As British Summer Time ends and suddenly we’re plunged into darkness at five in the afternoon, we find our thoughts turning to the creatures who inhabit the night. With foxes boldly crossing the road on our evening journey home, and an occasional late-afternoon glimpse of an owl swooping across fields as twilight closes in, we start to see a different side to the natural world which lives cheek by jowl with us.
And what could be more fitting, as Hallowe’en approaches, than to take a closer look at bats, those aerial denizens of the night?
Creatures of the night
In the West, the folklore of bats seems to be indelibly tied up with the darker side of our lives, with bats commonly associated with graveyards, death, ghosts, and general spookiness.
In West Africa and Tonga however, where bats are considered a physical manifestation of a separable soul, these creatures are sacred. And to the Chinese, bats are regarded as symbols of happiness and good fortune - health, wealth, serenity, virtue, and long life. A more fitting take, we feel, on these fabulous furry flittermice.
Bats really are fascinating creatures. The world’s only truly flying mammal, they of course as they’re active during darkness and even in pitch-black caves, they use echolocation to navigate and to find their prey – a handy skill to have evolved. Around the world they are hugely important pollinators, and the products we get from bat-pollinated species include vanilla, bananas, breadfruit, guavas, balsa wood, sisal, tequila and chewing gum. Also of course they look so cute, like little flying mice – although in fact they’re more closely related to us humans than they are to the humble house mouse.
As an important indicator species, bats are key to assessing an area’s ecological health. If they’re around and thriving, it shows that the local ecosystem is healthy, with sufficient numbers of insects to support a bat population. And bats need to eat a LOT of insects. Did you know that even a tiny pipistrelle bat can eat up to 3,000 insects a night?
Back in the summer, we moved offices to a barn-style building in a more rural area. With nature on our doorstep, we’ve been keen to do whatever we can to help to local bats, as well as other native wildlife. We have fine selection of bat roosting boxes and bird nesting boxes under the eaves around the building, and we very much hope that in time our local wildlife will choose to make a home with us.
So what does a bat box look like? It needs to have an entrance on the underside, as bats like to land and then climb upwards to roost. Surfaces should be rough, to enable them to gain a secure hold as they clamber about their new home. And it needs to be snug, as bats don’t link draughts. You can buy bat boxes in many styles and designs, from basic to state-of the-art. We like the Bat Block from Green & Blue, with its magnificent ridged entranceway. Or you can make your own, if you’re feeling creative; there’s a good step-by-step guide on the Gardeners' World website
When it’s ready, hang it at least 4m from the ground in a sheltered spot, and locate it so it gets the sun for at least part of the day. How bats use a bat box depends on where you hang it. If positioned to be south- or west-facing, the home will become a summer maternity roost. If it’s mounted on a north-facing wall, it will be used as a winter hibernation roost.
Become a bat-fan
We guarantee, if you go on a bat walk with your local nature group, you’ll fall in love with these flying furries, too. The Wildlife Trusts are a good place to start, and sometimes the National Trust offers special bat walks at its locations. It’s quite something to walk through the darkening woods at twilight on a summer’s evening, as bats start to stir, with an experienced guide who will have a bat detector and can explain what you’re hearing. The various species use quite different sounds for the echolocation, so it won’t take long before you’ll recognise the bats in your vicinity by their otherworldly chirps, pops, clicks and putterings. Borrow or buy a bat detector and you’ll be able to have a listen at home to the bats which share your garden!
The shadowy world of bats is a fascinating one. Add a bat box or two to your home and hopefully you’ll be able to get to know your nocturnal neighbours a lot better.
Find out more about bats in the UK and the work of the Bat Conservation Trust at www.bats.org.uk. It also operates a National Bat Helpline on 0345 1300 228.