Stuart Bullen: Fascinating bats in Bourne

A Leisler's bat and a pipistrelle. Photo: Phil Richardson
A Leisler's bat and a pipistrelle. Photo: Phil Richardson

A good walk in the woods on a wonderful September morning had been temporally broken up with a well earned rest on a bench hidden in a crevasse of the woodland edge.

As I sat redoing the insole of my left Karrimor boot (they always seem to ride up inside the boots), I became slowly aware of the number of insects flying around.

A dozen or so butterflies – dappled drab looking speckled wood, the Art Noveau looking peacock and even a white admiral, were on the wing.

The colours on their wings looked as new and bright as fresh paint.

My bending face was abruptly intercepted by an inquisitive blue abdomened dragonfly.

He buzzed around my nose for a few seconds, hovered for a moment in front of my eye; its two sets of wings keeping it perfectly balanced in the air, then away to continue its miniature dogfight with smaller aerial challengers.

On the floor a myriad of shiny beetles, metallic flies, warm gold bees and nameless other insect life muddled about the grasses and the used match looking finished flowers of St Johns wort, all going about their daily survival, oblivious to me.

It just then struck me how much living was going on and how unaware and indifferent we are to it.

We are then surprised by the obvious.

Back home on quiet evenings, it still surprises me how much life is still in my garden; moths, hedgehogs, the occasional elusive mouse and slugs (not too worried about that; not all slugs are bad for the borders: some actually help out the gardener).

However the animal I get most excited about is the bat.

A black silhouette fluttering in a seemingly haphazard, awkward movement skimming the shrubs and over roofs of the outbuildings really grab my attention.

Ever since I was a kid, bats have always fascinated me.

From the time my biology teacher used to bring them to school (he was our local bat “rescuer”) to the frustration of deciphering the squeaks and blips of electronic bat detectors whilst a student to the bat walks enjoyed by my wife and myself, I have always had a soft spot for these intriguing mammals.

But not everybody has. That’s not surprising though. Western culture from time immemorial has portrayed bats as unholy, dark symbols. The ancient Greeks believed they were symbols of the Underworld.

This belief carried down through the Renaissance and beyond.

Catholics viewed bats as a symbol of the Antichrist and the Devil.

Baroque paintings of the 1600s often show demons with bat wings for this reason.

But it was in the nineteenth century bats got their ultimate image problem.

With Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the increased knowledge of Vampire bats from South America, bats went into the consciousness of the public as blood sucking terrors of the dark and along with countless films; this ridiculous notion persists right up to the present.

Ignore the myths and misinformation and you have a very amazing animal. 1 in 4 of all mammals on earth is a bat.

Worldwide there are 1,240 known species of bats, with 30 in Europe and here in the UK we have 18 species.

Bats pollinate over 500 plants and crops worldwide including cocoa and bananas.

Tropical forests around the planet are propagated by seed excreted by fruit bats.

They range in size from only 29mm long to huge bats that have a wingspan of 1.7 metres ( a buzzard in contrast – Bourne’s commonest bird of prey – has a wingspan of 1.36m).

What’s fascinating most of all is the biology of a bat.

We all have heard of the expression “blind as a bat”. Bats can see just as clearly as any animal, however when flying at night bats rely on their echolocation ability and most people think that’s how bat “see”.

Actually bats use their eyes when flying. However echolocation is used for primary information gathering.

Put very, very simply (and whole books have been written about this) bats produce sounds at very fast ultrahigh frequencies which bounce back from an object to the bat’s hearing, which are then converted into images in its brain. Think radar but even more complicated!

Lots of scientific research has gone into studying echolocation, too complicated to relate, which shows how incredibly sophisticated this is.

While bats are processing this information at unimaginable speeds, bats are still able to use their ears to listen out to prey, such as moths.

Special ridges on the inside their ears enable them to hear even earwigs moving on the ground.

What’s more staggering is this all happens in bats no more than a few centimetres long with a miniscule size brain!

How bats fly is unique. Bats don’t fly like birds. They don’t flap their forearms. In between their extremely long fingers, bats have a special membrane of tissue that, when they spread out their fingers and flap, enables them to fly with their hands.

As the bat flies around, tiny hairs on this membrane pick up information about air flowing over the wings so that the bat can alter the shape of their wings to fly more aerodynamically.

Some experts say that this helps bats to have better agility than birds.

Around Lincolnshire there are 11 species recorded and in Bourne we have 7 species.

As well as the commonly found bats we have had some rare examples. Annette Faulkner, a local bat enthusiast from Spalding, related a story of how one these bats, known as a Leisler bat, turned up in a bedroom in a local house. These bats are quite big, and when, like any animal seen in a human environment, the size can seem exaggerated. She said both the householder and the bat had to be rescued!

The bat was later released from a bedroom window and it flew straight back to the woods.

Unfortunately bats are having a bit of a hard time.

Loss of habitats and pesticides are the main culprits.

We can help though in our gardens. Bats need insects.

Plants attract insects. By planting a mixture of flowering plants – especially night flowering types such as tobacco or evening primrose -, vegetables even, shrubs and, if you got the room, a tree or two, you will encourage the insects that bats depend upon.

Obviously garden pesticides don’t help Bourne’s bats! You could put a bat box (homemade or otherwise) up for them to shelter in, though it could take a couple of years for them to settle in. Be patient!

Away from the garden, Friends of Bourne Woods have organised bat walks with local bat experts which provide a good introduction into the lives of bats in our local area.

The secret nocturnal life of bats is really remarkable and quite accessible.

Like all other wildlife in our area it’s all there for the looking.