With nine different species of bat in Scotland, it’s time to warm to the fascinating mammal
Bats are amongst our most mysterious animals, shrouded in myth and long associated with witchcraft. Even today, some people think that bats are prone to become entangled in your hair.
But such deeply ingrained prejudices are gradually being cast aside, with increasing numbers of people becoming passionate about bats, and recognising the need to protect them. It is this desire to find out more about our bats that is leading to some amazing discoveries, underlining just how little we know about their fascinating lifestyles.
Even trying to identify a bat species is tricky. Only recently, detailed survey work led by Scottish bat workers, backed by the Bat Conservation Trust, revealed that the Leisler’s bat is in fact much more frequent in Scotland than previously supposed because in the past it was being confused with the very similar noctule bat. This latest work has indicated a geographical split, with Leisler’s bats found in south-west Scotland and noctules being more predominant in the south-east.
Even more tantalising is the hope that a new species of bat only recently discovered in 2001 will soon turn up in Scotland. It is the Alcathoe bat, which is so similar to its close cousins the whiskered bat and Brandt’s bat, that it takes detailed examination by an expert to reveal that it is indeed an entirely separate species.
“Alcathoe bats have already been found in North Yorkshire and it would be really exciting to find them in Scotland too,” says Anne Youngman of BCT. “At the moment we live in hope, rather than expectation. A common saying with bat workers is ‘expect the unexpected’, which keeps us on our toes when it comes to looking for new species. Bats are such fascinating creatures and always full of surprises because we still know so little about them.” This difficulty in studying bats means that we likewise know little about recent population trends in Scotland, although there is strong evidence from south of the Border that bats declined significantly between the 1880s and the 1980s. Bats are also liable to short-term fluctuations in numbers.
“It will be interesting to see what impact the cold spring in Scotland has had on our bats, because this is a crucial time for them when they emerge from hibernation with low body weight, and we have had several reports of bats flying during the day, which can be a sign of hunger,” says Youngman.
“Ironically, cold winters are good for bats because it means they can hibernate undisturbed without periodically waking up and using up valuable body fat.”
Where there are moths and other flying insects, then there are bats and some of the best places to watch them are along the wooded margins of slow-flowing rivers and lochs. They are also frequent in areas of open ground where there are plenty of bushes and trees. Scotland has nine types of breeding bat, the most being the two pipistrelle species (common and soprano) that are often seen flying around houses, even in suburban areas. One of the most attractive is the long-eared bat, which is sometimes called the “whispering bat” because its weak echo-location call enables it to approach flying moths in woodland without being detected so easily, the large ears compensating for the softness of its call.
According to Youngman, bats are truly stunning animals that always have the capability to thrill enthusiasts, especially when their weird staccato echo-locating clicks are picked up on bat detector listening devices. It is like entering a new and unexplored world.
“Despite the growing interest in bats, they are often not considered when trees are felled or hedgerows lost, or when buildings are demolished or altered,” says Youngman.
“For bats in Scotland life is already tough enough, the short summer nights and changeable weather makes finding their insect food a real challenge. If we then add human factors, such as the destruction of roosts, loss of feeding areas and the general fear and intolerance we have towards them, then we tip the balance against their survival. By providing the things that make an attractive environment for bats, we create a healthy environment for ourselves.”
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Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east