourage them to your own garden. For example, create a wet area. A pond, small bog or marshy patch is all you need and not only will it provide bats with a drinking source, but will also attract many insects for bats to feed on. Plant a wide range of native trees, flowering plants and shrubs, which can provide for a number of different insects as well as providing possible roosting sites for bats. Or maybe create a log pile or compost heap to attract insects and put up your own bat boxes! Remember, boxes should be located at least 4m above the ground and in a sheltered and sunny areas (bats don’t like draughts!) and near an area where they can feed. Even a couple of these suggestions could help bring bats to your garden and through helping and encouraging these species, you are helping the entire ecosystem!
Bats are found almost everywhere in the world, with over 1300 species. Some eat fruit, some eat insects and yes, some do drink blood. Although bats are likely to always be associated with haunted castles and eerie caves, let’s remember to separate fact from fiction. We should of course recognise the serious risks that can be associated with certain species, but we should also never forget the importance of bats in our ecosystems and how they contribute to our biodiversity.
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